Learn Your Philosophy
In On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche attempts to find the significance of the values people hold; he describes a value as a guideline for existence. Nietzsche determines that there are both positive (life-affirming) and negative (life-repressing) values. He also says that people can be evaluated using either a moralistic evaluation (good vs. evil) or a physiological evaluation (good vs. bad). Nietzsche then categorizes all people into three categories: the nobles, the slaves, and the priestly.
The noble can be characterized as spontaneous, active, and naive. The noble sees everything as a challenge that will give him the opportunity to assert himself further. He lives by the quote, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Nietzsche evaluates the noble moralistically. He says that the noble creates his own values based on what feels good and what feels bad. Activities that are self-assertive feel good to the noble, and activities that are self-repressive feel bad to the noble. When the noble establishes his own values, he does not rely on outside influences, like opinions or recognition from other people. The noble is truly independent and is associated with strength. Unfortunately, he is very individualistic and full of himself, and therefore, is lonely. There is no true example of a noble in existence.
The slave is the opposite of the noble. He can be characterized as intelligent and clever; these attributes compensate for his physical inability to assert himself. Nietzsche evaluates the slave physiologically. The slave upholds self-repressive values as good; he believes in selflessness. For the slave, compassion, generosity, selflessness, and philanthropy are examples of what is good. Reaction is what is evil to the slave. The slave is led by resentment. He blames others to make himself feel better, especially the noble, to whom he imposes guilt. The slave is the definition of a follower; he cannot make his own way because he needs constant reassurance. The slave has a mass mentality, meaning that he feels most comfortable in numbers. An example of a slave is a member of a church because church members follow the guidance of a priest. The slaves are crucial to the priestly individuals, who need them to maintain their leadership role.
The priestly individual is a leader who needs followers to function. The priestly individual develops life conditions that are void of both pleasure and enjoyment, which is why they are also known as ascetic priests. The priestly individual wants to assert himself in order to get recognition for his work. His power is completely based on a feeling of dependency. Without followers, the priestly individual cannot be a leader. The priestly individual lives by the ascetic ideal, meaning that he believes in postponed enjoyment. The best example of a priestly individual is a priest. A priest convinces his followers that they must absolve their sins in order to get into Heaven, in an attempt to make them dependent upon him. He preaches that the worldly things we lack now will be ours in the future, when we enter the kingdom of God.
Man is condemned to be free because he did not create himself (Sartre 23). Man is born into the world with an absolute freedom. Because man is absolutely free, he is solely responsible and accountable for what he does and what he does not do; this is the meaning of being human.
Freedom gives man the ability to choose one thing over another. On page twenty-three of Existentialism and Human Emotions, Sartre states, “If existence really does precede essence, there is no explaining things away by reference to a fixed and given human nature.” This statement means that because of man’s responsibility, there are no excuses for either action or inaction. Man cannot blame his pre-determined human nature for the way in which he acts because pre-determined human nature does not exist. At every moment, man must establish his own values by which to live his life. The values that he creates to live his life by, and the actions that he takes or does not take, form his identity.
The existentialist believes that God does not exist. This idea ties in with the statement that we are condemned to be free because the absence of God makes man forlorn. Man is abandoned; he is left alone to live his life. He feels that there is no escape, and he is right in thinking so. Absolute freedom is the only dimension of existence that man cannot escape. Our inherent freedom, allows for the power of choice. This means that no desire, no matter how strong, can affect us without us allowing it to. Man always has a choice.
On page fifty-nine of Existentialism and Human Emotions, Sartre says that “most of the time we flee anguish in bad faith.” The existentialist belief is that man attempts to avoid anguish through self-deception, which Sartre considers to be “living in bad faith”. Man’s absolute freedom creates anguish because man cannot escape the burden of total responsibility. Sartre’s belief is that man is responsible for the whole world, not just himself (Sartre 52). This idea of absolute responsibility suggests that each human is responsible for all other humans, and makes man feel the need to act in the best way possible. If man is always responsible for everything, even the most trivial activity can create stress, which is the main cause of anguish. In order to deal with his anguish, man chooses to try to escape his feeling of responsibility.
Man attempts to escape his feeling of responsibility through self-deception. He does this by creating excuses to rationalize what happens to him, which is very hypocritical. For example, a teenager gets into his car and drives without putting a seatbelt on. He is then hit by another car and dies. It is later determined that had he put his seatbelt on, he would have lived. The family of the teenager will obviously feel the pain of loss, but it is their choice as to how to deal with their pain. The teenager is fully responsible for not putting on his seatbelt. The teenager’s family can accept the fact that their son made the wrong choice, or they can blame the other driver for hitting their son, which would be considered “living in bad faith.” Freedom allows man to choose how he deals with anguish. He can choose to be self-deceptive and “live in bad faith,” or he can choose to accept his responsibility.
Existentialism has been charged with promoting desperate quietism, but it actually promotes quite the opposite. Desperate quietism is feeling the need to act upon something, but also feeling that there is nothing you can do, and therefore, not acting upon anything (Sartre 9). Existentialism runs contrary to quietism because existentialism is about action and engagement. The statement that “existence precedes essence” is the foundation for existentialism (Sartre 16). It means that you are what you do and that there is nothing at the base of human existence but freedom.
Quietist philosophers believe that there are no positive theses that they can make about anything (Wittgenstein 1).
Sartre uses that example of a paper-cutter to describe what existentialism is not in order to better clarify what it is. He says that if we already have an image in our minds of what the paper-cutter should be, we can only produce it (Sartre 13). Then, in order for the paper-cutter to be good, it must match the image in our minds. This prevents creativity. Existentialism disagrees with this idea because it implies that there is a higher-being that created the image of the paper-cutter in our minds and that humans are not free.
Existentialism promotes the idea that man is absolutely free. Man’s absolute freedom gives him the power of choice, which can never be taken away. Desperate quietism is about a lack of action, while existentialism is about taking action.