A Philosophical Ride: Comparison of Existentialism and Absurdism

A Comparison of Existentialism and Absurdism
Existentialists proposed that humans have to make choices in order to find purpose to their life and absurdists proposed that humanity will fail if they searched for the meaning of life, so finally where is human life headed to? Do we endlessly seek for a purpose or do we simply exist?
ScienceStruck Staff
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote extensively on Existentialism, Absurdism, and Nihilism. His writings greatly influenced other philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre (Existentialist), Friedrich Nietzsche (Nihilist), and Albert Camus (Absurdist).
Early philosophers, thinkers, and spiritual figures emphasized on the existence of a 'higher being' and 'higher spiritual attainment of the human soul' which in a way fueled the thirst of discovering eternal life. After the catastrophic World wars, the European philosophers expressed shock and grief of human existence through two schools of philosophy - Existentialism and Absurdism. People started to assume that life was meaningless, and questioned the silence and inception of God and believed that he does not exist after all, it seemed inconceivable to find an answer because no one knew where to begin looking or whom to ask, the world appeared utterly chaotic.
Existentialists stated human life is ascertained by chance and free will, man makes his own destiny, whereas absurdists stated that humans stay oblivious to their fate and tend to fantasize about having a purposeful life. This situation is well depicted in the absurdist play by Samuel Beckett Waiting for Godot. The play follows two men Vladimir and Estragon who pretend to be cheerful while assuming that they will end up meeting the mysterious Godot. Vladimir is responsible and mature in his behavior whereas Estragon seems suicidal and needs constant encouragement. Both these men symbolize humanity, some hope for answers and others lose hope in finding those answers. Godot symbolizes God who through his silence contributes to the chaos around the world. The underlying nonsense of a world based on chance deteriorates human life into something that is despicable and can be fiddled with by destiny.
A world grounded on probability can have no orderly chronological sequence, and thus time has no meaning and thus human life has no meaning. Recognizing this, humans will create beguilements and deviations, to provide the purpose and meaning that is inherently absent in their lives. 'Waiting for Godot' is the classical, archetype display of this facet of human existence. Strongly based on these notions let us differentiate existentialism and absurdism.
A philosophical approach which underscores the existence of humanity on the basis of free will and importance of choice. It proposes that we subsist due to our own decisions and independently create our destinies isolated from God and society.
A philosophical approach which states that human beings live in indispensable isolation in a meaningless and irrational universe and that any search for order by them will bring them into direct conflict with this universe.
Existentialism vs. Absurdism
◆ Although existentialism propagandized in the 19th century from the continental European philosophers, its roots fairly developed through early Buddhist and Christian writings. St. Augustine and St.Thomas Aquinas were its subsequent forerunners. During the 17th Century, Blaise Pascal proposed that, without God, life would become meaningless, boring and miserable. In 1670, his famed book Pensées was published which stated that humans created their own obstacles in life to escape boredom and their void of non-meaningful life. They deflect themselves with these token-victories to avoid the truth of death. Eminent English philosopher John Locke through his writings favored individual liberty and self-determination.

◆ During the 19th century, the existential thought process flourished under the works of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who is also known as the "Father of Existentialism." He asserted that the individual has the sole obligation living a meaningful, passionate, and sincere life, in spite of many obstructions and beguilements including desperation, anxiety, fatuousness, choice, boredom, and death. Although spiritual himself, Søren expressed trust in God to be absurd, since it is inconceivable to know God, or to interpret his purpose. The concept of 'existence' was first used in his philosophical writings. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is another notable figure of this period whose writings have greatly influenced the 20th century thinkers.

◆ In the 20th century, the works of French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre became highly viewed, his famed Being and Nothingness (1943), and his novels and plays, including Nausea (1938) and No Exit (1944), served in popularizing the movement.

◆ Existentialism was a literary philosophical movement that emphasized individual existence, freedom and choice. It is the view that humans actions determine his existence and shape his destiny without God or any other transcendent force. Thus stating that individuals are entirely free and must take personal responsibility for themselves although with this obligation comes anxiety, a profound torment or dread.

◆ Existentialists maintain that a human being is 'thrown into' the chaotic universe and hence we are victims to the circumstances that we create therefore existence is prior to essence. They also repeatedly deal with the subject of alienation and believe that humans are fundamentally alone, they state that humans use rationality as a mechanism to counter their existential anxiety and their fear of being in this world.

◆ Existentialists don't believe in a predetermined 'pattern' of the universe, a grand outline in which we all play a part. They argue that everyone has to forge their own meaning for themselves, and therefore one individual's decisions have no cosmic inter-relatedness with another's.

◆ Marxists and Christian writers greatly criticized this movement by stating that existentialism ran contrary to their beliefs on the commonality of human beings and their theory of economic determinism. They further debated that the belief on individual choice leads to reflection rather than action, and that only the rich had the privilege of making explicit choices, so they considered existentialism to be a high class philosophy. Another philosopher pointed out that the movement portrayed humanity in horrible plight devoid of dignity and grace that projects from being made in the image of God. They rejected the supremacy of God and projected man as the sole creator of destiny thus putting him at par with God.

◆ The word 'existential' is now enforced to postmodern philosophy and social theory. Many presume existentialism has been interchanged by various social and critical hypotheses, mostly Marxism being the coherent replacement of existentialism. Some critics maintain that existentialism was a historical 'mass depression' from the 19th century to the 20th century and is now thing of the past.
◆ The 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is posthumously responsible for absurdist writings as well his two famous works Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death were written under the pseudonyms Johannes de Silentio and Anti-Climacus respectively. He asserts that man accepts his preposterous conditions and defies any help from God which he philosophically terms as 'despair of defiance'.

◆ In the 20th century, Noble Prize recipient French author and philosopher Albert Camus greatly shaped the absurdist movement. His major work The Myth of Sisyphus cites the mythological story of a mortal named Sisyphus who has acquired the wrath of Gods for cheating death and has been damned till eternity with the task of rolling a boulder up the hill but his efforts go futile every time he rolls the boulder uphill and it rolls back down hence making him repeat the strenuous task all over again without any end to it.

◆ Albert Camus explains that two kinds of humans exist in this world. Those who find the meaning of life and who would rather die and kill for this purpose, while the others do not find a significant purpose to life and commit suicide to escape the absurdity of his fate. He reasons that man lives a robotic life and with time loses the essence of living, through which a sense of exile prevails in his existence, still many of us humans continue to abide largely because we have not reached an unequivocal answer to life's questions.

◆ The Post-World War II world flamed the Absurdist movement even higher with Absurdist playwrights questioning the nature of existence by creating epic plays and giving rise to the Theater of the Absurd. Absurdists perceived a godless universe devoid of any religious, spiritual, or metaphysical reasoning. Opposite to the rationalist presumptions of traditional humanism, absurdists refuse to believe in the predetermined notion of universal truth or value.

◆ This movement was a massive tsunami in the theatrical circles with plays ignoring the traditional theatrical conventions and thwarting the audience expectations. Characterized by a divergence from realistic characters and situations, the plays offered no clear opinion of the time or place in which the action occurred. Characters were often nameless and exchangeable, events were depicted out of the realm with nightmarish quality ordinarily connected with Surrealism. Both dialogs and occurrences appeared ridiculous to the audience. However, the plays were a satirical exploration of themes centered around loneliness and isolation of humanity, the political upheaval of that time, the nature of a Godless universe, the failure of mortals to connect with one another in any significant way, and the vacuity and absurdity of life and death.
Both the philosophical movements ride high on the notion of 'Death of God' and his non-existence in this suffering world. It projects the threat of non-being which is aptly put forward by theologian Paul Tillich:

For though I know now that I exist, that I am alive, I also know that someday I will no longer exist, that I will no longer be, that I will die. This thought is staggering and threatening: to think that the person I call "myself" will cease to exist, that I will be no more!

Humans can choose to make their life better by taking significant decisions about their life or chose to exist without an aim.