Saturday, March 9, 2024

Existentialism: The quest for perfection that led to nihilism and perdition

Sarah Bakewell’s book At The Existentialist Café covers the history of existentialism in the 20th century. Set in post-Second World War France, the book presents Jean Paul Sartre as the monarch of existentialism and Simone De Beauvoir as his queen. 

The book begins with an introduction of the philosophical thought of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky and Kafka. These philosophers, according to Sartre and other major philosophers in his circle, were the early existentialists.

Full of confidence in the superiority of their own knowledge, mental capacity and intellectual authority, these existentialist philosophers devoted themselves to finding the ultimate answers to the fundamental questions of philosophy: How should we live? How can we be free? How can we be happy? What is the universal system of morality?

The existentialists were motivated by one ideal—to discover a theory to describe what humans are and how they should live. They wanted to develop an existentialist system that would delineate the political and cultural structure of a perfect society, where all, or majority of human beings (the chosen ones), could be equal and live without strife. 

Other than Sartre and De Beauvoir, the book offers good insights into the lives and philosophies of Heidegger, Husserl, Camus, Karl Jaspers, Merleau-Ponty and other European philosophers who were dominating the existentialist philosophical movement in that period. Bakewell’s book is critical of existentialism but is sympathetic to the philosophical quest of the 20th century existentialists.

But existentialism was plagued with a fatal agenda, which was to contrive a union between French nihilism and traditions. The monarch and queen of existentialism—Sartre and Beauvoir—were nihilists in their personal life. They were good in literature and in philosophical argumentation but they were incapable of conceiving a better society. 

There were flaws in other existentialists—for instance, Heidegger was in bed with Nazis. 

Ultimately nihilism won. Instead of building a perfect philosophical system, the existentialists found themselves trapped in an immoral, corrupt and crooked world. Instead of reforming European nihilism, the existentialists worsened the cultural situation.

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