I’ve been questing a name for my stance in the world. At this point in my journey, I can’t think of myself either as either a Druid or a Buddhist, despite the importance of these movements in my life. But to keep saying this is enervating and dis-empowering. I want a name, a positive name. I want it to affirm my current values with the creative focus of a new identification. I have ended with Existentialism – with the proviso that I need to customize my own 21st century version. Here’s how I reached this point.
First, I turned from the realms of spirituality and religion and looked to philosophy – specifically the Western tradition bearing that name, which means ‘love of wisdom’ (philo – sophia). This emerged over two and a half millennia ago in ancient Greece, where “philosophy was not, initially anyway, something to be studied in isolation by a group of specialists, but rather the expression of a way of life” (1). As such, it covered areas we still call by Greek names: therapeutics, ethics, aesthetics, politics. It asked basic questions that we face in our lives. It suggested physical and spiritual exercises and dietary regimes aimed at the good life. It included ‘natural philosophy’, the basis of our science. Over time, rival schools of philosophy sprang up – Platonist, Aristotelian, Stoic, Epicurean, Cynic, Sceptic.
According to one of its champions, Existentialism is “arguably the only contemporary form of philosophy that remains true to the conception of philosophy first articulated” in ancient Greece (1). As a movement, Existentialism lasted for only a brief period in the mid twentieth century. Jean-Paul Sartre provided the name and was the only person who habitually used it of himself. Other people associated with the group were Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir. Only Merleau-Ponty was a full-time academic. The other Existentialists were better known for their involvement in politics and literature – fiction, drama, and journalism. Albert Camus said,” if you want to be a philosopher, write novels”.
The Existentialists were a diverse group with certain themes in common: living without God; freedom; others and otherness; anxiety; finitude; the absurd; authenticity; oppression. They struck a chord in an age of totalitarianism, world war, holocaust, nuclear warfare (actual and threatened) and anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles. Buddhism’s dukkha becomes Existentialism’s angst, here worn almost like a badge of honour, a price of the human condition. This condition is one of self-conscious awareness, simultaneously free and compelled to make choices without divine sanction, in the absence of any cosmic template or plan. Existence precedes essence: we must make ourselves.
Existentialism both looks back from this historical moment and points forward from it. The looking back is to the nineteenth century. Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, while Soren Kierkegaard came down in favour of religion out of loyalty to a ‘subjective truth’ of his own existence. For him, to ‘exist’ is to face the uncertainties of the world and commit oneself passionately to a way of life. Fyodor Dostoevsky is sometimes classed as another religious Existentialist in the way that he chose Russian Orthodoxy over Nihilism.
Moving into the 20th century, we find the development of ‘phenomenology’ as a scholarly attempt to learn from within the ‘life-world’, the subjective and inter-subjective realm, the insider’s view of existence, at a time when most academic endeavours adopted an objective, scientific, observer stance. Martin Heidegger, its best-known practitioner, is considered an Existentialist. The later French Existentialists drew inspiration from these earlier sources, but this didn’t involve taking on specific religious or political beliefs. They stood in a French republican tradition that was atheist and of the left.
Looking forward, Existentialism contributed to later Feminist and post-colonial perspectives. De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was ground breaking in the 1950’s, whilst needing to be moved on from in subsequent decades. Existentialism has informed the politics of identity, though in itself also thought of as superseded by poststructuralist, postmodernist and other more recent currents. It appears to have done its job. But I’m not so sure. I was born during the heyday of French Existentialism. I am drawn to the term and I feel like taking this tradition and updating it for myself.
I thought of using the qualifier eco-existentialism, but the term is already used in eco-psychology and I have also spotted it in a business context, concerned with individual choice in creating sustainable households. I think I will stick with the single word Existentialist. It’s long enough. I want it to incorporate practices of mindfulness and compassion and to be Earth centred. The Spell of the Sensuous (2) draws on Merleau-Ponty’s later work to demonstrate how an animist mindset makes sense: it is necessary to human perception even when apparently repressed and denied. Animist Existentialism? I believe that it is quite possible for me to live and affirm an Existentialism adjusted to 21st. century conditions and understandings. Names do matter to me, when I can mobilize around them. This one somehow makes me feel lighter and more resourceful. The magic of naming!
(1) Thomas E. Wartenburg Existentialism: A Beginner’s Guide Oxford: Oneworld, 2008
(2) David Abram The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World New York: Vintage Books, 1997 & 2017