“Man can be a slave to public opinion, a slave to custom, to morals, to judgments and opinions which are imposed by society….Freedom which has been established by an habitual way of living, passes over into an unnoticed enslavement of men; this is freedom which has become objectivitized, whereas all the while freedom is the realm of the subject. Man is a slave because freedom is difficult, whereas slavery is easy.” (Nicholas Berdyaev, Slavery and Freedom)
Existentialism is no longer en vogue in academia. It had its heyday in theology, in philosophy, in psychology, in literature, and sociology in past decades. Though perhaps it has lost its academic relevance, its “cash value” has only increased in the personal, concrete experience of everyday people. Why is this? Existentialism has been at its strongest in times of the greatest social and cultural turmoil. Whether in wars or peak civil rights episodes or cultural upheavals or civic unrest, existentialism, in its variety of forms, is pertinent to all who would open themselves to its appeal.
Existentialism is a philosophy that appeals to “existences” rather than to settled, homogenized “essences.” It says that humans do not inherit an essence, that the universe is not comprised of settled essences, but that all being and all apparent essences in the universe are tied to the existence of the human being. The individual human being effectively develops her existence and helps develop the various perceived and understood essences in her world. Existentialism focuses on the encroaching issues within and upon the individual’s life. Beings in the world matter insofar as they “are” in the world in relation to us. Those on our radar matter, and we attribute to them the meaning that matters to us (they are not merely projected and imposed upon us from the outside). The very “essence” of existentialism is what is pertinent to the individual in the particular time and place of his existence.
Here is a practical example out of my personal context: I work a full-time job for a customer service call center at a credit union. We get in at 8:45 am, and we get off of work at 5:15 pm. We answer our calls in a set, uniform manner: same greetings, same closings, same method of relating to customers for their supposed “maximal customer service experience.” Whether I get Joe Bob or Bobbi Jo on the line, I am trained to respond the same way.
Now, when I answer the phone in this scripted, mechanistic manner, is it really me answering? Or, even if it has become “me” between those hours of 8:45 am and 5:15 pm, is it the “me” who I truly want to be and become? Do the customers want to interact with this artificial “me”? Do they care if they interact with a “real” person at all, especially when the real person isn’t the person they are talking to?
Sure, customers probably know the game, that we are “programmed” to say these things. Our managers probably understand that this “programming” is known by customers. Despite this, they still believe that it’s what “works best” (a conclusion likely drawn from a random study lacking credible and sufficient research). So we do this. We submit our individuality into a mechanized and robot-like service; we play a game where we are pretending to be what we are not in order to give people a customer experience that they may not want—though we are told that they want it. We are more manageable to those who manage us. As workers, we work in submission; as customers, we often do the same.
So why is this example and this sort of discussion of my experience relevant to existentialism? Existentialism, its focus on the relevant and the pertinent to the meaning, giving, and living of my existence, helps me keep sane and afloat when the world and its effects tend to drain and destroy my individuality. Because our jobs, our interests, who we are, how we think seem to be so thoroughly encroached upon by mechanized and colonized forces of uniformity and conformity, the great existentialists throughout history can provide an excellent antidote.
Existentialism pushes us to find ourselves and to become ourselves in freedom, independence, and self-sufficiency. Where jobs and life may sap our freedom and individuality—where they may sap our visions of meaning that we ourselves desire and choose—existentialism can provide a variety of means and ends through which and for which we can strive with the intention of pouring meaning and vitality into our lives. We can seek to live in “good” faith with ourselves and who we want to become, rather than be completely submerged by the “herd,” or by the “crowd,” that seeks to homogenize, manage, and flatten out existence. Existentialism seeks to provide new paths to new meanings, while the forces of hegemony and conformity do the opposite. It may not fit the present academic conformity, but it has always been pertinent to those of us who sense the encroaching forces of external threats to who we are and who we hope to become.
Don is an adjunct professor of philosophy and works a number of proletarian jobs to keep at it. He earned a B.A. in Theological Studies from Spring Arbor University, an M.A. in Theological Studies from Asbury Theological Seminary, and an M.A. in Philosophy from Loyola Marymount University. He doesn’t have much free time, but, when he does find some spare time, he spends it with his wife and two dogs.