Walter Kauffman presents select readings in Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre.
“The first existentialist”
I found a bit awkward to read Kierkegaard simply because of his insistence that god is at once the Truth and the medium through which it is understood. He did offer a number of interesting brain nibblers regarding Christianity though. For example, the story of man’s Fall from Grace presupposes Adams knows the difference between good and evil and what it means to die. Since he cannot possibly know what a “terrible consequence” might look like, he is overcome not with terror but with ambiguous dread – dread being “the alarming possibility of being able.” In this light, the idea of a so-called “fall” is not something that would invite all sorts of self-loathing and pious repentance, I would think. How can anyone blame and punish a child so harshly for making a mistake within a context about which it know absolutely nothing? That’s a serious hole in the Judeo-Christian narrative, and, I’d say, doesn’t reflect too nicely on a supposedly loving parental-figure of a god.
One of the final points Kierkegaard makes I did like very much though. He explains that how something is said, i.e. it’s truth or untruth, refers not to the demeanor, expression, etc. but to the relationship sustained by the existing individual, in his own existence, to the content of his utterance (versus an objective focus on simply content). It is this inward “how” where truth arises. Truth, like knowledge, is always dependent on context and relationship. Without its relation and meaning to the human being as he exists, it is empty, so I really appreciated reading some indirect understanding of the truth of IK.
Nietzsche I had never thought to include in a discussion of existentialism, but the readings Kauffman selected were great.
He spoke of reading and understanding one’s own life to understand “universal life.” He condemns the society enslaved to the idea that the harder one works the more “security” one will have – the greatest danger being the individual. I particularly liked this: “For one thing is needful: that a human being attain his satisfaction with himself – whether it be by this or by that poetry and art; only then is a human being at all tolerable to behold. Whoever is dissatisfied with himself is always ready to revenge himself therefore; we others will be his victims, if only by always having to stand his ugly sight. For the sight of the ugly makes men bad and gloomy.” Not only do I love this for its call for “self-actualization,” if you will, but the very idea that a person dissatisfied with himself will seek to punish others for his own failings sounds to me like colonialism. Relating back to “The Takers” domination-based narrative and the premise that human beings are from the start defective creatures in need of correction, it’s not surprising that, growing up meshed between the idea that one always needs fixing and the idea that the only desirable existence is one in which one is in utter control, one would develop rather deep complexes that help establish a self-destructive society and then help fuel and legitimate it’s necessary expansion under empires and colonialism.