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Philosophical Minute


Good behavior isn’t always rewarded. Great people are stolen at young ages, and humanity has bared its teeth—and boy, we aren’t pretty. After confronting the seemingly irrational pain life deals us, it is only natural to ask ourselves why we should go on living in a world that doesn’t seem to want us.

This is a valid question, one that millenia have answered. We’ve thought up many systems of reward for bearing the struggle of living. For some, the narratives work well enough; I will leave them. But for others, there is a restlessness towards any explanation of suffering; it smells of wishful consolation.

All of the existentialists agreed on this point, the meaninglessness of existence; what they differed on was how to confront it. I will narrate their conversation.

The Christian existentialists came first, the most well-known of them being Søren Kierkegaard. He was the first to bring “anguish” into philosophical discourse, as the fundamental discomfort with the irresoluteness of our existence. He encouraged a relinquishment, God being a passion you had to throw yourself into—he spoke of “leaping into faith”—in the impossibility of objective knowledge.

German phenomenologists came next. Martin Heidegger reminded us there is something that happens before thought which makes us aware of our existence: It is a visceral anxiety at its confrontation. “Dasein” is the term he coined to define the human as an individual, her very existence being an issue.

The Parisian existentialists were pretty hip and trendy in their day. Jean-Paul Sartre was a dashing intellectual—not in appearance, but certainly in wit. He saw we are born with no instruction manuals, and are radically, overwhelmingly, free to make huge decisions. He said we must live in good faith, authentically to ourselves, and reject authority standing at odds with our nature. Simone de Beauvoir, his wife, blended existentialism with feminism, feeling women needed to liberate themselves from all the arbitrary connotational baggage they’ve assumed, contained within the concept of “woman.”

Albert Camus, also dashing intellectual—very much in appearance—coined the philosophy called Absurdism. He labeled all of the previous philosophers as practitioners of philosophical suicide for trying to evade the absurdity of the human condition. He crafted the absurd hero, a person who not only is confronted with the absurdity but gallantly rebels against it. It’s the absurdity between our craving for understanding (unavoidable) and the indifference of the universe (also unavoidable).

So, who’s right? How do we deal with our condition?

In matters of such grandeur, I’m not sure there has to be an answer right for everyone. What resonated with you? I personally think Camus’s analysis is the most compelling because he seems to resist everyone else’s temptation to “solve” the problem. Usually, though, while philosophers have come to their own understandings, students of philosophy are encouraged to not settle, and instead to wade in myriad texts. I think this model complements the absurd truth: It’s best not to anchor our life in hope for something that helps it all make sense, but instead, live for life’s own sake.

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