As we saw from Part 1 in this series of posts (which I encourage you to read before going on), our current systems of knowledge and power are not so much concerned with the authentic identity of concrete persons (you and I). Those systems are primarily concerned with objects of study including such commonplace perspectives as nature as something to be researched and exploited, human beings as belonging to demographic groups, statistical analysis of consumer behavior, and so on. These commonplace perspectives are deeply structured by mass, technological society with its own peculiar type of rationality (which, in other places, I have more simply called mass society). As we saw, Existentialism exists in sharp contrast to the common perspectives which are shaped by instrumental rationality, i.e. a kind of reasoning that thinks in terms of means and end, where particular behaviors are undertaken to achieve particular goals. Existentialism, in other words, are concerned with the subjects of life, a who that is not merely concerned with how or what.
At this point, we might go back to the middle of the nineteenth century to consider a prophetic page of Kierkegaard’s, from The Present Age (which, from the 21st century, is ironic). Here he describes the process of “leveling” and of “reflection,” related to what has come to be called “alienation” and “estrangement” in more recent existential thought.
The process which Kierkegaard calls “leveling” is that by which the individual person loses herself in the vast emptiness of a public mind. Because she identifies this abstraction with objective reality, or simply with “the truth,” she abandons her own experience and intuition. She renounces an interior feeling for right and wrong, for better or worse, and is lost. But the public mind is a pure abstraction, a nonentity. “For,” says Kierkegaard, “the public is made up of individuals at the moments when they are nothing,” that is to say, when they have abdicated conscience, personal decision, choice, and responsibility, and yielded themselves to the joy of being part of a pure myth. The mythical being which thinks and acts for everybody, and does the most shameful of deeds without a moment of hesitation or of shame, is actually no being at all. Those who take part in its acts can do so insofar as they have abstracted themselves from themselves and have surrendered to the public void, which they believe to be fully and objectively real: this collective self whose will is the will of nobody, whose mind is the mind of nobody, which can contradict itself and remain consistent with itself. “More and more individuals, owing to their bloodless indolence, will aspire to be nothing at all – in order to become the public.” Therefore, Kierkegaard concludes, the public is an “abstract whole formed in the most ludicrous way by all the participants becoming a third party (an onlooker).” This process of leveling, of self-abandonment, of abdication of identity, in order to dare what nobody dares and to participate in the unthinkable as though one were an innocent bystander, sweeps through the world as a “hopeless forest fire of abstraction.” The individual no longer belongs to God, to himself, to his beloved, to his art or his science; he is conscious of belonging in all things to an abstraction to which he is subjected by reflection (estrangement) just as a serf belongs to an estate. The abstract leveling process, that self-combustion of the human race produced by the friction which arises when the individual ceases to exist as singled out by religion, is bound to continue as a trade wind until it consumes everything.”
You will here see the original argument for the “Banality of Evil” that is made so forcefully by Hannah Arendt in “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” a century later. No one would think to classify Arendt as an existentialist, but one would be foolish not to see the strong existential intuition to authenticity that pervades her work so forcefully.
Above all, the existentialist is aware of the danger of the modern human being abdicating anything that makes them a particular person, and occupying the perspective of no one and justifying her behavior from that perspective. Kierkegaard tirelessly insists that it is the great danger of the modern world and like any Protestant thinker of worth, Kierkegaard certainly displays a prophetic spirit. It has been completely prevalent in Nazi Germany, in the capitalist/scientistic power-knowledge structures of the West, and in the Marxist positivism of the Communist countries. For this reason, the existentialist is condemned everywhere for a wide variety of reasons which usually boil down to this one: she is a rebel, an individualist, who, because she withdraws from the common endeavor of technological society to brook on her own dissatisfactions, condemns herself to futility, sterility, and despair. Since she refuses to participate in the glorious and affluent togetherness of mass society, she must pay the price of fruitless isolation. She is a masochist. She gets no better than he deserves.
This, of course, is the second worry that a grounding commitment to the moral ideal of authenticity that I mentioned in Part 1: that authentic people, or people in their authentic selves, will be isolated and, in the face of the overwhelming pressures of mass society, will experience being overwhelmed and rendered meaningless. It is infused with the specter of totalitarian control.
Of course, this worry implies considerable overemphasis on one particular kind of existentialism – that of Sartre, for instance – which lends itself to facile caricature as lawless, negative, profligate, and generally beat. The moral conclusion drawn from this by the mass media, for example, is that nonconformity is, today more than ever, fatal. Not to submit to “leveling” is to become a weirdie. Only the public is fully human. The private sphere can no longer be human except at the price of admitting the abstract and the general into its own intimacy.
To prove your docility, you have to be totally invaded by a mass image and a mass voice. If you do this, however, you will be repaid by a certain negative privacy: you will not be forced into a disturbing personal confrontation with other human beings. You will meet them as strangers and as objects that make no direct demand for love – or, if they do, the demand is easily evaded. So you play it safe by never turning off the TV, or disconnecting from social media, and never, under any circumstances, entertaining a thought, a desire, or a decision that is authentically your own. It is in the general void, the universal noise, that you remain alone.
All the existentialists have protested against this state of affairs; two typical works are Karl Jasper’s Man in the Modern Age and Gabriel Marcel’s Man Against Mass Society. Authentic “existence” (in defense of which one becomes an “existentialist”) is contrasted with the bare inert Dasein, the “being there” of the lumplike object which is alienated man in the mass, man in the neuter, das Mann. Dasein is the passive, motiveless mode of being of the individual who simply finds himself thrown arbitrarily, by inscrutable fate, into a world of objects – at least as Dasein was used in the nineteenth century, most notably, by Hegel. It is only later, in Heidegger’s Being and Time, that Dasein was understood as caring for and being involved with the immediate world in which one lives.
For Kierkegaard, the authentic individual is a die in a crap game. She neither accepts nor rejects herself; she is incapable of authentically willing to be what she is, and she submits to the process. It is the only reality she knows. She is intent on one thing above all: the mental and social gymnastics by which she remains at the same time a participant and a spectator, public and private, passively involved and emotionally distant in the amorphous public mass in which we are spectators and yet all somehow unavoidably perform the enormities which the public “does.” All see and all participate as though vicariously in the collective excitement (sometimes even the collective ecstasy) without really “being there” except as things, as fragments of the scene. All are aware. All consent passively. They neither choose nor decide. They accept what has been decided by mass society, that is, by nobody.
From the moment one elects to exist truly and freely, all this comes to an end. The decision begins with the acceptance of one’s own finiteness, one’s own limitations, in fact, one’s own nothingness; but when one’s own nothingness is seen as a matter of personal choice, of free acceptance, and not as part of the vast, formless void of the anonymous mass, it acquires a name, a presence, a voice, an option in the actions of the real world – not the abstract world of the mass society but the concrete world of living men.
Here we come upon a point that requires immediate clarification. Existentialism is not a withdrawal into unworldliness. It is not “monastic.” On the contrary, it is a frank worldly philosophy because it conceives no other realistic option than that of being a living person in the world of persons. But the authentic world of persons is, precisely, not the fictitious and arbitrary collective illusion of “mass society.”
The real contest between existentialism and its opponents is precisely about this: existentialism always claims in one way or another that the accepted, conventional forms of thought and life have in fact attempted to substitute a fraudulent world of inauthentic and illusory relationships for the real community of person with person. This, the existentialists would say, is obvious. A system that demands the abdication of personality by that very fact destroys all possibility of community.
In a prophetic way, Kierkegaard and the existentialists also have foreshadowed so much of what we have experienced. With the experience of political polarization, to take a topic that is in vogue, we have an almost impossible time recognizing others except in our classifications of liberal and conservative, alt-right or alt-left. That is, we are involved in a knowledge system that has abdicated all individual personalities.
What we have then is a conflict between two concepts of community: on one hand, a false and arbitrary fiction, collectivist togetherness, in which all possibility of authentic personal existence is surrendered and one remains content with one’s neutral quasi-objectified presence in the public mass; on the other, a genuine community of persons who have first of all accepted their own fragile lot, who have chosen to exist contingently, and thereby have accepted the solitude of the person who must think and decide for himself without the warm support of collective fictions. Only between such free persons is true communication possible. At the same time, such communication is absolutely necessary if there are to be free and mature persons, authentically existing, with faces, identities, and histories of their own. The authentic person is not born in stoic isolation but in the openness and dialogue of love. In other words, we need a sphere of significant others.
The clue to this concept of community is found in the word openness. The world of Dasien is a world where all possibilities are closed to the individual who as a priori renounced his choice. As an individual he is indifferent: he has surrendered his options, his capacity to determine the future by turning to this possibility or that. He has submitted to the abstract leveling (and alienating) force of “the public,” “the party,” “science,” “business,” or what you will. In this case, instead of open communication between personal freedoms, we have the submersion of atomized individuals in a general mass. We have a comforting routine of merely mechanical responses.
True openness means the acceptance of one’s own existence and one’s own possibilities in confrontation with, and in free, vital relation with, the existence and potentialities of the other. It means genuine acceptance, response, and participation. It is here that the famous “I-Thou” of the Jewish existentialist Martin Buber has contributed so much to Christian personalism in our day. The world of Dasein and of objects is defined only by the “I-it” relationship. The “I” who regards itself as a purely isolated subject surrounded by objects also inevitably regards itself implicitly as an object. In a world where no one else, no “other,” is willingly identified, the “I” also loses its own identity. In practice, the collective life of mass society is a mere aggregate of spurious and fictitious identities. On the one hand, we see the leaders or heroes who sum up in themselves the collective nonentity of the mass and become, so to speak, icons of the public void (see Max Picard’s book Hitler in Ourselves); on the other, the alienated individuals who fabricate for themselves crude identities by contemplating themselves in the typological hero. Note that the word “alienation” is used by non-existentialists to support fictions of collective life. For them, the “alienated” man is the one who is not at peace in the general myth. He is the nonconformist: the sense of collective rightness. For the existentialist, the alienated man is one who, though “adjusted” to society, is alienated from himself. The inner life of the mass man, alienated and leveled in the existential sense, is a dull, collective routine of popular fantasies maintained in existence by the collective dream that goes on, without interruption, in the mass media. The freedom by which one delivers oneself from the tyranny of the void is the freedom to choose oneself without being determined beforehand by the public, either in its typological fantasies or in its sociological pressures. The temptation at this point is to treat such freedom as contrived. What then is the basis of this choice? In what sense can it be called unconditional? In the sense that one’s moral existence is nurtured into existence by significant others who provide unconditional love, and in maturity, proceeds from the inviolate sanctuary of the personal conscience itself.