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The Art of Existentialism

“Man is condemned to be free “— Jean Paul Sartre

When it comes to existentialism, the most difficult thing is to define what existentialism itself. Etymologically, the word existing which then forms the term existence and existentialism comes from the Latin existo (calling, coming to the surface, appearing). For example, it is like an air that does not suddenly appear to the surface of the water.

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Defining the word “Being” in existentialism itself is also difficult. It’s not like the word “Being” in the language of everyday life. In the realm of existentialism, there can be essential, abstract or concrete. Suppose the existence of God, heaven, hell, angels or demons. We assume they all exist, but they are abstract. For example, the concept of “Being” is described by Bertrand Russell. When we say that the existence of a pencil, it actually only has a “concept”. But when one day we find this thing (pencil), then the pencil can really be said to exist as concretely.

We are often stuck in the term of Being, but being is something that is not concrete. A French philosopher named Quentin Meillassoux then tried to provoke with the question “Could we think about something that doesn’t exist”? He sought to restore the pre-Kantian philosophical tradition, in which philosophers before Immanuel Kant sought to find essentials and substances. They assume that human reason is still capable of thinking about it. Therefore, Immanuel Kant later issued his magnum opus entitled “critique of pure reason”. Kant said that philosophers who are fixated on seeking the essence of everything are caught up in dogmatism. Dogmatism itself could be interpretated as the use of reason without examine the reason. Can reason reasoning essential things like God, heaven or hell? This is what Meillassoux is trying to revive.

“Being” according to existentialism must be concrete. There is nothing that can be thought, written and described. When we are replying to our friends trough WhatsApp messages, we feel as if we are dealing with concrete humans who are not. This is because we are controlled by text or language. It’s the same when we call someone. It’s like we’re dealing with a concrete human being.

The term of “Being” according to Sartre must be concrete. He invites us to think : try to draw a cat and a cat that “exists”. Of the two things there is no difference, so it is indescribable. A “Being” for Sartre can only be experienced through concrete experiences.

If we look at the historical side, ancient Greek philosophical thought in the time of Aristotle who started the materialistic tradition and observation where it certainly has an indirect role in existentialism. However, what was most noticeable in ancient Greek existentialism was a philosopher named Epicurus. He said that the main purpose of human being is to seek the greatest happiness. Humans are individual creatures. Epicurus’s statement was then for the first time to give birth to embryonic individualism.

Epicurus’s idea contradicts with the idea of Plato and Aristotle who stated that humans are social creatures. If anyone said that the originator of socialism was Marx, it is actually a mistake. Socialism was first born with Plato when he said that man is a social being where the purpose of the state is to realize the accommodation of common interests. That’s when the idea of socialism first came up. Continued by Aristotle who said that human being is a zoon politicon (creatures that always gather with others). Aristotle stated that the purpose of the state is to bring about mutual happiness. This is contrary to Epicurus’s thought that humans are individual beings and their goal is to seek happiness as much as possible.

If we get back a little, there are two figures who pioneered existentialism. There is Friedrich Nietzsche and Soren Kierkgaard. Nietzsche gave birth to a school of atheistic existentialism, a kind of anti-God existentialism. Kierkgaard gave birth to a religious school of existentialism. The school of atheistic existentialism, in addition to Nietzsche also then there are another figures such as Heidegger, Camus and Sartre. Adherents of religious existentialism other than Kierkgaard are Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel and Emmanuel Levinas. However, the series of existentialism figures who eventually became the main character of the idea of existentialism is Jean Paul Sartre. There is none because Sartre was the one who started to defined what existentialism is and how to live a life as an existentialist.

In his work entitled existentialism is humanism, Sartre said that existentialism is an understanding that believes that existence precedes essence. It means that everything could only be interpreted after they are exists (Being first). If we want to translate further, this essence could be interpreted as a meaning and a core. Sartre said that existence precedes essence where everything could only be interpreted when everything exists first. For Sartre, man was one of the creatures that existed first (Being first) preceded the essence. It’s different from other things. For example, when scissors was founded, before the scissors actually exist (Being), we already have a bundle of conception about the object that we want to make, that will be intended to cut a paper.

Sartre’s explanation about existentialism is similar to the explanation of God’s concept. Sartre in existentialism is humanism saying that humans must be able to accept the fact that God does not exist. When God does not exist, everything in this world is meaningless. Whatever it is (animals, plants, humans, things, etc) is meaningless. The stars and moon just make it up. All without purpose. It is man who actually gives the meaning or purpose of the existence of the stars and moon. We often state that the existence of stars and moon becomes a light at night. However, have we ever really asked the moon and the stars themselves, what are they really for? Are they really there — as humans say — to light up the night? It turns out that actually humans that gives meaning to the moon and the stars.

When God does not exist, all these things are meaningless and have no purpose, including humans. Again, the concept of humans according to Sartre is existence precedes essence. Being has no meaning and purpose in life. There is not a single baby in this world, when he / she was born are already carries the purpose and meaning of his own life. New born babies acquire the meaning of life when experiencing the process of socialization in the community, family, culture, country and so on. Thus, Sartre’s thoughts were so radical that human existence was meaningless.

When God is not in the concept of existentialism, then man is actually condemned to be free ; because once thrown into the world, he responsible for everything he does. Sartre said that man is free, or rather man is freedom because God is not there. Because of the absence of God, man does not have any standard for living life. Humans are supposed to create or compose values, norms and even their own culture. But according to Sartre, most people run away from this responsibility. They prefer to use the values and norms from the others (families, communities, countries, religions and so on).

For Sartre, a man who was reluctant to create his own norms, values and culture was a man who experienced a bad beliefs. Thus, it is logical to conclude that man prefers to run away from his freedom. Why? Sartre explained that behind freedom, there are always consequences. Most people choose not to take responsibility for their own lives. Freedom is the vortex of possibility in which man is frightened by it. For example, when we are fed up with our daily routine, it means that we always have the free choice to quit this routine. One day we may refuse to carry out such boring routines, but there are always consequences behind them. Man often flees from his own freedom, because man does not want to bear the consequences of his freedom.

When France was affected by World War II, Sartre quoted the words of a french writer who was quite controversial. He said: “There are no innocent victims in war. Everyone is guilty.” That is, when you feel the suffering of the war, you are actually free not to move on. You are free not to fight. When you don’t make that choice, it’s your own fault. For Sartre, man always had a free choice from moderate to radical. Sartre, meanwhile, cited the romance as choosing to continue their lives as soldiers, as death becomes the consequence of their choices.




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