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The Jolie Laide Of Philosophy

Stylishly disillusioned and angsty, I started wearing turtlenecks and tweed blazers regularly when I was 16. Not so coincidentally, that's when I also gravitated to Existentialism. I was a high school student taking classes I didn't care for; forced into a routine I was strangled by; had responsibilities I was burdened with shackled to my ankles. I searched for a meaning, a reason, an excuse to justify my stagnated life. Surprise: I didn't find much of an answer. "That's just how it is" or "We all had to go through it, too" was the comforting counsel of some adults. Others tried to convince me that these were the necessary growing pains one had to endure to eventually comfortably take strives as an adult. But I felt I was wasting my youth in preparation for an adulthood I was not interested in. I was not just confused as to why things were the way they were; I was angry. My anger brewed into bitterness until I grew tired, not just of raging in vain: I had grown tired of life. Melodramatic? Excessive? Prematurely flinging myself into an emotional crisis? Perhaps. But I very much doubt that the core of my teenage rage is shared among many, across all age groups. At that age, I relished too much in the aesthetic of Existentialism to actually read deeply into the philosophy. Little did I know that the answer I was so desperately looking for was underneath my nose, in the very aesthetic and philosophy I claimed to live by.

Existentialism is more a movement than a rigid set of doctrines. Nineteenth-century philosophers Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are credited as the founders, but other important figures include Camus and Sartre from the 20th century. The leaders and writers who are regarded as Existentialists, though, seldom share identical philosophies; instead, they share a concern with the Human Condition, the relationship between existence and essence, and predetermined meanings ascribed to life.

The key questions Existentialism poses are, "Why am I here?," What does it mean to be human?" and "How should I live my life?" Such questions often lead to depressing answers (or no answers at all), leading to recurring themes of death, boredom, the absurdity of life, and nothingness. The absurdity, Camus argued, is that humans long for order in an disorganized world, and they long for meaning in an meaningless world. From this notion arose Camus' famous The Myth of Sisyphus, in which the Greek mythological figure is forever condemned to roll a large stone up a hill only to have it roll back down just as he gets it to the top.

Sartre's claim that "Existence precedes essence" suggests that human life has no central, predetermined meaning to it. It is entirely up the humans to create their own. Life cannot be served a definition on a silver platter, with either religion or some other ideological system standing as the diligent server. That burden plops unapologetically and unavoidably into the lap of mankind. For this reason, people often think Existentialism is an atheistic philosophy. While it certainly can be for some, the movement can also take on a theistic reading. With his famous "Leap of Faith," Kiekegaard cooly sidesteps using facts and logic to prove there is a God by reiterating that life is not rational, so rationality is a useless approach to solving dilemmas. Instead, he says, irrationality should be approached with an equally irrational leap of faith.

One ought to not confuse Existentialists with Nihilists. That's like confusing a Frenchman for a German; it can only ever end in blows. While both believe there is no objective meaning to life, Existentialists take the slightly more optimistic route that humans can ascribe a personal meaning to their existence. Nihilists are steadfast in their belief that not even a subjective meaning can be ascribed.

Existentialists believe we are "condemned to be free." Freedom seldom is associated with something as negative as condemnation, but in this scenario, freedom is not really free - it is neither "carefree" nor "hedonistic"; rather, it is burdened with responsibilities which we cannot escape, "which can lead to despair and anguish; even questioning the point of living. The classic 'existential crisis.'"

In the atheistic version of Existentialism, the absence of God means there cannot be a universal set of values, distinction between right and wrong, and explanation for what is good and what is evil. Responsibility, however, must still be assumed; choices must be made. However, because there is no God there is no explanation for why the world is the way it is, leading to the aforementioned absurdity. This leads to the conclusion that though humans are free, "whatever we do is ultimately meaningless" and that nothing can "ultimately satisfy us." The theistic reading suggests that because life and all it has to offer has not yet filled "the void," humans must turn to a higher being. There is, nonetheless, the "existential paradox," which says humans are separated from God (thanks to Adam and Eve's munchies getting them banished from the Garden of Eden), but humans remain "Godward." In other words, we yearn for what we are separated and kept away from.

Angst is also a common theme in Existentialism, deriving from "understanding how many choices we face and how little understanding we can ever have of how to exercise the choices wisely." It is, in a way, analysis paralysis: we have so much to choose from, and we know we have an abundance, but we're crippled by our fears and ignorance from making the right decision. This evokes anxiety and anguish.

Kierekegaard urges us to "wake up and give up our cozy sentimental illusions." Modern life, with its materialism, consumerism, societal expectations, and pseudo-moral stances, is just a sorry attempt to distract humans from the bottomless abyss of meaninglessness that we are thrown into by modern life itself.

If Existentialism were a woman, she would be described as being jolie laide, which Merriam-Webster defines as being "attractive though not conventionally pretty." While there might not be a bright sparkle in this movement, there is still a sort of beauty one might see if they look closely enough. Yes, many of our lives are meaningless; however, that is because we chose to live in a meaningless way. Just as we chose that route, we can just as easily choose to transition into a set of values, principles, and responsibilities that are meaningful to us. Here one won't find glass castles built on sand. No rose-tinted glasses. No ideals that are bound to fail. With its emphasis on freedom, action, and responsibility, Existentialism offers a reality that you can control. It's not setting you up for failure with an overly ideal worldview; it tells you how it is, but gives you a way to cope.

Congratulations: You're free! You can create your own meaning. Daunting though this might seem at first, Existentialism offers mankind an out from the preconceived notions and designs society thrusts upon us. One's life meaning might change overtime. Existentialism offers the flexibility most people need with their lives. The person we are as children is not the same as the person we are as teenagers, which certainly isn't the same person we are as adults. How could we possibly fit into one life meaning throughout all the variable stages, priorities, and values we're experiencing? Since Existentialism believes only humans can create their meaning, this inherently gives us the power to throw away whatever "meaning" we're living by now and search for a new, more appropriate one. In the hyperactive society we live in, where we're constantly told to prepare for the future, Existentialism lets us take a moment to examine who we are today, and live by those standards. If you choose the right kind of responsibility, it no longer is a burdensome obligation as many of our socially prescribed responsibilities are; rather, it is something greater to which you can devote yourself. Choosing a responsibility that you're keen on allows you to approach accountability and dedication in a new light. You're not being forced to pick up this personal duty; you decided to do it all on your own. Existentialism gives us refreshing self-autonomy, authority, and maturity.

Though the Existentialists might be convinced humans are "condemned to be free," the individualism, responsibility, and action this movement champions erodes any sort of condemnation attached to freedom. Life is in our hands; we are the masters who decide what flies and what doesn't. One cannot outrun life and the responsibilities it carries; however, by accepting that fact, buckling down to pick up a value system one believes in, and taking action on responsibilities one sees fit, the inevitable condemnation is being embraced and twisted to work for us. No longer is one told something is out of their control. Existentialism gives us the tools we need to embrace the condemnation and make it work for us.


Previously by E.K. Mam:
How Studying History Made Me A Stoic.

* Dear High School Students And Recent Graduates . . .

* Tunes To Remedy Any Existential Crisis.

* Flex You.

* Simply Cynicism.

* Suffering With Stoics & Cynics.

* Machiavelli's Prince Charming.


Comments welcome.


1. From Robert Hagedorn:

"There is, nonetheless, the 'existential paradox,' which says humans are separated from God (thanks to Adam and Eve's munchies getting them banished from the Garden of Eden), but humans remain 'Godward.'"

The snake convinces Adam and Eve to disobey their only commandment from God, and eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The commandment they disobey is God's commandment to them in Genesis 1:28 to "Be fruitful and multiply." But Adam and Eve disobey the commandment by eating from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil instead of from the forbidden tree's next-door neighbor in the midst of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:9). They eat from the wrong tree. Thus, they commit a double disobedience: they fail to procreate by doing what they are forbidden to do, while at the same time, they fail to procreate by not doing what they are commanded to do. Both failures occur simultaneously.


Posted on August 30, 2020

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