Existentialism is the philosophy of human existence as it relates to one’s pursuit of the meaning of life. The term was originally coined by French philosopher and dramatist, Gabriel Marcel, in 1943. Jean-Paul Sartre, a leader in 20th century French philosophy, later popularized the term in his book L'existentialisme est un humanisme. Philosophers such as Marcel and Sartre, who focused on human existence, are referred to as existentialists. This particular philosophical movement really grew following the Second World War.
Many of the issues inherent in existentialism, such as the meaning of life and the subjectivity of one’s own experience, were studied long before it was first defined as a term. Popular philosophers associated with the movement, Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard were interested in the apparent meaninglessness of human existence and an individual’s freedom and responsibility to define his or her own values.
The study of existentialism has also been integrated into other theories, such as feminism. French author and philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir, was considered the first philosopher to seriously consider gender and ethics alongside existentialism, such as in her work, The Second Sex and The Ethics of Ambiguity. Existentialist theologian, Paul Tillich applied existentialism to Christian theology in his writings, including The Courage to Be, which theorizes that man requires God to relieve his crisis of identity and purpose in a seemingly random world.
In addition to philosophical works, existentialism has been raised in literary works such as Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, in which the main character goes through an existential crisis. In Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, the main character faces the dilemma of struggling between his animal instincts and his higher spirit. One of the 20th century’s leading fiction writers, Frank Kafka is another author who tackles existentialism through literature. In his novella The Metamorphosis, characters are confronted with a bleak sense of hopelessness and absurdity in the apparent meaninglessness of human existence.
In the late 20th century, existentialism became a popular theme in film. Modern movies such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, A Clockwork Orange, Apocalypse Now, and I Heart Huckabees all deal with the search for meaning behind one’s own existence. In television, shows such as Monty Python have also incorporated existentialism into their themes by parodying the absurd and seemingly random nature of the human experience.