The Existential Man
If one were to catalogue the man-made horrors of the twentieth century, then those bastard sons of the secularized state: Nazism, Fascism, and Socialist Collectivism would surely top the list. And viewed from a vantage point other than that of their bewitched “True Believers,” it is amazing how these personality cults, driven by their technologically amassed power, have so artfully acquired the techniques of concealing their true natures behind the prim facade of justice. Wherever it has plied its sermon of peace and plenty, that lumbering Leviathan we know as the Progressive state soon mutilates the quality of free human conscience and evangelizes the grey homogeneity of its hive mentality. Those who invoke the Collective have always known, in their heart of hearts, that the squalid Marxian Science of Man has from its inception been a purely deterministic enterprise. Consequently, it has understood that instead of the greater freedom it once promised, humanity is instead being shrunk into preselected boxes, and that men are to be incrementally diminished by their managers as material possessed and maintained by the secular regime’s utilitarian hand.
Even today, as the wreckage of systematic communism is littered about the circumference of the earth, those of the Progressive or liberal inclination (who deny the transcendent soul and the metaphysical possibility of freedom) wrestle with this heritage of historical necessity. The Collectivist entity, having interpreted Man as a being bereft of an immutable core, overtly seeks to cultivate a diminished population unworthy of the name ‘citizen.’ By virtue of the managerial tyranny to which all liberalism is forever bound, Men are then to assume the form of structured automata, and humanity’s plastic utility is fated to contingently rest upon the character of the political regime -- from whose power it is impossible to withstand.
In time, it was perhaps inevitable that cracks should form and a certain moral revulsion should arise, given the clamor within the human spirit for liberty against the historical backdrop of biologically deterministic Darwinism, Scientific Marxism, and the psychologically reductionist Freudian interpretations of the psyche. Given humanity’s actual personality, the binding of mind, flesh, history, and political life to irresistable forces that lay outside the purview of autonomous control, could only fail. It is here that in counterpoint to necessity, the phenomenon of existentialism flourished.
Defined technically as existence preceding essence, the existential drama is personified as the untethered soul seeking meaning in a universe of rank meaninglessness. In a civilization that has internalized the horizon characterized by the Death of God, a terrible freedom incrementally bears down upon being; and with this heaviness, a gnawing despair in encountering and coming to terms with a cold and empty moral universe. Existential Man realizes that without a set of ethical or ontological bearings to navigate by, life itself is an endless parade of sensation, acquisition or conquest that at best is transitory, since our exertions and the fruit thereof will expire alongside us. Against such formidable knowledge, Existential Man must resolutely hazard a leap of faith into commitment -- throwing his longings into a cause or activity through which he might redeem the time that lies so tenuously before him. And lo, it is a heroic attitude -- given the Himalayan expanse over which its acolytes must negotiate.
The nagging truth (if such a thing can exist existentially) is that no matter which labor I set my hand to from the existentialist perspective, I am confronted with a fundamental absurdity that stands in direct contradiction to my commitment. If the universe is (as they say) as cold and as deaf to my cries and strivings as a stone, then whether I commit myself to the bedding of 10,000 women or seek to succor the starving in foreign lands, ultimately my efforts are for naught -- and they are for naught because the moral “ought” has no lasting currency in a meaningless universe. Within the worldview of such a philosophy, my actions only accrue value subjectively through eyes which are sympathetic to my vision; and whether I slit the jugular of a child or nourish him back from cholera, ultimately I am less than an electron in the night sky. Interpreting life from beneath the lamp of existentialist reason: there is no ultimate justice, no abiding love that we can view as enduring in the metaphysical sense, and benevolence is patently absurd – albeit it is perhaps noteworthy from some foundationally unexplainable moral perspective. When the ideations of good and evil, justice and transgression or noble and base are cut loose from their perpetual moorings, what actions or judgments can escape the entropy of utter meaninglessness?
It is here that the substance of this philosophy breaks down. For if such a shriveled human horizon was at all possible, then the resulting life would scarcely be worth living. Of the myriad entities that populate the globe, man is the creature that cannot live absent a sense of meaning; and the soul of man grows thin without hope. Ever the prophet G.K. Chesterton holds up the looking glass and shows us this sickness some have valued as virtue: “The modern world is insane, not so much because it admits the abnormal, but because it cannot recover the normal.” Having either forgotten or forsaken what we once were, we are not merely infatuated with those endless variations of becoming, but we have declared war and taken up arms on that past world to make certain that it never again overtakes us.
But in contradistinction to this psychological prison he can forge through the power of his formidable mind, man is in fact metaphysically teleological. Although the Existential Man is unmoored as pertaining to origins and ends and is defined solely through his ultimately gratuitous actions, Teleological Man is fundamentally reconciled to the universe because it is not perceived as morally dead – but, in fact, as rational and coherent. A man with a telos (appointed end or purpose) understands that he is not a dead cog in a deterministic machine, but a being possessing both provenance and destiny whose innate value infinitely transcends his life’s actions. Indeed, such actions are ideally integrated into both who he is and what he ultimately will become upon passing beyond that divided line. Teleological man is not alienated from life through the absurdity of death because he knows that by virtue of the love and justice inextricably tethered to his heritage and apprehension of reality, his being transcends death and will be affirmed in that greater revelation of life -- upon the fullness of days. In truth, the existentialist remedy answering mankind’s diagnosis of modernity’s lonely void is only half right. The answer lies squarely in the object that one chooses to “leaps into.”
Existential Man, having become estranged from the possibility of apprehending existence beyond the absurd exercise of some nebulous freedom, is a fugitive from the moral universe because he has despaired of his origins and ends. Wandering about in temporal anarchy viewed narrowly as a shapeless species of liberty, he walks blind because ultimately he knows not where he is bound. He is, ironically, a pilgrim without a destination -- and for all intents and purposes, sojourning in a hellish labyrinth of his own choosing.
Glenn Fairman writes from Highland, Ca. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on www.stubbornthings.org and Twitter.