Elna has a Hons in Sociology and Philosophy, and writes on a variety of topics.
The Vikings Series
Having just binge-watched the first 4 seasons of the series Vikings, I am disappointed at Ragnar's demise and departure from the series.
Who is left to draw me back into the story? Ivar is interesting, but not as complicated as his father. Floki maybe? He is hell-bent on believing that the gods will take him to some destiny and no, I don't find that really interesting. His fascinating side is his engineering genius.
I followed the spiritual journey of Ragnar, first through his own religion, then trying out the christian god of his friend Athelstan and ultimately choosing to believe in nothing. Did Ragnar live an authentic life? He faces death very courageously, after he confessed that he neither believes in the Viking, nor the Christian afterlife? Can one say that he was an existentialist?
King Ecbert of Wessex also has a different approach to life and he questions the certainties of this time. Their discussion about Valhalla, heaven, certainty and death (just before Ragnar will actually die) is one the classic dialogues in the series.
Can a Viking be an Existentialist?
The term existentialism was coined by the French Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel in the mid-1940s. In hindsight the first person to formally embrace the existentialist attitude - although not using the term - was the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.
There are many books and articles on existentialism and this article focuses on my own interpretations rather than on providing an Existentialism 101 quick reference.
Of course Ragnar Lothbrok of Vikings is a character created in the 21st century, based on the historical figure who lived in 9th century, which precedes the concept of existentialism.
In my mind there are two main questions:
1. Can the character of Ragnar in Vikings be said to have an existentialist attitude - bestowed on him by the creators of the series?
2. Is it at all possible for a person living in the 9th century to have had this attitude - or can we even know?
The famous dialogue on afterlife between Ragnar and Ecbert
Can a Non-philosopher be an Existentialist?
This is not an easy question to answer. Could one say that, without a doubt, Jean Paul Sartre lived the existential life, even though he is one of the most well-known existentialists?
As students in the 70s, we thought of ourselves as existentialists, questioning the expectations of society: marriage as an institution, religion, holding on to a job. Today people do not believe so much in these institutions anyway. What makes you an existentialist now? Do you have to feel anguish and dread? Are you alienated? Would that not only make you neurotic or depressed? Do you have to feel that life is absurd every day - or do you come to the realisation, accept it and then go on with your life? That means that you can actually "feel" happy although philosophically you believe that life has no meaning.
Can a person who has not read a word of philosophy be an existentialist?
Is existentialism part of Western Philosophical tradition only?
Although existentialism has its niche in the history of philosophy, it is also a specific view on personal life and meaning, making choices and living authentic that goes beyond the theoretical discussion.
Condemned to be free
Ragnar Lothbrok's Life and Death
We get to know Ragnar as he promotes the idea of the Kattegat Vikings raiding towards the West (the British Isles) since he believes there is occupied land and thus riches to be had. This makes him clash with the current leader and ultimately becomes a contest for leadership with Earl Haraldson. Ragnar believes Odin to be one of his ancestors and awaits a sign from Odin to go into action. He takes a Christian slave, Athelstan and gets to know about this other religion.
In The Vikings series, the Seer plays an important role. Often his advice is rather vague - but also comes true in many ways. Ragnar consults the Seer (season 2) to ask about the future of his sons. Asking advice from a seer is not something an existentialist would ever do.
Thus,following Ragnars life, I have to concede that the idea of him being an existentialist is more closely linked to his death: the conversation with Ecbert where they make fun of each others religions in a brotherly way, and the conversation with the Seer, where again he renounces his belief in the Viking gods.
In the hours approaching his death, Ragnar makes conscious and strategic decisions that would leave him avenged, but also permit, at last, some of the Vikings to farm in Wessex. (Since the last season has not yet been released I am not sure whether this came true). I would say that he has confronted the fact that life has no inherent meaning, but he has chosen to give meaning to his death (and thus also his life?) by allowing his death to set certain actions into motion: actions that would benefit his community and his sons.
I would conclude that in his last few days, he can be said to have been living an authentic life, understanding his choices, and using his "freedom" to make those choices.
Yet I am still not sure that I can declare him an existentialist.
Existentialism and Atheism
Many of the existentialists were atheists. A few philosophers like Jaspers and Marcel, bring God into the picture, thus softening the dreadful experience of a meaningless existence. My opinion (and of course many others') is that it is the fact of our death, without the possibility of a personal afterlife that is the absolute tragedy/ absurdity of our existence. According to Kile Jones (in his article: “all the consequences of this”), the atheist existentialists develop a more authentic form of existentialism, since they accept absolute tragedy and do not seek to dodge its consequences.
Sartre says, “when we speak of forlornness, a term Heidegger was fond of, we mean only that God does not exist and that we have to face all the consequences of this”
Man’s alienation from himself and the acceptance of his finitude in the face of death are primary philosophical concerns.
Of course, in the case of Ragnar, his renouncing of religion does not make him an existentialist. Although most existentialists are atheists, not all atheists are existentialists.
when we speak of forlornness, a term Heidegger was fond of, we mean only that God does not exist and that we have to face all the consequences of this
— Jean-Paul Sartre
Athelstan: Pagan or Christian?
My verdict is that it would have been possible to take the ethical stance of an existentialist in earlier ages and different cultures. This goes very closely with atheism (or accepting that your "god" is impersonal) and the realisation of the individual that his life is his own responsibility.
It would definitely have been possible in an age where different religious views clash, such as the 9th century when christians clashed with pagans. This presented the individual with the choice of either taking a fundamentalist stance and defend yours, or relativising both your own and the other religions.
On the other hand, existentialism used the notions of dread, anguish, forlonness, and alienation as philosophical cornerstones to build a world view that is anchored in Western philosophical history.
For that reason, as close as people may live within the ethical stance of existentialism, they would have to consciously choose to be an existentialist to be acknowledged as such.
Death, Faith & Existentialism. Filiz Peach explains what two of the greatest existentialist thinkers thought about death: Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers.
Kile Jones “all the consequences of this” in Philosophy Now. Issue 115: August/September 2016