I decided to take a break from talking about Lucius to address a widespread and dismaying confusion I’ve seen reflected on Facebook since I first joined the site years ago. Existentialism and essentialism aren’t political positions. I’ve seen a couple of my fellow liberals say they “hate essentialism.” They might as cogently say they hate the direction west, or up, or down.
Essentialism and existentialism are often explained from extreme perspectives in opposition to each other. Essentialism is about defining things according to intrinsic, unchanging qualities; existentialism, according to the actions and effects things have within a temporal and spatial context. Obviously, according to naïve liberalism, existentialism is good and essentialism is bad. Essentialism leads to ideas like the special creation of animals; of real, complex things dubiously shoe-horned into abstract categories. It’s the philosophy of racism and Social Darwinism. Existentialism, on the other hand, is about freedom, the arbitrariness of categories, the unity of all life passing through an array of transitory forms that make up the phylogenetic tree.
Sorry, but that’s nonsense. This is not a liberal summation of essentialism and existentialism; it’s a literalist one, and a convenient distortion of truly essentialist philosophy going back to Plato.
Special creation and Social Darwinism are not so much essentialist as literalist-essentialist. The proper arguments against them are a mixture of essentialism and existentialism, not a kneejerk literalist-existentialism that renders such categories as good and evil meaningless abstractions. The existentialist view can be pushed only so far. The Golden Rule, numbers and mathematics — these essentialist abstractions govern our lives and reflect the underlying order of the universe. We should constantly explore the freedom possible within that order, but we can’t deny the order exists. A proponent of radical existentialist freedom is like a man running in a house with invisible walls, against which he will eventually come up hard. Slow down!
Those who don’t get it will still object: “But wait! You’re arguing that radical existentialism is literalism; it’s the opposite of literalism. Literalism is essentialism!” No, no, no. Literalism is mistaking your abstractions for the real thing. It is moving from the realm of philosophy into politics and, unforgivably, trying to pass them off as equivalent. Liberals shout that conservatism leads to fascism, and conservatives that liberalism leads to totalitarian communism. Both lead to totalitarianism, both to pogroms and purges, both to thought crime and genocide. Or neither does, if people uphold the Golden Rule and assume the sometimes-excruciating but necessary burden of reason.
A healthy mind can sustain a paradox, and an educated person explores both essentialist and existentialist concepts. Carl Jung, Plato, Kierkegaard, Lao Tzu, Nietzsche, and Sartre aren’t sports teams. They’re thinkers. Read them all. Don’t be a literalist!