Existentialism (Brief Insights)

Existentialism - Thomas R. Flynn Existentialism was written for the Brief Insights series- a series with which I’m not familiar. But Flynn accomplishes what the series purports to provide. It’s a brief overview of the more well known thinkers (with a focus on Sartre) who are commonly grouped together as existentialists. As Flynn openly admits, this is not an exhaustive review. It's a short comparative that lays out some basic points to compare and contrast. At times, Flynn’s summary gets sidetracked by the ambiguous nature of some of the terminology, but it is overall a quick and concise overview.

Though merely a summary, Flynn casually makes connections that suggest his mastery of the material. It's clear this is just his Idiot’s Guide.

Some of the more notable comments:

- Regarding Soren Kierkegaard’s self-imposed social exile “…we have the kind of solitary thinker whom Nietzsche lauds as the true philosopher. And in a sense… Kierkegaard’s ideal knight if faith was also ‘beyond good and evil,’ though not precisely in Nietzsche’s use of that famous expression.” Pg. 32. This is despite that Nietzsche “…had only a passing acquaintance with his work.” Pg. 32.

- Regarding Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus: “Faced with this parable of the ultimate futility of life, Camus counsels that our only hope is to acknowledge that there is no ultimate hope. Like the ancient Stoics, we must limit our expectation in view of our mortality.” Pg. 61. This is an interesting comparison, and since I’m in the midst of reading the Roman Stoics (Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius), I somewhat see the connection to accepting mortality. But where the Stoics thought acceptance of fate was key, Camus’ decision to embrace an active morality regardless seems to undermine the Stoic mind frame. Marcus Aurelius referred to such men as “tumors on the Universe.” See Meditations; Marcus Aurelius, Book IV, Passage 29. “A tumor on the Universe is he who cuts himself off in rebellion against the logic of our common nature because he is dissatisfied with his lot, for it is that nature which brought it about, as it also brought you about.”)

- Regarding Sartre’s lecture “Is Existentialism a Humanism?”: “What we are witnessing, in effect, is Sartre thinking aloud, and philosophizing ’on the wing.’ The inconsistencies of this lecture, while of interest for charting the evolution of his thought, were obviously an embarrassment to him. In fact, this is the only piece that he ever openly regretted having published. Ironically, it seems to be his one philosophical work that everyone reads. Pg. 59.

- “As Aristotle warned us, it is a mistake to seek a greater degree of clarity than the subject matter allows. You don’t look for mathematical precision in moral matters. The existentialist applies this to life itself.” Pg. 79.

I give the book 3 star because that all it strives to be. No doubt, Flynn could provide a much more extensive comparison, but that’s not the goal of this book. It’s quick. It’s accessible. It wants to be informative, not burdensome nor exhaustive. And it accomplishes its goal.