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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Of Muses and Gods

Brandl's ART Articles: The Nine Arts and the Nine Muses

Imagine your spouse ran off with a houseguest, leaving you with the young child you had together. Imagine then that he/she returned, and you (somehow) agreed to take them back. Finally, imagine that many years later, your spouse relayed this tale at a dinner party you were hosting, and not only was no one shocked, the guests found the story entertaining. Even you congratulated your spouse for the “…excellent tale, my dear, and most becoming.” This unlikely sequence of events is precisely what happens in Homer’s telling of the Trojan War. The runaway spouse was Helen of Troy, the husband she left behind was King Menelaus, and the irresistible houseguest was Paris. How is it that Helen’s tale was so well-received by their guests, and why did Homer describe her in glowing terms after her supreme act of betrayal? (And what does any of this have to do with control?)

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A Life without Regrets

Image result for regret

Take a moment to think about your life. Have you ever done anything you regret? Silly question, right? Who hasn’t? If you google “life without regrets,” you’ll find scores of self-help, motivational ‘be all you can be’ websites all offering to share with you “10 secrets to live your life without regrets.” Rest assured, this article will be absolutely nothing like that. Instead, I want to bring an existentialist perspective to regret and see if we can actually learn something about this emotion.

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