If we thought “the existentialist” was a moribund relic of mid-twentieth century France who, in a black sweater, black pants, and a cigarette, populated the cafes of the boulevard St. Germain in Paris, then the coronavirus has shattered this caricature. Amidst the pandemic, we are all existentialists now as we confront the givens of death, absurdity, freedom, and isolation, and the words of figures like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Camus, and Beauvoir resonate in ways that haven’t been felt since the Second World War. As hundreds of thousands of people die, as our cultural institutions, commercial enterprises, and our own meaning-giving projects collapse around us, we are once again faced with the ultimate questions: “Who am I?” and “How can I live?”. Existentialism, like no other philosophy, speaks to us in times of crisis. It reminds us of the essential frailty and contingency of the human condition, that we exist but that we don’t have to.
But to be an existentialist is not simply to be aware of our uncanny condition; it involves the realization that the world is not just given to us. We are self-making beings. We create and give meaning to the world through our actions, and we alone are accountable for the world we create. As we isolate in our homes and dream of a return to normal life, the existentialist offers a warning. After bearing witness to the shocking inequities and suffering that the pandemic has wrought, do we really want to go back to normal? One of the enduring lessons of existentialism is that the anxiety and despair that erupts when our existence breaks down is not simply a nullifying experience; it also provides an opportunity for growth and transformation by freeing us from our own complacency, forcing us to confront the choices we make and how these choices ripple out far beyond our immediate self-interest, affecting not only our family, friends, and neighbors, but future generations and our relationship with the earth itself. While it is true that I alone am responsible for my choices, the existentialist makes it clear that it is not just myself that I am responsible for because the rest of the world is implicated in my choices. In this way, the event of the coronavirus is more than a global tragedy. It is a rare, world-transforming opportunity that pulls away the public veil of security and permanence and exposes our inherent vulnerability and interdependence. For the existentialist, it has the potential to open up new possibilities for living, to recreate our societies and re-imagine who we are. But the existentialist also has no illusions about the viability of this transformation. The burden rests on the commitments of each individual. As Sartre wrote shortly after the Nazi occupation of France had ended, “All I know is that I’m going to do everything in my power to bring it about. Beyond that, I can’t count on anything”.
Kevin Aho is Professor of Philosophy at Florida Gulf Coast University. He is the author of Contexts of Suffering: A Heideggerian Approach to Psychopathology (2019), Heidegger’s Neglect of the Body (2009), co-author of Body Matters: A Phenomenology of Sickness, Disease, and Illness (2008), and editor of Existential Medicine: Essays on Health and Illness (2018). His latest book, Existentialism, will publish 12th June 2020 from Polity.