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Anyone old enough to remember when Existentialism was not seen simply as one brief, fascinating stop on the interminable journey of human inquiry—a footnote in the history of philosophy—will recall that it was regarded as the coolest, hippest, darkest, most resonant and indeed most profound explanation for all that ails Western Civilization.
Mankind’s search for meaning in an otherwise indifferent if not downright “hostile” universe. Our near debilitating sense of disconnection. Our “natural” posture toward the universe as being one of low-level dread. Freedom as a “curse.” Yeah.
Actually, though Existentialism (not counting Kierkegaard and a few others) is largely a post World War II phenomenon, this gnawing sense of something being “slightly wrong” is not new. Here’s a quote from philosopher David Hume (1711-1776): “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” (from “A Treatise on Human Nature”). Even if we can’t say precisely what Hume meant by this, it isn’t good.
Another provocative quote comes from St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430): “I have become an enigma to myself, and herein lies my sickness” (from “Confessions”) Occurring as it did, almost 1,600 years before the advent of Facebook, that observation is stunningly and brilliantly Modernist.
But now that Existentialism has fallen out of favor, it raises the question: What happened to it? And why? Have we been “cured”? Have we been relieved of feeling alienated from our existence? Or, with the shelf-life of Pop Culture phenomena being as evanescent as it is, have we simply assigned Existentialism the status of “former meme” (or “cool fad,” like Disco music and bell-bottom trousers) and moved on?
One answer might be that we abandoned Existential Philosophy because we weren’t comfortable clinging to something that was not only tough to understand but offered little solace. No thank you. If I want to feel more or less miserable about my existence, I can do that without having to slog through Sartre’s punishing “Being and Nothingness.”
Instead, we sought distractions and palliatives. We turned to such things as New Age religion, self-help packages, pharmaceuticals, pornography, and the exciting new world of electronic technology. As our mommies used to tell us, the best way to deal with minor pain is to try thinking of something else. Hey, I’m feeling kind of down, so maybe I’ll binge-watch 50 hours of “Game of Thrones.”
On the other hand, the post-Existential era (which began roughly in the mid-1970s) hasn’t been sterling. Yes, people go around wearing T-shirts with the word “Whatever” written on them, but there are disturbing trends. Not just mass-murders, and not just a staggering percentage of people taking anti-anxiety, anti-depression or other psychotropic drugs, but an alarming suicide rate. Fact: There are now twice as many annual suicides as there are homicides.
Which brings us to guns. Clearly, given that man’s self-destructive sense of alienation is alive and well, we need to make it our mission to eliminate “spray guns,” weapons specifically designed to allow the shooter to kill a whole lot of people all at once. We need to ban these weapons as effectively as we banned smoking in the workplace. If we can ban cigarettes, we can certainly ban exotic guns.
The argument most commonly heard is that despite 75-percent of the population being in favor of far tighter gun controls, the National Rifle Association (NRA) is such a powerful lobby, no one can defeat it. The NRA is invincible. The NRA owns Congress. Etc.
But there’s an eccentric idea that’s been floating around for a few years that sounds somewhat promising, if a little farfetched. What if we citizens joined the NRA and worked to change it from within? Because the NRA still lets its members vote, pro-gun control advocates could crawl inside the organization and subvert it.
The NRA has roughly 5 million members. The cost of a one-year membership is $40. Why couldn’t 10 million of us become members, and take over the NRA? Again, while it’s a bit farfetched, it’s not out of the question. Where do I sign up?