Brett Williams's Reviews > No Excuses: Existentialism And The Meaning Of Life

No Excuses by Robert C. Solomon
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it was amazing

For me this lecture series was a thrill, and changed what I assumed I knew about existentialism. According to this University of Texas professor, the late Robert Solomon, existentialism is a movement not a school, made up of Christians, agnostics, and atheists. It addresses those post-antiquities questions that grow out of individualism: Who am I? What am I to do? Will my life matter? The emphasis is on an informed, responsible choice, accepting the consequences, living life to the fullest vs. killing time.

Solomon illuminates existentialist ideas commencing with Camus and his novel The Stranger. Through Camus, Solomon provides an answer to a puzzle I’ve encountered a hundred times: “People without thoughts are people without emotions, and people without emotions are people without thoughts.” Loaded with metaphors, Camus’ main character has no emotions and no self. In prison, reflecting on other’s judgement of him produces a newfound sense of meaning. Supporting my hypothesis that purpose is internal while meaning is external, I was suddenly enthusiastic for the series and read the The Stranger in a way I’d not have done without this intro.

On to Camus’ next work, The Myth of Sisyphus, we find Sisyphus commanded by the gods to push a boulder up hill, let it roll down, only to push it up again without end for eternity. Such absurdity—as all lives will eventually encounter—makes death welcomed. Solomon makes a comparison to Ecclesiastes’ (very Sumerian) assessment that life is pointless vanity. But Sisyphus rebels against the gods, not through refusal, but embrace (Buddhist-like). Committed to his task, immersed in his duty, with passion and zeal, Sisyphus invents meaning. Or is that purpose? This makes clear what religious believers already know, and have since a handful of them poisoned Socrates: philosophic thinking is a dangerous business. Rational truth can be not only a threat to societal rules, norms, and belonging, but dehumanizing. Humans invent “meaning,” they can just as easily uninvent it. Great preparation for Nietzsche, who shows up later.

Next up, Camus’ The Fall, where the main character helps a blind man, then doffs his hat to a man who can’t see. He wonders why he did this, only to conclude he’s a fake, performing for the favorable assessment of onlookers. Reflection for this man becomes, not honest, but a disease. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” but can it be overdone, as a different kind of self-deception? I nearly let go the leash on my dogs when this one cracked like a high voltage discharge between my earbuds. Living in splendid isolation, too prone to pondering, the shock was a little too close for comfort, and I was glad for it. As Mark Twain said, “All men live lives of quiet desperation.” But maybe we shouldn’t. Which is of course the point of existentialism’s project: an informed, responsible choice, accepting the consequences, then from there, live to the fullest.

After a good strong drink of Camus, Solomon offers a chaser made from a mix of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre. After a few shots of these names I can’t spell or pronounce, I was tipsy with ideas to occupy me for years to come. What a delightful high.
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Reading Progress

September 25, 2018 – Started Reading
September 25, 2018 – Shelved
December 6, 2018 – Finished Reading

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