7 Essential Authors to Read If You’re Having an Existential Crisis in 2020
At some point in our lives, we've faced the depths of an existential crisis. And in this time of coronavirus, chaos, and political unrest, it's becoming more and more common to get lost in ourselves.
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We've all surely experienced and felt being in the middle of ‘deep conversations’, especially when we are awake in the wee hours of the morning, or under the influence of alcohol. And while some of us usually treat these conversations as something that can only be released in instances when we feel comfortable with the person or the group with whom we are conversing, we are engaging in philosophizing.
Yes, those deep conversations you have on the uncertainty of life are an act of philosophizing. The subject of philosophy has gotten a terrible reputation in recent years, because we tend to agree that it is irrelevant to our practical concerns. But this is where all of us are wrong. And it is in these times of panic and a lack of direction that we have become more aware of our world. Within this mess, the philosophy of existentialism comes in to provide clarity in the midst of turmoil and darkness.
Existentialism is not a new philosophical tendency, and it has its earliest precursors in the world religions of today. Existentialists for instance, will usually trace their influences back to sources as diverse as Mulla Sudra of Islam, the Buddha and as old as the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Christian Scripture and that of St. Augustine.
There are many branches of existentialism, ranging from atheistic existentialism to its theistic counterpart. However, they are united in a common framework of some sort: it is that human life, and the sum of its experiences are complicated and often in revolt against rationality and what we call as common sense. To give a basic sketch of its ideas, here are some figures considered the most influential in this school of thought, and some essential authors to read when you’re going through an existential crisis yourself.
1| Soren Kierkegaard
Considered the forerunner of modern existentialism, his entire philosophy revolves around the challenges of living the principles of Christianity in the modern age.
Kierkegaard's works are often written under pseudonyms, which do have personalities of their own, and offer a point of view different from the others. But the common aspect of his work remains. He detests modern society for making us too comfortable of our rationality, Christians who are lazy in their faith by not contemplating it, our constant pursuit of intangible desires like happiness in tangible objects and the detestable character of religion, even though he remained a Christian. His most famous idea is the notion that in life, all of us should take a leap of faith or a step into the void, which is a decision that will make or break us. We must not be afraid of anxiety, he said, for anxiety is the dizziness of freedom
Essential reads: The Present Age, Attack Upon Christendom, Leap of Faith, The Three Stages of Life
2| Arthur Schopenhauer
From its outset, this philosopher declared he got most of his writings from those of the Buddha, whom he emulated. Schopenhauer’s philosophy marks the beginning of a speculative pessimism in its secular form. Borrowing from Kant’s notion that we cannot really know reality as a total whole, Schopenhauer added that this unknowable reality is nothing more but the ‘will’ of all living beings.
The will-to-life he said, is the guiding force for all instead of morality or tradition. This will-to-life forces us to confront the obstacles in our path and make decisions accordingly. One can either continue the path to live in the material world, where this will is unquenchable, or surrender this will to become a sort of a monk. Like Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer asks us to confront life not from a rational standpoint or for what it is, but for its nature of being inherently a puzzle that we or may not figure out.
Essential reads: The World as Will and Representation, The Hedgehog's Dilemma
3| Friedrich Nietzsche
Known as the most controversial of modern philosophy even until today, Nietzsche’s persona has been associated with totalitarian regimes and the underside of ethics like that of Karl Marx. But these are just the flies on the wall. Beyond the uses and abuses of Nietzsche’s positions on human existence, we can find that many of his musings may have been proven correct.
Two of these notions are the coming of nihilism and the death of God. For Nietzsche, both trends are a result of humanity’s desire to control everything and make the world in its image. It is thus inevitable, says Nietzsche, that we may kill God because of this. The death of God will bring nihilism or the notion of life having no meaning, which is why Nietzsche encourages us to seize the day and not succumb to that nihilism.
This is where Nietzsche placed his Ubermensch or the Superman (Over-man) as his idea for man. Man will always face something to overcome his own humanity, and Nietzsche believed that once man is able to face these challenges, he will be greater than any man in terms of character and wisdom.
Essential reads: How The World Became A Fable, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Ubermensch, The Last Man, God is Dead
4| Martin Heidegger
Heidegger is considered as a seminal philosopher for a reason. His work Being and Time is always pronounced as the most important book of the 20th century. In it, Heidegger claimed that throughout the history of Western thought, the question of Being has not been answered. If it is even answered, it is always in relation to the dichotomy for the subject and object, to which Heidegger concluded as insufficient for the study of Being. He concocted the term Dasein to explain his philosophy, in which in a complicated language, he argued that man’s constant ignoring of Dasein has led him to pursue actions and decisions that makes him not authentic or inauthentic to himself/herself. He considered that in spite of our advancements, our aversion to reflect on the question of Being meant we have even forgotten to notice that we are alive.
Essential reads: The Question Concerning Technology, Throwness, Authenticity and Inauthenticity, Standing-Reserve
5| Simone de Beauvoir
Departing from her male contemporaries, de Beauvoir is known as a feminist existentialist, and for a reason. She asserted that since the beginning, women have always been dominated and subjugated by men. And this subjugation does not only include political or economic subjugation, it also extends to how women are treated in entirety, as second to that of men. This is pronounced even in historical documents, art, literature and other media depicting women.
For de Beauvoir, the category of the women is not given, it must be reasserted so that women will be on the position of equality with men. One is not born a woman, for one must become a woman.
Essential reads: The Second Sex, The Mandarins, The Ethics of Ambiguity, One is Not Born, But Becomes a Woman
6| Jean Paul Sartre
A playwright before becoming a philosopher, Sartre was catapulted to prominence in France after WWII. The France that Sartre had grown up in had been destroyed, and all of its traditions faded. The Nazi war machine had crippled the nation’s self-image and its confidence in the previous philosophies of positivism and empiricism. Sartre’s main goal was to furnish a philosophy to let us accept the death of traditions as a pre-requisite to something new. He noted that in a meaningless world, we have no more excuses to not make use of our freedom.
For Sartre, it is the freedom to accept the consequences of the new reality that one faces, and as an opportunity to reinvent oneself within the premises that this specific freedom can offer. Freedom therefore, is a freedom to both create and destroy.
Essential reads: Existentialism Is A Humanism, Nausea, Ant-Smtie and Jew, Being in Itself, Quietism, Existence Precedes Before Essence
7| Nick Joaquin
While neither a philosopher nor a historian, Nick Joaquin’s writings have encapsulated a period of history passed to the fading memories of those who lived in it. His literary works revolving around the ruins of Old Manila are full of regrets and references to a past erased by the war. They include the customs, habits, and attitudes of people he elaborates in detail. His journalistic pieces and various essays on the other hand have painted a Philippines that is multi-faceted and a complex terrain of intrigue, betrayal, historical yearnings and cultural legacies which have defined what he referred to as the nation.
For Nick Joaquin, this mélange of interests and legacies should make us more aware of the need to be more creative in negotiating and appreciating these affinities, for the Filipino in his own words, is still a nation trying to find its own identity. Joaquin’s exhortations, fortunately or unfortunately, are still able to cast a shadow to where the direction of our country is going, and to question whether we even have something we can call a sense of nationhood and solidarity within us, or whether we are too self-interested to not bother about these things.
Essential reads: A Heritage of Smallness, The House on Zapote Street, May Day Eve, Filipino Becoming
In an epoch where uncertainty, grief, depression, hopelessness and unpleasantness tend to be the facet of our current reality, the philosophy of existentialism shows us things will never go in the way we want them to be. However, this should never be always the cause of our resignation.
While we may recognize these problems and the despair they bring with them, existentialism affirms our condition by highlighting our need to take the journey of a riddle known as life itself. It does not matter whether we reach the trap or the finish line, what matters is that we try to face it with a determination to be committed to whatever projects we have, and always choose life instead of escaping from it, which includes the possibility of death.
When faced with an existential crisis, we must always choose life, or die trying.