Philosophy in the World, and Existentialism Within Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”

Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot is perhaps one of the most famous plays of the 20th century. The two-act tragicomedy revolves around two average country men characters, Vladimir and Estragon, as they wait for a mysterious man called Godot. The two wait by a tree on a long country road, and engage in various topics of conversation––many pointless and confusing––as they wait for this man. Action-packed is something that this play is not, as their lack of effective communication, and less than average memory hinders them from accomplishing a task of any sort, no matter how simple (the play begins with Estragon helplessly trying to take off his boot). The two characters often forget what they’re doing or who they’re waiting for at some points, and do not even understand why they are waiting for this man called Godot. But they wait anyways. The two acts end in similar fashion; a boy approaches Vladimir and Estragon bearing a note from Godot, saying that he will not be coming tonight but tomorrow night. A more in-depth summary of the play can be found here: http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/godot/summary/ .

Waiting for Godot speaks to me on many levels through the lens of philosophical thinking. My own interpretation of philosophy has changed a lot over this course, but I’ve come to adopt a very Socratic view to philosophy; that is, individuals should question everything we do as a race, why we do such things. As Socrates himself said in Plato’s Apology, “the unexamined life is not worth living” (13). Some could even go to the extent to argue that this phrase, and Socratic philosophy in general, is the birth place of modern philosophy. Philosophy, to me, heavily revolves around the constant questioning of our current societal norms and ideology. Why are some aspects of a culture so engraved in a particular society that they go completely unquestioned? I believe that Socrates himself asked these questions, as seen in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, where he says, “I adjure you to tell me the nature of piety and impiety, which you said that you knew so well, and of murder, and of other offences against the gods. What are they?” His questioning of ancient Greek views of piety and impiety does well to sum up my personal view of philosophy. Even the most heavily engraved notions of a culture and society should be questioned, something Socrates himself did so regardless of the repercussions (and eventual death).

Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot heavily revolves around a theory of philosophy called existentialism, of which emphasizes that an individual person is not inherently born with a purpose to their life, but that they can find their own meaning to life through the way they choose to live their lives. Existentialism assumes that there is not one ultimate meaning or goal to life––we, as a race, are not here for any particular reason––but that each individual will develop their own purpose to life through their ultimate maxims and the decisions they make in life. Furthermore, existentialism not only deals with the lack of meaning to our lives, but the subsequent abundance of freedom that comes with the lack of inherent purpose. One of the founders of existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, describes it as more of a curse: “we are condemned to be freedom”. One could dedicate their lives to trying to capture the essence of nature, or one could spend their lives trying to bring world peace, or just supply girls and boys with ice cream at the park; however, we must always act in a way that Sartre called authentic, or acting to our ultimate maxims and our own path in life. If you want to serve ice cream to every child, then every action you make should work towards your ultimate goal. Outside of ourselves, our own maxims, however, our world and actions lack an real intrinsic importance. Existentialists coined a term called the “Absurd” (mind the capital A), which is how they described the constant search for meaning within a universe that is inherently meaningless.

The actions that transpire in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot greatly reflects existentialism and confronting the Absurd. Vladimir and Estragon’s goal in the play is to meet Godot, yet they often forget what they are doing on the country road, and who they’re waiting for. Both cannot remember anything from days before, and they often talk about the same pointless things. Furthermore, Godot himself is never revealed, and the audience if left to assume that the two are doomed to wait for Godot on that country road for eternity. Godot will never show up; hence, Vladimir and Estragon have no ultimate purpose being there in the first place. A large way in which the Absurdity of this play is portrayed is through their constant inability to find meaning in their own daily actions. Furthermore, their inability to recollect any time or action outside that of the play further contribute to this Absurdity. The characters are abruptly placed into a plot and setting of which only one goal is exhibited: to wait for Godot. When he doesn’t show up it begs the question: Do the two have any purpose on this country road? Essentially, no; this play represents the lack of purpose to our own existence, and we are abandoned in a universe full of meaninglessness.

Personally, philosophical thinking is something I engage in outside of the Philosophy classroom as well. Throughout this term, I’ve been heavily involved in examining the engraved notions of gender ideology within our society, as well as questioning these notions. I’ve been presented with such ideas in my English class, which looked at novels in which authors attempted to redefine the notions of gender, and what it truly meant to be a man or women. As philosophy, to me, is all about challenging the already-engraved notions of this culture, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed looking at gender through a whole new lens, and realizing that a man is not just restricted to his masculine features, and a woman is not restricted to what society deems as feminine.