Essays on the Frankfurt School, Part II: Existentialism

M W Davis Frankfurt 1 buttonI. Introduction

If we’re going to tackle the Frankfurt School, we ought to understand their ideas. In order to understand their ideas, we have to confront their basic assumptions. This is, in short, Existentialism, a philosophy generated by interwar and post-war French intellectuals. Two of these—Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus—were Nobel Prize Laureates. Strangely, they’ve not been adequately addressed by Conservative thinkers, despite the fact they’ve laid the foundation for nearly every trend in left-wing academia that has emerged since their lifetimes. This seems to me the best place to begin deconstructing the Frankfurt School’s ideology—or, rather, reconstructing our Traditional worldview.

I’m going to have to start on a dreadfully boring note about methodology. My apologies in advance; I’ll make this as quick and painless as possible. If we can agree on this first note it will make the rest of the essay much more coherent. (Or so I’d hope.)

The troubling thing about looking at philosophers as different as, say, Jean-Paul Sartre, the ‘Pope of Existentialism,’ and Edmund Burke, the father of Conservatism, is that—for the most part, anyway—it just isn’t done. And usually that’s with good reason. I doubt the two would agree on anything substantive. They’re profoundly different philosophers both in their processes and their conclusions. Certainly my reflex has always been to say, ‘I’m a Burkean; Burke doesn’t agree with Sartre; therefore, I can’t borrow from Sartre.’ Replace ‘Burke’ with any philosopher under the sun and the thought has probably passed through my head. But the unfortunate consequences of adopting an eponymous philosophy is twofold: one, the odds that either Edmund Burke or Jean-Paul Sartre are the end-all of truth and knowledge is hugely unlikely; and two, if we can agree on the first point, it’s just downright unfortunate that anyone would be willing to say they’re an unquestioning follower of Burke or Sartre. Maybe they had a few sycophantic disciples in their own time who were willing to do so, but we needn’t impress anyone here. Let’s take their arguments, and those of the other philosophers we’ll be touching on, for their merits rather than the old damnable habit of hero worship. So it is written, ‘For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?’ We certainly must only be human beings to tackle the question at hand.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre, the ‘Pope of Existentialism’ (b. 21 June 1905, d. 15 April 1980)

On the other hand, we have the thought of Frederick Nietzsche, who is considered a sort of a fringe Existentialist. Nietzschean thought has been widely taken up by the European ‘New Right’ and other assorted neo-Fascists and Evolians. This might expedite our attempt to merge Existentialist and Conservative thought, but it would be only a nominal reconciliation. To get at the heart of the Frankfurt School, we need to address the arguments they themselves made. It would only really do to take the ideas of the French Existentialists themselves.

Broadly, I intend to talk about Camus and Sarte in a way that will make them seem a touch non-threatening to a Conservative mind. By the end, I hope we’ll see that there’s no reason why Existentialist presumptions should rule out a Traditional understanding of the “permanent things”.

II. Human nature

The most troubling Existentialist tenet is often Jean-Paul Sartre’s assertion that existence precedes essence. It is impossible for religious traditionalists of any faith to declare that experience determines personhood, and a conservative without religious conviction would still be bothered by any notion of the sort. There is some question as to what degree Kierkegaard agreed with this idea, but it doesn’t seem unlikely that he did—Sartre explains that existence precedes essence simply means “… that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.” It does not assert that life begins at experience, but that meaning begins with decision-making. There’s no real reason why a Catholic (Roman, Anglican, or Orthodox) would take issue with this formulation, except that ‘surging into the word’ would carry much different connotations than it did for Sartre. Despite it being a self-proclaimed work of Atheistic Existentialism, few of the meaningful arguments made in the essay cited, Existentialism is Humanism, would be revolting to an orthodox Christian. Sartre claims that no man is born good or evil, a very serious problem in the context of his lifetime: having watched the Second World War transpire, the Nazi and Vichy regimes rise and fall, one very seriously pressing question lingering in Europe’s mind was can such a thing as pure evil exist? Sartre’s answer is not much more than a reformulation of orthodox Christian ideas: man is born with the potential to be either good or bad (as the Christian would say, wounded by original sin) and having the potential to choose either path (as the Christian would say, to accept or refuse God’s Grace). The traditional Christian and Sartre both oppose the Protestant doctrine that man is born entirely depraved, a complete pessimism that leads to the authoritarianism of Fascism and National Socialism. This is one reason the Existentialist and the Catholic Christian both reflexively rejects Totalitarianism.

albert camus

Albert Camus (b. 7 November 1913, d. 4 January 1960)

But this isn’t an idle observation. Understanding human nature is the beginning of understanding how to govern human beings, how they exist collectively as well as individually. Albert Camus, a friend of Sartre’s and the 1957 Nobel Laureate in Literature, centered his philosophy of Absurdism on—you guessed it—the Absurd, specifically the absurd nature of man’s existence and existence in general. Like Sartre he believed that life doesn’t necessarily have inherent meaning, but that it was nonetheless worth living; or, as he phrased it, ‘I think my life is of great importance, but I also think it is meaningless.’ In his lifetime Camus crusaded against totalitarianism, suicide, and capital punishment: three conditions that he believed smother man’s essence. We’ll discuss this in more depth later, but perhaps we might begin to see how Camus’s ethical conclusions mightn’t be so different from the conservative, Christian perspective.

Though Camus was called an Existentialist during his lifetime he rejected the label, making a discussion of Absurdism alongside one of Existentialism difficult. If we call Camus an Absurdist only, we might at least say that Absurdism is akin enough to Existentialism to be both distinct and profoundly similar.

If we can also agree thus far that Sartre is operating off of a view of human nature the Catholic might sympathise with—that man is flawed, but not irreparably so, and capable of making good and bad decisions in forging his character—we must inevitably ask what this ‘good and evil’ is.

III. Good and Evil

The cohabitation of good and evil is a rejection, rather than an affirmation, of dualism: for Camus, like St. Augustine (as Robert Meagher points out in his introduction to ‘Sisyphus’), darkness and light dwell together in nature and in the human being. Meagher calls Augustine Camus’s mentor in this regard, and so the utopian view of human nature found in the radical pessimism of Fascism and the radical optimism of Marxism are equally untenable. The Traditionalist and the Absurdist alike understand that the pursuit of meaning must allow men to have their folly. They must struggle to find meaning for themselves; otherwise there can only ever be a façade of righteousness, a state in which the realization of meaning is near impossible. Camus sees that goodness rigorously enforced by law would destroy the human spirit/essence’s desire to find “the single source which nourishes [him] during his lifetime.” The Christian realizes that a government which impresses piety, not just in the actions but also (or only) in the thoughts of its public creates an illusion of Godliness and squanders the individual’s need for a complete conversion of the soul to true Religion. It’s clear that the Absurdist and the Christian may differ in their concepts, but their needs are essentially the same.

Indeed, where the Existentialist-Absurdist and the Christian agrees in the nature of human beings, they come to an almost identical conclusion in how government must address that nature, both rejecting the idea that laws may constrain or wholly actualize the potential of the human essence/spirit. But this similarity runs deeper.

IV. The Human Need

Søren Kierkegaard, a Christian philosopher who is called the Father of Existentialism, bridges the divide between Conservatism and Existentialism even further. One of his most important ideas was the leap of faith—a phrase more commonly applied these days to romantic comedies and job applications than to religion. In the Kierkegaardian sense, the leap of faith comes part and parcel with the Absurd. The son of a Protestant minister, Kierkegaard was tortured in his youth by both a desire to know and love God and to understand the world He created. Kierkegaard was plagued by such impossible questions as, ‘Why does God exist?’ and ‘Why did He create the Earth; or, more perplexingly, why did he create this pathetically flawed creature called Man?’ Ultimately he concluded that these questions are absurd—literally incomprehensible to human reason. And so he concluded that these questions must remain a mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a ‘fearful and fascinating mystery’, so long as mortal life endures. We must all resolve as individuals, Kierkegaard said, to take the Leap of Faith: trust that God has a reason for existing, for creating what He has created, and that His own powers of reason are perfect and more complete than ours. God, therefore, is the ultimate Absurd, the most Unknowable and All-Knowing. I (and any Existentialist, for that matter) can only speak from experience, but this strikes me as a rejection of Protestant soteriology, their theory of Salvation). Catholics do not call God ‘absurd’ as such, but they regard His actions, especially in the life of Christ, as Mysterious. The Catholic Churches are rooted in the Sacraments, which are individual and communal participation in the Mysteries of Christ: the Catholic doesn’t understand by way of reason how Ordination fundamentally transforms the individual priest into a being capable of bringing the Real Presence into the bread and wine, nor how the Church is able to eat the Body and Blood and enter as a community into Communion with God, but they accept that it is so. The Jews at Capernaum were revolted by the same command, rejecting Christ as a cannibal and saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ Of course, Christ had not broken the law against cannibalism, a practice that Catholics find equally despicable. Exactly how eating Christ’s Body and drinking His Blood is not only possible but righteous is beyond human understanding—as is how God, the ultimate Good, could inhabit a human body, which is capable of such great evil, in the first place. God’s reason, the Catholic believes, is utterly beyond our comprehension.

Soren Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard (b. 5 May 1813, d. 11 November 1855)

It’s a Mystery. It’s Absurd. For this reason it seems tenable to me that Kierkegaard and Christian Existentialism might share enough common ground with the Catholic worldview that, for the purposes of this discussion, we might consider them akin.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus wrote, “[t]he absurd is born out of the confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” Having been so profoundly influenced by St. Augustine, whose young life was dominated by a profound thirst for truth, Camus posited that, if God doesn’t exist after all, man is not absolved of his desire for ‘salvation and meaning’.

I don’t think it would be much of a stretch to say that, ideally, Christians don’t only seek salvation because they fear damnation. The idea that people ‘invented’ religion out of a fear of mortality is an ignorant myth applied almost exclusively to Christianity. But more than that, it could only be spoken by someone who has made no meaningful inquiry into religious thought. Neither St. Augustine nor Kierkegaard, to use a pertinent examples, found their way to a conversion experience not because they feared death. Quite the opposite, their existential battle was one rooted in the strange and incomprehensible world of the here-and-now, a world that has become no less strange and no more comprehensible in the centuries that have passed since their deaths. And so the Existentialist-Absurdist and the Christian, if we’re willing to take them for their word, do not approach matters of life and death out of fear. Rather, we have Kierkegaard’s extremely handy phrase to describe the motive to pursue meaning evident in every strain of Christianity, Existentialism, and Christian existentialism: existential angst, the simple but profound desire to understand the nature of existence.

V. Existentialism meets Traditionalism

Finally, we come to the heart of this discussion. If I’ve done an adequate job of laying out the fundamentals of Existentialism and sufficiently removed from the idiosyncrasies of the individual philosophers, we may discuss how an Existentialist-Absurdist (if not strictly a Kierkegaardian, Sartrean, or Camusist?) might come to call himself a Traditionalist.

The failure of ‘pop Existentialists’ who dominate the philosophical scene is, in my humble opinion, that they’ve perverted Existentialism into a gross, trendy nihilism.

Every conservative who has ever come within a hundred miles of a university campus have suffered phrases such as ‘gender is a construct and religion is a construct’, phrases which are now known to cause extreme blood loss from auditory cavities. Certainly I’ve done my fair share of garment-rending, but not for the same reason as most conservatives. As an Existentialist this dismissive attitude toward constructs is the gravest of all philosophical sins. The nihilist, not the Existentialist, dismisses constructs. In fact, the only meaning an Existentialist knows is constructed! The question is not whether this-or-that is a construct. For the Existentialist, the answer is always yes. Your love of Bill Clinton is a construct. Your opinion that Glenn Beck is an idiot is, in fact, a construct. Your sense of self-worth is a construct. Your actual worth is a construct. The question is whether or not you as an individual or we as a society have been diligent architects.


Roger Scruton.

As Roger Scruton wrote in his short commentary on Spinoza, What is fashionably known as the ‘postmodern condition’ is really the condition of people who, having given up on their fundamental anxieties, find it easier to conceal them. Such people no longer know what to hope for or how.” Despite the fact that we live in an age where everything is questionable, those questions not only go unanswered, but they go unquestioned. This is the exact opposite of what Existentialism stands for. Where the rationalists and skeptics believed every ‘truth’ should be examined, Existentialists place this examination as being, essentially, the meaning of line. If we were to call ourselves Existentialists, we have no choice but to construct meaning for ourselves. And for the remainder of this essay, we’ll look at how Tradition serves as a flawed but ultimately the best blueprint for constructing that meaning.

Nicolás Gómez Dávila is a quirky but profoundly relevant voice to draw upon here.  Consider this escolio: “When respect for tradition dies out, society, in its incessant desire to renew itself, consumes itself in a frenzy.” Now consider it in relation to that quote from Camus we looked at: the idea that, with God absent, within man there remains a desire for “salvation and meaning that only God can provide.” But rather than looking at Tradition from sort of a legitimist perspective—one relying on political and/or religious authority—we might consider the more intuitive or (this is the wrong word, but I’ll throw it out there) practical origins of tradition and why we as a society would do well to maintain them.

VI. Existentialist motives for Traditional meaning

So as Existentialists, we must justify Tradition by the meaning it imparts on individuals. (Society will come later.) In The Woman Destroyed Simone de Beauvoir, the partner of Jean-Paul Sarte and an Existentialist philosopher in her own right, wrote, “When I was a child, when I was an adolescent, books saved me from despair: that convinced me that culture was the highest of values.” Consider that Camus, Sartre, and de Beauvoir were all novelists and Kierkegaard was a poet. It seems that true Existentialists can never be content simply to agree that meaning is constructed; they feel compelled to actually go about creating it (fancy that). But de Beauvoir gives a valuable starting-point. If we might be inclined to agree that the highest virtue is cultural, relating broadly to the arts, sciences, philosophy, and humanities, we’re one step closer to calling ourselves Existentialist Traditionalists.

But let’s first take a look at our counterparts on the Left. What do they value as absolute materialists? In effect, nothing. True, they claim to uphold the value of individual expression, but what exactly do they think is going to be expressed? Their rejection of ‘constructs’ at face value very severely limits their ability to find meaning. For what is an existentialist who rejects constructed meaning? Indeed, a Nihilist: Existentialism’s arch-nemesis, the Joker to Camus’s Batman, the Emperor Palpatine to Sartre’s Darth Vader. (I hope those will prove meaningful parallels with a bit of consideration.)

Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir (b. 9 January 1908, d. 14 April 1986)

Not in spite, but for intellectual honesty, do I criticize the Left. Their divination of ‘meaning’ is the weakest and most primitive manifestation of Existentialism possible. They cherish sexual identity, which they claim is not a construct but the natural expression of physical urges. What is undoubtedly a construct is the ‘gay subculture’. The Existentialist critique of this particular subculture isn’t the same as the mainstream Christian opposition. The Existentialist may conclude that an identity built around sex is not one of culture at all. If homosexuality is indeed a trait one is born with, meaning cannot be constructed around a naturally predetermined orientation. The case might be the same with radical feminist subcultures: the virtue of having been born a certain gender and basing one’s entire identity around that fact (or as is often the case, in tandem with gay and other leftist subcultures) is a cop-out of discerning what deeper ‘essence’ that individual might thrive in. Of course, de Beauvoir was herself a feminist, but feminism didn’t define her as a person. True, it might define her intellectual legacy, but she—like Camus, Sartre, and Kierkegaard—realized that meaning is not a strict identification with physical or mental realities. The Existentialist must strive to contain multitudes.

The issue of individualism is also a very pressing one. In reality, there can be no ‘subcultures’ in Existentialist. Attaching one’s individual identity to the larger categorization of a minority group is really a radical de-individuation. The Existentialist seeks to transcend labels and categories, not for its own sake, but because human beings really are fundamentally different. Our similarities with certain groups are a matter of importance in the individual pursuit of meaning, but they cannot be the end goal of that pursuit. In other words, you can’t join your local clique of radical feminists, shave your head, wear singlets, and call yourself an Existentialist—much less an individual.

Indeed, ‘culture’ is not a matter of personal appearance. We observe that great cultural icons such as William Faulkner, Igor Stravinsky, and Anders Zorn were in fact perfectly normal (and in many cases normally flawed) individuals. Those that belonged to a certain subculture, such as the Beat writers and the Dadaists, weren’t just groupies—they creating works of lasing importance. Even Camus was necessarily an oddity. How many books like The Outsider could be written, starring a man without a conscience who makes almost no conscious decisions at any point during the novel—a novel written to demonstrate nonsense? This was in itself a brilliant expression of a new philosophical perspective, but there’s a reason even The Outsider is generally unique within Camus’s body of work.

Compare these manifestations of the dynamic creative power of the individual to our friends on the Left who dye their hair purple, listen to “The Slits”, and call themselves radical persons. Something tells me that’s not quite what Camus or Sartre had in mind. There’s no such thing as an Existentialist herd instinct, no matter how edgy you think your studded necklace is. We’ll all live if Oscar Wilde is allowed to veil homosexual themes with metaphors sprinkled throughout absurdly funny plays; we’re likely to burn our culture candle to its base if everyone is content to be ‘all about’ their gender or sexual identity and completely impotent in terms of creative force.

Nicolas Gomez Davila

Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Clolombian reactionary intellectual (b. 18 May 1913, d. 17 May 1994)

Here’s where we find our link to Tradition. Every society should have a base from which we all start. Why? Because people aren’t nearly intelligent enough to be dropped into a void and told to imagine the universe. In order to challenge, destroy, and rebuild ourselves, we have to be someone to begin with. Tradition, which I imagine here to be the ever-expanding record of past odysseys for Meaning available for all people to study from in pursuit of their own essence, is neither useless nor infallible. It needs to be challenged, but not because it is wrong. Rather, because it has proven itself right for so many people throughout history, and to construct our own meaning we need to understand what a structure is to begin with.

The impression I get is that Sartre and Camus didn’t quite anticipate how far their ideas would be taken. Would Camus have come to the conclusions he did if his university discouraged inquiry into Christian theology? What if he was born in 1990 and his electives in religious studies were taught by Marxists and radical skeptics? What if they taught young Albert about how Christianity is a hateful, bigoted myth amalgamated from Far Eastern and Greco-Roman Mystery Religions that needs to be abolished for the sake of peaceful, oppressed religions like Islam and Wicca and totally-not-religion philosophies like Buddhism and Hinduism? We probably wouldn’t have the Camus we do now.

But the Leftist isn’t obsessed with destroying religion because they think it’s a construct. Far from it: I could believe that Leftists fear Tradition exactly because it is so pregnant with meaning, so rich in cultural and philosophical resources. They are not anti-Traditionalists because they admire Sartre, they admire Sartre because they see his thought as a step toward the justification of anti-Traditionalism. Really, if Tradition is as miserable and antiquated and dull as the Left claims—and if even the least motivated, intelligent, and creative elements of our society are capable of making informed decisions for themselves—they have nothing at all to fear from Tradition. But, again, the Left despises Tradition first, and the destruction of Tradition takes precedence over all other objectives.

Sartre believed one of the primary ethical duties in Existentialism was to help the disadvantaged and oppressed meet the conditions whereby they could pursue meaning for themselves. He never expounded on exactly what that meant, but if we consider the issue carefully, I think we’d be inclined to call such a collective striving toward meaning ‘Traditionalism’.

VII. In Conclusion

If all’s gone according to plan, we shouldn’t see Existentialism as an enemy of Traditionalism. Rather, we ought to see it as a fundamental way of approaching human nature which may or may not lead to Traditionalist conclusions. I’m inclined to say Existentialism is impossible without a strong concept of Tradition, but I admit the majority of Existentialists would be inclined to disagree.


Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer at Heidelberg, Germany.

Nevertheless, Existentialism provides another advantage to the Traditionalist: when we’ve met the Frankfurt School on an equal playing field, and in a really fair fight, the outcome can’t be called into question. Conveniently, the Frankfurt School has chosen this as their ground zero: all things must be proven according to their worth to human beings.

In the essays that follow, I’ll attempt to give the Traditionalist position in just that way. The next, focusing on Analytical Psychology, will argue that human nature as understood by Dr. Jung ought to be considered when a discussion of ‘What gives human beings meaning?’ If we want to answer that question, we must have an idea of what human nature is. Jung, I believe, is the Conservative’s remedy to the deranged Freudian orthodoxy instituted by the Frankfurt School. Essay IV will tackle the old issue of human or natural rights, and why we oughtn’t be seduced into thinking we’re entitled to such grand ideas as ‘freedom of religion’ or ‘freedom of speech’. This isn’t to say that such things are bad, but only that, with our Existentialist presumptions, we can’t take them for granted. The final essay will attempt to give a vision of human society that is more in line with this proper (and Traditional) understanding of human nature: Distributism. It will not, for better or worse, assume the truth of the Catholic Church or any papal encyclicals. I hope to prove that Distributism is, by the nature of its principles rather than the authority of its proponents, the ideal contender for the Frankfurt School’s underlying goal for human society: the Marxist Revolution.

M. W. Davis

The author is a native Bostonian currently studying at the University of Sydney. He is an officer of the Australian Monarchist League. His personal blog is “The American High Tory”.

the american high tory

SydneyTrads is the internet portal and communication page of the Sydney Traditionalist Forum: an association of young professionals who form part of the Australian paleoconservative, traditionalist conservative, and independent right.

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