The below video is a nice introduction to existentialism. And so is this brief passage written by historian Carlin Barton in her great book, Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones (University of California Press 2001, 31-32):
On the morning of June 6, 1989, a riveting series of photographs appeared on the front page of the Union News in Springfield, Massachusetts; it showed a young Chinese man in a white shirt casually blocking with his body the advance of a line of tanks into Tiananmen Square. […]
This was the Roman descrimen, the “moment of truth,” the equivocal and ardent moment when, before the eyes of others, you gambled what you were. This was the agon, the contest, when the truth was not so much revealed as created, realized, willed in the most intense and visceral way, the truth of one’s being, the truth of being.
When, before the eyes of the enemy Etruscans and their king and commander Porsena, Livy’s would-be assassin Marcius was threatened with torture by fire, the unarmed youth confounded the enemy by thrusting his right hand into the flames of the altar and standing, unflinching, while it burned. He said to the king, “See how cheaply men hold their bodies when they set their sights on glory” (2.12.13). With those words and that gesture he responded to the threat of torture. […]
As the art historian Bettina Bergmann points out, the Romans had a taste for moments of high tension, frozen instants of “explosive emotions,” “excruciating suspended animation,” “moments of decision”: Medea contemplating her children with a dagger on her lap; the sacrificial bull poised to receive the blow of the ax; the wounded gladiator anticipating the death blow; Phaedra clasping her letter to Hippolytus; Helen resisting the blandishments of Paris. Because of their desire to find and express the “truth” of their being in action, the Romans were eager to interpret any and every confrontation as an ordeal, an opportunity for the exercise of will.
How do you stake your being? Selfishly, sacrificially? Violently, nonviolently? Competitively, cooperatively?
Or are you in bad faith most of the time, pretending you have no choices to make or that you’re an utterly determined thing, like a stone (what Jean Paul Sartre called a being-in-itself as opposed to what each of us actually is, a being-for-itself, a being with choices)?
Sartre once illustrated bad faith this way (I’m paraphrasing): during a dinner date, a man (call him Frank) slips his hand under the table and rests it upon a woman’s knee (call her Indie for indecisive). Indie pretends that Frank’s hand is not there. The muscles in her thigh go limp. She keeps on talking as if nothing has happened. She acts as if Frank’s hand has no more significance than a napkin. Indie does this because she realizes that any decisive response she makes (either toward or away from Frank’s gesture, or to discuss it with him directly) entails a choice of her being, and she does not want to make that choice. So she fakes it. She stalls for time. She is in bad faith.
How about you? When are you going to stop cheating and faking your way through life, face difficult truths, and explicitly choose your way of being in the world, staking yourself–taking chances?
I’m speaking now to all cowards, myself included.
Will you always be Oedipus, unable to face the truth of your being, your eyes in your hands?
This is the work of life.