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Heidegger is considered to be the father of existentialism but his ideas are drawn from the 19th-century writers Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Kierkegaard’s writing is developed in the context of his approach to Christianity, while Nietzsche’s thesis lies in the death of God. Both believed that singularity (“me”) is not seen through the traditional philosophy and that the emphasis should be either on what follows natural objectivity or what conforms to the accepted principles of moral reasoning.
Kierkegaard’s comparative study covers the conflict between ethics and religious faith. For example, it is the personal sense of following the will of God and it will bring meaning into life. In his book Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard wrote that life becomes meaningful only when the person raises himself to the universal through bringing the natural desires under the law of morality (Copleston 1993). Thus, individuality is lost because the laws are the same for all, but life becomes meaningful in the sense of understanding. Kierkegaard has raised the important philosophical question: if there is the dimension to being which is meaningful and not governed at the same time, by what standard is it governed then? He has provided the answer to this question: subjectivity is the truth. This idea serves as the prototype of the existential concept of reliability.
Nietzsche sought to understand the results of God’s death and the break-up of theistic support for moral norms. He lived in the period when the basic readings of the Bible were eroded and Darwinism’s influence was increasing. For Nietzsche, existence is the philosophical problem which deals with the distinction between moral autonomy (following the moral laws) and autonomy beyond good and evil. If the existence is meaningful, then there has to be the standard by which success or failure is measured (Copleston, 1993). For example, saying that the piece of art has style means applying the standard for judging it. Thus, existence is measured with some style as well: creating the meaning in the world from which all superior supports fall away and giving the authentic shape to a person’s passions.
Both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard sought to analyze the meaning of life. If Kierkegaard perceived existence through thinking about the presence of God in life, Nietzsche assumed that God was dead (nihilism). Nevertheless, Kierkegaard as well as Nietzsche tried to describe aspects of being (existence) that cannot be understood either in terms of immediate inclinations or in terms of universal laws of morality. Thus, existence is not measured in terms of what the person is, but in terms of way of being (Copleston, 1993). Nietzsche and Kierkegaard failed to develop a systematic way to explain their ideas.
Kierkegaard’s perception of the crowd is worthy of closer examination: he wrote that the crowd was untruth. For him, crowd meant public opinion or the ideas which are perceived as granted, as accepted way of behavior. He noted that the crowd insinuates an individual’s sense of who he is and he loses the identity. For example, if everybody in the community is Christian, there is no need for the person to become a Christian because it is assumed that everybody is already a Christian (the moral norm). Nietzsche, similar to Kierkegaard, introduced the idea of overman – the existence which is the opposite of moralized man living in the community.
In conclusion, the lack of structural studies makes the research on existentialism limited to the writings of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. They have expressed similar ideas about the meaning of existence and the importance of universal moral laws of behavior. The key difference in their philosophies is that Kierkegaard based his argument on religion, while Nietzsche denied the notion of living God.
Copleston, F. (1993). History of Philosophy. Image Publication.