Department of English

Spring 2011 Edition

Existentialism is an Optimisim

Aaron Walker
Argumentative 2010 2nd Place
Professor: Dr. Nozomi Irei

From the moment it was conceived, the concept of existentialism has been associated with negative and pessimistic ideals associated by the majority of society. When examined superficially, it appears that many existential writers emphasize cynical principles; yet Sartre argues, "[W]hat people reproach us with is not, after all, our pessimism, but the sternness of our optimism" (359). Evidently, existentialism may possess multiple optimistic qualities, dispelling popular impressions and making it a remarkably positive concept. Indeed, the stress which many existentialists place on freedom, individuality, and choice would make existentialism thoroughly optimistic. Specifically, existentialism is optimistic because it values complete freedom, emphasizes human potential, and makes individuals responsible for the outcomes of their own lives.

One reason existentialism is optimistic is that it stresses complete freedom in all aspects of life. In a parable entitled "Before the Law," Kafka states, "[H]e belongs to the Law and as such is set beyond human judgment . . . he is incomparably freer than anyone" (151). Kafka argues that the man who is "set beyond human judgment" becomes "incomparably free." Similarly, any individual who sets him or herself "beyond human judgment" by refusing to judge or accept the judgment of others may obtain "incomparable freedom"—freedom from the consequences of judicial laws, moral obligations, and social conventions. Thus, individuals may only obtain complete freedom by renouncing any set of ethics and refusing to impose any judgment on the lives of others. Existential writers optimistically expound that all humans possess the ability to exist in a state of complete freedom without social commitments or moral restraints. In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche elaborates on such a principle by stating, "For a condemnation of life by the living is after all no more than the symptom of a certain kind of life" (55). Nietzsche observes that when individuals judge the quality of life, they do so solely according to the values of their own life. Therefore, it is impossible to create a set of universally applicable moral principles, and every human being must live freely according to his or her own desires—making this principle of existentialism notably optimistic.

When permitted to live freely, men and women are able to shape their own lives, giving them complete freedom and immense potential. In effect, existentialism may be deemed optimistic because of its emphasis on human potential. In Dostoevsky's "Notes from Underground," the Underground Man states, "[H]ave man's advantages been reckoned up with perfect certainty? Are there not some which have not been included but cannot possibly be included under any classification?" (67-68). The Underground Man asserts that since individuals possess the ability to choose, there are aspects of their existence which may not be predicted or classified. Each human being is a unique entity who experiences existence singularly, positively, through his or her own actions. Thus, humans possess limitless potential to shape their lives in unexpected and unpredictable ways. Such an example occurs in Sartre's "The Wall" when Pablo Ibbieta facetiously tells officials that Gris resides in the graveyard and learns, "They found him in the grave-diggers' shack. He shot at them and they got him" (299). Though Ibbieta did not believe Gris was in the graveyard or control Gris's fate, he did maintain control of his own fate and potential. Sartre optimistically illustrates through Pablo Ibbieta that individuals retain limitless potential which they may use to shape their lives accordingly.v

Finally, existentialism is optimistic because it allows individuals to be responsible for the shaping of their own lives. In his lecture, "Existentialism is a Humanism," Sartre states, "Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders" (349-350). Sartre proposes that existentialism makes individuals responsible for their existence—that existentialism gives them the power to shape their own lives. Thus, existentialism is optimistic because it gives individuals control of their own existence even though they are subject to fate and chance. Kafka reaffirms this in his parable, "Before the Law," when he states, "[H]e allows the man to curse loudly in his presence the fate for which he himself is responsible" (148). Though the man may curse his fate, it is clear that he himself was responsible for the events which led to his fate. According to existentialism, individuals freely choose to commit actions which will lead to certain outcomes throughout their lives. Therefore, existentialism is optimistic because it allows human beings to control the consequences of their choices—whether those consequences are good or bad.

The optimistic nature of existentialism is apparent through its emphasis of freedom, potential, and accountability. Such theories in existentialism are quite significant, urging individuals to renounce any inhibiting principles and giving them a firm grasp of their own existence. The implications of such a grasp of existence are extensive, allowing human beings to live free of moral and social principles and making them responsible for the outcomes of their own lives. If human beings experienced numerous negative events throughout their lives (such as being sentenced to imprisonment), existentialism would make those human beings responsible for their own "fate." Similarly, if individuals experienced various positive experiences (such as being awarded distinct honors), existentialism would make those individuals responsible for those consequences as well. Though such characteristics may be considered a "stern optimism" (Sartre 359), individuals are free to create for themselves an existence full of positive outcomes and numerous experiences which will shape their identities accordingly.

Works Cited
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. "Notes from Underground." Trans. Walter Kaufmann. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Meridian, 1975. 53-82. Print.
Kafka, Franz. "Before the Law." Trans. Walter Kaufmann. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Meridian, 1975. 145-151. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols. Trans. R.J. Hollingdale. London: Penguin, 1990. 55-56. Print.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. "Existentialism is a Humanism." Trans. Walter Kaufmann. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Meridian, 1975. 345-369. Print.
---. "The Wall." Trans. Walter Kaufmann. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. Ed.Walter Kaufmann. New York: Meridian, 1975. 281-299. Print.