Wondering the meaning of life and your inherent purpose of existence often leads to absurdity which few can deal with. Still, if you have thought about it, then you have already encountered the absurdity as an inherent part of life and you have confronted the central problem of existentialism, as a set of ideas.
Existentialism is not a theory or a philosophy set in stone. It's a stream of thought, that has been evolving for centuries, through the questioning of the human condition and its meaning by philosophers, throughout the ages.
Søren Kierkegaard, a 19th century philosopher is considered to be the father of existentialism, as he was the first to present its central idea in the most clear form, which is 'Existence precedes essence'. We do not come in this world with a predetermined destiny and our personalities are molded through our own confrontation of reality.
As another existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, put it in his own words, "Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world - and defines himself afterwards".
This excerpt is from his work in French, "Existentialism is a Humanism", which is widely considered to be as the most definitive work on Existentialism. While it's truly impossible to fully explain what is existentialism, as it's a vast and complex philosophy, which requires individual study, let us look at the basic core values that define Existentialism.
What is Existentialism as a Philosophy?
"Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does."~Jean Paul Sartre
Existentialism is a realistic analysis of the human condition. It analyzes reality in context of human existence and is essentially aimed at providing an answer to the question of what is the ultimate purpose of life. Like all philosophical theories, it provides a way to approach life. Here are the central concepts underlying existentialism, as a philosophy.
Man First Exists, Then Creates Himself
The central concept of existentialism is that man creates his own destiny, by his own choice. He is not born with a personality, but creates it as he comes into being. Yes, external factors do mold his or her personality, but essentially he starts out like a clean slate, on which he later writes his life history.
The human consciousness creates its own way of life and by way of choice and actions, determines who he or she becomes. He keeps piecing together a picture of the world and his position in it, which undergoes changes over his course of existence, until he finally encounters the meaninglessness of everything.
Man is Completely Responsible For His Own Actions
Man is entirely responsible for his actions. There is no fate or destiny which predetermines his path in life. He chooses to be good or bad and his actions define him. Thus existentialists prefer to take responsibility for their actions, rather than believing in some idea of destiny or fate.
Every Man is Free
While man is bound by the limitations of material existence and a responsibility to adhere to his own value system, within that sphere, he is free to make his own choices. Man can choose a life that he wishes to live, as long as he is willing to strive for it and take responsibility for his own actions.
World is Inherently Meaningless
There is no universal right or wrong, or a karmic system which make good things or bad things happen to any person, according to his past deeds or actions. The worst of things happen to so-called 'good people' and the so-called 'bad people' tend to thrive.
There is no logic to this scheme of things, which leads existentialists to state that world as we know it, is meaningless. Things just happen and there is no way of accounting for what purpose they happen. Man faces what is known as an existential crisis, when he encounters the inherent meaninglessness of life in its true measure.
The Meaning & Purpose of Life are Entirely Subjective
Since life has no meaning in itself, it is we who must choose a purpose of existence. Existentialists accept the fact that life is inherently meaningless and they choose a purpose in life, that they find to be true.
The Existentialists are realists who accept the meaninglessness of life and endeavor to give their life a meaning of its own. This process of finding your own purpose is a quest in finding yourself.
The Importance of Being Authentic & Sincere
A lot of emphasis is placed over being sincere and authentic in pursuing of the chosen purpose in life. This is opposed to a fatalistic attitude, where a man acts because he is supposed to act in a particular way. You need to be sincere in your purpose of life and exercising your freedom of choice, as well as taking responsibility for your actions.
We Create Our Own Moral Rules
There is no inherent moral doctrine that we are born with. We create our own morals and live by them. Morals and values are created through our judgment of what is right and wrong.
Angst, Anxiety & Boredom are Unavoidable
Uncertainty, angst, anxiety, caused due to attachments in material world and boredom are things that an existentialist has learned to live with. He accepts them as a result of inherent absurdity of life.
Abandonment Due to Non-Existence of God
Existentialists who fall in the category of atheists experience what could be termed as 'abandonment'. The fact that there is no overseer to control and bring order to this world, is certainly not a comforting thought. Existentialists prefer to live with it, instead of living in some irrational utopian world, which can never actually exist.
Among the many examples of existentialism in literature are the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Franz Kafka. There are many more works like 'Fight Club' by Chuck Palahniuk which are based on existentialist themes.
The most definitive work on existentialism, which is highly recommended for those of you who want to delve deeper is Jean Paul Sartre's 'Being and Nothingness', published in 1943. All of Albert Camus's works are also essential reading for anybody who wants to study existentialism seriously.