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Few of the great existentialists had children. How can their philosophy help with the anxiety and dread of fatherhood?
A meeting of existential philosophers tends to be the spectacle one might expect: black berets whisper in hushed tones about death and anxiety; nervous hands and pursed lips smoke cigarettes in hotel rooms; throats are cleared to deliver scholarly papers to the chosen few. (What exactly would ‘The Patency of Art: Transubstantiation, Synesthesia, and Self-Touching Touch in Merleau-Ponty’s and Nancy’s Aesthetics’ be about?) There are, however, spectacles you will rarely see: the kind that children leave in their wake.
This is a gathering of predominately male philosophers, and male philosophers are notoriously bad fathers. Of course, there are exceptions, but think of Socrates shooing his family away in his final moments so that he can have alone time with his philosophical buddies, or, even worse, Jean-Jacques Rousseau writing Emile (1762), a tract about raising kids, while abandoning his own. Instead of being bad parents, many of the titans of European existentialism – Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre – remained childless.
We defied the odds: we are both philosophers, existentialists even, and both of us are fathers. How this happened was not exactly noble or well-considered: honeymoon babies, unexpected, but welcome, babies – that’s how we became fathers. And our tenure as parents has often been a haphazard mess, anything but thoroughly philosophical. Occasionally over the years, though, we’ve drawn on the wisdom of the fathers of philosophy, even the childless fathers of existentialism, and in so doing have become marginally better parents.
First, a word about childlessness: it would be easy to chalk up an existentialist’s avoidance of fatherhood to his guiding ideals of autonomy and freedom. We are, according to Sartre, ‘condemned to be free’, and this strange life sentence means that we must at every point choose our own path forward. This doesn’t suggest that one can’t take influence from another but, ultimately, individuals are solely responsible for the choices they make. The imperative to have children, one that remains widespread, should not therefore have the usual traction for an existentialist. He or she is wholly free in declining to procreate and raise a brood of kids. For an existentialist, there is no shame in this. None whatsoever.
Many philosophers steer clear of child-rearing because of the sheer difficulty of parenting well. ‘Raising children is an uncertain thing,’ the pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus tells us. ‘Success is reached only after a life of battle and worry.’ Many philosophers – many people – are not well-equipped for this battle. Some know it, and opt out. In our culture, it is tempting to interpret avoiding parenting as a refusal to be appropriately responsible. While there is nothing particularly wrong about this interpretation, it exerts a type of pressure that leads many to become horrible parents. Many adults become parents as a matter of course, rather than as an active choice, despite the fact that they might not be wholly prepared or willing.
‘Art thou a man entitled to desire a child?’ Nietzsche asks in his childlessness in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-91). ‘Art thou the victorious one, the self-conqueror, the ruler of thy passions, the master of thy virtues? Thus do I ask thee.’ For many people, including Nietzsche, reticence and refusal is the most appropriate response to such difficult questions. In the Republic, Socrates comments that the reluctant ruler is the only one who should lead the polis, and the same might go for parenting: only those who fear and tremble in the face of fatherhood are worthy of assuming its infinite responsibility. Perhaps being scared and running away just means that you are paying attention.
But let’s pretend that an existentialist, after careful consideration or random accident, becomes a father. How can he remain a parent without jumping philosophical ship? According to his essay Anti-Semite and Jew (1946), the core of existential freedom is what Sartre terms ‘authenticity’, the courage to have ‘a true and lucid consciousness of the situation, in assuming the responsibilities and risks it involves, in accepting it in pride or humiliation, sometimes in horror and hate’…