It is often thought the the principal problem of man in this world is that that he is not rational. But this is not the view of Willaim Barrrett, who wrote "The Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy", that classic of existialism which used to be quite fashionable in the early 1960s, shortly before America plunged itself, out of a mixed sense of fear of the spread of Communism and the desire to become the leader of the Democratic and capitalist West, into the Vietnam War and began some serious soul searching as it saw its young men being sent in thousands to die amidst some sub-tropical jungles of Sourth East Asia with strange and unpronounceable names. It was a time of reflection. It was a time when some Americans began to ask themselves: what is life all about? Is it about making money, buying the hottest car fitted with the latest gadgets, a nice suburban home in beautiful surroundings, having a steady and good paying job, having a nice partner in bed, getting on in the rat race of social and economic conquests. so that one can have holidays in some exotic foreign beaches in the Caribbean or some quaint castle or be able to amble along narrow cobbled streets of some small town in Europe, sending the kids to some posh private school and fighting for God and country and when one has earned sufficient to donate some of one’s excess cash to some charities or other or even to establish a charitable foundation in some area of philantrophy which takes one\s fancy and be seen with the right people at the right places? And in the process to learn to use one part of one’s mind to the exclusion of all other: that wonderful engine for developmente and growth: the human capacity for reasoning? No, according to Barrett.
In the final chapter of his book, which he entitled "The Place of the Furies" , Barrett took time to look back at what he had done in the book. He began as he said , by asking the question which he set at the beginning of the book: what is the meaning of Existentialism which is just another way of asking the larger question, what does it mean to be a man? In that tiny volume, he examined the views of 4 "existential" philosophers or thinkers: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre although one of them e.g. Heidegger refused the label "existentialist".
All these 4 philosophers share one common passion: their concern for the human condition. Kierkegaard dealt with man’s relation to the Christian God. He found that those who called themselves Christians in Denmark, did not know what being a Christian truly meant, It meant taking God seriously, as a personal matter which touches the heart of man’s existence. It meant keeping faith in God amidst the most terrible trials, amidst the "fear and trembling" of doubt, of the "dark night of the soul", like Abraham being confronted with the choice early in the morning of sacrificing his most beloved son, Isaac whom he got when his wife was well past the age of child bearing, the choice of Job being subjected to the most terrible loss of fortune without knowing why he had to do so, of falling down out of sheer physical fatique and of literally struggling and wrestling with God, in his anguished dream, of whether to continue to maintain trust in a God whom he no longer has reason to but still believes somehow will in the end not let him down. It does not mean just going to church on Sundays, to do social chit chat there without thinking, like a social robot but to believe in God with one”s whole mind, with one’s whole heart, with one’s whole body, in short with one’s whole being. Religion should be something which one truly cares about, which one truly "lives out" at every waking moment amidsts all the hopes and fears and doubts and uncertainties of every moment of decision, big or small. It should be a religion of flesh and blood and not just of pallid ideology, theology or of paying lip service to dogma.
For Nietzsche, it was another struggle, but this time, it was a cry of protest, a cry of anger, a cry of pain, a cry of desperation, a cry of despair, at the "absence" of God. Nietzsche found that he had to cry into a void, hearing nothing but the echoes of his cries of protest against a non responding universe. His cry was "God is dead"! The universe is empty! It is not looked after or guarded or maintained by a bearded old man in the sky who previously had told man that he was all powerful, all knowing, all good and all loving. Nietzscbe thought that he had seen signs and to him, overwhelming signs that Christianity was a massive illusion, a gigantic lie pepetrated upon mankind for more than 2000 years and sustained by conniving priests and kings and aristocrats. His cry is a cry of anguish and it reverberated all through Europe. We still hear echoes of his shrieks, more than a century after his death. His reaction is that since God is dead, we must rise to take his place. We shall become master of our own fate and not be a slave to an absent God, a slave to a chimera or an idol of our own creation. We have little choice, if we still wish to continue living with dignity, the dignity of man.
For Heidegger, a careful academic philosopher who spent his entire life living amongst words, trying his best to make tiny and subtle distinctions between their meanings and who is so careful that he has hardly written a sentence which has not been subject to qualifications and qualifications upon qualifications upon qualifications. He dealt with a problem which European philosophers have not addressed their minds to from the time of the Greeks: the problem of existence. He learned from Kant about the distinction between "the thing in itself" and the thing as perceived by man. But he applied this distinction to human "existence" as a whole so that man has his own "personal" or "individual" and "specific" or "particular" existence which is distinguished from a much large context in what that individual existence has its being, the larger external world of Existence, which is the existence of all there is, which includes but is different from man’s "particular" existence. To him, man’s existence is always an existence in time. It is always a limited existence. Man has to face death at every moment and that realization should never for a moment be permitted to escape our awareness. As a result of such an awareness, man have little choice but to feel "angst", a vague, indescribable sense of unease with no particular or specific object or focus of our fear or anxiety. It is a generalised sense of "worry" or generalised "anxiety" because it is directed at man’s existence itself, the totality of his life and is directed only at the most fundamental condition of his existence as a human being, something he shares with every other member of the human species. He calls the ground of human existence, "Being". "Being" is to him that in which man has his individual being, It envelops him, influences him, contains him. For him, this ground of human existence may be termed "God", except that this "God" is not a God with a "personality" as conceived by Christian theologians. Heidegger merely outlines the problem. He did not offer any solution. He did so in a calm, careful and even cold manner. He may be the paradigmatic "rationalist"!
Sartre started from a quite a different context, the context of French intellectual life afterFrance had undergone the "shame" of compromise with the Nazis during the Second World War. To Sartre, the most important characteristic of human life is man’s freedom. Freedom implies, requires, demands choice. The quality of a life is not pre-determined, not written down and laid down for all times in some holy book or dictated by the dictum of some wise man or philosophers or prophets or other figures of authority or leaders, It is not determined externally, objectively by some one or some principle or other. The quality of a man’s life is to be determined despite all kinds of external restrictions upon his freedom, ultimately by no one else except himself. To him, freedom is not just a right, it is also a duty. Man has a duty to himself to live out to the full this distinguishing feature of what defines him as a human being, his freedom. His most notable idea is that "exstence precedes essence". First we live, then we decide how we have lived. It’s sounds remarkably like the Chinese saw: one doesn’t pass judgement until a man is dead. To Sartre, to be truly free, man must be "true" or "authentic". He should not choose nor live in "bad faith" or "dishonestly". He must be true to himself. It is a heroic idea. But it is not for everyone. Most people prefer security, material comfort and conformity. They want their life to be free from stress. For this reason, they give up their birth right. They become sheep. They become voluntary slaves. They prefer to be told what to do rather than to take up the risk of making their own mistake, of facing the consequence of their own bad judgement and taking responibility for such misjudgement or error. They’d rather be slaves than their own masters. Is that not why Eric From wrote his book, "The Fear of Freedom"? Freedom to many may be viewed more as a burden and a curse than blessing! It bears reflection!
To Barrett, what these 4 philosophers have thrown into relief is a particular tendency in Western civilizatio: its excessive rationalism. To him, the curse of modern life is its extreme "rationalism" which is concretised in the form of modern technology and modern bureaucracy through which man tries to "rationalise" the methods of satisfying his basic needs and to ensure that scarce resources are most "efficiently" organized to confer maximum benefit to the largest number of people in the shortest time. This is obviously necessary. But in the process of such rationlisation, which works on the principle of the lowest common denominator, which ostensibly is another eminently sensible and laudable principle, we may have rationalized out of existence something far more precious: our freedom, our uniqueness, our individuality. To Barratt, being human is much more than being purely rational. We also have emotions. We also have instincts. By failing to give due weight to the "Furies", which in Greek mythology, usually work during the night and is involved in women’s fertility, we may have done humanity a great disservice. We need the Furies as much as we need Apollonian reason. We must be careful not to push reason to its limits so that it becomes pure "rationality", which in reality may be just another form of "unreason". Psychologists may prefer the term "rationalisation". Paradoxically, at the the height of reason, we may discover its opposite, "unreason" or the "absence" of reason. It is lack of reason because of its most important omission, its most important oversight: that man does not live by reason alone, that he also lives by his emotions and one of his most noble emotions is a four letter word, "love". It is love which gives life. Reason should be its handmaid, not its master! And the Furies should not be ignored. They should be restored their rightful place in our lives so that our lives will not become one dimensional. Should reason not be balanced by its complement? Would not life then not become a little fuller and a little richer !