The Beauty of Existentialism

At best, I am an amateur philosopher.  I’ve read a few things.  I have a relative who teaches philosophy at the college level.  I’ve learned quite a lot from her.  Existentialism continues to fascinate me with thought-provoking writers such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Soren Kierkegaard and Albert Camus.

While I don’t consider myself an absolute existentialist, I’ve found many of it’s ideas to be generally applicable to life.  Briefly, existentialism says that the objective world around us (the natural, material or circumstantial world) has no meaning except for what we as individuals subjectively give it.  I’ve run into many who seem to think that existentialists are people who don’t believe in an afterlife or heaven.  From my understanding, that’s not a defining factor of existentialism.  Some, like Dostoevsky or Kierkegaard, may have believed in an afterlife, while others, like Camus, most likely did not.

This brings me to the most recent book I’ve read, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl.  It comes recommended by Ben at A Minimalist’s Bookshelf.  Frankl, an Austrian phychiatrist, spent time in Auschwitz and other concentration camps in Europe during World War II.  His story of this time and how he was able to survive is horrific and inspiring at the same time.  Thoughts of his wife and the goals of publishing the results of his professional research were two ways he was able to give meaning to the meaninglessness of the world around him.  Two reasons for him to keep going when it didn’t seem reasonable to do so.  He compares and contrasts the prisoners who made and kept some sort of meaning to life with those who did not.  He admits that there are moments when he or others in the camp were simply “lucky” or that the hand of “fate” gave them the chance to go on.  However, he seamlessly weaves these two ideas together into a palpable worldview:  the idea that humanity can choose its own attitude and meaning in the face of whatever circumstances “fate” may throw its way.

Because philosophy can become so cerebral that it seems shifting and vague, I enjoyed Frankl’s writing because he could bring the abstract into something concrete.  I think this paragraph in response to the question “what is the meaning of life” beautifully pulls existentialism into real life:

I doubt whether a doctor can answer this question in general terms.  For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.  What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.  To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: “Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?”  There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent.  The same holds for human existence.  One should not search for an abstract meaning of life.  Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment.  Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated.  Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.

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