The war has forced Ukrainian leaders like President Zelensky and Kiev’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, to face decisions of existential proportions. Should they stand up to Putin, thus risking the lives of themselves and their citizens, or surrender, thus compromising their identity and the very existence of their country? It’s the type of question that existentialists like Jean Paul Sartre thought was impossible to answer by following reason alone. It’s precisely when it’s unclear what the right choice is, that the radical freedom and moral responsibility of human beings is revealed, writes Gordon Marino.
I am sitting in my cozy library in Northfield Minnesota, about to comment on the war in Ukraine from an existentialist perspective. The proto–Existentialist Soren Kierkegaard never tired of reminding himself and his readers that “To understand and to understand are two different things,” as in, there is abstract understanding and personal/concrete understanding. Let me begin by confessing, I don’t know what I am talking about in terms of that all-important second sense of understanding. After all, I have never been to war; never had to carry my child and help my sick mother into a bomb shelter. So, I suggest taking my naïve, albeit earnest, reflections on the war from an existentialist standpoint, with two grains of salt.
The phrase “existential crisis” has become hackneyed of late, as in, “increased gas prices could cause an existential crisis.” But the Russian invasion of Ukraine certainly is such a crisis, one that threatens the very being of the Ukrainian people, and as such it warrants commentary from an existentialist perspective.
The post war Sartre was adamant that though logic can’t decide for us, we remain responsible for and are ultimately defined by our choices
In fact, it was after the existential catastrophes of the world wars that Existentialism as a philosophical movement ascended to its highest levels of popularity. That is in part because thinkers like Kierkegaard, Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus stressed the limits of rationality, and much of what transpired in those humanly produced global conflagrations was far beyond the pale of reason, much like Putin’s seemingly objectiveless and unprovoked war on Ukraine.
The existentialists are a motley crew, linked together by a set of themes more than anything else. One leitmotif is the notion of “radical choice.” That is, the idea that human beings possess free will and are frequently required to make vital choices that can’t be decided by reason alone.
In his wildly popular 1946 essay, Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre tells the tale of a young man whose brother had been killed by the Nazis. The young man comes to Sartre for advice on deciding whether to seek revenge by joining the resistance or stay at home and take care of his ailing mother. Looking back at this encounter, Sartre comments that no theory, or, for that matter, the Bible, could dictate the proper course of action. Theories and sacred texts could be used for and against either decision. Nevertheless, the post war Sartre was adamant that though logic can’t decide for us, we remain responsible for and are ultimately defined by our choices. In sum, the young man in Sartre’s story, and the rest of us, are condemned to choose, condemned to be free. No wonder then, that Sartre and others in the existentialist congregation claim that the blessing of freedom comes with the curse of anxiety. Anxiety about having to make a choice that will define you and your life, but with no way of knowing which choice is the right one.
From an existential perspective, such life and death decisions thrust us into an excruciating awareness of our own agency
It does not take much imagination to appreciate the radical choice Ukrainians faced in whether or not to stay and fight against a seemingly indomitable foe. From an existential perspective, such life and death decisions thrust us into an excruciating awareness of our own agency. They slam us against the core of our being, forcing us to answer, who are you? What do you ultimately value?
In his 1944 essay, “Paris Alive: The Republic of Silence,” Sartre depicts life in Nazi occupied Paris. He begins with the paradoxical proclamation, “Never were we freer than under the German occupation.” A few paragraphs later, Sartre explains: “Every moment we lived in the fullest sense of that trite tag, ‘Man is mortal’ and the choice each one made of his life and of himself was authentic; for the more it was made in the presence of death the more it could be explained in the formula of ‘Rather Death Than…’”
On Sartre’s reckoning, the Nazi occupation, and the ever-present threat of death pressed Parisians with the question: at what point would life become not worth living.
On Sartre’s reckoning, the Nazi occupation, and the ever-present threat of death pressed Parisians with the question: at what point would life become not worth living? The mayor of Kyiv, former heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko, whom I am privileged to know through my work in boxing, recently punched out this defiant sentence, "We're not interested in how strong the Russian army is, we're ready to fight. And we're ready to die for our home country and for our families because it's our home." Put otherwise, rather death than have our democratic sovereign nation become annexed by Putin’s totalitarian regime.
The same kind of Either/Or that Sartre described individual Parisians as facing, also looms at the geo-political level. In 1940, the Danes were in a predicament akin to present day Ukraine. On April 9, 1940, the Nazis advanced on Denmark with the same kind of double speak Putin has been spewing. The Danish armed forces were positioned for battle, but the Prime Minister and his government knew war with the Nazi military machine was sure to be a massacre. Denmark surrendered, let the wolf in the front door, set up a strong resistance movement, and saved thousands of Jews by spiriting them off to neutral Sweden and safety.
It would have been reasonable for President Zelensky and his parliament to have made a similar choice. They could have been steered by the Utilitarian calculus of saving as many lives as possible instead of the conviction the Ukrainians are abiding by, namely, come what may, we have a duty to defend our rights and homeland!
Sometimes it is hard to figure out what we really believe. But my respect and admiration for the courage and resolve of President Zelensky and his people knows no bounds, so for what it is worth, given my safe distance from the carnage, I agree with the resolve…rather death than to allow this post-modern Nero to annex your country.
Kierkegaard preached that admiration that does not inspire action is an ethical evasion
At the same time, I can glimpse Kierkegaard out of the corner of my mind’s eye and see him wagging his finger at my mention of admiration. The Dane who was nicknamed the fork (“Gaflen”) preached that admiration that does not inspire action is an ethical evasion. He writes, ‘there is an infinite difference between an admirer and an imitator, because an imitator is, or at least strives to be, what he admires.’ On his account, those of us who stop at admiration are treating the Zelenskys of the world, and the anti-war Russian protestors, as though they were cut from a different cloth, as though they were specially gifted artists or athletes.
On the contrary, from an existential perspective, the capacity for moral action is universally distributed, and rather than clap our hands at the bravery of the people hunkered down in Kyiv, we need to do whatever we can do support them in their struggle against the Russian golem.
22nd March 2022
Gordon Marino is Professor of Philosophy at St. Olaf College, former boxer, and author of The Existentialist's Survival Guide