Existentialism as a distinct philosophical and literary movement belongs to the 19th and 20th centuries, but elements of existentialism can be found in the thought (and life) of Socrates, in the Bible, and in the work of many pre-modern philosophers and writers.
The first to anticipate the major concerns of modern existentialism was the 17th- century French philosopher Blaise Pascal. Pascal rejected the rigorous rationalism of his contemporary René Descartes, asserting, in his Pensées (1670), that a systematic philosophy that presumes to explain God and humanity is a form of pride. Like later existentialist writers, he saw human life in terms of paradoxes: The human self, which combines mind and body, is itself a paradox and contradiction.
Kierkegaard, generally regarded as the founder of modern existentialism, reacted against the systematic absolute idealism of the 19th-century German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, who claimed to have worked out a total rational understanding of humanity and history. Kierkegaard, on the contrary, stressed the ambiguity and absurdity of the human situation. The individual's response to this situation must be to live a totally committed life, and this commitment can only be understood by the individual who has made it. The individual therefore must always be prepared to defy the norms of society for the sake of the higher authority of a personally valid way of life. Kierkegaard ultimately advocated a "leap of faith" into a Christian way of life, which, although incomprehensible and full of risk, was the only commitment he believed could save the individual from despair.
Nietzsche, who was not acquainted with the work of Kierkegaard, influenced subsequent existentialist thought through his criticism of traditional metaphysical and moral assumptions and through his espousal of tragic pessimism and the life- affirming individual will that opposes itself to the moral conformity of the majority. In contrast to Kierkegaard, whose attack on conventional morality led him to advocate a radically individualistic Christianity, Nietzsche proclaimed the "death of God" and went on to reject the entire Judeo-Christian moral tradition in favour of a heroic pagan ideal.
Heidegger, like Pascal and Kierkegaard, reacted against an attempt to put philosophy on a conclusive rationalistic basis - in this case the phenomenology of the 20th- century German philosopher Edmund Husserl. Heidegger argued that humanity finds itself in an incomprehensible, indifferent world. Human beings can never hope to understand why they are here; instead, each individual must choose a goal and follow it with passionate conviction, aware of the certainty of death and the ultimate meaninglessness of one's life. Heidegger contributed to existentialist thought an original emphasis on being and ontology as well as on language.
Sartre first gave the term existentialism general currency by using it for his own philosophy and by becoming the leading figure of a distinct movement in France that became internationally influential after World War II. Sartre's philosophy is explicitly atheistic and pessimistic; he declared that human beings require a rational basis for their lives but are unable to achieve one, and thus human life is a "futile passion." Sartre nevertheless insisted that his existentialism is a form of humanism, and he strongly emphasized human freedom, choice, and responsibility. He eventually tried to reconcile these existentialist concepts with a Marxist analysis of society and history.
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