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A Compare and Contrast of Philosophers J.P. Sartre and Soren Kierkegaard

Existentialism, first proposed by philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, is the philosophical concept of “existence precedes essence”. This means that we as human beings have the sole responsibility of creating meaning or purpose in our lives. For example, for something that was created with a purpose, such as a knife being made with the purpose to cut things, its essence precedes its existence. According to existentialism, however, humans were not put on Earth with a predestined purpose. As a result, our existence, or what we do with our lives, defines our essence, or our purpose. Both Soren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre, the philosophers that I will be comparing, are existentialists; however, they still have fundamental differences in their individual philosophies. While they both believe that we as humans are born without purpose, that the world we live in is a cycle of absurdity, and that it is through our existence that we define our purpose, they have opposing views about the existence of God, how to overcome absurdity, and why humans are born without purpose in the first place. While this was a pleasure to learn about and to write, it was very mentally taxing, so I’m sure it will take some mental gymnastics on the reading side as well. With that being said, buckle up!


Jean-Paul Sartre was a French existential philosopher born in 1905 and one of the leading figures in 20th century philosophy. Like almost all other existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Sartre philosophized that humans are born without purpose. A human doesn’t simply know what will give their life meaning the moment they’re born into the world. As a result, they must find their meaning through their actions. To do this, they must make decisions based on their gut feelings and evaluate if they feel purpose after they perform their actions. For example, one person might find meaning in using their money to perform philanthropy, and donate to organizations that benefit the rest of the world. Another person might find meaning in simply spending their days staring out at the horizon while sitting on a beach chair. As a result, the former person’s purpose is philanthropy, while the latter person’s purpose is leisure and longing. Either way, not one person is “right” or “better”. They are equals because they are both chasing their own meanings. Sartre explains in his writing, Existentialism is a Humanism, “Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself.”


As a result of this philosophical ideal, an interesting and problematic situation arises for humans; the problem of the absurd. As Sartre has explained, When humans are born with no purpose, they chase certain activities or pursuits to find meaning. However, as a result, those things that humans chase lack meaning themselves. This causes humans to find purpose in a meaningless world, and they are thrown into a cycle of meaninglessness, also known as absurdity. Absurdity is defined as the belief that there is no inherent meaning in the universe, and this lack of inherent meaning invites people to question the validity of every social construct, sometimes very irrationally. It is a difficult situation for the human condition, and it is easy for the mind to become lost in this absurd cycle of meaninglessness. This is where the differences between Sartre and Kierkegaard’s philosophies arise. Sartre is an atheist, which means he doesn’t believe in God or any higher power. He proposes a secular approach to confronting the absurd. This rejection of God is why Sartre believes humans are born without purpose. Without the existence of God, human nature doesn’t exist, because there is no God to give humans a “nature” in the first place. This puts the responsibility of living and purpose completely on the shoulders of the human. 


Sartre then proposes how an atheist person confronts the absurd and finds his essence through a hero figure known as “the decision maker”. It is through this figure that Sartre explains how decisions should be made in a meaningless world. In this situation, the hero had a brother who lost his life fighting for his country in war while he stayed home to care for his loving yet aging mother. The hero is then faced to make a decision between two choices. The first choice is to leave his mother and go to war in order to help his country and avenge his brother. The second choice is to stay home and care for his mother, who has dedicated her whole life to loving him and his brother. The first choice would be to help multiple people and multiple causes but sacrifice what is closest to him, and the second choice would be to help what is closest to him but sacrifice a larger cause. However it isn’t necessarily a “larger” cause in the eyes of our hero, because whatever he chooses to do it is technically “larger” or “ more important” to him. 


Either way, our hero must now choose between two moralities: One being the morality of a national cause, and the other being the morality of devotion to a loved one. Sartre explains how no matter what choice the hero makes, he will make the right choice, because whatever his instinct tells him to do is what defines himself. As long as the hero makes his choice following his instincts and without the pressures of outside forces or people, then he made the correct choice for him. This is a very important part of Sartre’s philosophy and atheist existentialism in general; the decision-maker must make his decision by themselves, because they must keep responsibility completely and utterly with themselves. In other words, in the case of our hero, how he decides his choice is more important than what he decides. 


So, how does Sarte’s peer, Soren Kierkegaard, feel about all of this?


Kierkegaard was a Danish theologian and philosopher that was born in 1813. He is considered to be the father of existentialism, as he was the first to explore and write about a culmination of themes that would eventually become the basis for the existentialist movement. While Kierkegaard believes in many of Sartre’s concepts in the aforementioned paragraphs, he describes a very different philosophy in terms of why the world is absurd and how humans should lead their existential lives. 


Like Sartre, Kierkegaard believes that existence precedes essence. He believes that humans are born with no special purpose, and that they spend their lives chasing things that will never allow them to feel satisfied. He states that humans are different from other animals because of their awareness of what they are, and what they can become. They seek individualism through their careers and hobbies, but, according to Kierkegaard, don’t realize that no matter what they do, their purpose will only be defined by simply existing. He describes this situation as “angst”, or “a condition where we understand how many choices we face, and how little understanding we can ever have of how to exercise those choices wisely.” According to Kierkegaard, this constant feeling of angst proves that the feelings of emptiness and unhappiness is a normal part of human life. While Sartre describes this as absurdity, Kierkegaard calls it “fear and trembling”, although they mean the same thing. Now, in terms of how to deal with the absurd, Kierkegaard goes a different way than Sartre. Kierkegaard is a theist, which means he believes in God. His main idea when it comes to tackling the absurd is “taking a leap of faith”. While he didn’t appreciate the structures and corruption of the church, he admired the scriptures from the Bible that he was taught as a child. As a philosopher, it was almost Kierkegaard’s obligation to apply rationality and logic to his work, but he abandoned these ideals and felt that the only way to truly find meaning and happiness in life was to put full faith in God. As he says in his writing piece, The Sickness unto Death, “To have faith is to lose your mind and to win God.” 


In order to explain how to confront the absurdity of life, Kierkegaard provides a story just like Sartre. In this story, the hero is the biblical figure Abraham. Abraham is ordered by God to kill his only son Isaac. Abraham must then choose between two choices. The first choice is to kill his son, which is morally wrong, but in turn will obey God. The second choice is to spare his son, but in turn disobey God, which is against his faithful teachings. However unlike Sartre’s situation, where the hero had to choose one or the other, Abraham was able to do both, without killing his son and without disobeying God. This concept of both situations being possible describes Abraham’s faith. 


Kierkegaard proposes four endings to this situation that would push the burden of proof away from faith. In the first ending, Abraham chooses to obey God and kill Isaac, however before he does it he lies, explaining how he is an evil man and is simply killing Isaac because of his evil principles. This would preserve Isaac’s faith in God because his father is obeying him, and also Abraham’s attempt to protect Isaac’s faith would prove that he doubted his son would be spared. In the second ending, Abraham sacrifices a ram instead of his son Isaac. He disobeys God as a result, and his faith in God is lost. In the third ending, Abraham decides not to kill Isaac, and instead prays to God for forgiveness. This causes him to also fail to obey God. In the last ending, Abraham decides to try to kill Isaac, but fails in doing so because he cannot follow through, and as a result his son loses his faith in God. In this ending, Abraham also fails to adhere to the rules of God. 


Through explaining these different endings and showing that none of them succeed in both obeying God and sparing his son, Kierkegaard illustrates how what Abraham actually does proves his faith even without killing Isaac. Abraham’s actions prove that he really did intend to obey God and kill his son, due to the fact that he took out his knife and attempted the kill. At the same time, he trusted God to spare Isaac, proven by the fact that he never tried to deceive Isaac due to his attempt to protect his son’s faith. Abraham’s complete belief in this otherwise impossible set of circumstances was the only way he could escape the absurdity of this situation. 


Kierkegaard translates the absurdity of Abraham’s condition into the human condition in order to help humans with their own situations of absurdity. He does this by proposing the idea of two “knights”; the knight of faith, and the knight of resignation. The knight of resignation understands his place in this absurd world, and knows that he is living in a place and society that is devoid of meaning. No matter how hard he tries, he knows he won’t find meaning in his life. However, he knows that if we reject the idea of impossibility and put faith in the impossible, he can transcend and become the knight of faith. The knight of faith believes that it is possible to have genuine meaning in life. With faith in the impossible, the knight of faith can also have faith in having meaning in a meaningless world. As Kierkegaard says in his writing Fear and Trembling, “With God, all things are possible.” 


The most important difference between the philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Soren Kierkegaard is their faith. Kierkegaard’s ultimate faith in God is what causes the paths of their philosophies to diverge, starting at the concept of the absurd. Sartre believes that the world is absurd because of the absence of God. With no higher power guiding humans, they are forced to guide themselves. Their actions are what define their existence, and their existence is what defines their essence. With no God, there is no human nature, which means that human nature can not be defined before it has actually taken place. As said before, according to Sartre, a person can do whatever they want and still find purpose in life as long as they follow their instincts when it comes to decision-making. For Kierkegaard, it is different. He believes that the world is absurd because of the absence of faith. If a person does not have faith, they won’t have a guiding force to help them with their actions and decisions. As a result, they are forced to deal with the absurd alone, and therefore have no way to escape their absurd situations. 


However, Kierkegaard also believes that human nature cannot be defined before it has taken place. He just believes that full faith in God will help one make their own decisions, and that it is not God Himself defining the nature of the humans who have faith in him. Sartre doesn’t agree with this because of his atheism, and because he believes that confronting the absurd is in fact possible without the existence of God. This distinction causes their two philosophies to be almost completely different, although the foundations for their ideals are still the same. Both of their philosophies arose from the overwhelming feeling of emptiness that comes from being a conscious human, and both are used to help people survive and be happy in a world where happiness is in some ways nonexistent. 


Even though one was an atheist and the other a devout Christian, Both Sartre and Kierkegaard believe in the absurdity of man, and that no human is born into this world with a preconceived purpose or meaning. Existence precedes essence, as they both say. As a result, humans are forced to live in a world with the absurd. However, they differ in the concepts of why the world is absurd and how humans should go about confronting it. Sartre explains that overcoming absurdity is impossible, but through following gut instincts and making decisions based on who one is is a subjective way of giving a meaningless life meaning. There is no right and wrong decision, because those concepts are relative and based upon the person defining them. Basically, just by being oneself, they can successfully navigate through their absurd lives. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, suggests that overcoming the absurd is actually possible, and that it is done by taking a leap of faith, and putting full trust in God. Although the human condition is impossible to overcome, faith in the impossible makes it possible after all. Either way, Soren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre have influenced millions of people with their existential ideals, and the world continues to spread their teachings. 

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