Upon serious examination of life’s absurdity and the philosophy of absurdism, there is no more natural place to begin than with the quandaries of Camus. A survivor of the Nazi occupation of France, the Algerian born journalist became well-known for his ideas concerning the meaning of life, which is to say there is no meaning – and therein lies the absurdness of existence.
What has set him apart from traditional rationalists is that he believes we live in a universe that ultimately has no purpose (or whose purpose is unknowable) and so rejects any scientific, theological, or metaphysical argument that would suggest any definitive answer to this age-old question.
“One does not discover the absurd without attempting to write a manual of happiness.” – Camus
Seeking to describe the elusive feeling of life’s absurdity, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (1942) provides a reasoning that concludes the human search for meaning in life can only end with acceptance for the absurd nature of existence.
In this story, our hero Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a hill in the underworld. When, after much strain and determination, he reaches the summit, the boulder naturally rolls back to the valley floor and so he returns with it to begin his struggle anew. The gods then delight in the futility and hopelessness of his efforts as they exact their punishment against him for outsmarting them on so many occasions.
The Question of Absurdity
It is from this framework that Camus proceeds to address what he considers to be the only philosophical question of significance: Is suicide justifiable? He posits that, “Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.” He further asserts that the act of suicide itself is “confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it”, implying that he believes it is crucial for our consciousness to accept an irrational, even absurd, suffering as part of the human experience.
“My reasoning wants to be faithful to the evidence that aroused it. That evidence is the absurd.” – Camus
The tragedy of this paradox of existence, according to Camus, is that the suffering of humanity is born from a feeling of being alienated from the universe, which is ultimately an illusion. He writes, “At this point of his effort man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and rationality. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” In Camus’ estimation, this experience commonly brings one to the act of committing suicide or committing to hope in the belief of an afterlife, yet he rejects both and offers an alternative way forward.
Requirements of Absurdity
In recognizing that the routine of daily life is futile, human motives are inscrutable, and that death is pointless, Camus suggests the answer lies in committing to live without escape and with integrity. He writes, “It is essential to die unreconciled and not of one’s own free will. Suicide is a repudiation. The absurd man can only drain everything to the bitter end, and deplete himself. The absurd is his extreme tension, which he maintains constantly by solitary effort, for he knows that in that consciousness and in that day-to-day revolt he gives proof of his only truth, which is defiance.”
“Before encountering the absurd, the everyday man lives with aims, a concern for the future or for justification…He weighs his chances, he counts on ‘someday,’ his retirement or the labor of his sons. He still thinks that something in his life can be directed…” – Camus
Camus charts a way out of despair by concluding that Sisyphus must be happy, thereby reaffirming the value of one’s personal existence and the possibility of a life lived with dignity and authenticity.
“One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” – Camus
So, while our hero seems doomed to live a life without consolation, Camus offers that one’s own conscious rebellion against the limits of mortality is in itself the key to liberation in our daily lives.
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