Existential Reflections: The Shadow Side of Human Existence (1)

One thing that marks almost all existential thought is the acknowledgement of a ‘dark side’ to human existence. Now, this has nothing to do with psychology. You won’t find any reference in this series of articles to notions of a Freudian ‘death drive,’ an unconscious teeming with all manner of nasties looking to cause mischief, or experiments that show how easily people who aren’t normally cruel or mean can become so in certain situations (c.f. The Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments). The ‘dark side’ existential thought concerns itself with is not about behaviour, personality, or character; rather, it is the recognition that in exactly the same way that the light of the sun always and inevitably brings with it the dark of shadows, i.e. absence of light, the ‘light’ of human existence also inevitably comes with certain ‘dark’ patches, that, although we usually think of them as negative and things to be avoided, diminished, or overcome are just what it is to exist as human beings. To investigate this, this series of articles (I anticipate three) will look at some of these ‘shadow’ features of human existence through five key philosophers before wrapping up with a short section bringing their thoughts together.

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Know Thyself

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The expression “γνῶθι σεαυτόν,” or for those of you whose Greek is a little rusty, “know thyself,” was one of the Delphic maxims inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. We typically associate it with contemplation, introspective reflection, even meditation, in which we close ourselves off from the distractions of the external world, retreat inwards, and try to find out just what is in there. Who am I, really? As someone with a predilection for philosophy, I could hardly criticise reflection and contemplation (even meditation, to the extent that it remains free from suspicious metaphysical, religious, and supernatural elements), but when it comes to knowing thyself, these methods have received far too much attention. This article is an attempt to balance the scales.

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