Book #1: ‘How to be an Existentialist’ by Gary Cox

My 2017 New Year’s Resolution is to read 20 non-academic, non-fiction books before the year is over. I especially want to read books on topics I don’t know much about, or books that oppose my attitudes towards the world. If anyone has any ideas for a book I could add to my list, please let me know.

I’m not very keen on writing reviews (but more than that, I’m not very good at it) so I won’t be making any comment on the quality of the books- but I thought it would be nice to briefly summarise what I learnt from each book I read, and what I’ll take from it.

The first book on my list was ‘How to be an Existentialist‘ by Gary Cox – who has a PhD in Philosophy. This was a whistle-stop tour of the philosophy of Sartre and Existentialism – at times masquerading as a self-help book, but mostly presenting itself as a description of various philosophers’ approaches to Existentialism.

I gathered from the book that Existentialism is about accepting that life doesn’t have a god-given meaning – so we have to make a meaning for our own life. Cox spoke in detail about the importance of being the subject of your own life, rather than the object of someone else’s, which I thought was quite a positive message to take away.

A large section of the book dealt with what ‘authenticity’ meant in Existentialism. It is about taking responsibility for your own actions, knowing that you are a free agent who is responsible for all choices and all consequences of those choices. In some ways, that’s an understandable and positive message: you have control over every aspect of your life. But it also seems like it could lead to some negativity: every negative aspect of your life is the result of choices you have made and you must take responsibility.

I don’t understand how Existentialists can dogmatically laud ‘authenticity’. It’s almost like the creed of Existentialism. Cox spoke about the importance of Authenticity with a Biblical authority was but never actually said why – it doesn’t seem like complete Authenticity is the key to a happy life. Telling someone they need to accept responsibility for their disability or a depression won’t make them happier, surely. So, if existentialism isn’t an instruction to a happier life, what is it? The philosophy claims that there is no deity or purpose to life, so why is there a need to be authentic?

In some respects I can understand and relate to existentialism: life is about making a meaning for yourself, not trying to find a meaning. In other respects, I can see how existentialism would be a way to have a happier life: by being the subject of your own life rather than the objects of someone else’s. But in many ways, I can’t get my head around how it proposes a guideline for life that doesn’t seem to me like it would make you happier.

I’m currently reading “Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future” by Paul Mason


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