Leadership and loneliness

Condition humaine – an existential view of loneliness (I. Death and absurdity)


Condition humaine – an existential view of loneliness

Like Camus later, the French author and politician André Malraux developed essential foundations of his existential thinking in novels. Above all, »La Voie royale« (1930, »The Royal Way« or The Way of Kings) should be mentioned here: it basically contains everything that Malraux developed in terms of existentialist maxims about the development of the novel’s characters. He thus had a great influence on the thinking of Jean‐​Paul Sartre (»he is like a John the Baptist whose Jesus I would be«, Sartre said in a letter to Simone de Beauvoir in 1940). Influenced by Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Spengler and Gide, Malraux repeatedly thematises how man must shape himself in the face of the tragic conditions of existence.

Malraux deals with central questions of existence: Where does man stand in the world? Where does he locate himself in history? What is the meaning of life (human existence) in view of its finiteness? In other words, it is about essential conditions of existence with which man must deal hopelessly. What Viktor E. Frankl refers to as the »tragic triad« of guilt, suffering and death, the Frenchman refers to as the condition humaine, i.e., the conditions of human life, consisting of la mort, l’absurdité, la solitude – death, absurdity, loneliness.


Death is the defining element of our lives, it marks the span of life, the uncertainty of its occurrence always resonates unconsciously and »disciplines us to live« (Viktor E. Frankl).

The German philosopher and sociologist Georg Simmel describes it this way: »But in every single moment of life we are those who will die, and it would be different if this were not our given destiny, somehow effective in it. As little as we are already there now of our birth, but rather something is continually being born of us, so little do we die only at our last moment. Only this makes the form‐​giving meaning of death clear. It limits, i.e., it does not shape our life only at the hour of death, but it is a formal moment of our life that colours all its contents: the limitedness of the whole of life through death influences each of its contents and moments; the quality and form of each would be different if it could stretch beyond this immanent limit.« (»Zur Metaphysik des Todes«, On the Metaphysics of Death, 1911, own translation). Similar thoughts also run through the later work »Der Mut zum Sein« (»The Courage to Be«, 1952) by the theologian and philosopher of religion Paul Tillich, among others.

Death is thus a central concept for us humans. However, many perspectives play into it: not only the loss of life, but also the loss of freedom, strength, courage, and hope, being trapped in one’s own physicality, the transience of one’s own body, etc.

What is the meaning of human life if man must die? How is man supposed to deal with the meaninglessness of his own existence? How can we live with the constant possibility of death? The fear arising from these questions becomes man’s constant companion and drives him to act. He has two options: to let himself be driven to substitute actions that promise short‐​term satisfaction and thus distraction. Or he faces the certainty of death and takes responsibility for shaping his life. For only in this way does man have the possibility to give meaning to his life out of free decision.

The absurdity

Man is perhaps the only existing being to have an awareness of his death. Death, in turn, is incontestable proof of the absurdity of existence. The paradox for man is that because of death, life must be meaningless – but man can wrest meaning from life through his actions.

»The experience of the absurd as the ultimate contradiction […] points to a contradiction that is constitutive of existence as a human being but can nevertheless be resolved neither logically nor ethically. Living in an antinomic structure that sabotages the pursuit of meaning and happiness from the outset becomes an ordeal for the individual, who finds himself forced to search for a niche in the meaningless for the realisation of his idea of a successful self‐​design«. (Thurnherr, Hügli: Lexikon Existenzialismus und Existenzphilosophie, p. 72, own translation.)

Joachim Leeker writes in his book »Existentialist Motifs in the Work of Alberto Moravia: A Comparison with Malraux, Camus and Sartre« (1979) that for Malraux absurdity means the »futile attempt of the ego to come to terms with itself and the world, whereby the ego feels the immutability of a situation that exceeds human powers and to which it is insofar at the mercy.« (own translation) One should also add the aspect of the inevitability and unplannable of a situation; one should also consider a discrepancy between »being« (the sobering reality) and »wanting to be« (the overly high expectations of life). Absurdity can be found both in the human being and in the world: The absurdity of the human being, which means the incomprehensibility of one’s own ego, which puts together an unreal image of self and reality out of dreams, wishes and fantasies. And the absurdity of man in the world means the ineffectiveness of his actions, his powerlessness in the face of time, death, and fear (after Leeker, 1979).