Pessimistic Existentialism (pt. 2)
Is There Anyone Who Can Help?
Our dilemma is this: We are caring persons living in a world that doesn’t care. We cannot look above the universe or outside the universe to find someone who cares. There is nobody out there; there is nobody home in heaven. Dr. James Montgomery Boice tells the story of an amateur mountain climber who fell over the side of a steep precipice which dropped off to a cavern thousands of feet below. One lone scraggly bush clung to the face of the cliff and the climber desperately grasped it to keep from plunging into the abyss. But the bush was not strong enough to bear his weight and began slowly to work lose from its roots. In sheer terror the climber screamed to heaven, “Is there anyone up there who can help me?” Suddenly a sonorous bass voice was heard from the clouds. “Yes, I can help you. But you must trust me. Let go of the bush.” The climber stole a glance downward and then looked again toward heaven. He exclaimed, “Is there anyone else up there who can help?!”
The father of pessimistic existentialism was Friedrich Nietzsche, who was famous for penning the slogan “God is dead.” Nietzsche took the philosophy of secularism to its logical conclusion. He understood that if this time is the only time, and this world is the only world, then there is no God. If there is no God, then life is meaningless. If all of human existence is shut up in the here and now, then all human values are arbitrary. If there is no exit to the eternal, then values and truth and ethics are a matter of pure decision. Right and wrong are simply what we have the courage to decide they are for ourselves.
Nietzsche made a distinction between what he called “herd morality” and “master morality.” Herd morality is the morality practiced by the masses. It is based on the conventions of a society. People obey these societal rules and taboos like unthinking cattle. They go along with the herd, never asking penetrating questions about the rules of the game. They are like Americans who accept without criticism cultural contradictions. They never dare to tell the emperor that he has no clothes. They allow themselves to be ruled by the whims of the rulers. (Who, for example, dares to question the consistency of a graduated income tax in a society committed to the principle of justice for all? It is like affirming an equitable inequity.)
For Nietzsche the true existential man, the authentic man, creates his own morality. He refuses to follow the herd. He is his own master, a “Superman.” He is the heroic sort who sails his ship into uncharted waters and builds his house on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. He is defiant toward conventions. He dares the lava to flow down on his roof.
The Nietzschean hero is like a character in a Hemingway novel. He is the old man who challenges the sea, the soldier who ignores the tolling bell, the matador who grabs the bull by the horns, the man not intimidated by the slopes of Kilimanjaro. He is like Jimmy Cagney inThe White Cliffs of Dover, who when his fighter plane was crippled by enemy gunfire, found he was headed directly toward the chalky cliffs. At the last second before impact Cagney spit at the cliff through the shattered windshield. The screen faded to black and the house lights came on while the audience was screaming wildly for their defiant hero.
There is a small problem here. After the theater emptied somebody began to think that on the morrow the sun would come up on the white cliffs of Dover. They would remain undaunted by the blemish left by the puny plane. The plane, meanwhile, was a twisted wreck at the bottom of the sea, a metal coffin for its dead pilot.
Nietzsche understood all that. Even his “master,” his heroic Superman was destined to meaninglessness. Nietzsche’s brand of existential philosophy is called nihilism, which literally means “nothingness.” If there is “nothing” out there, then nothing really matters. Life is the tale of the idiot, full of sound and fury, full of passion, signifying nothing. It is a useless passion; it is a futile fury.
Why Has Existentialism Spread So Rapidly?
Philosophical concepts usually take many years to “trickle down” from the scholars to the layman. It is usually a long and slow journey from the ivory tower to Main Street. A philosophical perspective set forth in abstract, academic writings will normally not attract popular attention or have much influence in a society until long after the originator is dead. In our lifetime, however, there has been a notable exception.
The rapid spread and enormous impact of existential philosophy upon our culture has been uncanny. I doubt if there has been any philosophical system that has had as much influence on American culture in the twentieth century as this school of thought. We encounter the influence of existentialism virtually every day of our lives and in virtually every sphere of our culture. Few people can define it or articulate its theory, but we are living under its influence every day.
Why has existentialism moved so rapidly from the theoretical level to the grass roots of our culture? First, it is because the chief advocates of existentialism have not only been brilliant technical philosophers, but they have also included some extraordinarily gifted men who have been able to translate their ideas into a more popular medium.
Notable among these was Sartre who, on the one hand, could produce a thick volume of weighty philosophy called Being and Nothingnessand yet take those same heavy ideas and disperse them into the culture through the media of plays and novels.
Albert Camus, another Frenchman, was able to communicate his existential views through his essays and novels. He was concerned with individual freedom and responsibility, with the alienation of the individual from society, and with the difficulty of facing life without belief in God or moral absolutes. He expressed his concerns in novels such as The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall, and in his playCaligula.
A second reason existentialism has made its influence felt is that the philosophy is itself, by definition, hostile to systems. It is an antisystem. It thrives not so much on an interconnected, coherent, well-related world view, as much as it builds upon singular flashes of insight, brilliant vignettes drawn from the close regions of daily life.
Ultimately existentialism has made its powerful presence felt by abstract questions because it speaks directly to the human predicament. Its emphasis, as the name implies, is on human existence, on real, passionate life. Here we have a philosophy that touches us where we live.
Existentialism made its impact felt most heavily in America after World War II. Sartre and Camus had been deeply involved in the war in Europe, working with the underground resistance movement in France. When the atrocities that were associated with the holocaust in Western Europe were exposed, a mood of despair enveloped the continent. The philosophers looked at the atrocities of Buchenwald, of Auschwitz, and elsewhere and said, “This is what man is capable of doing.” The spirit of optimism that had characterized the nineteenth century was suddenly plunged into despair.
Sartre’s plays did much to communicate the motif and mood of despair. He wrote one novel that bears the simple title, Nausea. This was his evaluation of modern man. Sartre argued that religious faith is irrational. It involves accepting what is “absurd.”
Existential philosophy took root in artists’ colonies, crossed the Atlantic and took up residence in the United States. One notable home was Greenwich Village, New York, with its “beatnik” movement and the “beat generation.” The “beat generation” communicated some of the basic ideas of existentialism through art, poetry, literature, film, and theater. The arts have been major vehicles to communicate the ideas of existentialism to American society.
This is part nine of R.C. Sproul’s book Lifeviews first published by Revell in 1986. In this series we are learning how Christians are called by God to make an impact on culture and society.