In literature, Existentialism starts from Dostoyevsky’s famous maxim that “if God is dead then all is permitted.” Existentialism registers the terrifying drama of existence without the divine, drawing the necessary consequence of its absence right to the end. In Pakistan, our mind remained fixated with our love for our ideological gods. That is why the writers of both religious and atheist persuasions in Pakistan have not explored the terrifying drama unfolding as a consequence of the absence of the divine in life. This series of writings tries to take stock of the existence we lead without excuse or alibi after our emancipation from theism, and discontents created by the disenchanted world. It will be exploring the consequences on human condition when we can no deflect our responsibility for existence onto any authority outside of ourselves from existentialist point of view.
But before delving deep into existentialism, it is helpful to understand the philosophical background thereof, as it paves the way for understanding the situatedness of human beings with other beings in the world. As humans, we are entangled in a web of relationships. One who claims to be free from an existential web and the social nature of his or her existence is either a beast or God. Any change in the configuration of our life world, worldview and objective world brings about change in our existential condition as well. Philosophical reflection is an effort by human beings to resolve and explicate the factors and actors that influence our being and vice versa. Rousseau said, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains (indivisible).” Only by getting rid of invisible chains in our thinking we can attain real freedom in the world.
Fontana describes existentialism as “a body of philosophical doctrine that dramatically emphasises the contrast between human existence and the kind of existence possessed by natural objects.” Wo/men, endowed with will and consciousness, find themselves in an alien world of objects which neither love nor hate humans. Even the universe is indifferent to their suffering and happiness. So, it is a kind of cosmic apathy we are faced with. There are two variants of existentialism: religious and atheistic. Soren Kierkegaard represents the religious variant of existentialism. The existentialism inaugurated by Kierkegaard is a violent reaction against the all-encompassing absolute idealism of Hegel. For Hegel, God is the impersonal absolute; finite human personalities are insubstantial fragments of this engulfing spiritual unity, and everything that happens, including human actions, can be rationally explained as a necessary element in the total scheme of things. Kierkegaard insisted on the utter distinctness of God and on the inexplicability (or absurdity) of the relations between them, and of their actions. Kierkegaard thinks that the personal dimension of human life cannot be reduced to some axiom or categorical imperative.
Fredrich Nietzsche is a philosopher and critic par excellence belonging to the “atheistic” side of existentialism. The purpose in putting that word in quotes is to highlight the fact that atheism is just one of the multiple facets of his approach described as perspectival. But his reductionist votaries reduce the immense riches of his thought into the single rubric of atheism. Normally, we think in terms of binary opposition, such as religion and atheism. However, binaries are not always exclusive. Though Kierkegaard’s existentialism is religious, he and Nietzsche are strange bedfellows, as the approach of both is similar. Unlike the system thinkers like Plato, Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel and Karl Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are anti-system thinkers. Nietzsche was one of the unconventional, authentic and most important figures in the history of modern philosophy.
In fact, Nietzsche was greatly concerned with the basic problems he discerned in contemporary Western culture and society, which he believed to be becoming increasingly acute, and for which he considered it imperative to try to find new solutions. He rejected moral ideas as the simple result of human self-interest and the evolutionary urge to survive. Nietzsche’s rejection of morality led him to reject religion as well, because it is the ancient source of moral principles and commandments. The question arises here: what will become of our gods? The whole structure of religion may appear to be some distant age as an exercise and a prelude. “Here we encounter for the first time the idea of the death of the divine.” He considers it “an awful yet exhilarating thought! Awful because we feel abandoned by our former protector. Yet exhilarating because suddenly our world opens to infinity. Anything now is imaginable[…]” In The Gay Science, Nietzsche puts the news of the death of the divine into the mouth of a madman. People take no notice of him – yet the image is striking as he carries a lantern in the morning, searching everywhere for God, who cannot be found. He exclaims, “We have killed him, you and I. We are all his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?”
Today over 121 years after the death of Nietzsche, we are still grappling with the consequences of that madman’s message. The questions that his apocalyptic message of the madman begets are: if we are great enough to end God’s dominion over us, must we not ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it? Are the modern ‘human gods’ (film stars, great leaders, artists, etc.) any improvement on the ‘old gods’? Perhaps we are still incapable of living godless lives. It is because we are as clueless in the absence of God as we were clueless in the presence of God.
With the disappearance of a holistic divine view and its order, different but isolated perspectives start to steer humans in a disenchanted society and disinterested universe. The cosmic alienation in the universe and its resultant metaphysical pathos has given rise to new set of sensibilities.
The next article will explore the perspectivism proposed by Friedrich Nietzsche as a panacea for the uni-dimensional modern mind afflicted by ailments arising from a single perspective.