Tag Archives: existentialism

The Crystal Palace Unmanned.

I came to the end of Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy, and feel that my engagement with the author and his theses has barely begun. The insights about eternal human longings down through the ages, and even small details about the lives of individual thinkers, will be rattling around in my mind for a long time to come, and I hope to refer to some of them in the future.

In the meantime, I wanted to share here a few paragraphs from the concluding Part 4, “Integral vs. Rational Man.” The goal of the existentialists is here named as integration; not irrationality, as the book’s title might have led us to think. I’m sure the title Integrated Man would not have been nearly as memorable, and unfortunately, at least a couple of existentialists have descended into such irrationality that they were certainly insane.

William Barrett

“Existentialism is the counter—Enlightenment come at last to philosophic expression; and it demonstrates beyond anything else that the ideology of the Enlightenment is thin, abstract, and therefore dangerous. (I say its “ideology,” for the practical task of the Enlightenment is still with us: In everyday life we must continue to be critics of a social order that is still based everywhere on oppression, injustice, and even savagery—such being the peculiar tension of mind that we as responsible human beings have to maintain today.)

Martin Heidigger

“The finitude of man, as established by Heidegger, is perhaps the death blow to the ideology of the Enlightenment, for to recognize this finitude is to acknowledge that man will always exist in untruth as well as truth. Utopians who still look forward to a future when all shadows will be dispersed and mankind will dwell in a resplendent Crystal Palace will find this recognition disheartening. But on second thought, it may not be such a bad thing to free ourselves once and for all from the worship of the idol of progress; for utopianism — whether the brand of Marx or of Nietzsche — by locating the meaning of man in the future leaves human beings here and now, as well as all mankind up to this point, without their own meaning.

“If man is to be given meaning, the Existentialists have shown us, it must be here and now; and to think this insight through is to recast the whole tradition of Western thought. The realization that all human truth must not only shine against an enveloping darkness, but that such truth is even shot through with its own darkness may be depressing, and not only to utopians. But it has the virtue of restoring to man his sense of the primal mystery surrounding all things, a sense of mystery from which the glittering world of his technology estranges him, but without which he is not truly human.”

-William Barrett in Irrational Man, 1958

A good portion of the book can be found: here.

Areas in which human moods are present.

When I for the hundredth time renew my efforts to be civilized, to sit at the table while taking time to eat my meal, it gives me the opportunity to make progress in one of the print books I am in the middle of. If reading while eating is uncivilized, there is no hope for me.

Today it was Irrational Man, by William Barrett. Since I began reading it I’ve probably acquired a dozen more books, several of which I feel somewhat urgent about. But I’ve noticed that as days and months go by, this intensity of feeling shifts from one book to another, and waxes and wanes, often shrinking away completely to be replaced by an indefinable mood of summer that rules out urgency. The thoroughly warmed state of my bones is a contributing factor. We humans are composed of many parts not to be discounted. As Barrett says in the first chapter,

“Philosophers who dismissed Existentialism as ‘merely a mood’ or ‘a postwar mood’ betrayed a curious blindness to the concerns of the human spirit, in taking the view that philosophic truth can be found only in those areas of experience in which human moods are not present.”

This is a theme in Irrational Man. I may have already reported that some reviewers called Barret an anthropologist. He is also psychologist enough to want to present his own analysis of the whole man, whichever philosopher he is talking about, to help us in “the endless effort to drag the balloon of the mind back to the earth of actual experience.” According to my own Orthodox Christian understanding, he is often insightful. As a true anthropologist, though, he tries to be objective in assessing the “culture” of his subjects, so it is hard to know what his personal religion and beliefs might have been, apart from his voicing them when applicable to his subject. They were probably in flux, too.

I know — I hope — I will keep talking about this book, or at least will keep posting interesting quotes about things I can’t claim to know much about. I appreciate that the author has a vast knowledge of history from which to compose his own thesis, but of course he is nonetheless limited by what has been written down and by his own finite mind and life.  In any case it’s wonderful to me that he could accomplish this book, which does seem to be an act of love. And I repeat, his prose is a joy.

For now, my own time to think and synthesize is severely limited, and I probably should not have even taken so long to write this intro to the quote that is what I wanted to share today, from the chapter on Nietzsche:

“…godless is one thing Nietzsche certainly was not: he was in the truest sense possessed by a god, though he could not identify what god it was and mistakenly took him for Dionysus. In a very early poem, ‘To the Unknown God,’ written when he was only twenty years old, he speaks about himself as a god-possessed man, more truthfully than he was later, as a philosopher, to be able to recognize:

“‘I must know thee, Unknown One,
Thou who searchest out the depths of my soul,
And blowest like a storm through my life.
Thou are inconceivable and yet my kinsman!
I must know thee and even serve thee.’

“Had God really died in the depths of Nietzsche’s soul or was it merely that the intellect of the philosopher could not cope with His presence and His meaning?

“If God is taken as a metaphysical object whose existence has to be proved, then the position held by scientifically-minded philosophers like [Bertrand] Russell must inevitably be valid: the existence of such an object can never be empirically proved. Therefore, God must be a superstition held by primitive and childish minds. But both these alternative views are abstract, whereas the reality of God is concrete, a thoroughly autonomous presence that takes hold of men but of which, of course, some men are more conscious than others. Nietzsche’s atheism reveals the true meaning of God – and does so, we might add, more effectively than a good many official forms of theism.”

-William Barrett in Irrational Man


Art credit: “Summer Wine” by Diane Leonard

My non-philosophy that is reality.

Karl Jaspers

Why would a Christian like me want to read a whole book about existentialism? At least a few of my readers are confused about that. I may in the future share more of my gleanings from this book as it helps me understand this modern age that we live in, but now let me just clarify that it is the enlightening presentation by William Barret that I find beautiful, not the anxiety and “spiritual homelessness” of the Europeans whom he includes in the lonely camp of existentialists.

In contrast to their interesting but ultimately unsatisfying way of thinking, Father Stephen Freeman writes about our existence in a non-existentialist way. If I hold to a philosophy, it is this non-philosophy, which is reality, my life in God:

“The modern movement of secular thought has been to move existence into an independent and self-defining realm, relegating God and religion to a specialized interest of those who find themselves religiously minded. This is the death of religion – or rather a religion of death. For as soon as our existence is moved away from God and grounded in something else, God Himself has been abandoned. It is not possible for God to be a lesser concern. Either He is the very ground of our existence or He is no God.”

“As Met. John Zizioulas has famously stated, ‘Being is communion.’ In such a context we are able to move towards authentic existence – a mode of being that is not self-centered nor self-defined, but that is centered in the Other and defined by communion. Sin is removed from its confines of legalism and mere ethics and placed at the very center and character of existence itself. Sin is a movement towards non-being. In contrast, to know God is to love and its greatest test is the love of enemies. As St. Silouan taught: ‘We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies.’”

“Christ is, as He said: the Way, the Truth and the Life. His death and resurrection are the movement of God’s love to rescue humanity from a self-imposed exile from true and authentic existence which is found only in communion with God… It presses the question upon us all: ‘What is the truth of my existence?'”


To gather all the elements.

“Positivist man is a curious creature who dwells in the tiny island of light composed of what he finds scientifically ‘meaningful,’ while the whole surrounding area in which ordinary men live from day to day and have their dealings with other men is consigned to the outer darkness of the ‘meaningless.’ Positivism has simply accepted the fractured being of modern man and erected a philosophy to intensify it.

“Existentialism, whether successfully or not, has attempted instead to gather all the elements of human reality into a total picture of man. Positivist man and Existentialist man are no doubt offspring of the same parent epoch, but, somewhat as Cain and Abel were, the brothers are divided unalterably by temperament and the initial choice they make of their own being.”

-William Barrett, Irrational Man

These paragraphs are from a book I’ve had on my shelf for a couple of years, since it was highly recommended to me by one of my most philosophical Christian friends. The subtitle is A Study in Existential Philosophy. I bought a paperback copy, but probably was unconsciously put off by the size of the print and the absence of white space on the pages.

Recently I discovered that the book is on Audible, so I began yesterday on my drive  to the beach to listen to it, though I wasn’t very hopeful about being able to attend to the subject matter that way, having an “ear gate” that is extra narrow or full of obstacles or something… It’s particularly hard for me to read non-fiction when I can’t underline or take notes.

It’s a testimony to the clarity and beauty of Barrett’s writing that I was swept up into the story, as he tells it so engagingly, of the context and development of Modern Existentialism. As, in his words above, the need is for true philosophy “to gather all the elements of human reality into a total picture,” so also Barrett shows us a holistic picture by describing the interplay of cultural and historical roots of existentialism and of its effects.

Since high school I’ve had an inkling, or an awareness, that I needed to understand existentialism, but I feel that I’ve made little progress toward that goal. This book and I came into the world in the same decade, but I’ve been waiting for it my whole life!