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Rebuilding America: Become an Existentialist

 Another in our series on rebuilding America

The history of existentialism is murky and confusing, for those lumped in the category have agreed on neither religion nor politics. But for the purposes of getting a life rather than tenure, Jean Paul Sartre’s definition works pretty well. Sartre believed that existence precedes essence. We are what we do. This is the obverse of predestination and original sin with their presumption of an innate essence. Said Sartre, “Values rise from our actions as partridges do from the grass beneath our feet.”

In fact, some existentialists argue that we are not fully us until we die because until that moment we are still making decisions and taking actions that define ourselves. Even the condemned person, one said, has a choice of how to approach the gallows.

Wrote Sartre: “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism . . . Man is condemned to be free. . . From the moment he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.”

To show just how murky existentialism can be, one of the most famous existentialist writers, Albert Camus, even denied he was one.

Perhaps this antipathy stemmed in part from the fact that Camus was a novelist rather than a philosopher like Sartre, and perhaps because they disagreed on politics, but whatever you want to call it, few have spoken as wisely on behalf of the uncertain human spirit. “There is no love of life without despair of life,” said Camus. “Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful.”

These are not the precise and pedagogical words of a philosophy rising, yet, as with art and love, there is no particular reasons why life should be hostage to logical words, among the least fluid of human expressions. Robert Frost, asked to explain a poem, replied that if he could have said it better he would have written it differently. Louis Armstrong, asked for a definition of jazz, replied that if you have to ask, you’ll never know. And, said Gertrude Stein, there ain’t no answer. There never was an answer, there ain’t going to be an answer. That’s the answer.

Quakerism also prescribes personal witness as guided by conscience – regardless of the era in which we live or the circumstances in which we find ourselves. They were early existentialists.

There are about as many Quakers today in America as there were in the 18th century, around 100,000. Yet near the center of every great moment of American social and political change one finds members of the Society of Friends. Why? In part because they have been willing to fail year after year between those great moments. Because they have been willing in good times and bad — in the instructions of their early leader George Fox — “to walk cheerfully over the face of the earth answering that of God in every one.”

Those who think history has left us helpless should recall the abolitionist of 1830, the feminist of 1870, the labor organizer of 1890, or the gay or lesbian writer of 1910. They, like us, did not get to choose their time in history but they, like us, did get to choose what they did with it.

Would we have been abolitionists in 1830?

In 1848, 300 people gathered at Seneca Falls, NY, for a seminal moment in the American women’s movement. On November 2, 1920, 91 year-old Charlotte Woodward Pierce became the only signer of the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions who had lived long enough to cast a ballot for president.

Would we have attended that conference in 1848? Would we have bothered?

On the other hand, there was the time in early 1960 when four black college students sat down at a white-only Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. Within two weeks, there were sit-ins in 15 cities in five southern states and within two months they had spread to 54 cities in nine states. By April the leaders of these protests had come together, heard a moving sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. and formed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Four students did something and America changed. Even they, however, couldn’t know what the result would be.

In a world dominated by dichotomies, debate, definition and deconstruction, existentialism suggests not a result but a way, not a solution but an approach, not goal but a far and misty horizon. It is, says Robert Solomon “a sensibility …. an attitude towards oneself, an attitude towards one’s world, an attitude towards one’s behavior.”

The sense of being individually responsible yet part of a seamless web of others produces neither certainty nor excuses. One can, one must, be responsible without the comfort of being sure. Camus once admitted that he would be unwilling to die for his beliefs. He was asked why. “What if I’m wrong?” And when he spoke of rebellion he also spoke of moderation:

“There does exist for man, therefore, a way of acting and thinking which is possible on the level of moderation which he belongs. Every undertaking that is more ambitious than this proves to be contradictory. . . Finally, it is those who know how to rebel, at the appropriate moment, against history who really advance its interests. … The words that reverberate for us at the confines of this long adventure of rebellion are not formulas of optimism, for which we have no possible use in the extremities of our unhappiness, but words of courage and intelligence which, on the shores of the eternal seas, even have the qualities of virtue.”

The existential spirit, its willingness to struggle in the dark to serve truth rather than power, to seek the hat trick of integrity, passion and rebellion, is peculiarly suited to our times. We need no more town meetings, no more expertise, no more public interest activists playing technocratic chess with government bureaucrats, no more changes in paragraph 324B of an ineffectual law, no more talking heads. Instead we need an uprising of the soul, that spirit which Aldous Huxley described as “irrelevant, irreverent, out of key with all that has gone before . . . Man’s greatest strength is his capacity for irrelevance. In the midst of pestilences, wars and famines, he builds cathedrals; and a slave, he can think the irrelevant and unsuitable thought of a free man.”

We need to think the unthinkable even when the possible is undoable, the ideal is unimaginable, when power overwhelms truth, when compulsion replaces choice. We need to lift our eyes from the bottom line unto the hills, from the screen to the sky, from the adjacent to the hazy horizon.

The key to both a better future and our own continuous faith in one is the constant, conscious exercise of choice even in the face of absurdity, uncertainty and daunting odds. We are constantly led, coaxed and ordered away from such a practice. We are taught to respect power rather than conscience, the grand rather than the good, the acquisition rather than the discovery. The green glasses rather than our own unimpeded vision. Oz rather than Kansas.

Any effort on behalf of human or ecological justice and wisdom demands real courage rather than false optimism, and responsibility even in times of utter madness, even in times when decadence outpolls decency, even in times when responsibility itself is ridiculed as the archaic behavior of the weak and naive.

There is far more to this than personal witness. In fact, it is when we learn to share our witness with others — in politics, in music, in rebellion, in conversation, in love — that what starts as singular testimony can end in mass transformation.

Here is an approach of no excuses, no spectators, with plenty of doubt, plenty of questions, plenty of dissatisfaction. But ultimately a philosophy of peace and even joy because we will have thrown every inch and ounce of our being into what we are meant to be doing which is to decide what we are meant to be doing. And then to walk cheerfully over the face of the earth doing it.


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