Irrational Man. The Amazon description of the book succinctly summarizes its contents:
Widely recognized as the finest definition of existentialist philosophy ever written, this book introduced existentialism to America in 1958. Barrett speaks eloquently and directly to concerns of the 1990s: a period when the irrational and the absurd are no better integrated than before and when humankind is in even greater danger of destroying its existence without ever understanding the meaning of its existence.
Irrational Man begins by discussing the roots of existentialism in the art and thinking of Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Baudelaire, Blake, Dostoevski, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Picasso, Joyce, and Beckett. The heart of the book explains the views of the foremost existentialists—Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre. The result is a marvelously lucid definition of existentialism and a brilliant interpretation of its impact.
The author engages in a neo-Spenglerian discussion stating that different eras exhibit (Western) man having innate metaphysical inclinations for different forms of philosophy, literature, and art, with those era-appropriate forms resonating with the people of that time, while other forms, of past eras, would not resonate. Further, any putative affinity for these expired forms, in the present day, would merely be artificial sentimentality. Thus, he avers that the current age (for him and I presume for us as well) is that of existentialist philosophy and literature, and of modern art. I suppose that he would beleive that a modern preference for, say, Michelangelo or Dante would be philosophical-cultural pseudomorphosis.
The author distinguishes, derived from the thought of Matthew Arnold, the Hebraic worldview of action, doing, and moralism with the Hellenic worldview of thought, intellectualism, and abstraction. While this distinction is somewhat truthful, it is also ironic that the "action-oriented, pragmatic" Hebrew was obsessed with god and the spiritual-moral world of that god, while the "intellectual, abstract" Hellene valued science, the body, and physical beauty. So, the action-oriented Hebrews were focused on a Big Daddy in the Sky, while the abstract intellectual Hellenes were admiring the physiques of young men and formulating the first foundations of what would later become Western science. The author never recognizes, much less dissects, these contradictions and inconsistencies. The author associates the Hebraic mindset – the one he discusses, not the contradictions and inconsistences mentioned here – as being that which is being revived by existentialism. I have problems with that thesis, given my focus on the contradictions and inconsistences noted above.
A key point in the existentialist worldview is that existence (the fact that an entity exists) precedes essence (what that entity is). Platonism and related doctrines flips that by asserting that it are only the essences of entities that are truly real, while the particularities of existence are only ephemeral manifestations of essence. Platonism, with its prioritizing of the universal over the individual, of essence over existence, is presented as the antithesis of existentialism; indeed, it is part of the Classical/Western tradition that existentialism has attempted to overturn. But even here, Plato is said to demonstrate some existentialist characteristics, as his championing of reason as philosophy was for the redemption of the individual, as well as down-to-earth practical matters of designing a perfect polity, rather than being abstraction for the sake of abstraction. Of course, the author attempts a bit of mind-reading, and avers that Plato’s promotion of the universal and eternal Platonic ideals was Plato’s way of defying the inevitability of change, decay, and death in the real world. Hence, according to Plato, while the existing particular is ephemeral and not fully real, the fully real Platonic is timeless and eternal. See this for more about Platonic vs. existentialist reality. Christianity, based as it is on faith and personal redemption, reflects its Hebraic origins, and also has some seeds of existentialist viewpoints.
I finish my summary of this part of the book by quoting the author on Blake and Nietzsche:
“Drive your plow over the bones of the dead” is not the aphorism of a man who is seeking merely to hearken back to the “green & pleasant land” of ancient Britain. If a man marries his hell to his heaven, his evil to his good, Blake holds, he will become a creature such as the earth has not yet seen. Nietzsche put the same insight paradoxically “Mankind must become better and more evil.”
As regards the heart of the book - the analysis of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre – the summary and interpretation is fine as far as it goes (not that I agree with all of it). Of these four individuals, the only one I really value is Nietzsche (not that I agree with him on all, and, anyway, he didn’t want to be seen as a prophet, nor his views looked at as some sort of dogma). His work has power, and especially that from the second half of his career is eminently readable, unlike the pompous windbag Heidegger, the grand traditionalist who needs a book to make a point more elegantly summarized in a single page, and who can pontificate endlessly (and incomprehensibly) about “Being”. Kierkegaard’s interest in Christianity leaves me cold, and I see Sartre as an over-rated leftist polemicist.
The author’s favoritism is laughably obvious, with his lickspittle defense of, and promotion and admiration of, Kierkegaard, to the point that one wonders if Barrett spontaneously ejaculated while reading Kierkegaard’s work. Not surprisingly, (given Kierkegaard’s Christianity), Barrett also has an obvious bias in favor of God and of religion, while subtly mocking atheism. The author doesn’t seem to grasp all of the implications of Nietzsche’s Overman and believes it is just an Olympian superman in the clouds, rather than a self-overcoming and a more practical reality (Nietzsche admired Napoleon and to an extent Cesare Borgia). The author takes the anti-Faustian view that the well-rounded man needs to cultivate some mediocrity and “humor” (juvenile jackassery such as in the Alt-Right?).
A useful insight from the author, re: Nietzsche and the underlying theory about a will to power is as follows:
…the peculiar attraction Communism holds for the so-called backward or underdeveloped countries: it is a will to power on the part of these peoples, a will to take their fate in their own hands and make their own history. This powerful and secret appeal of Communism is something that our own statesmen do not seem in the least to understand.
Far enough. But note that like Christianity, Communism and other doctrines of the Far Left are based on resentment of the lower for the higher, the revolt of the underman, ultimately based on Bioleninism. In contrast, when Whites, when higher men, want to take their fate in their own hands, they turn to Fascism, to doctrines of the Far Right. Barrett writes:
…The goal of power need not be defined, because it is its own goal…
…the subject facing the object in a kind of hidden antagonism…Nature thus appears as a realm to be conquered, and man as the creature who is to be the conqueror.
For Nietzsche the era of reason and science raises the question of what is to be done with the primitive instincts and passions of man; in pushing these aside the age threatens us with a decline in vitality for the whole species.
Fair enough. I always say that science and technics – and rationality as a whole – are methods, means to an end, and not ends to themselves. You cannot ultimately define values, ends, from means, from methods. Relate to that, see this: Racial Existentialism. Also see the role of the rational (Salter) and irrational (Yockey) in pro-White activism discussed here.
Readers of my work know that I am no fan of the pompous windbag traditionalist Heidegger. With respect to this book the author describes Heidegger’s concept of Dasein as a “field theory” of human being that is analogous to energy field theories of matter in modern (in his day) physics. Thus, a person’s being is not only what is under their skin but encompasses all of their interactions and associations with reality; it is theirs, but it is not specifically confined to a material bodily core.
There is an amusing aside by the author in this section:
David Hume, in a moment of acute skepticism, felt panicky in the solitude of his study and had to go out and join his friends in the billiard room in order to be reassured that the external world was really there.
I am no fan of the leftist windbag Sartre either, and I see little to be gained by his philosophical perspectives. Of course, at the time this book was written, the American public strongly associated existentialism with the likes of Sartre; thus, this had to be an integral part of Barrett’s analysis. Barret describes Sartre as a hyper-masculine Cartesian dualist, whose philosophy is essential alien to nature-based women. Sartre distinguishes the object of Being-in-itself with then subject Being-for-Itself, with the former being more feminine, and the latter, acting through an always conscious act of will, being masculine, defining a life project through free will and the ability to say “no.”
Nothing in the book altered my high regard for Nietzsche, my indifference to Kierkegaard, and my negative attitude toward Heidegger and Sartre.
The book ends with a concluding summary The Place of the Furies (there are some subsequent appendices, but they are not essential enough to comment on in this review). Here, the author indulges in his typical atomic hysteria about man blowing up the world, and makes various insights, some truthful and amusing (Americans are non-intellectual, anti-intellectual, and unreflective by nature) and some controversial (taking the 1984-style idea that communists are Nietzscheans in the sense of caring only about the exercise of power and control – he states that communists “...have thus always exhibited a strange ambivalence: the most naively optimistic view of human nature in theory, and in practice the most brutal and cynical attitude toward human beings”). He believes that abstract rationalism is a threat to humanity; the following may be a reasonable summary of the author’s views:
Contrary to the rationalist tradition, we know now that it is not his reason that makes man man, but rather that reason is a consequence of that which really makes him man. For it is man’s existence as a self-transcending self that has forged and formed reason as one of its projects. As such, man’s reason is specifically human…
That I suppose is to be expected from a book whose title is Irrational Man. He also states:
Today is always and for all men the digging of one’s way out of the ruins of yesterday.
In summary, he has an anti-Faustian worldview that is at odds with my own.
The book would have benefited from a clearly stated definition and dissection of what (according to the author at least) existentialist thought actually is, instead of assuming the reader already knows and/or can reconstruct the philosophical paradigms from the descriptions of examples of existentialist thought and art examined in the book. The author’s whining about nuclear weapons and the assumed atomic apocalypse around the corner – while perhaps somewhat understandable (but still somewhat hysterical) at the time the book was written - seems dated today (more than 60 years with no nuclear war, how about that?), although hysterics today are becoming breathless about Putin (some things never change). The author’s commentary about how technology has made traditional politics and diplomacy irrelevant is just more over-heated hysteria.
All in all, despite my reservations about the author and his viewpoints, this is a good introduction to existentialism. And it is not dated, since existentialism has, if anything, declined in the past sixty years; there have been no significant advancements. In the modern age, today, all we have is “critical theory” “deconstructionism” obsessed with race and gender. And if you want a summary of that, just look into an unflushed, used stall toilet in an airport men’s room.