"First of all man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and only afterward, defines himself."
— Jean-Paul Sartre
"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 response
to the soul-crushingly fatalistic
, morally relativistic
, Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy
. Nihilism (a tragic consequence of the scientific scepticism of the Enlightenment
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). However, existentialism on the other hand embraces this subjectivity; 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 can have 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 wasting it
Existentialism often advocates 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
the "meaning in life
The term Existential Angst
is even coined to describe the sudden feeling of Quick Sandbox
it gave them, especially if they had just abandoned the Freedom from Choice
provided by both religion and social peer pressure.
Existentialist character types include The Anti-Nihilist
and The Übermensch
(the extreme Blue And Orange
version). The Knight in Sour Armor
or Determined Defeatist
have some elements of this.
While existential motifs are Older than You Think
, Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky
and Friedrich Nietzsche
foreshadowed in the 19th century some of what would be the defining characteristics of the philosophy, although they didn't know each other and the philosophy was unnamed. The term "existentialism" seems to have been coined by the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel. 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.
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).
The Other Wiki has an article and analysis on the subject.
Related to Absurdism
Existentialism in fiction / Works with some Existential elements:
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Anime & Manga
- 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 Oishii 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.
- Watchmen: Few people are the heroes of anything other than their own stories, and 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 recognise that the value of life lies in the sheer improbability of existence in the first place.
- 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 than the one we impose on it.
- In Will Eisner's 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 stays anyone's guess. Eventually he concludes that staying alive is the only thing everyone agrees one and manages to survive. 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.
- Jon on both Garfield and Garfield Minus Garfield explains existential angst.
- 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 flavour of the moment they are living and the markings on the walls."
- 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?”
- 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.
- 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.
- Nausea: The book holds a dark, melancholic take on Exis' as Antoine, the protagonist, uses this philosophy to avoid the darkness he sees and feels as the eponymous title suggests.
- 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 labelled as Absurdist or Nihilist; either that or it's just a character study of a psychopath.
- 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
- Planescape: Living next door to angels and demons and being able to visit gods and meet them in person, the people of Sigil have long given up on religion and the city is dominated by several philosophical factions that seek to find meaning in existence.
- 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.