Great philosophers · Hannah Arendt · political philosophy · Political Theory

Existential Questions

Recently, during PhD course Liberalism and Its Critics (Political Theory course) we discussed Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. Those who are familiar with her work know that Arendt was very demanding political thinker (she was not a philosopher, as she said herself).  Arendt claimed that modernity destroyed participation in the public affairs. We do not act, we behave. The action is the highest in the hierarchy of the activities included in vita activa. We are not human when we live only private life. We live fully and are truly human by public presence. Being heard and seen by others creates reality and form our identity. Her demand toward people was to act and to struggle for our causes. We cannot achieve anything without public disclosure. By remaining in the realm of private life we deprive ourselves of humanity. The professor said that Arendt’s way of thinking is not for everyone. Those who want just live their lives or wait for others to make their existence better cannot become “friends” with Arendt. On the other hand, those who have existential dilemmas are more likely to agree with Arendt. The professor is a big fun of Arendt and he said that he asks himself existential questions all the time: why am I here? What is the sense of my life? Am I going to achieve something before I die? The group divided into those who do not have existential concerns and want to live happy and tranquil life, and those who have existential dilemmas- including me. Professor said those who are not bothered with the existential dilemmas are lucky because their lives are much easier and less frustrating. I must agree with him. Every single day I ask myself what am I doing with my life? Will I ever do something that will make me proud of myself? Will I be able to contribute to the humanity in any way? I agree with the opinion that when you do not ask yourself any of those questions your life is much easier. Of course, I do not believe that all of us are able to do great things. In fact, I strongly doubt that I will be able to achieve anything great partially because I do not do enough, partially because of the world that surrounds me. I am well- aware of my own limitations and the obstacles in today’s world.

What Arendt had in mind was ancient Athens where people lived in small city- state and public sphere was the realm of freedom, which gave every citizen a chance to become individual. Unfortunately, current size of the states and democratic system do not allow us to become free and individual in Arendt’s understanding of the concepts. We focus on our private matters because the public remains in the hands of our representatives. We believe that the representatives take from us the burden of politics. The private sphere became our realm of freedom. However, we deprive ourselves of opportunity to express who we are. Arendt wanted people to be courageous, to do great things and become recognized and remembered.

With the professor and the other student we concluded that when you ask yourself existential questions you feel frustrated and powerless, you think that you do not do enough. You feel like you waste your life, while time passes relentlessly. Although you work hard and want to contribute to the humanity, you still have that feeling that your life lacks real meaning, purpose and value. It is not that we are unhappy with our lives but we desire to achieve something important, to genuinely contribute to this world.

Do you share similar dilemmas? Do you ask yourself what is the meaning of your life?


19 thoughts on “Existential Questions

  1. A very nice piece of writing with some vital questions including these “Why am I here? What is the sense of my life? Am I going to achieve something before I die?” Achievement, though, is like a never -ending mountain: the higher we climb, the less satisfied we are and the higher we want to go while despising what we have already done, because we have already achieved it. I go with Camus on this: “Il faut imagnier Sisyphe heureux.” I say this to myself, every day, while I am climbing.

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  2. A very interesting post. The idea that to claim citizenship you must be actively engaged in politics was something held to be true for many of the Florentine political philosophers such as Machiavelli. It was an essential component of civic humanist thinking. Over a century later it would also find an echo during the English Revolution with the idea that an individual must be prepared to fight for liberty in order to legitimately claim the status. I think the argument that we are disempowered and frustrated by representative politics and the scale of modern states is valid, but only up to a point. If we take a wider view of democracy and participation to include political parties themselves, civil society, pressure groups, local government etc then I think there is still room for an individual to feel they are making a valuable and legitimate contribution. The problem is that we have been conditioned by national politicians to believe that democracy is only worthwhile when focused on national legislatures. History has shown that profound contributions are frequently made by people working outside of the political system such as Tom Paine, Emmeline Pankhurst, Martin Luther King etc. But I agree with the fundamental premise that we are only truly fulfilled when we engage in a public sphere. I also derive much fulfilment from understanding that I am continuing in a tradition of past British radicals and republicans. So there is a sense of a history, continuity and passing on a concept of freedom which makes my life and activity worthwhile

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  3. “The problem is that we have been conditioned by national politicians to believe that democracy is only worthwhile when focused on national legislatures”. You put this very well. I think the problem is that we limit democracy to administrative tasks. We forget that democracy also means space for public deliberation and other kinds of participation. As you said this, politians condition our thinking about democracy.We are used to voting once in a few years and we take for granted that the rest can be done by our representatives.

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  4. I’m also on the unlucky side 🙂 … Could you please then explain the difference between a political thinker and a philosopher?


  5. Thank you for this interesting post. On a personal level I prefer the existential questions-it keeps us alive and engaged, in the world as well. The individual and the collective affect and have an effect on each other. There comes a time when we have to be aware of our conditioning much of it extremely adverse to leading a fulfilling life.

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  6. I must say I am relieved to know that you are reading these difficult books for a course. I was in awe thinking you were doing this reading just for fun! Assigned reading provides a good opportunity to both challenge ourselves but also have a chance to hear a lecturer or have a discussion.
    As for existential questions, I have asked them as long as I can remember. In fact, I can’t imagine being alive and not reflecting on the big questions about meaning and purpose. I, personally, became a Catholic in late life(65) because I wanted to connect with others who lived purposefully. I think each person finds a way to answer these questions, and I never think I can speak for anyone else.

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  7. Very Interesting!
    I ask these questions everyday of my life. And I will continue to seek out a more meaningful and purposeful life for as long as I breathe. One never knows if that yearning will ever come to a point of completion, but I won’t ever stop trying. Maybe I will never find it, maybe I will find something even grander on the journey to quiet that inner calling I long to answer. I just know that I have the potential for much more and the quest will be my journey of pursuit till I find the answers.
    Thank you for showing us that we are not alone in asking these all important questions.

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  8. Actually, this is very good question! Firstly, political philosophy is a branch of academic philosophy, while political theory is a branch of political science. Secondly, political theoriest takes into consideration emprical facts while political philosopher does not. Political philosopher grounds his work on metaphisics and epistemology. The main focus is on features of governments, politics and how political systems operate and the way they are understood. Moreover, political philosopher wants to present timeless truths. One may say that Plato, Hobbes or Marx are political philosophers.
    On the other hand, political theoriest works on more specific or fundamental issues in politics such as justice, legitimacy and power. Machiavelli is seen as political theoriest with his concerns with political leadership and preservation of the state.
    Hannah Arendt claimed that political philosophers are like spectators. They build their theories on observation from outside and do not put themselves into particular situation.
    I think you could find various opinions on the difference between those two professions. However, my professor says that at the end of the day there aren’t big differences between them.

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  9. Yes, I read those books for my courses but I must admit that I love writers like Hannah Arendt. When you read her work, you do not sleep at night because there are so many thoughts on your mind. You see world from different perspective.
    It is very interesting how differently we see purposes of life. You said you became a Catholic because you wanted to be with others who live purposefully. My professor claims that those who are more religious have less problems with existential questions because they know there is otherwordly life awaiting for them. Less religious or atheists are more concerned with their existance because this wordly life is everything they have.


  10. Thank you for your beautiful comment. It seems many of us search for the meaning and purpose. I think that more important than the end is the process of searching. It makes us ambitious, demanding and hard- working.

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  11. Anyone who devotes an entire post to Hannah Arendt deserves my full attention. 🙂
    She also said: “every newborn human has to reinvent the world”. How do you reinvent your world? 🙂
    Now bear in mind that in Athens there were only about 30-40,000 citizens and more than 100,000 Ilots, slaves. How easily can we transfer that system to to-day’s millions and millions of “free” citizens?
    Last but not least, in view of recent elections, are we not “surrendering” the exercise of our power to our representatives? (So much easier, right?)
    Don’t worry, i’m sure you will do great things.
    Take care

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  12. I am constantly working on reinventing my life😉
    Indeed, with millions of citizens and huge countries it is impossible to act according to Arendt’s vision. However, fortunately there is a civil society that might serve as platform for “action”.

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  13. No more than twice a week reinvention please. 🙂 It may be impossible to act according to her vision. but, it is possible to spread her thoughts. The civil society is not really there. But I think groups can be set up. And take advantage of to-day’s communication means. Did you see the movie that came a few years ago? The actress is very good. There is a debate with The New Yorker’s editor about ancient Greek that is spectacular. Be good.


  14. You’re right. There are two kinds of people in the world: the small number who think about making a difference . . . and the majority, who don’t. Don’t give up! Think globally, act locally! Let your little light shine 🙂

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