Irish Existentialism

Heroic & Dark Fantasy and Science Fiction Character created by Kevin L. O'Brien

Neph Seth, © by Aleksi Briclot

Paladin, © by Alex Horley

Existentialism and the Irish Character. K. Chesterton wrote, in Book II of his epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse,

For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad.

This dichotomy in the character of the Irish peoples derives from an existentialistic worldview that recognizes the futility of fame and fortune, but strives after it anyway.

The Nature of Existentialism

A worldview is the basic framework by which people interpret and interact with the world around them. It is not empirical; rather, it is a philosophical construct, and as such neither right nor wrong. It is simply what people believe to be true, regardless of any empirical evidence. Though there are many different kinds of worldviews, the five mot important to Western Civilization began with Theism. This worldview assumes that God not only created the universe, but that He has taken an active role in its operation, and especially in the lives of people.

The major flaw with Theism, however, is the problem of evil, which is the question of why evil exists in a universe created by a benevolent god. This led to the development of Deism, which assumes that God is still the creator, but that He no longer takes an active role in the operation of the universe or the lives of people.

The problem with Deism, however, is that if God has removed Himself from his creation, is he really necessary? This line of thought led to Naturalism, which assumes that God is not necessary, and therefore can be ignored.

However, if God is unnecessary, then does life, the universe, or anything have any value, meaning, purpose, or worth? Nihilism assumes not. It further assumes that there is no objective morality, that human accomplishment is transitory, and that any endeavor is futile. At best, Nihilism assumes the universe is indifferent to Mankind; at worst, it is openly hostile to humanity. The problem with this view, however, is that, if existence has no purpose or meaning and is futile, and the universe doesn't care if we live or die and may even act against us, why bother to live at all? As such, any true Nihilist should commit suicide.

The fact that they tend not to suggests that they really do not believe existence is worthless and futile, or at least they somehow manage to discover or invent worth and meaning in their lives. Existentialism grew out the need to explain this tendency. Existentialism begins by accepting that life, the universe, and everything is without value, purpose, or worth, and that existence is futile. It then goes on to argue that, more than this, existence is actually Absurd. Absurdity goes beyond futility and meaninglessness by accepting that existence is also amoral, which is to say unfair. In other words, Absurdity is the opposite of karma. Karma assumes there are people who are intrinsically good or bad, such that the good are rewarded and the bad are punished. Absurdity assumes there are no intrinsically good or bad people, and that things just happen for no reason, so bad things are just as likely to happen to good people as bad. For the most part, our daily experiences appear to be karmic, yet this is just an illusion. Karma is not a necessary feature of existence and it is certainly not a property of existence. Anything can happen to anyone, so that at some point everyone has an experience that brings them face to face with the Absurd.

It is at this point, however, that Existentialism departs from Nihilism. Nihilism accepts the premise, implicit in all other worldviews before it, that meaning, purpose, and worth are intrinsic to existence, such that if they are absent they cannot be created by human endeavors. Similarly, Nihilism, and by implication the other worldviews as well, assumes that life, the universe, and everything are defined by predetermined essences, whether these are established by God or nature. In other words, the essence of a person precedes his existence, so that this essence determines what kind of person he will be, and establishes whatever meaning, purpose, and worth his life will have. Nihilism simply assumes that essence cannot convey any meaning, purpose, or worth to existence.

Existentialism, however, proposes that Existence precedes Essence; that is, the essence of a person is determined by his subjective actions and not some objective standard imposed upon him. In other words, people are defined by who they are, not what they are. A person is defined as a cruel man because he acts in a cruel manner, not because he is intrinsically cruel. Similarly, a person is defined as benevolent because he acts in a benevolent manner, not because he is intrinsically benevolent. The implication is that people have no intrinsic nature, that they can be whatever they choose to be by acting like it.

This does not mean a man can become a bird simply by wishing it and then acting like a bird. We do not define ourselves by what we want to be, before we act; that is simply another from of predetermined essence. Instead, we are defined by our actions; we are defined after the act, and by other people. A man who acts like a bird is likely to be defined as insane. Nonetheless, we are ultimately Responsible for how we are defined. If a man is defined as cruel it is because he performs cruel acts. As such, if he wants to be defined as benevolent, he must perform benevolent acts. In other words, a man chooses to be cruel or benevolent, he isn't forced to be cruel or benevolent by some predetermined essence.

All this underscores that existentialism concentrates on Concrete Existence. This does not mean, however, that it ignores intangible conditions considered to be "endemic" to human existence. Existentialists recognize that how a person acts is based on his personal moral code, which is in turn based on his core values. These values are rarely critically examined; they are simply accepted as they are. However, these values generally assume that existence is meaningful and fair. As such, they can break down when inevitably we are confronted by the absurdity of existence, which can be devastating. Existentialism purports to offer ways for people to both cope with these inevitable confrontations and to avoid them as much as possible, by concentrating on how we act rather than what we believe in.

An inevitable consequence of existentialism, however, is Angst, also known as dread or anguish. Paradoxically, we only feel Angst when we also feel complete freedom of action. To illustrate this, The Scream, by Edvard Munchimagine you are standing on the edge of a cliff. Naturally, you fear falling, but you also fear jumping. You understand that there is nothing preventing you from throwing yourself off, that there is no predetermined essence that can make you jump or stand still. Rather there is only your own will. And with that understanding comes the realization of your own freedom of action; whether you jump or not is entirely your own choice.

Angst is defined as the anxiety that comes from the twin realizations that we are free to act as we see fit and we are responsible for those acts. It stems from two sources. The first is our innate insecurity over the consequences of our actions. This derives from the absurdity of existence: since life is not fair, we cannot know whether our actions will help or hurt anyone. The second source of Angst is the fear of nothing — i.e., "no thing ". This derives from the understanding that there is no thing inherent within us that acts for us beyond our control, such as an abusive childhood, human nature, Social Darwinism, bad genes, etc. As such, there is no thing we can blame if our actions cause harm. We are fully responsible for the consequences of our actions. It is, however, this very freedom and responsibility that makes us individuals by becoming part of our selves.

Unfortunately, many people try to avoid responsibility by denying they have freedom of choice. This is known as Bad Faith. In doing so, they deny their own selves and instead make themselves into "things" that can only act in predetermined ways. A man who acts in a cruel manner can lie to himself by believing he does so because his parents were cruel to him as a child, or it is human nature to be cruel, or survival of the fittest demands cruelty, or he has a cruelty gene, anything but that he is cruel by choice. Similarly, a man who acts in a benevolent fashion can deceive himself into believing he does so out of guilt, or religious devotion, or pity, or self-aggrandizement, rather than because he chooses to do so. Any form of self-deception will work, including things as simple as the belief that a person should act according to certain social or professional norms. This is not to say that following such norms is Bad Faith. The problem is when people use these as excuses for denying they have the free will to act as they choose so that they can avoid responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

The Thinker, by Auguste RodinSimilarly, some people believe that the Freedom inherent in existentialism to act as they see fit is license to act in any way they want without regard for the consequences. This is derived from the absurdity of existence and assumes that because existence has no inherent values, actions have no morally-relevant consequences. However, whereas existentialism does accept that existence has no inherent values, it does not accept that values are impossible. As mentioned earlier, existentialists believe that people create their own values, and they claim people should use them to decide which actions are appropriate based on an evaluation of the morality of the possible consequences. In fact, existentialists generally believe that to act without making a moral evaluation of the consequences is a form of bad faith, because it is a choice not to make a specific choice and instead to rely on chance to adjudicate the results. So Freedom is not some kind of abstract concept, but has a concrete existence in the real world and is thus restricted by it. Existentialists do not, however, believe that a person's values are immutable, rather they believe a person can change them by considering and re-evaluating them. As such, a person's values are as much his choice as his actions, and he is as responsible for his values as he is for his actions and their consequences. Because of this, even an appeal to "common values" does not abrogate anyone's responsibility for the consequences of his actions, since he could change his values anytime he wanted to.

Since freedom has a concrete existence, it also has restrictions. One is responsibility, another is values; a third is Facticity. Facticity is paradoxical in several ways. In the main, it is defined as any condition that could determine us, but does not. For example, it can be said that we are our pasts, since our pasts are a major factor in how we make ourselves. However, to say that we are determined by our past is to deny a large part of our individual realties (such as the present we live in and the future we project ourselves into), which is a form of bad faith. Conversely, to deny that our past is a factor in how we define ourselves is to deny our own selves and is also a form of bad faith. In other words, Facticity refers to all the concrete aspects of a person's existence which forms the background against which he constantly defines himself. These aspects include his past (such as the time and place of his birth), his culture (such as his language), his environment, all his previous choices, the inevitable prospect of death, and more. As such, a person's definition must originate in his Facticity, but it does not determine how the person is defined. Another paradox is that Facticity limits our freedom because a large part of it consists of aspects we haven't chosen. For example, a person who was born without legs is denied the freedom to walk on a beach. However, it is also a condition of our freedom because our values will probably be derived from it. For example, a person who was raised a Christian will most likely judge the morality of the consequences of his actions using Christian values, whether he actively practices the religion or not.

Girl Before a Mirror, © by Pablo PicassoA fourth restriction on freedom is the concept of the Other. This is when we experience ourselves as others see us, but only in the way we would perceive someone else were we the other person. For example, imagine a person watching a woman undress through her bedroom window. At first, he is so caught up in the experience that his entire consciousness concentrates on nothing else. Then he hears a twig snap behind him. Immediately he imagines someone watching him spy on the woman. Since if he were this other person he would feel contempt for the Peeping Tom, he feels contempt for himself and thereby feels shame.

Experiencing the Other does not involve some form of telepathy, we are not actually seeing ourselves as someone else would. Rather we are seeing ourselves as we would see someone else were he engaged in our activity. As such, no one actually needs to be there. The snapping twig could have been caused by an animal or the wind, or it could have been some other sound the person mistook for a snapping twig. It could even be another Peeping Tom who doesn't even know the first person is there. It doesn't matter. Experiencing the Other is a subjective phenomenon in which we make ourselves from no thing (our own unique self) into some thing, in this case a Peeping Tom. It is another form of bad faith, for while we may feel shame for our action, we still deny responsibility for our action by rationalizing that we were only doing what a Peeping Tom does, thereby allowing us to avoid the consequences of our action and thereby the resulting angst. At best, we would simply slip away; at worst, we would remain and continue to watch. The point is, the phenomenon of the Other is just another way for people to relinquish their freedom by acting as they imagine how other people would expect them to act, or at least how they would expect other people to act were roles reversed.

Though there are many different forms of bad faith, one that existentialism targets in particular is Rationalism. Rationalism is the philosophical belief that truth is obtained, not through the senses, but through the intellect using logic. It assumes that existence has order and structure, and that any values and meaning must be derived from a study of that order and structure. As such, this order and structure becomes an essence that predetermines a person, making him some thing instead of no thing, a thing based on some Other inherent in an ordered and structured existence. It also allows him to avoid angst by denying responsibility for his actions, since his actions no longer determine him. However, existentialism assumes that, inevitably, a Rationalist will experience the absurdity of existence and discover that it has no order or structure. At that point, he comes face to face with his freedom, realizes that he alone is responsible for who he is, and feels angst over the consequences of his actions. At that point, he either denies the truth of this revelation and plunges deeper into the delusion of Rationalism, or he takes a leap of faith and accepts the revelation as true, altering his actions accordingly.

The Nature of the Irish Character

The Boy Setanta Follows King Conor, by Stephen ReidIt is always problematic trying to divine the character of an individual person, much less an entire people, especially an "extinct" people such as the Iron Age Gaels of Ireland. And the problem worsens when you consider the Christianization and the attempts at Anglicization of the the Irish people. However, we can make intelligent guesses about the Irish character using a number of sources, including myths and legends, archaeology, contemporary reports, and the psychology of the modern Irish. The warrior code of loyalty, courage, and generosity, which anyone could emulate, represents perhaps the best of the Irish character. There is also the Irish love of learning, literature, stories, poetry, and art, song and dance, and humor and wit, not to mention their sexual liberation and frankness. They are also an intensely spiritual people, who had a mystical understanding of the innate holiness of all of creation long before the coming of Christianity. At their core they are a simple, straightforward, confident, hospitable, and decent people, who love peace but are not afraid to defend their beliefs and their liberty.

Yet there are darker aspects to the Irish character, that may be more telling. One that seems to be prevalent is a kind of Fatalism, an understanding — almost a conviction — that life is fleeting and that it is useless to try to hold onto people or possessions, since we will lose all when we die. The statue of The Dying Gaul illustrates the belief that it is our fate, all of us, to die, naked and alone, on some battleground not of our choosing, even if that ground is our own bed and our adversary is old age. And while we may be surrounded by friends and family, our final struggle and inevitable defeat is ours alone; we can count on no help and no rescue.

Indeed, though the ancient Gaels gave every indication of being indifferent, even contemptuous, of death, subconsciously they were terrified of it. This is born out in their mythology: their gods were bloodthirsty hunters of men, that could kill by fright alone, and a prophecy of doom from a druid could rob even the most stalwart warrior of sleep until he drank himself insensate. It is also portrayed on archaeological artifacts, including monstrous idols and cauldrons depicting gods tossing people into cooking pots. This may be one reason for the practice of human sacrifice: offering up a victim to satisfy deific bloodlust so that the rest of the community could survive. This wasn't assuaged until the coming of Christianity, when St. Patrick demonstrated that a person The House of Death, by William Blakecould be brave without fear of death and taught that Christ's sacrifice covered all people throughout time. Yet Irish folklore preserves an echo of the ancient macabre terror, with its emphasis on ghosts, Faeries, witches, demons, and other aspects of the supernatural.

Similarly, the ancient Gaels consciously professed a fascination for, even an appreciation of, shape-shifting, while subconsciously fearing this instability. It implied that reality had no order or structure, but was arbitrary and insubstantial; worse, it suggested that individual persons had no fixed identity but were as fluid as reality. And related to both aspects was the belief that life was filled with traps meant to catch the unwary and lead to their destruction. It was understood that each person had geasa (singular: geis) — taboos or observances — actions that he was required to follow or avoid, and if he violated these geasa — if he engaged in a forbidden act or neglected to engage in an obligated act — disaster would follow. The worst of it, however, was the conviction that violation was unavoidable; that all persons are ultimately doomed, because sooner or later they would fall prey to one or another hidden trap and be destroyed. And to top it all off, there could be hostile forces at work trying to precipitate disaster by engineering the violation of these geasa. Again, these were not assuaged until St. Patrick taught that the magic in the world came from the Creator, Who created an orderly, structured, and substantial reality full of meaning, and that Christ had sprung all the traps, so that no one need fear inevitable destruction. Nonetheless, like the fear of death, these fears are to some extent still part of the Irish character. Their modern expression was made by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, when he was heard to say after the assassination of John F. Kennedy that to be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.

Existentialism in the Irish Character

Though the Christianity that Patrick taught was not existential, the Irish character it supplanted largely was, and it continues to exist as a strong undercurrent even today. The fear of death and hidden traps derives from an understanding of the absurdity of existence, while the fear of instability and fluid identity derives from the realization that there is no essence that predetermines who and what a person is, that this is a free choice. Yet it wasn't so much these fears that were existential, since nihilists share the same beliefs. It was rather how the Irish reacted to these fears that demonstrated their existentialism. Once again, The Dying Gaul The Hound of Cullan, by Stephen Reidillustrates this: the eponymous Celtic warrior knows he will die and accepts his fate, but he still struggles against it. He is trying to rise one last time, in defiance of death, forcing death to fight to take him. Yet there is no desperation on the Celt's face, only dignity, as if the struggle is not to live one second longer, but to reaffirm his own sense of self-worth. As the American art historian H. W. Janson said, the statue is a testament that the Celts "knew how to die, barbarians that they were."

In this context, the barbarian philosophy of the Iron Age Gaels makes perfect sense. Since we cannot hold onto anything we possess, since we cannot rely on vows of undying faithfulness made by family and friends, since we cannot survive the traps existence has laid for us, the best choice is to pursue the wondrous deed, the heroic gesture that promises eternal fame even if it results in a short life. All we can rely on are the iron virtues of the warrior code: loyalty to our causes, comrades, and values; courage in the face of overwhelming odds and hopeless battles, even in the face of death itself; and generosity as we freely give of our possessions, our lives, even our very blood. It was these virtues that allowed the warrior to defy the absurdity of existence: to define who he was and give meaning to his life; to gave him the freedom to chose his actions and define his responsibilities; and to deal with the resulting angst without resorting to bad faith. It is these virtues that have and continue to spawn the best of the Irish character, demonstrating that even the lowest person in the ancient Irish social order could claim these for his own, if he so chose. And it was these virtues that St. Patrick reaffirmed, when he described faith as loyalty to Christ, Christian beliefs, and Christian brethren; hope as courage in the face of possible martyrdom; and charity as generosity to give without counting the cost. While Christianity is based on a fundamentally different worldview from existentialism, it may be that the Irish Celtic Church that St. Patrick founded is the ultimate expression of the existential nature of the Irish character.

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