It took me a long time to find the core of this issue expressed clearly, and I don't even know where I came upon it. It could have been that it took me a long time to reach a point where I could understand it, I suppose.
Existentialism as a school of thought was always a mystery to me. (one reason is that is is not a school of thought - it is more diffuse, less concrete than most philosophy - it is more a way of life, a realisation) It tends to be very fascinating to the young mind, the mind that is still searching for its first set of meanings, to encounter such an anomolous set of ideas, which reflect so well in some ways the difficulties an adolescent has coming to grips with all the contradictory demands of the world versus the gentle tug of the needs of their newly stirring attempts to be themselves.
But in the end, what is it?
Finally I came upon a succinct definition, in tandem with its "opposite," essentialism, as exemplified best in the concept of the "forms" of Plato.
Essentialism is the idea that "essence precedes existence." That is, that prior to the existence of anything, even in the absence of anything, there always was and always will be the idea or essence of what it is. Existentialism asserts the idea that "existence precedes essence." Simple enough, to say that something does not have an idea "behind" it until it exists (although this conflicts with our experience of human creativity, the point is not to abstract that concept to the whole universe and how it works), until you realise what an upset this is for some of the worlds religious belief systems!
It means you do not have an immortal soul. "You" did not exist until you were born. At that point you are just another baby mammal. If you are ever to have an "essence" you must build it, you must make it with your life. That is the crux - the conflict that existentialism must fight against and the ultimate statement it makes about the meaning of human life.
Your life has no meaning until you make it have one! Your life will be the building of your soul, if you are to have one at all, it will be the product of your own personal efforts, and it will probably "die" with you. What of that? Who needs a soul when they are dead if they have actually enjoyed experiencing one while they are alive?
So your life is art, in the sense that you must create it, from your own ideas and desires. Living is the first art, and the growing of a soul is the most fundamental value life can have, once the issues of survival have been met. It should be the highest aim of any human society to foster this process in every way, after it has reached the point of keeping its peoples alive.
Your life is your Art. Live it, create it, enjoy it.
© Huw Powell