“There is but one truly serious philosophical question. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.“
So begins the French-Algerian author Albert Camus (1913-1960) his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” from 1942.
The starting point for his essay is his observation that one feels at home in a universe one can explain, regardless, whether the explanation is true or not. But in a universe one cannot explain one feels lost. This permanent divide between man and his surroundings, the cliff between the actor and the scenery, is what gives birth to the feeling of absurdity.
But is suicide a solution to the absurdity? This is the topic for Albert Camus’ essay.
Recognition of the Absurd
The Experience of Emotional Absurdity
The feeling of absurdity can strike anyone at any time. For instance, when in the midst of everyday busy life a question suddenly announces itself: Why? Or it can be when we place ourselves in time and notice that we are at a certain point on a slope that we know we will traverse. Round birthdays often can provoke this experience.
The feeling of alienation is another trigger. The observation that the world is impenetrable; the notion how alien a rock is to us, how inexplainable and how intensely a landscape may deny us. Man himself can also evoke a feeling of alienation, say, when we find ourselves thinking of another person that he acts mechanically and in meaningless pantomime. We can even experience this type of alienation when confronted with our own reflection and feel alien towards ourselves.
And then there is death. Awareness of our personal mortality is a powerfull trigger of feelings of absurdity and “one can never wonder enough how strange it is that all men lives as if no one ‘knew anything’, even though we all know that death awaits us all at the end,” as Camus says.
The above exemplifies emotional experiences of absurdity. However, we also experience absurdity on an intellectual or rational level.
The Experience of Intellectual Absurdity
The human thought’s highest aspiration is clarity and intimacy with the world; ideally, to be able to summarize all eternal matters of the universe in one single, all-encompassing principle.
But, writes Camus;
Of whom and what can I really say: ‘This I know?’ I can feel my heart beat and, hence, I conclude that it exists. I can touch the world that surrounds me and so I conclude that also the world exists. But this is as far as certain knowledge takes me, the rest is construction. Because whenever I try to define or summarise this ‘I’ and this world it turns into sand that slips through my fingers. I can describe all the masks that the ‘I’ wears or is imprinted, all the masks that heritage, upbringing, passion, grandeur or small-mindedness has supplied it with. But I cannot add all the masks and arrive at a final sum. This very heart, that is mine, will forever be inexplicable to me.
The same is true with the world around us:
I see the trees, feel their scabrous bark, smell the grass and look up at the stars. I cannot deny the world its’ power and might. And, yet, all the knowledge in the world cannot grant me any certainty that this world belongs to me. The world is described to me, I learn how to classify it and the laws of the world are laid out for me. I am explained the world and the atom by the use of a metaphor and I realise we have taken refugee in poetry. Never will I attain true insight. The science that was supposed to teach me everything ends in hypotheses, the clear minded vision is dimmed by metaphors and uncertainty dissolves in a poem.
Thus, also my mind tells me in its own fashion that the world is absurd. Or rather, that the world in itself is not sensible. The absurd lies in the confrontation between the irrational and our incessant longing for clarity.
The Philosophical Suicide
This trinity – the absurd as the link between man’s wish for final answers and the deafening silence of the universe – is at the same time endlessly simple and endlessly complicated. The first and most defining characteristic is that it is indivisible. If you take away one of its’ components nothing is left. One must always beware of this and, hence, always recognise the absurd while, at the same time, oppose to it!
Once man is aware of the absurd he is bound to it forever. But it is also in order that he will do everything in his power to escape the universe he has created. In this respect, Albert Camus finds it instructive what the existential philosophers – to whom Camus does not count himself – has had to say. Without exception they all suggest to flee, Camus says.
Albert Camus posits two types of philosophical suicide that both implies a leap, a giving up of the absurd to the succumbing of an explanation and hope that once again imbues the universe and existence with meaning.
The Religious Leap
The leap Søren Kierkegaard undertakes is of a religious nature. For Kierkegaard the contradictions and paradoxes of existence becomes the criteria that defines the religious, says Camus. Kierkegaard acknowledges the absurdity of existence but elevates the irrational to the divine and gives God the attributes of absurdity: injustice, inconsistency and incomprehensibility. And Søren Kierkegaard goes even further when he states that he finds consolation in knowing that for the Christian person death is “in no way the end of everything, as death holds an infinitely larger hope than life can ever give us, even when life is ripe with health and might.” So much for dealing with absurdity in this life!
Philosophical suicide, however, does not have to be based on a God. It can also be based on science and rational considerations.
The Rational Leap
Take phenomenology, for instance, as a scientific view of the world. Phenomenology refuses to explain the word and only seeks to describe what is experienced. This is in line with the absurd that also posits that there is no single truth but only truths. An evening wind, a hand on my should, a milestone, love – each thing has its’ own truth.
But phenomenology wants to expand and ground this concept of truth rationally and pierce into every single object’s ‘inner substance.’ Hence, the founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, speaks of ‘an object’s eternal substance’ and teaches man that for every phenomena there exists an equally unique ‘substance.’ In this manner he does away with transcendence but introduces a kind of fragmentary immanence that reinstates the depth of the universe. Thus, also phenomenology – in line with religion – seeks to explain the unexplainable or rationalise the irrationizable.
This should come as no surprise, however, says Camus, since irrationality and common sense both have the same goal only with different means. They both begin in chaos and absurdity and seek shelter from the anxiety that they arouse. What is important is to explain and strive for consolation with the world and in the case of both explanations the leap they undertake leads to the goal.
in stark contrast, the absurd thought refuses to be intimidated into taking this leap. The absurd man recognises the absurd and confronts it without seeking shelter. He wants to live and think in this universe that has been torn apart and he can use neither the advice of Kierkegaard or Husserl. They suggest to him solutions that turns all the former inconsistencies into a polemic toying with concepts and ideas. But this is not how he experienced these concepts and ideas! The reality of what he experienced must be upheld and their truth is that they cannot be dissolved.
The Absurd Freedom
Hence the absurd man knows, Camus concludes, that he cannot unite the two things he feels most pressing and surely: On the one hand, his longing for the absolute and unity, and on the other hand, the impossibility and futility of trying to reduce the world to one single and rational principle. The conflict arises out of man’s conscience and if man wants to keep the conflict alive he must do so constantly and tirelessly never losing hold of the conflict.
The First Consequence: Rebellion
This leads to the first consequence of the absurdity of existence: The rebellion. To live is to live the absurd and to make the absurd living is, therefore, first and foremost to keep it in mind because the absurd dies the instant you turn away from it. Hence, the absurd man acknowledges the absurd while at the same time rebelling against it. In the same way a threat offers man the opportunity to defy that threat now or never, rebelling offers man the chance to be fully aware of all he does face to face with himself.
In this way rebellion gives life its full and true value and stretched over an entire life it re-establishes the grandiosity of existence. Says Camus:
One does not want to die reconciled with life and out of free will. Suicide is a false way out; a misunderstanding of life. The absurd man has to empty existence and empty it of all its’ possibilities.
The Second Consequence: Freedom
Freedom is another consequence. Absurdity and death destroys man’s hopes for an eternal freedom but does give man an expanded freedom to act. The loss of an eternal future means an expansion of his possibility to rule himself because the ‘now’ becomes all that matters.
This consequence is double-sided. On the one hand, it means the abolishment of hope. The highest freedom of all, the freedom ‘to be’ is slain by death. Calling this a murderous pill to swallow is an apt characterisation. With the realisation of life’s temporality, however, the absurd man also realises that until this moment he has been living on an illusion about his freedom.
The absurd shows him that there is no tomorrow and here lies from now the foundation for his new and deeply felt freedom. The absurd man confronts death in its entirety and, hence, is relieved from all that lies outside the intense attention that death crystallises in him. The absurd man is free with respect to common norms and rules.
To seize this knowledge without limitations; from a specific point in time to feel like a stranger in one’s own life, to make it more intense and live it without the short sightedness of the lover – here lies the principle of liberation. This new independence … supersedes the illusions about freedom that all ends in death. Imagine the person condemned to death and his lack of restraints when the prison gate opens one day early in the morning. How completely ignorant he is to everything but the fire of life and one will realize that death and the absurd are the principles for the only true freedom, that is, the freedom that the human heart can experience and live. This is the second consequence.
The Third Consequence: Awareness and Passion
But what does it mean to live in this universe, asks Camus? To start with nothing but indifference towards the future and a passionate desire to use up all life’s possibilities. And here lies the third consequence.
If one lives without escape; if the absurd is always respected; if one has experienced that the only equilibrium in life is built on the constant battle between the conscious rebellion and the darkness that surrounds it and if one recognises that freedom has no meaning outside one’s own limited fate; in that case the question is not to live as well as possible, but as much as possible. It does not matter whether this is vulgar or distasteful, superior or regrettable. All value judgments have been done away with and all that remains is a sheer evaluation of facts.
One needs to understand, however, what it means to ‘live as much as possible.’ The amount of experiences does not relate to the outer circumstances of our lives; the quantity only relates to ourselves. Camus explains: Two people that live the same amount of years will always attain the same amount of experiences. What matters is whether they are aware of their experiences. To experience your life, its rebellion and its freedom as vividly as possible, that is to live as much as possible.
The Myth of Sisyphus
Sisyphus had defied the gods, cheated Death and as punishment was sentenced to forever pushing a rock up a cliff only to watch it roll down upon reaching the top. The gods felt that such a futile task would be the worst punishment imaginable.
Sisyphus is the absurd hero. It was his contempt for the gods, his hatred towards death and his passion for life that brought upon him this terrible punishment all his days to toll in vain. That is the price that must be paid for the pleasures of this world.
But it is Sisyphus when he is descending, when he is stronger than the rock, that interests Camus. Camus writes:
The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus is the proletarian of the gods, a powerless rebel, but he knows his unhappy fate in its entire scope: This is what he has in mind as he descends the mountain. The clear-sightedness that was to be his punishment also becomes confirmation of his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.
Some days it is the pain that engulfs him as he walks down; other days it may be joy:
His destiny is his. His rock is his own. In the same way the absurd man silences all idols when he considers his pain … The absurd man says yes and from then on the work and the battle never stops … In the short moment where man turns around and looks at his life, much like Sisyphus looks down at the stone, in this dizzying moment man looks at the entirety of actions without coherence that makes up his fate, that is created by him, that are only connected through his memory and that will soon be sealed by his death. He is convinced that all human is of human descent, he is a blind that wishes to see and who knows that the night will never end. He is always on his way. The rock never stops rolling.
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always reconnects with ones’ burden. But Sisyphus is testament to a higher fidelity that defies the gods and lifts the rocks. And he realises that all is good. The masterless universe appears to be neither bare nor futile. Every corn of granite in the rock, every sparkling piece of mineral in the darkness of the mountain represents a world of its own. The battle to reach the top is enough to fill a human heart. One must imagine Sisyphus a happy man.
With those words ends this introduction to Albert Camus and The Myth of Sisyphus that I warmly recommend anyone looking for intellectual ammunition to go out and grab life with all your might. Albert Camus truly is a philosopher of rebellion insisting that what is interesting is not the absurd in itself but what it entails. And that is constant rebellion, freedom and passion and living as much as possible in light of the darkness and finality of death. The only hindrance, the only blank one can draw, he says, is a premature death. Which sadly he himself experienced in a car accident only 47 years old – but having lived a life like few!
For other writers’ perspective on the question of meaning please find here a link to Irvin Yalom’s thoughts and here a link to Viktor Frankls perspective. Also read more here about Søren Kierkegaard, an existential writer that Albert Camus both respects and pities.
And as always, I am available for colourful shows and presentations of the existential tradition with my show “The High Price of Living”.
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