Panacea To Nigerian Predicaments In The Light Of Soren Kierkegaard’s Authentic Existence

Panacea To Nigerian Predicaments In The Light Of Soren Kierkegaard’s Authentic Existence


It was Martin Heidegger in his Being and Time, who changed the course of study laid down by his predecessors who were more interested in autonomous sciences. He set out to revive philosophy, not only of the problem of man but also that of ‘Being’. It is also the view of anthropologists that the study of man be given a central place in existence. They hold that all that exist is directed towards the explanation, understanding and well-being of man.




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However, man is far from realizing the plans made for him, when he demotes himself as one of the ‘thrown objects’ of Spinoza. Thus, the conscious realization of man as regards his place in the world will qualify him as not just ‘being-there’ as posited by Heidegger but more of an independent being capable of making choices as well as being responsible for them. It then behooves on man, the need to assert his existence in an authentic form. Having realized his being as one placed in charge of all other things according to Genesis account of creation, he must seek a way of giving meaning to his personal life. This constitutes the main purpose of this work.

Furthermore, man’s existential struggle and facts of life (grenz-situationen) daily unveil to him the more need to be personally responsible for his life. It is this background acting as the anti-thesis that provides for him the thesis of transcending the ‘crowd mentality’ to the awareness that he is but an individual. As a result, he sought to explain the world from his own person instead of the crowd. Here rests the importance of self-formation, not just for the sake of others but also for one’s personal life.

It has been said that cultivation of citizens is the fertile ground for that of a nation. A glance at the occasional situations of unrest in our country cannot but reveal the extent of our existential doldrums. The polity, economy, religion, etc are nothing without the existence and activity of man.

Bearing this in mind, it then means that our problems lie primarily in cultivation of people because as Plato had it, a non-philosopher leader is not worthy of being the leader; a non cultivated leader is nothing but canker-worm to any society.

Primarily one should be good in himself in other to radiate goodness unto others, for nobody gives what he has not. The same applies to those in the helm of affairs, be that religion, economy, education, etc, they should be cultivated to live as authentic being before they can lead others well. (With this, we Nigerians shall come to the realization of our potentials, extricate ourselves from European colonialization, modernized in form of trade union where they dictate the stand of our products.) Hence, if the ruler and the ruled in Nigeria live genuine and existential life, malaise of any sort will give way to a more responsible life. Then is the aim of this work realized.


It is over-laboring the obvious if one should ask what the problem is. It is experienced right under everybody’s nose. In politics, our leaders do not heed to the basic unwritten law that their private interest should not come in conflict with that of the public. We have experienced series of political crisis, economic malaise, social instability, and even religious upheaval.

‘The fact that every where in the world, Nigerians are generally feared like mad dogs, dreaded like criminals, cautiously approached like dangerous snakes and watchfully avoided like lepers’[1] is a glaring prove of the extent of our problem.

It was John Stuart Mill who said that ‘it is a crime, punishable by law to bring a child into the world without giving him a necessary education’[2]. If education is left only in the hands of the few, what then becomes the fate of the future generation? Definitely, we shall not meet up with knowledge which Francis Bacon said is power. The widespread ‘okada’ syndrome, conductor and driving profession, increasing number of hawkers, etc, that are mainly taken up by youths who should be in the school and under the guidance of the state, undoubtedly unmask deadly canker worm in the bones of our society.

Professor C.B. Okolo underlined ‘squandermania mentality’[3] as the central problem of our country. This he defined as a situation whereby every Tom, Dick and Harry develops a passive consumerism rather than productive attitude to issues. Our leaders, just like their citizens, are mostly preoccupied with the here and now that they fail to see beyond the immediate satisfaction and interest of the moment. As a result, there is no provision for the future and its generation.  An immersion into the world of ‘now’ shows some kind of resistance to pain and discipline needed today for a better tomorrow.

Another problem that is associated with this is alienation and marginalization of oneself. Authentic life has to do with being oneself and having freedom either to choose or reject something. Because of the absence of this awareness, people do not even recognize what is their right and position in the society. We tend to project our problems as caused by the westerners or others. We alienate ourselves from our resources and the revenue that accrue from them.

Unemployment has even affected the enlightened class. What then is the stand of uneducated? It is not uncommon to find grown-ups with negative orientation that is dangerous for our society. As a result of the hard situation, one makes up his mind to take the risk of life, which will either see him out of his pitiable situation or face the wrath of infringing the law of the state. The fact that criminals, drug barons, prostitutes, etc, are on the increase is not unconnected with this.


My task in this project is not to review or reinterpret the work of existentialists or Soren Kierkegaard precisely, but more of a synthesis, sieving, abstraction, mediation on the hinge points of existentialism, with that of Kierkegaard and then juxtaposing it with our country’s predicament. It is in this synthetic work that I will arrive at a more practical ways of curbing these problems.

Precisely, I am to make use of Soren Kierkegaard’s individual authentic existence in which he not only takes cognizance of the individual but also his genuine relationship with the crowd, search for ultimate good and meaning of life. Morestill, I do not intend going theocentric, rather a search to fill the deep chasm in man by personalizing the objective truth in every individual person.

It is the thought of Paul Ricoeur and Hans Gadamer that before a background, there must be a foreground, for no one speaks from nowhere. Similarly, this project is set up because of some problems. It begins with the background and the problems that led to the emergence of existentialism. The various thoughts of existentialists are not left out, and then follow Kierkegaard’s works and contributions. A review of Nigerian situation is followed by some restorative measures. Finally comes, the evaluation and conclusion.

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The term existentialism is sometimes reserved for the work of Jean Paul Sartre, who used it to refer to his own philosophy in the 1940’s. But it is often used as a general name for a number of thinkers in 19th and 20th centuries. There are factors and circumstances that led to the emergence of existentialism.

One of them is that the major systems of thought paid little or no attention to the personal concern of the individual. Philosophy based more on other disciplines like ethics, theory of knowledge, metaphysics, than on man.

Another factor was the incident of wars that brought about disregard for the feelings and aspirations of individuals. Man was further depersonalized because of scientific and technological achievements. The dehumanized individuals began to regard life as precarious, ambiguous and insecure; thus he developed deep anxiety and the feeling of being abandoned in an insensitive and random universe.

Religious decline in Europe was also one of the major causes of existentialism. Religion which was the traditional source of man’s sense of worth, meaning, and moral guidance, suffered from the critical impact of rational and scientific thought. One of the unfortunate consequences of this breakdown of the religious tradition was the phenomenon of atheism.[4]

One of such is the demolishing criticism found in Nietzsche. The bankruptcy of religious faith proclaimed in ‘God is dead’ of Nietzsche, appeared to be the decisive cultural fact of the day. He urged that this fact should be accepted with courage, and upon it should be built a new conception of human existence. Hence he invented the concept of ‘superman’.

Descartes’ methodic doubt is also a foundation for existentialism, since in his quest to establish a solid foundation on which to rest philosophy, he accepts only the thinking self as the indubitable phenomenon in existence (cogito ergo sum- I think, therefore I am).

There are numbers of recurring points in the writings of the existentialists. Firstly, they hold that humans have no pregiven purpose or essence laid out for them by God or by nature. It is up to each one of us to decide who and what to be through our own actions.

Secondly, they hold that people decide their own fates and are responsible for what they make of their lives. Finally, existentialists are concerned with identifying the most authentic and fulfilling way of life possible for an individual. In their view, most of us conform to the way of living of the ‘herd’.[5] To become authentic according to this view, an individual must take over his own existence with clarity and intensity. Such state of authentic self is made possible through some profound experiences of existential realities.


Although some earlier thinkers like St. Augustine, Montaigne, Shakespeare and Paschal, have been called existentialists in a loose sense, the term is strictly reserved for the thinkers of 19th century.

It appeared in the 19th century alongside romanticism, but it differed from it in the sense that while romanticism evokes a sense of individual participation in the larger context of nature, existentialism centres on existing individual with no real connection to anything in this world. Thus instead of suggesting that we are at home in this world, Soren Kierkegaard by his use of individual feelings of anxiety, despair (grenz- situationen),[6] tried to bring about a ‘leap’ of faith that would take one into a defining relationship with the God-man (Christ).

Fredrick Nietzsche is another remarkable existentialist that had great influence on history. He observed that the development of science and critical thinking in Western history has resulted in the situation where people have lost belief in transcendent basis for values. Hence, Nietzsche’s proclamation that ‘God is dead’ meant that ‘all the things people initially thought as absolute namely Platonic forms, divine will of theocentric era, cosmic order of ancient period, reason, history, have proved to be human construction without any pragmatic display of how to live our lives’.[7]  That brought in the theory of Nihilism and its results.

The effect of Kierkegaard’s and Nietzsche’s works lingered on after the First World War, Karl Jasper a psychiatric and philosopher drew from them in his development of ‘philosophy of existence’.

The same goes for the work of martin Heidegger, whose major work ‘ Being and Time’, 1927, with existential analytic, centred on everyday being-in-the-world. He was also greatly influenced by Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, a work that emphasizes description of our experiences as it is prior to reflection.

Working independently in France, Gabriel Marcel built on Bergsorn’s philosophy to develop an alternative to the dominant idealist philosophy taught in the universities. He maintained that human beings should be understood on the basis of his experience of concrete situation. He referred to this as ‘mystery’ because the body and its existential situation can never be completely understood by the intellect.

Jean-Paul Sartre also drew on Marcel’s thought although that of Husserl and Heidegger especially influenced him. It seems he was the first to use the term existentialism. He was highly regarded in existentialism because of his firm stand on absolute freedom and his style of writing. Merleau-Ponty and Albert Camus were initially associated with the current after Second World War, but both eventually rejected the term as they distanced themselves from Sartre due to some political differences.


Existentialists start on the assumption that it is no longer possible to believe in some transcendental justification underlying our existence. If God is dead, we are then thrown into the world as Spinoza said[8], abandoned, forlorn with no predetermined direction. Even though we see some meaning and purpose for our lives, we are to face the stack truth that there is no proper function for humans or ‘plan in God’s mind’ that tells us the right way to be humans. This is almost the deception we experience in our country, Nigeria. We alienate ourselves from necessary things we should do in order to better our condition and project God to be the cause.

In contrast with Schopenhauer’s philosophy that sees man as instinctual being, existentialism sees him as a master of himself having possibilities that may either be rejected or accepted on a rational level. Heidegger and Sartre capture the reflexive dimension of human existence saying that what is unique about humans is that their own being is a ‘question’ or an ‘issue’ to them.

Kierkegaard’s description of self portrays human existence as a tension. He argues that human are finite and infinite, temporal and eternal, contingent and free. What defines our identity as selves is the concrete way we relate ourselves to this tension. This was also the opinion of Nietzsche, that we are both creatures and creators which when embraced will make us fully humans. Heidegger and Sartre refer to two aspects of self as ‘facticity’ (our existence as mere given, as an event) and transcendence (our ability to surpass a given situation)[9]. In their view, life is a continuous tension between these elements, a tension only resolved in death.


Karl Jasper had a similar view when he talked about our ability to grasp the general and realize our freedom as ‘existenz’. Thus if we regard the self as a tension or struggle, it is natural to think of human as an unfolding event or happening. As an ongoing happening, I am what I make of myself. Hence Ortega said that ‘human being does not have a nature but a history’[10]. Thus Nigerian as a nation is either good or bad; it depends on whatever history we make out of it, for one reaps what one sows.

Heidegger’s element of futurity, our being-towards-death, also shows that we are beings directed towards future, to the extent that we are struggling to realize something in life.

Finally, we define our identity through the choices we make in dealing with the world. Because we have no fixed or determined nature, our essence as individuals are defined and realized through our concrete existence in the world. We are left to actualize whatever potential is in us.


As being in the world, we see the lived world (lebenswelt) as giving sense to our possibilities, and we find ourselves a kind of determined in how we can act in future depending on our choices in the past. This is facticity of life as it is a mere given. Existentialists point out another aspect of life called transcendence, which means the ability to surpass a given situation. This ability to transcend our facticity entails that we have free will. Our choices are free in the sense that:

  • No outside factor determines our will.
  • In any particular case, we could have acted otherwise than we did and
  • We are responsible for our choices in a way that justifies them either praiseworthy or blameworthy.

An existentialist like Sartre would say that it is ‘self-deception’[11] to think that one is compelled to act in a particular way. One could have acted in another way. It then suggests that even in our habitual and seemingly automatic actions, we are actually assuming a particular identity for ourselves through our own choices, and we are therefore responsible for what we do.

Sartre captures this idea when he said that ‘human beings are condemned to be free’[12], because our being is a question to us, and we give it meaning through our action. In as much as our actions are freely chosen, we invariably decide to take the responsibility of whatever would be the outcome of such decisions. Thus we are entirely responsible for what we do. We have no excuse behind or justification before us.[13]

Existentialists generally hold that we are not only responsible for the direction our own lives take, but also for the way the world around us looks. This has its root in Kant who saw reality we experience as partly shaped by constituted activity of our own minds.

The existentialists differ in that they consider reality as dependent on our own choices. For example, Kierkegaard held that reality is accessible to us through some perspectives. That there is no way to get in contact with reality as it is in itself, independent of any framework of interpretation.[14]

Husserl holds that the world we experience is constituted by the meaning-giving activity of consciousness. Satre’s opinion is that one is responsible for the way the world around him presents itself. For example, Kierkegaard held that the sphere of existence in which one lives shapes one’s sense of reality. Similarly, Nietzsche calls our attention to the ways our biological and historical factors may influence our decisions without our awareness. But in all these limitations, the belief that we can rise above our situations to be ‘creators rather than created’ remains fundamental to existential thought.


Existentialists are critical about everyday social existence because of the tendency of letting ourselves get swallowed up in the public, the ‘they’, the ‘herd’, the ‘masses’ or the ‘phantom’[15]. They have similar account of how social existence belittles our ability to realize ourselves as individuals. Kierkegaard described the way, being well-adjusted members of the public, can bring everything to the lowest common denominator that nothing can really count anymore. Nietzsche has the same account when he said that we domesticate ourselves like animals and deaden our creativity. Heidegger points out our tranquilization and alienation from ourselves, as a wrath of absorption into the social world[16]. Sartre presents a harsh picture of social relation, since people see others as objects and not as free beings.

However, there are many positive sides to social life as reflected by some thinkers. Although Heidegger criticized the possibility of self-loss in the crowd, he asserted that the possible way of interpreting ourselves comes from the social context in which we find ourselves. For this reason, being authentic is not a matter of escape from our society, rather it is that of embracing our social life in the right way that does not constrain our personal decisions.

Jasper and Buber both emphasized the importance of ‘I- thou” relationship in realizing a full and meaningful life. The existentialists agreed that our ordinary day-to-day existence is shot through with concealment and self-deception, from which we can be freed not by rational reflection but by profound experiences.

Kierkegaard and Heidegger focused on the role of anxiety in leading us to confront the fact that we exist as finite beings, and that decides the content of our lives. Jasper has it as ‘limit-situations’. For Sartre, the feeling of ‘nausea’ shows us that it is up to us to impact meaning to things, and ‘anguish’ reveals our terrible freedom to decide our own fate. Marcel saw it as ‘mystery’ because it is an encounter that defies our inability to gain intellectual mastery through our problem-solving skill.

Albert Camus, while writing on absurdity, saw it as feeling in which suicide

begins to seem like a real possibility. He saw the problem as most fundamental experience of guilt and provides us with an insight into our own being.


The word Authentic was coined from the Greek word ‘Authentikos’ meaning original, genuine, being what it should be, not false or factitious, and reliable. Chambers dictionary defines it as trustworthy, and can also be used to describe the way of living.

Since authenticity is a quality of being genuine, it is supposed to be the watchword of every individual subject in existence. Human being is that laddered with potentials and in the bid to actualize this, man transcends himself. Just as Sartre and Heidegger would agree that:

A human being is a being with unrealized potentialities… a human being has no essence; he is free to fill the internal gap in his nature in whatever way he chooses[17]

For Soren Kierkegaard, the ‘real individual’, the authentic man, properly speaking, is the individual of faith and grace as opposed to that of pure and abstract nature. For him Authenticity is attained in the moment of self-knowledge, which is also the moment before God, in the act of willing oneself. He presented Abraham as example of one who was authentic.

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The experience of guilt and anxiety is important because it reveals basic truth about our own conditions as contingent being. Our day-to-day life is characterized by inauthentic lives, which is reflected in our ordinary social conformism. Thus we refuse to take responsibility for our own lives. In throwing ourselves into socially approved activities, we disown or alienate ourselves and weave a web of deception in trying to avoid facing up to the truth about what we are. Such pattern of life is in contrast with standing out in reality. Such is authentic living. Authenticity suggests the idea of owning up to who one really is.

For some existentialists, becoming authentic is first of all a matter of grasping the seriousness of one’s existence as an individual. This is the fundamental point of “I exist” of Descartes. It is more of facing up to the real task of making out something of one’s life.

Kierkegaard holds that the only way of becoming authentic self (existing individual) is by living in such a way that you have an infinite passion in your life. It involves life-defining commitment to something that gives life an ultimate content and meaning. Heidegger contends that in the experience of anxiety, we are confronted with naked truth of our existence as contingent beings. The awareness of our being towards death propels us to seize our own existence with integrity, steadiness and self-constancy.

Many existentialists agree on having a defined ‘commitment’[18] as one’s focus and sense of direction in life. Kierkegaard saw this commitment that leads to self-fulfilment in what he called “leap of faith”. For Heidegger, authenticity requires ‘resoluteness’ which means a commitment to some specific range of possibility opened up by one’s historical heritage. The unique characteristics of Kierkegaard as the founder of existentialism is clear in his emphasizing the importance of relating oneself to what is concrete and particular, than to mystery and transcendence.

Furthermore, the so-called atheists like Heidegger, and Sartre tend to agree with Kierkegaard’s view that being engaged or having a fundamental project, is necessary for a focused and coherent life. The disparity between this and religious existentialists is clear when you consider the exhortation of Kierkegaard, that what is crucial to faith is not the objective truth about what one believes, but rather the intensity of one’s commitment to subjective truth. The notion of authenticity is supposed to give us a fulfilling picture of life after the ‘death of God’ as proffered by Nietzsche’s master morality. It demands from us the need to embrace and model life in our own way. It presupposes lucidity, honesty, courage, openness to realities of one’s situation and a firm awareness of one’s own responsibility in life.

Unfortunately, it would be wrong, to think of authenticity as ethical as some usually interpret it. Firstly, becoming authentic does not imply that one adopts any particular moral code or follows any. Authentic individual might be a liberal, conservative, duty-bound or revolutionary citizen. Thus authenticity pertains not to ‘what’ specific kind of thing one does, but ‘how’ one does it[19]. It is a matter of style of life rather than its concrete content.

Secondly, authentic living does not oppose ethics as ordinarily understood; rather it demands a universal commitment. Kierkegaard rightly said that it is possible for the ‘knight of faith’ (men of faith like Abraham) to transcend the ethical norms of the society and Nietzsche holds that authentic individuals should live ‘beyond good and evil’. Thus authenticity seems to have more to do with what is called ‘art of self-cultivation’, than it does with ethics as traditionally understood.


The word ‘individual’ simply means indivisible. It cannot be divided without loss of identity. It stands as one, singular an inseparable being as St Augustine asserts. Every created man was created purely as an individual and will have to account equally as an individual. Man was essentially created a perfect individual, who is the only being created in the image of God. It is only in the world of the brutes and the lesser beings that the race takes precedence over the individual

… for in the animal world, the individual is always less important than the race. But it is the peculiarity of the human race that just because the individual is created in the image of God, the individual is above the race[20].

It is the individual subject who is to stand before the throne of God for judgment, not the community, nor the group, nor the public, but the individual, for the mass, is an illusion. The reality is the individual. For Kierkegaard, to consider man in general is to consider no man. For him, the generality of man is only an abstract collective. In such a case, if anything goes wrong, no one can be held responsible. This is precisely why he chose the individual as his principal category for saving the integrity of the race from the debasement into the abstract collectives. For kiekegaard, individuality does not mean isolation, for man is by nature, a social being, outside which he cannot live well. What Kierkegaard and the other existentialists emphasis, is to stress ‘how an individual can remain undetermined by the group despite his being in the group’.

The crowd is untruth in that it renders the individual completely shameless and irresponsible. Of the Crowd, George Price says:

…It weakens his sense of responsibility by reducing it to a fraction[21].

It is an indubitable truth that a good number of people derive joy in submerging themselves into the crowd. Such people do so simply to dodge and escape the nakedness of being alone. As Kierkegaard would put it, to be an individual implies many commitments and responsibilities

However, Jean Paul Sartre asserts that the individual carries with him the rest of the community also. George Price presented an image of an individual representing everybody when he said:

To be the ‘single one’ is not in itself any particularly commendable task, for it often means simply being the ‘odd one’. But to be the one man in such a way that he is at the same time also the universal man, that is the real art of living[22]


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