Existential angst is a condition of dread or anxiety that is related to the philosophy known as existentialism. Existentialism is the belief that life has no meaning other than what people bring to it. All people thus have the freedom to choose any action, as well as the responsibility of accepting the consequences of that action. It is precisely this freedom and responsibility that causes existential angst. Moral people, existentialists argue, can have no other sensible response to the terrible burdens of their choices.
The English word “angst” derives from the same Latin root as “anguish” and “anxiety,” and conveys a similar meaning. The word has roughly the same definition and spelling in German, Dutch and the Scandinavian languages. The concept of existential angst was first explored by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in his 1844 book Begrebet Angest, or The Concept of Anxiety. Kierkegaard was a pioneer of existentialist thought, which he saw as an extension of his spiritual and moral beliefs. A century later, the philosophy was embraced by many European intellectuals who were disillusioned by the battles and genocides they had witnessed in the world wars.
Kierkegaard’s classic example of existential angst was to describe a man standing on the edge of a high cliff or building. Along with the fear of accidentally falling, the man feels an irrational impulse to deliberately fling himself over the edge. The emotion he feels upon realizing that he has this option is angst. Kierkegaard described it as “the dizziness of freedom.” He saw it as the burden of making moral choices as a consequence of free will.
The existentialists of the 1940s, such as French philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre, sometimes did not share Kierkegaard’s belief in God and a higher order. Life seemed to have no overriding meaning or order, other than what was created by human beings. This added new and often bleak dimensions to existential angst. Sartre’s play No Exit, perhaps the most famous work of existentialist literature, involves people trapped in a grim afterlife as a result of their poor choices. To philosophers such as Sartre, existential angst was a natural consequence of the freedom to make such horrible choices.
Existential angst is not always a cause for despair, however. Kierkegaard argued that it also made it possible for people to set boundaries and make moral choices. Despite this, angst is the best known aspect of existentialism, and is often invoked when the philosophy is discussed or parodied in the popular media. Filmmaker Woody Allen, playwright Tom Stoppard, and the Monty Python comedy troupe have all spoofed existentialist beliefs in their plays and films. The parody newspaper The Onion ran a series of articles in the early 2000s in which science “proved” that life was meaningless, prompting existential angst-filled quotes from fictional members of the American public.