Existentialism maintains that the individual is free to create a self-directed life and set of values for himself or herself. The realization of this capacity may be a burden (angst) or a liberation. But is this premise entirely true?
The driving mechanism of the Western world in the modern era has been the devolution of cultural and social stability. The great confluence of ideas in the nineteenth century met the enormous destabilizing forces of industry, technology, and science. The effects of this meeting (or clash) intensified in the twentieth century with the enormous impact of war and its consequences, coupled with the acceleration of change in every sector of society and culture. In rebellion from the oppressive forces that have grown out of these experiences, existentialism asserted the primacy of the individual, the humanity of being a person.
But it is one thing to assert the dignity of personhood, and another to claim that the individual is really free to re-create his or her life. Most people will not think to redo themselves — in what image would they do so, most likely mimicking the very culture and society they claim to want to be free of. Most people will follow the contours and ethos of the culture, class, and authorities they know. Identity will be bound up in accurately reflecting that dominant culture and ethic, its shades and nuances reflecting what will be commonly thought to be individualism, always within a spectrum of popular values and mores.
The echo of Confucius’ dictum about serving when the emperor is good and reclusing when the emperor is evil reverberates as a core criterion for evaluating society and culture. It provides a starting point for considering what the person’s relationship to authority and society should be. But the insight is never pressed by people to the point of decision. When culture is “good” (which is assumed to be the case by default) then conformity to its chief ethos is acceptable and when evil it is a matter of adjustment and digression back to how it was before the corrupt times, back to the old days — so will run the common opinion.
Can anyone really be said to be free of culture and society, of its corrupting values, even the existentialist? The existentialist presents a breakthrough from a primitive Rousseau-like order of innocence to a realistic confrontation with what must be done: achieving an order that is free and of the person’s own making. But is such a breakthrough ever possible? Can the gap between our consciousness of evil and our inevitable participation or complicity ever be bridged? These are not essential questions for the masses of people, nor even for those who see society and culture as primary and necessary, but are the essential questions for the solitary.
There is no academic discipline or intellectual frame of thought for the solitary that is not a product of egoism, alienation, or authority. This is the breakthrough that the solitary must address.
Religious and spiritual traditions see solitude and eremitism as a means to an end, but what are the means and what relevance do the means have to daily life in the world of pluralistic societies and cultures? The justification for a life of simplicity and solitude must break through the past philosophical points of view, each laden with the vestiges of authority, laden with the remnants of bitterness and alienation, to a new and benign view that takes into account not just abstract ideas but the way that people live and function in society and culture.