The International Fellowship of Chivalry-Now

Announcements   —   Contact   —  Home Page  —  Quest Articles  —  Open Forum  —  Photos  —  12 Trusts  —  Site Map
 

Existentialism

Existentialism, like medieval chivalry and Age of Enlightenment ideals, has contributed in shaping the premise of Chivalry-Now. As a philosophy, it gained notoriety during mid-twentieth century Europe as a response to the rise of totalitarianism and two devastating world wars. In a sense, it tried to rescue people from the inherent evils of modern society, while preserving the dignity of the individual, in realistic terms. It showed us a way to avoid the mental, emotional and spiritual conformity that allowed totalitarianism to take control.
    Just prior to the First World War, Western civilization considered itself the epitome of cultural advancement, and sought to Westernize the rest of the world through imperialism and commerce. European leaders considered themselves rational, civilized and moral, even as they exploited cultures that were not so technologically belligerent. In other words, they were not as moral as they let on. When it came to jockeying for position of economic control, they were willing to engage in a new form of all-out-war that resulted in an atrocious and unprecedented loss of life. The machine guns and mustard gas of trench warfare, the later tanks of blitzkrieg, the merciless submarine torpedo, concentration camps killing civilians by the millions, the atomic bomb, oppressive totalitarian regimes, the Russian Gulag — all pointed to the perverse consequences of modern ideologies that were choking the life out of personal values. Truth and honor had been replaced by national pride and greed.
    Existentialists arose from the chaos of this disillusioned world, and found that they could not make sense of it. Religious promises seemed empty against the reality of Auschwitz. Nationalism seem more dangerous than helpful. The glory of war from yesteryear was replaced by wide scale absurdity and horror. Was there nothing good to salvage? Had human nature evolved to the point of eliminating all but the basest meaning to life?
    The existentialists took a bleak yet powerful stance of integrity that some people grew to fear while others admired. They acknowledged what they saw, and refused to romanticize or mythologize it. They admitted that life was absurd. But that did not mean that we had to be absurd. Once we come to grips with absurdity, we can choose to bring meaning into our own personal lives. All we need is to step forward and make choices that make life meaningful.
    Existentialism rejects the moral authority of outside interference, and places the onus on the individual — not in the name of license or hedonism (indeed, it is a rejection of both), but in the name of personal responsibility.
    It's core moral belief is an interesting variation of the Golden Rule. Instead of saying "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," or the variant Silver Rule of "do not do unto others as you would not want them to do unto you," existentialism provides a mandate of conscience that points to universal implications. When you judge an act you are about to do, ask yourself if it would be acceptable for everyone in the world to do likewise. In other words, whatever you do adds to the definition of everyone as human beings. What would you want that definition to be? Hitler, and French collaborators, added despicable nuances. What will you add?
    Because of this emphasis on personal responsibility, and its lack of feel-good mythologizing of reality, some people view existentialism as a dark, pessimistic philosophy. This is especially true for Americans, who participated in both world wars but came out the better for it. The closest Americans ever came to the existential shock that Europe felt after the World Wars occurred on 9/11, with the destruction of the Trade Towers. Even that was very limited in comparison. Such shocking reality has a way of challenging optimism and complacency. The 2008 economic crisis added to this feeling of insecurity. The stability of institutions, along with the kind of security one feels in long-standing political ideologies, no longer sufficed. Stripped of illusions, people find themselves adrift on a turbulent sea. No one can save us but ourselves. Waiting to be rescued by someone else only makes things worse.
    If we are looking for jingoistic patronizing, existentialism has none of that. Instead, it looks critically at the illusions of politics and commercialism that would enslave us. The only moral authority it recognizes is reason-based choices, something similar to the earlier Age of Enlightenment project. To existentialists, it offers an oasis of sanity in a world otherwise insane. Chivalry-Now offers the same thing, encouraging people to think for themselves, question the status quo, and look for real virtue in the only place it can be found, inside ourselves.
    Existentialism is an appeal to intellectual integrity. Chivalry-Now must never do less. The biggest difference between them is that Chivalry-Now emphasizes the natural law of conscience as a waiting reservoir of principles, already at odds with the darkness of absurdity. It also recognizes how this struggle for autonomy and personal integrity has a long history in Western civilization, and that chivalric virtues reflect this.
    The base message of these philosophies tells us that we are not bound to any sense of determinism or false security that haunts and ultimately deters our better natures. We perpetually choose who we are, whether we recognize it or not. We choose the path we tread, be it good or bad. It is that choice, and the freedom it posits, that makes the principles of these philosophies into a natural bulwark against totalitarianism, be it communism, fascism, or its more subtle persona, commercialism. Quite simply, freedom that is actualized prevents the mass conformity that totalitarianism thrives on. On the other hand, when freedom is based on conscience, which Chivalry-Now advocates, natural law precludes the kind of radical behavior that would result in hedonism. It would be free and moral at the same time.
    The three main proponents of mid-twentieth century existentialism were Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, who were intimate friends and resistance fighters in France during the Nazi occupation. Their philosophy was not entirely new, echoing conclusions from such divergent thinkers as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.
   
These new existentialists had witnessed first hand some of the worst atrocities ever perpetrated by human beings, including death camps, slave labor, ethnic cleansing, collaboration with the enemy, religious silence in the face of nationalistic evil, and mass civilian targeting during war - all produced by a Western culture that they once believed to be moral. It was no wonder that they fundamentally questioned everything they previously believed in, and tried to find something better. They viewed cautious autonomy not as pessimism, but as optimism in the face of absurdity, optimism based not on blind hope, platitudes or religious rhetoric, but on action. In response to all the disloyalty and pain he witnessed, Sartre declared in no uncertain terms that we are completely responsible not only for who we are, but who we plan to be. Only by taking an active role in deciding who we are can true liberation can be found.
   
A few quotes from Sartre illustrate this:

"…existentialism's first move is to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him. And when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men."

"Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself." (Sartre called this "subjectivity".)

"There is not a single one of our acts which does not at the same time create an image of man as we think he ought to be."

Sartre's view of existentialism places an incredible amount of responsibility on every person. It rejects the helplessness and complacency people feel when confronting the ways things are. No power enslaves us so successfully as our own attitude and lack of effort. We are always in a position to resist evil, and we must, if humanity is to represent anything meaningful at all.
    Here we find the call of today's Knight-Errant articulated plainly - the call to responsibility and a new form of idealism, rooted in reality, that Chivalry-Now espouses. By inserting the recognition of Nature's Law, Chivalry-Now adds a completeness that redeems the so-called negativity of existentialism. Life is only absurd when we allow it.
    Existentialism therefore, as we know it today, is the bastard child of two world wars, Auschwitz and the atomic bomb. It is a Western remedy of Western civilization gone bad. It sees reality as most of us refuse to see it anymore, pointing out lessons that are not pretty, yet purchased at great cost.
    Such lessons can only be ignored at great peril. Having to learn them again, first hand, might spell the end of us all.

Top


Special Features:

 

     
     
 

IFCN Established 2007
© Copyright 2006