"There is nothing with which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of doing and becoming."Existentialism is the name given to a philosophical worldview that came into prominence and consciousness in the late forties and early fifties. It articulated itself as a response to the soul-crushingly fatalistic, morally relativistic, Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy-fostering worldview of Nihilism. A tragic consequence of the scientific scepticism of The Enlightenment, Nihilism deconstructs and rejects all ethics, ideals and meanings in life as meaningless unproven lies (e.g., science can't differentiate which morality exists and which is propaganda). Alternatives to nihilism, such as religion, art, culture, society, ideology, nationalism, science, modernity, material wealth, fame and social respectability, came to seem as both unfulfilling and inadequate. An existential worldview asserts the importance of active engagement, personal choice, and commitment. It shifts the focus away from ends to means. What you do and how you do certain actions matter as much as your reasons, motivations and justifications for the same. The existentialist agrees that "meaning" is an empty word, our life sucks and there's nothing we can do about it. However, they also point out that each individual has the choice to make the most out of each hour of their empty lives. Those who choose to spend it being bored, following others, wangsting endlessly, adhering to hedonism, or For the Evulz are ignoring their responsibility to themselves and to society, and are potentially wasting their real virtues and qualities. As Jean-Paul Sartre said, "Man is condemned to be free", by which he meant that we have no choice but make a choice of some kind or another, some way or other to accommodate our selves with our lot in life. The term "Existential Angst" was even coined to describe the sudden feeling of Quicksand Box it gave them, especially if they had just abandoned the Freedom from Choice provided by both religion and social peer pressure. The term existentialism came into prominence in The '40s in France where it was used in club debates, and after early resistance, adopted by Sartre as a label and category defining his philosophy. The term "existentialism" seems to have been coined by the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel. As Sartre, and others, noted in his works, the philosophy codifies and identifies a particular strain of thought and idea, rather than invent something new out of whole cloth. As such one can find ideas similar to, or anticipating existentialism, in the works of Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as a host of other novelists (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy for instance) and dramatists and other artists. Sartre himself went further, citing Jesus's words on the cross in the Gospel of Matthew note . It gained popularity in the early 1940s around the time of the Modernist movement (amidst incomprehensible scientific discoveries that inspired Lovecraftian Fiction, and of course the horrors of World War II, which contributed to further popularity of Angst in the arts), when Jean-Paul Sartre codified existential philosophy with three words: "Existence precedes essence." It was the reverse of most previous philosophical thought, which held that the essence (soul, purpose, meaning) of a thing came first. Existentialism coevolved with, and takes tropes and inspirations from, the artistic movement of Post-Modernism, which dissolves the boundary between life and art and reality and fiction. Both are connected by the philosophy that life is art, and you can live your life as your own creative art. It is important to stress that, befitting a philosophy of individuality and self-created meaning, thinkers both pre-existential, existential, and post-existential differ wildly in their conclusions and their sentiments. You'll find that many of the people held up as examples of existentialism indignantly claimed that they weren't — probably a side-effect of the fact that nonconformity is one of the school's main tenets ("Once you label me, you negate me" is a famous line of Kierkegaard's). For instance, Søren Kierkegaard was a Protestant Priest and a devout Christian, and some of his works were about finding and discovering a new modern approach to religious belief. A strain and approach that anticipated and inspired other thinkers interested in reconciling religion with the modern world. Friedrich Nietzsche however was an atheist, as was most of the post-war French thinkers (Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir). Yet even Nietzsche differed from the latter by means of his distinct pessimism, his strong sense of Irony which allowed him to advocate ideas and views that are inherently contradictory and paradoxical. Active existentialists like Sartre, and his circle of friends, as well as the school of literature and philosophy that he inspired, advocated ideas that were intended to be clear, humanistic, bridge together ideas and views even from sources that were on the opposite spectrum. For Sartre, who was sympathetic to Marxism, existentialism was primarily a means of advocating and advancing social criticism into contemporary society, and criticizing colonialism, racism and advocating social justice. The likes of Albert Camus differed with Sartre in his political sympathies and he also rejected the label of existentialism and advocated instead the idea of "the absurd" which was a middle ground between Nietzschean pessimism and Sartrean humanism. As such existentialism was originally, and intentionally a very diverse school of thought rather than a single authoritative ideology or beliefs. Some historians see it as simply a cultural and intellectual movement rather than a real philosophy. That's about as far as we can cover the philosophical side of existentialism. You see, existentialism is one of those rare serious intellectual strains whose ideas entered the cultural lexicon and became important and relevant to mainstream popular culture. One reason for this is that the original existentialists actually wrote for a non-academic audience, and by means of word-of-mouth, the Foreign Culture Fetish for Americans for forties and fifties' France, and the counter-culture of The '60s and The '70s, the ideas spread and inspired much popular philosophy, campus radicals, literary and genre fiction, popular musicians and film-makers. Such works differ in many ways from philosophical existentialism for the understandable reason that as works of entertainment, they are more interested in using it as sources of conflict and dramatic tension, than as serious philosophical inquiry and research. Existentialist ideas inform works of art by providing greater inner conflict and tension as well as a source and method for deeper characterization. It led to the introduction of general ambiguity; a questioning of motives, and separating motivation from actions in manners that are supposed to make the audience question their identification with the protagonist. Audiences became reluctant to accept a character doing something right on face value; it became important to know what that particular "right thing" was, how did this character decide if it was "right" or not, or if said character did it because someone else told him it was right. Stories inspired by existentialism often paved the way for conclusions that were tentative, skeptical, and unresolved, even when the plots were otherwise simple and straightforward. It also leads to stories with Morality Kitchen Sink and Gray and Grey Morality. Existentialist works can be tragic, pessimistic and end on a Downer Ending but it can also be affirmative, optimistic, have Bittersweet Ending and Earn Your Happy Ending. In the popular culture, existentialism becomes a short-hand for individuality, and involves character tropes such as having a personal raison d'être (reason for existence), Be Yourself, Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life, I Am What I Am, living out your Goal in Life, Earn Your Happy Ending, and sometimes moments of You Are Not Alone. This gives a world-of-cardboard/Patrick Stewart Speech to the nihilists and reconstructs the "meaning in life" concept. Existentialist character types include The Anti-Nihilist and The Übermensch (the extreme Blue And Orange version). The Knight in Sour Armor and the Determined Defeatist have some elements of this, as does the Victorious Loser. The Other Wiki has an article and analysis on this subject. See also Absurdism, Postmodernism, Romanticism, Deconstruction and Individualism.
— Søren Kierkegaard, a precursor to existentialism
Existentialism in fiction / Works with some Existential elements:
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Anime & Manga
- Mentioned in Black Lagoon
chapter 85 Only the me who is alive is definitely here. Will I be murdered or die a dog's death? How I die and how I live are choices only I can make. Only I can decide. Isn't it the greatest? Doesn't it make you damn excited?
- Cowboy Bebop. Spike Spiegel states that in his youth he didn't care about dying, which made him a fearless hitman for The Syndicate. Then he fell in love with a girl named Julia and felt like wanting to live for the first time. He's contrasted with Vicious who still sticks to a nihilistic world view. When Spike gets ready to confront Vicious in the Series Finale he says he isn't going there to die but to find out if he was ever alive.
- Ghost in the Shell In particular the two Mamoru Oshii movies deal with machine intelligence determining its own fate and nature against the will of its creators.
- Kino's Journey: The eponymous traveller is on a journey that has no destination and with "the world is not beautiful, therefore it is" as a motto.
- Neon Genesis Evangelion: Several of the involved factions struggle for the power to redefine what it means to be human, but even more so the original series concludes with protagonist Shinji coming to terms with his nihilistic self-loathing.
- Baccano!'s primary theme is that, while the world might be a big ball of senseless chaos (hence the series' namenote ), that doesn't mean you can't pull subjective meaning out of it.
- Surprisingly One Piece contains a great deal of Existentialist themes. It has many characters, including the heroes talk about fulfilling their dreams, wondering whether or not they even have a purpose in this world or even deserved to live, and trying to enjoy their lives as best they can, despite living in a Crapsack World while being there for each other. The story also condemns hedonism and For the Evulz, and has several Ubermensch as important characters most prominently Luffy, Whitebeard, and Gold Roger
- Naruto deals a lot with existentialist themes, as well as other philosophy topics. The title character himself could even be considered a full-blown Kierkegaardian Knight of Faith as his creed is that he will never give up and that he will achieve seemingly impossible ambitions through sheer hard work and belief. Case in point, early on promises that he will become Hokage one day even if he never rises above Genin, ("low ninja", the lowest ninja rank)- sure enough, three years later he is indeed still a Genin while everyone else he knows from his class is Chuunin ("middle ninja") or higher, yet he is also one of the most powerful ninja alive and several characters- including the current Hokage herself and even her dead predecessors consider him a shoe-in for the role.
- The first major villain, Zabuza, makes a point of saying that ninja- and evil ninja, like him- try to become something other than human; a common theme amongst later villains is taking this idea literally, as several attempt to transcend their humanity in various ways, both ethically (eg. severing all bonds to clan and country, or viewing godhood as a way of looking at the world) and physically (eg. experimenting on themselves, turning themselves into living puppets etc.). Many characters, hero and villain, could be considered wannabe or actual Ubermenschen.
- Common themes in the series include loneliness, isolation, alienation and despair, with Naruto himself and others like Gaara and Sasuke experiencing real, serious loneliness and pain due to their miserable childhoods and horrible traumatic experiences. Characters like Neji discuss determinism and free will and are portrayed as fatalists, and the story doesn't shy from the fact that all of these characters are basically child soldiers (current or grown-up) with all that implies.
- Black Bullet. Yes, just because you live in a shitty world where the Gastrea virus have killed off a good portion of humanity and societies treating the cursed children as total trash, doesn't necessarily mean that you should just fall over and die, you do have some purpose to live. Case in point, when Rentaro lost his right leg, right arm, and left eye 10 years ago for saving Kisara's life, he was rushed to the hospital and was given two sheets of paper. One was a death certificate, the other was a contract that will allow Rentaro to live with Artificial Limbs and become a mechanized soldier through the "New Human Creation Plan." Encouraged by the words of his foster father ("If you don't want to die, live"), Rentaro decided to pick the latter and signed up for the "New Human Creation Plan;" feeling that he has a purpose in life.
- Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet. The protagonist, Ledo, was raised as a Child Soldier with one goal in life, to defeat the Hideauze in a never-ending war. However, when he ended up in the ocean planet known as Earth, Ledo slowly begins to question his own purpose in life and wonder what it's means to be an actual human being. This philosophy is also used to deconstruct the Galactic Alliance's utiltiarian ethics, as it shows that human nature is too complex for humanity in space to be limited to a single objective (which is destroying the Hideauze) and fails to put into consideration that humanity in general can change as evident with Ledo's Character Development. In addition, Ledo also accepts the reality that has kept hidden by the Galactic Alliance, such as the truth that the Hideauze are actually genetically modified humans.
- The works of Gen Urobuchi tend to have strong existentialist themes, with characters who discover that the world doesn't work the way they thought it did and having to then define themselves as their own individuals, rather than by the standards they used before. The process is never portrayed as fun or easy, but the characters come out the other end much stronger people.
- Puella Magi Madoka Magica features several nods to existentialism. They talk a lot about freedom of choice and despair The ending of the anime is basically a kierkegaardian leap of faith to protect people from despair. The Rebellion movie has a lot of Nietzschean themes and quotes his famous "god is dead". Homuras journey of doing the same "pointless" task over and over to protect herself from despair is similar to Nietzsches eternal return as well as Albert Camus "Myth of Sysiphus".
- Batman in modernized takes is often presented as an existential hero. This is especially the case of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns which deals with him after he's lost his youth, his early strength, initial motivations, and even reputation as a hero and in the end his secret identity, but finally becomes Batman again simply because he finds it meaningful and valuable in and of itself.
- In Will Eisner dealt with this in many of his comics:
- In The Spirit he often wrote stories where the titular heroic character wasn't even the center of his own narrative, and whose actions rarely drive the plot. The supporting-characters, villains, and even one-shot characters (such as Gerhard Schnobble) are more interesting and capable of change and complexity than the hero.
- A life force the major character, a Jewish carpenter has just been told that the study hall he built for a local synagogue won't be named after him but a rich benefactor, making him feel like the four years he spent building it are wasted. On the way home he has a heart attack. He sees a cockroach on the sidewalk struggling to survive and figures they are Not So Different, but also starts to wonder why he wants to live in the first place. He figures that either God created man or man created God but in either case the meaning of life is anyone's guess. Eventually he concludes that staying alive is the only thing everyone agrees on and manages to do that. Towards the end of the story he divorces his overbearing wife and starts a relationship with a New Old Flame he genuinely loves because he doesn't want to be a cockroach who's only concerned with staying alive.
- The Punisher has made it his purpose in life to kill as many criminals as he can. Everything he does is based on attaining this goal. He knows he can't kill them all, but it won't be for lack of trying.
- Jon on both Garfield and Garfield Minus Garfield explains existential angst.
- Watchmen: Few people are the heroes of anything other than their own stories, nobody is truly consistent to who they think they are, and everyone is capable of making changes, both positively and negatively. Events which seem special and important in one era become meaningless later on, while more important actions are The Greatest Story Never Told.
- Rorschach decides that, instead of abandoning rules and discipline due to a nihilistic outlook, his rules and principles are all the more important in a world that has no more meaning other than the one we impose on it.
- A more impressive example is the non-superhero character, Dr. Malcolm Long who has a crisis after serving as Rorsharch's prison psychologist which makes him question his middle-class lifestyle and belief that his profession is actually having a wider difference. In the end, he admits that even if there is no reward and even if his angst is upsetting his marriage, helping people in whatever small way you can is what matters most.
- Dr. Manhattan, the closest thing to God in this world, has grown aloof from humanity even as the apocalypse looms. Yet he later comes to recognize that the value of life lies in the sheer improbability of existence in the first place.
Films — Animated
- Rango: "No man can walk out on his own story." While this may sound like an argument for predestination, the film itself is about how an individual dropped into a harsh and confusing world discovers that only he can answer the question, “Who am I?”
Films — Live-Action
- Woody Allen is probably the American film-maker who did more than any director to introduce "existentialist motifs" in mainstream films. Sometimes its Played for Laughs, other times its Serious Business. The most well-known examples are Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point.
Professor Levy: "We are all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions. Moral choices. Some are on a grand scale. Most of these choices are on lesser points. But! We define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are in fact the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, human happiness does not seem to have been included, in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying, and even to find joy from simple things like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more."
- Played with in Fight Club. The plot revolves around a white collar worker having some mental issues, derived from his existential crisis because he finds that he can't find any purpose in his existence.
"We are God's unwanted children? So be it!" Tyler
- La Jetée has probably one of the most beautiful quotes ever to describe this philosophy: "Time builds itself painlessly around them. Their only landmarks are the flavor of the moment they are living and the markings on the walls."
- Rebel Without a Cause is an early mainstream attempt at handling existentialism. The teenage protagonists find that they have no war to fight and no great cause to support, growing up in the middle of The '50s. Along with that there is a pretty memorable scene involving a planetarium.
Jim Stark: If only I had one day in my life where I didn't feel confused, where I felt like I belonged.
- The Blu Ray extras for 2001: A Space Odyssey contain this quote from Stanley Kubrick:
The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent. But if we can come to terms with this indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.
- Silence by Martin Scorsese, adapting Shusaku Endo's novel has the main character confronting the seeming absence of God, and the meaning of his faith in the face of failure and forced apostasy.
Fr. Rodrigues: "Even if God was silent, everything I have done, everything I have said...would have spoken for him."
- The Terminator has "No fate but what we make" central to the movie - the protagonists constantly redefining the future according to their choices rather than letting the world fall into a predetermined state of devastation. However, the setting is less "uncaring universe" and more "Killer robots actively attempting to wipe out mankind while humans play silly buggers with the time-space continuum".
- Wings of Desire is about an angel choosing to be human, and it's more or less a story about the meaning of life and why Humans Are Special even after the horrors of the twentieth century, and the seeming absence of God in people's daily lives.
- Existential Terror and Breakfast: Revolves around the terrible existential dread one feels when they fail to be actively engaged.
- His Dark Materials: If God Is Evil and the best afterlife we can hope for is to dissolve into pure energy, then it is our duty to have a story to tell when we look back on our lives.
- La Nausée (Nausea): The book holds a dark, melancholic take on Antoine, the protagonist, uses this philosophy to avoid the darkness he sees and feels as the eponymous title suggests, nauseous and tired as he moves through a life of dead-end relationships, boredom and limited satisfaction.
- James Joyce was a Modernist and his works greatly inspired many of the thinkers and philosophers of the existentialist movement by his characters struggle with identity, culture, language and beliefs, in all his works. The most famous assertion is in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Stephen Dedalus: "The soul is born, first in those moments I told you of. It has a slow and dark birth, more mysterious than the birth of the body. When the soul of a man is born in this country, there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets."
- The Stranger: This novella is often cited as an example. Albert Camus denied this, but it's worth noting that he became commonly known as the "godfather of existentialism". The book itself could be labeled as Absurdist or Nihilist; either that or it was just a character study of a psychopath. Fundamentally, the novel is about a man who is not fully aware of his motivations and whose actions are not fully explicable or comprehensible, and the ending is about how even such a man when he confronts a death without the possibility of salvation, redemption, the promise of an afterlife, is nonetheless capable of asserting courage in the face of death.
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being: The book actually opens with a contemplation on Nietzsche's concept of "eternal return" (which is then refuted).
- Perhaps surprisingly, Conan the Barbarian:
"I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content."
Live Action TV
- On Red Dwarf the crew members encounter the Inquisitor, a Mechanoid who has seen the end of existence and come to the conclusion that there is no God. He travels through time to demand from every creature that they justify their existence. Turns out everybody he judges is judged by themselves.
Rimmer: Everybody is judged by their own selves?
Inquisitor(as Rimmer): It's a bit metaphysical but it's the only fair way.
** With the ironic result that, of the four of them, the two who are found innocent are the egomaniacal Cat and Rimmer, who refuses to accept any blame for his many faults. So the ones who are condemned are the unselfish Kryten and generally decent guy Lister, because they actually hold themselves to a higher standard and recognize that they have failed to live up to it. So ultimately, the Inquisitor's crusade is eliminating nice people and leaving the universe filled with jerks.
Holly: As the days go by, we face the increasing inevitability that we are alone in a godless, uninhabited, hostile and meaningless universe. Still, you've got to laugh, haven't you?
- Also this quote from the ship's computer Holly:
- Henrik Ibsen dug into Existentialism more than once, primarily because he was pretty up-to-date on Kierkegaard. The most outstanding example in his corpus of plays should be Peer Gynt, a play who touches on existential issues a lot. The thematic inversion, Brand, also counts here.
- Hamlet by William Shakespeare expresses this, most famously in the "to be or not to be" monologue. Hamlet is a very conscious and self-reflexive character who longs for deeper motivations, and uncertain about the correct course of his actions.
- Much like James Joyce, his mentor, Samuel Beckett codified it in many of his plays, which theatre critic Martin Esslin (against Beckett's wishes) identified as the "theatre of the absurd".
Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn't want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn't want them back.
- Waiting for Godot has an Ambiguous Situation for a plot, sparse limited action of two characters who are waiting for someone who might or might not come. The suspense and frustration, and the comedy of the plot, comes from the fact that they cannot know for certain what the correct thing to do is.
- Krapp's Last Tape likewise deals with a man contemplating his memories and lonely life in total solitude:
- Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit which deals with three characters in the afterlife, who in life, were horrible to themselves and to other people, and whose ultimate punishment is simply being themselves. Famous for the phrase, "Hell is other people."
- McQueen, taking two suicidal characters who accidentally interrupt each others' attempts and then journey together realising that You Are Not Alone and discovering that they can always wait around to see things that the younger non-depressed versions of themselves are excited by, though still questioning the idea of existence and what it means to exist - what makes you mean anything? Dahlia even says "I came for... a dress to die in... If I'm in this then I will mean something."
- Assassin's Creed: There is no God. There is no Devil. There are only Flawed Humans, the children of flawed Precursors. So if we wish to live in peace, prosperity and freedom, we must build a civilisation that permits those things.
- BioShock and its sequel Bioshock Infinite is generally a Deconstruction of the notion of player choice, stated beliefs, motivations and actions. The first game articulates is by means of Nietzsche via Ayn Rand:
Andrew Ryan: In the end what separates a man from a slave? Money? Power? No, a man chooses, and a slave obeys! You think you have memories. A farm. A family. An airplane. A crash. And then this place. Was there really a family? Did that airplane crash, or, was it hijacked? Forced down, forced down by something less than a man, something bred to sleepwalk through life unless activated by a simple phrase, spoken by their kindly master.
- The Central Theme of the Dishonored Series (Dishonored and Dishonored2 especially) deal with power, choice and What You Are in the Dark. The game provides the players and their villains with abilities and resources and makes their choice on how they use that power the central dramatic conflict. You are judged by your smallest and your biggest actions, all of which have consequences and for which you alone are responsible.
- Mass Effect: While rarely directly concerning itself with philosophy, the solution to basically every problem Shepard helps solve is to teach the involved parties to determine their own fates and overcome prejudices that prevented a peaceful compromise.
- NieR: Automata feature heavy existentialist themes, often questioning the meaning of life and existence through the eyes of androids and robotic characters in a crapsack, nihilistic world.
"A future is not given to you. It is something you must take for yourself."
- Spec Ops: The Line puts the whole First Person Shooter genre and its attendant military simulation base under an existentialist microscope, showing how the hero's actions get absurd in light of Motive Decay, with Captain Walker (and by extension the player) revealed to be in bad faith:
Colonel Konrad: The truth, Walker, is that you're here because you wanted to feel like something you're not: a hero.
- Comedian Kevin Bridges did a bit about how God created the universe, but 'pissed off' because he had other properties to attend to. Humanity's only response to a godless world is to be like a teenager having a party when his parents are away for the weekend. At a wild party it's a given you'll get roughed up a bit.
- Alexander Dugin, who is an advisor of Vladimir Putin (some even suspect his main influence) and who is connected to a large group of radical politicians from all over the world (ranging from Syriza in greece, to Front National in France to some politicians of the Alternative for Germany, Turkey and Japan) is strongly influenced by existentialism and wants to change the subject of political theory from class/race/individualism to Dasein/Existence. Dugin wrote several books on Heidegger, stated that US americans need to adopt existentialist ideas to thrive, and published an article where he used the philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre to analyse David Bowie. During his early days, he and Eduard Limonov used Punk/Heavy Metal music concerts as a platform to advertise their philosophy.