Existentialism is a philosophical movement that emphasizes individual existence, freedom, and choice, that influenced many diverse writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Put simply it is concerned with finding self and the meaning of life through free will, choice, and personal responsibility.


has free will Life is a series of choices, creating stress Few decisions are without any negative consequences. Some things are irrational or absurd, without explanation. If one makes a decision, he or she must follow through.

Major Themes

 Plato

held that the highest ethical good is the same for everyone; insofar as one approaches moral perfection, one resembles other morally perfect individuals.  Kierkegaard, the first writer to call himself existential, insisted that the highest good for the individual is to find his or her unique vocation. He wrote: “I must find a truth that is true for me . . . the idea for which I can live or die.”  Nietzsche further contended that the individual must decide which situations count as moral situations.

Moral Individualism

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The individual must be passionate in his or her search for morality and truth. Personal experience and acting on one’s own convictions are essential at arriving at the truth. Thus, the perceptions of one involved in a situation is superior to the perception of a detached observer. As a result most existential writers have been deliberately unsystematic in the exposition of their philosophies and prefer to express themselves in aphorisms, dialogue, parables, and other literary forms. This is not to say that they don’t value rational thought. Rational clarity is desirable whenever possible, but they assert that the most important questions in life are not accessible to reason or to science. Most argue that even science is not as rational as had been previously supposed Nietzsche asserted that scientific assumption of an orderly universe is for the most part useful fiction.


 Humanity’s

choose.  Therefore each human being make the choices that create his or her own human nature.  Sartre said that “existence precede essence” and believed that choice is central to human existence going so far as to say that even the refusal to choose is a choice.  Freedom of choice entails commitment and responsibility and because humans can choose they must accept the risk and responsibility to follow their commitment wherever it leads.

primary distinction is the freedom to

Choice and Commitment

 Kierkegaard

held that it is spiritually crucial to recognize that one experiences not only a fear of specific objects but also a feeling of apprehension, which he called dread.  Kierkegaard interpreted it as God’s way of calling each individual to make a commitment to a personally valid way of life.  Heidegger used the word anxiety to describe an individual’s confrontation with nothingness and with the impossibility of finding the ultimate justification for the choices everyone has to make.  Sartre used the word nausea to describe an individual’s recognition of the contingency of the universe and he used the word anguish to describe the recognition of total freedom of choice that confronts each individual.

Dread and Anxiety

Summary of Personal Growth through Existentialism

 Fyodor

Dostoyevsky is probably the greatest existentialist literary figure. In Notes from the Underground Dostoyevsky’s alienated antihero rages against the optimistic assumptions or rationalist humanism. The view of human presented by Dostoyevsky in his other novels is that human beings are generally unpredictable and self-destructive. He believed that only Christian love can save humanity from itself, but such love cannot be understood philosophically. Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov says, “We must love life more than the meaning of it.”

Existentialism and Literature

 Franz

Kafka an Austrian Jewish writer presented isolated man confronting vast, elusive, menacing bureaucracies. Kafka’s themes often include anxiety, guilt, and solitude.  Albert Camus, a French writer is often associated with existentialism because of the prominence of themes of absurdity and futility of life, the indifference of the universe, and the necessity of engagement in a just cause.  Existential themes are also reflected in the theatre of the absurd, notably in the plays of Samuel Beckett.

Existentialism and Literature

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