Category Archives: Meaning of Life – Nihilism

Commentary on the Varieties of Nihilism

For the past ten days or so I’ve been discussing various views about the meaning of life that I’d classify as nihilistic. I’d now like to briefly summarize my response to nihilism.

I believe that suffering and death count strongly against meaning—they detract from meaning. I also believe that the challenge posed by nihilism is the challenge for contemporary individuals and culture. We have argued that rejecting or denying nihilism, by accepting a religious metaphysics for example, is philosophically problematic, inasmuch as there are good reasons to doubt the truth of these systems. Accepting nihilism is either self-defeating, useless, or both. Finding meaning by affirming nihilism is a brave response but it is not all that different than accepting nihilism in the end. So questions remain. Why give up so easily? What do we gain by embracing nihilism?

Camus’ Sisyphus supposedly found happiness in his revolt, but one has to wonder whether that suggestion is mere romanticism. And neither Nagel’s nor Feinberg’s irony provides solace; they merely counsel passive acceptance. Maybe we should simply reject meaning and all salvific narratives, reveling in the pleasures and joys of this world, the extraordinary ordinary. But can we really do it? In Our Town Wilder suggests we cannot, it is too hard to appreciate life while you live it. When responding to Emily’s query as to whether human beings can appreciate life every minute while they live it, the narrator tells her: “No—saints and poets maybe—they do some.”80 But even if we could affirm nihilism would this be satisfactory? If we think of Critchley as advocating living lightly, Kundera responds that such a life is unbearable; perhaps even more so than living heavily.

We thus find ourselves at an impasse. Nihilism looms large and none of our responses are completely viable. Rejecting nihilism seems intellectually dishonest, passively accepting it appears fatalistic, actively rejecting it with Camus is futile, embracing it looks pointless, and yet our consciousness of it is unbearable. The only way forward—if we do not want to accept the verdict of nihilism—is to consider other responses. It is to these responses that we now consider over the next few months.

Summary of Joel Feinberg’s, “Absurd Self-Fulfillment”

Joel Feinberg (1926 -2004) was an American political and social philosopher. He is known for his work in the fields of individual rights and the authority of the state, thereby helping to shape the American legal landscape. He taught at Brown,  Princeton, UCLA, Rockefeller University, and at the University of Arizona, where he retired in 1994.

In “Absurd Self-Fulfillment” (1992) Feinberg begins by considering Richard Taylor’s suggestion that Sisyphus could be compelled or addicted to pushing stones. (We will discuss Taylor in the next chapter.) Let us suppose the gods make this part of his nature like walking or speaking; suppose further that Sisyphus gets self-fulfillment from rock pushing as it expresses something basic to his genetic nature. Now Sisyphus’ work is typically thought absurd because it is pointless labor that comes to nothing. Philosophers have had differing responses to these issues. Pessimists regard all lives as absurd and respond with scorn, despair, cynicism, etc. Optimists think lives can be partly or wholly fulfilled and therefore good; they respond with hope, satisfaction, positive acceptance, etc. While absurdity and self-fulfillment are different, Taylor suggests that lives can be both absurd and self-fulfilling, like Sisyphus’ rock pushing. So Feinberg asks: what is the relationship between absurdity and self-fulfillment? Can they go together?

Absurdity in individual lives for Feinberg is characterized by: 1) extreme irrationality, as in obviously false beliefs; or the disharmony or incongruity between two things such as means and ends, premises and conclusions, or pretentions and reality; 2) Nagel’s account, the clash between the subjective and objective view of our lives. Nagel’s absurdity is not relevant to Sisyphus, but if added to the story it would add to the absurdity of his situation; 3) pointlessness—activities with no point or meaning; 4) futility—activities with a point but incapable of achieving their goal; and 5) triviality—activities that produce some trivial advantage but are not worth the cost of their labor. So the absurd elements in life fall into one of five categories: 1) pointless, 2) trivial, 3) futile, 4) Nagel’s absurdity, and 5) incongruous or irrational. As for the alleged absurdity of human life in general, Feinberg considers the sense of the absurd in Taylor, Camus, and Nagel.

For Taylor life is absurd (pointless, meaningless) because our repetitive activity ultimately comes to nothing. And even if we do achieve something, say build a cathedral, this does not cancel out the absurdity since in the end they all come to nothing; all our achievements ultimately vanish. But what would a non-absurd existence be like? This is important because unless we know what non-absurdity is like, we have nothing to contrast an absurd situation with. Initially Taylor suggests this would entail Sisyphus building an enduring and beautiful temple. But from a distance of a million years all lives seem pointless and all achievements are temporary—they do not overcome meaninglessness. So the building of the temple does not seem to remove absurdity. Suppose then, Taylor argues, that the gods allow Sisyphus to finish his temple and admire it? Taylor argues that then Sisyphus would be eternally bored, so again this would be absurd. Feinberg suggests that Sisyphus could enjoy his achievement and then die, thus not having to endure the boredom; or even better the gods could preserve him and his temple forever. But then Taylor could respond that Sisyphus would still be bored since he would have nothing left to do. Either nothing we do lasts or, if it does, we are bored when we have finished. In the end any conceivable life would be absurd for Taylor.

For Camus humans want a cosmic order, significance for their labor, and an intelligible life. But life has no order, destroys our work, and is alien to us. In short the things we want—a caring universe with which one is connected and in which we are immortal—are precisely the things we cannot have. What we get is death. This confrontation between the things one needs—most notably immortality—and the thing one gets—death—is the birthplace of the absurd. There is also the absurdity of the cycle of working for money to buy food so that one can work for money and round and round. You could say that these activities are intrinsically valuable, but Camus argues that we are simply driven to do all these things. And then there is the absurdity of so much animal life—they reproduce and then die. Their lives seem to have no other reason than to perpetuate their species. Are not human lives similar? What these examples show is that “life is pointless because justification for any of its parts or phases is indefinitely postponed…” [i] We do A for the sake of B, and B for the sake of C, etc. Camus’s response to absurdity is to rebel, revolt, and live the best one can, since there will always be a divide between what our nature wants—intelligibility and immortality—and the little we can get. For Camus, self-fulfillment may be construed as being “intensely and continuously conscious of my absurdity…”[ii] We fulfill ourselves by recognizing the absurdity of our situation.

For Nagel the absurd derives from the incongruity between our serious view of ourselves and our apparent triviality from the universal perspective. As Feinberg points out, following Nagel, the life of a mouse might not seem absurd to the mouse but it is absurd from our point of view. According to Nagel our lives are like that too, seeming to matter from the inside but absurd from the outside. Feinberg captures this idea with a distinction between absurd persons—who have a flawed assessment of their importance—and absurd situations—which are a property of one’s situation. However, whatever the difference in the details between the three authors for all of them life is absurd: for Taylor because achievements do not last and effort and outcome are in tension; for Camus because the universe is indifferent to our needs; and for Nagel because of the clash between our pretensions and reality.

Feinberg now introduces a new kind of absurdity—when the situation one is in differs from the situation one thinks they are in. For example, if Sisyphus thought his rock pushing was important he would be woefully mistaken about the true nature of his predicament. We are all in the situation of being much less important than we think we are. Thus we should not take ourselves too seriously. Still, Feinberg concludes that while some elements of life are absurd, the arguments that all life is absurd are not convincing. Within life some things seem absurd and some things do not.

Turning to self-fulfillment, there are at least four models of self-fulfillment in the ordinary sense: 1) satisfying one’s hopes or desires; 2) achieving one’s goals; 3) bringing closure to things; and 4) doing the natural or realizing potential. It is this last conception that philosophers have focused upon primarily—so much so that to not fulfill one’s nature indicates a wasted life whereas a fulfilling life is often defined as using one’s natural talents. Feinberg now explores how Sisyphus might be wired to fulfill his nature by rock pushing. He might have: 1) an appetite for it; 2) a peculiar talent for it; 3) an instinct for it; 4) a general drive to do it; or 5) a compulsive impulse to do it as Taylor suggests. Feinberg argues that no matter how the gods wired Sisyphus his life does not seem capable of being fulfilled, precisely because the gods fixed his life, not allowing him discretion in living his life. As Feinberg says, “If he can fulfill his nature without these discretionary activities, then he has really assumed the nature of a different species.”[iii] However, if the gods told him to do it in his own way, to exercise discretion in how to push his rocks, then he could be fulfilled, although his life would still be pointless. Thus life can be absurd and fulfilling at the same time.

Feinberg now asks whether it would matter if one found fulfillment in something that from the outside appeared trivial. Suppose one enjoys playing ping-pong and socializing with others who like to play. If that tendency follows from one’s nature, then one will probably be fulfilled by playing. Now suppose that someone does not succeed in finding playing partners or others interested in ping-pong and instead goes to philosophy discussion groups weekly, something one finds boring. Now their lives seem unfulfilled. While this may not be bad from an objective point of view—philosophy may be more important than ping-pong—for them it is really bad; they do not like philosophy, they like ping pong! Even if it is objectively absurd to like to hit ping pong balls all day, they naturally enjoy doing it; it is good for them to fulfill their nature in this way precisely because the desire is natural to them. Moreover, self-fulfillment necessitates that we have self-love. “And the truest expression of self-love is devotion toward one’s own good, which is the fulfillment of one’s’ own (who else’s) nature—absurd as that may be.”[iv] Thus, self-fulfillment matters because without it we cannot have self-love as well as the reverse.

We see then that our lives are not absurd from the inside—we have goals and purposes—but may be so from the outside. What attitude should we take toward a fulfilling life that we decide is absurd from the outside, that will come to nothing in the end? These attitudes Feinberg calls “cosmic attitudes,” ones we have toward the entire universe. Feinberg agrees with Nagel that irony is the appropriate attitude; it is “an attitude of detached awareness of incongruity…a state of mind halfway between seriousness and playfulness.”[v] Feinberg argues that one can appreciate this incongruity, like one appreciates humor, and there is a kind of bittersweet pleasure in it. Feinberg says we ought to respond not with tears, anger, or amusement, but with a “tired smile.”  Thus neither pessimism—the view that all lives are worthless—nor optimism—the view that all lives are worthwhile—is warranted. After having a good life and then considering Camus, Taylor, and Nagel, Feinberg sees the cosmic joke and is tickled. “Now he can die not with a whine or a snarl, but with an ironic smile.”[vi]

Summary – There is no objective meaning. We can find some subjective meaning by acting in accord with our nature; our lives can be both fulfilling and absurd. All we can do is passively accept this nihilistic state of affairs with an ironic smile. Feinberg goes a bit further than Nagel, nearly embracing nihilism.

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[i] Joel Feinberg, “Absurd Self-Fulfillment,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 164.
[ii] Feinberg, “Absurd Self-Fulfillment,” 165.
[iii] Feinberg, “Absurd Self-Fulfillment,” 175.
[iv] Feinberg, “Absurd Self-Fulfillment,” 178.
[v] Feinberg, “Absurd Self-Fulfillment,” 179.
[vi] Feinberg, “Absurd Self-Fulfillment,” 181.

Summary of Walter Stace’s, “Man Against Darkness”

Walter Terence Stace (1886 – 1967) was a British civil servant, educator and philosopher who wrote on Hegel and Mysticism. In “Man Against Darkness” (1948), Stace claims that the loss of faith in god and religion is responsible for the bewildering state of the world today. This loss of religious faith is depressing, since it leaves us without a scaffold upon which to build ethics. But he also agrees with Sartre and Russell—there are no gods, there is no source for morality, and we live in a universe that is purposeless and indifferent to our values. Thus the only possible values for human beings are those they create.

The cause of the decline of the influence of religion is modern science, but not a particular discovery of science. Rather it is the spirit and assumptions of science that have undermined religious belief. The world view of science propagated by Galileo and Newton prefigured 18th century skepticism by removing the idea of final causes and purposes from the heavens. In essence western civilization was turning its back on the notion of a cosmic order, plan, and purpose. Henceforth astronomy would be understood in terms of the kind of causes that allow us to predict and control and “the concept of purpose in the world was ignored and frowned upon.”[i] In this context Stace quotes Whitehead who says that nature is “merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly.”[ii]

This highlights the fundamental division in Western thought: those before Galileo thought the world had a purpose; many after him did not. This destruction of purpose in the universe is the key event that signaled the end of religion’s preeminence in culture, inasmuch as religion cannot survive in a world where everything is thought futile. Science has left us with no reason for things to be as they are: “Belief in the ultimate irrationality of everything is the quintessence of what is called the modern mind.”[iii] Another consequence of the decline of the religious view was the ruin of morality, for if morality could not be anchored beyond humankind then it must be our own invention. But as humans differ in their desires and preferences, inevitably morality would be seen as relative. It was in Hobbes that this moral philosophy first flowered and, despite the attempts of Kant and others, the objective basis for morality has been lost. In short moral relativism follows from the world view first illuminated by Galileo—a cosmos devoid of final causes and thus meaningless.

Another consequence of the scientific world view is the loss of belief in free will. Once the idea of a chain of causation is understood it is but a short leap to seeing human action as predictable as a lunar eclipse, to a fatalistic account of human action. And though the subtle arguments of the philosopher may be able to undermine the determinist’s case, the belief in various sorts of determinism—the belief that human beings are puppets in a vast cosmic drama—has penetrated the modern mind.

In response to the present condition philosophers have advanced subtle arguments that are not understood by laypersons; religious leaders have sought to revive religion but their pleas do not move modern people, accustomed as they are to a vast, uncaring universe. A religious revival calling for a return to a pre-scientific religion will ultimately fall on deaf ears; the world has grown up too much for that. And science will not save us either: “though it [science] can teach us the best means for achieving our ends, it can never tell us what ends to pursue.”[iv] The masses must “face the truth that there is, in the universe outside of man, no spirituality, no regard for values, no friend in the sky, no help or comfort for man of any sort.”[v]

While we may have justifiably suppressed this truth before it was known, it is now too late. So we must learn to live without the illusion that the universe is good, moral, and follows a plan. We need to learn to live good and decent moral lives without the illusion of religion and a purposeful universe. “To be genuinely civilized means to be able to walk straightly and to live honorably without the props and crutches of one or another of the childish dreams which have so far supported men.”[vi] Such a life will not be completely happy but “it can be lived in quiet content, accepting resignedly what cannot be helped, not expecting the impossible, and being thankful for small mercies,”[vii] Humankind must grow up, put away its childish fantasies, and strive “for great ends and noble achievements.”[viii]

Summary – There is no objective meaning, but we can be content and noble.

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[i] Walter Stace, “Man Against Darkness,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) 86.
ii] Stace, “Man Against Darkness,” 86.
[iii] Stace, “Man Against Darkness,” 87.
[iv] Stace, “Man Against Darkness,” 90.
[v] Stace, “Man Against Darkness,” 91.
[vi] Stace, “Man Against Darkness,” 92.
[vii] Stace, “Man Against Darkness,” 92.
[viii] Stace, “Man Against Darkness,” 93.

Summary of Thomas Nagel’s, “The Absurd”

Thomas Nagel (1937- ) is a prominent American philosopher, author of numerous articles and books, and currently University Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University where he has taught since 1980.

In “The Absurd,” (1971) Nagel asks why people sometimes feel that life is absurd. For example, people sometimes say that life is absurd because nothing we do now will matter in the distant future. But Nagel points out that the corollary of this is that nothing in the distant future matters now: “In particular, it does not matter now that in a million years nothing we do now will matter.”[i] Furthermore, even if what we do now does matter in a distant future, how does that prevent our present actions from being absurd? In other words, if our present actions are absurd then their mattering in the distant future can hardly give them meaning. For the mattering in the distant future to be important things must matter now. And if I claim definitely that what I do now will not matter in a million years then either:  a) I claim to know something about the future that I don’t know; or b) have simply assumed what I’m trying to prove—that what I do will not matter in the future. Thus the real question is whether things matter now—since no appeals to the distant future seem to help us answer that question.

Consider next the argument that our lives are absurd because we live in a tiny speck of a vast cosmos or in a small sliver of time. Nagel argues that neither of these concerns makes life absurd. This is evident because even if we were immortal or large enough to fill the universe, this would not change the fact that our lives could be absurd. Another argument appeals to death, to the fact that everything ends, and reasons to the conclusion that there is no final purpose for our actions. Nagel replies that many of the things we do in life find their justification in the present moment—when I am hungry I eat! Moreover, if the chain of justification must always lead to another justification, we would be caught in an infinite regress. In short, since justification must end somewhere if it is to be justification at all, it might as well end in life. Nagel concludes that the arguments just outlined fail but adds: “Yet I believe they attempt to express something that is difficult to state but fundamentally correct.”[ii]

For Nagel the discrepancy between the importance we place on our lives from a subjective point of view and how gratuitous they appear objectively is the essence of the absurdity of our lives. “… the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt.”[iii] And, short of escaping life altogether, there is no way to reconcile the absurdity resulting from our pretensions and the nature of reality. This analysis rests on two points: 1) the extent to which we must take our lives seriously; and 2) the extent to which, from a certain point of view, our lives appear insignificant. The first point rests on the evidence of the planning, calculation, and concerns with which we invest in our lives.

Think of how an ordinary individual sweats over his appearance, his health, his sex life, his emotional honesty, his social utility, his self-knowledge, the quality of his ties with family, colleagues, and friends, how well he does his job, whether he understands the world and what is going on in it. Leading a human life is full-time occupation to which everyone devotes decades of intense concern.[iv]

The second point rests on the reflections we all have about whether life is worth it. Usually after a period of reflection, we just stop thinking about it and proceed with our lives.

To avoid this absurdity we try to supply meaning to our lives through our role “in something larger than ourselves… in service to society, the state, the revolution, the progress of history, the advance of science, or religion and the glory of God.”[v] But this larger thing must itself be significant if our lives are to have meaning by participating in it; in other words, we can ask the same question about meaning of this larger purpose as we can of our lives—what do they mean? So when does this quest for justification end? According to Nagel it ends when we want it to. We can end the search in the experiences of our lives or in being part of a divine plan. But wherever we end the search, we end it arbitrarily. Once we have begun to wonder what the point of it all is; we can always ask of any proposed answer—and what is the point of that? “Once the fundamental doubt has begun, it cannot be laid to rest.”[vi] In fact there is no imaginable world that could settle our doubts about its meaning.

Nagel further argues that reflection about our lives does not reveal that they are insignificant compared to what is really important, but that our lives are only significant by reference to themselves. So when we step back and reflect on our lives, we contrast the pretensions we have about the meaning of them with the larger perspective in which no standards of meaning can be discovered.

Nagel contrasts his position on the absurd with epistemological skepticism. Skepticism transcends the limitations of thoughts by recognizing the limitations of thought. But after we have stepped back from our beliefs and their supposed justifications we do not then contrast the way reality appears with an alternative reality. Skepticism implies that we do not know what reality is. Similarly when we step back from life we do not find what is really significant. We just continue to live taking life for granted in the same way we take appearances for granted. But something has changed. Although in the one case we continue to believe the external world exists and in the other case we continue to pursue our lives with seriousness, we are now filled with irony and resignation. “Unable to abandon the natural responses on which they depend, we take them back, like a spouse who has run off with someone else and then decided to return; but we regard them differently…”[vii] Still, we continue to put effort into our lives no matter what reason has to say about the irony of our seriousness.

Our ability to step back from our lives and view them from a cosmic perspective makes them seem all the more absurd. So what then are our options? 1) We could refuse to take this transcendental step back but that would be to acknowledge that there was such a perspective, the vision of which would always be with us. So we cannot do this consciously. 2) We could abandon the subjective viewpoint (our earthly lives) and identify with the objective viewpoint entirely, but this requires taking oneself so seriously as an individual that we may undermine the attempt to avoid the subjective. 3) We could also respond to our animalistic natures only and achieve a life that would not be meaningful, but at least less absurd than the lives of those who were conscious of the transcendental stance. But surely this approach would have psychological costs. “And that is the main condition of absurdity—the dragooning of an unconvinced transcendent consciousness into the service of an imminent, limited enterprise like a human life.”[viii]

But we need not feel that the absurdity of our lives presents us with a problem to be solved, or that we ought to respond with Camus’ defiance. Instead Nagel regards our recognition of absurdity as “a manifestation of our most advanced and interesting characteristics.”[ix] It is possible only because thought transcends itself. And by recognizing our true situation we no longer have reason to resent or escape our fate. He thus counsels that we regard our lives as ironic. It is simply ironic that we take our lives so seriously when nothing is serious at all; this is the incongruity between what we expect and reality. Still, in the end, it does not matter that nothing matters from the objective view, so we should simply chuckle at the absurdity of our lives.

Summary – Life has no objective meaning and there is no reason to think we can give it any meaning at all. Still, we continue to live and should respond, not with defiance or despair, but with an ironic smile. Life is not as important and meaningful as we may have once suspected, but this is not a cause for sadness.

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[i] Thomas Nagel, “The Absurd,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)143.
[ii] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 144.
[iii] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 145.
[iv] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 146.
[v] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 147.
[vi] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 147.
[vii] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 150.
[viii] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 151.
[ix] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 152.

Summary of Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus”

Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) was a French author, philosopher, and journalist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. His most famous works were the novels La Peste (The Plague)  and L’Étranger (The Stranger) and the philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus. He died in a car accident in France.

In “The Myth of Sisyphus” (1955) Camus claims that the only important philosophical question is suicide—should we continue to live or not? The rest is secondary, says Camus, because no one dies for scientific or philosophical arguments, usually abandoning them when their life is at risk. Yet people do take their own lives because they judge them meaningless or sacrifice them for meaningful causes. This suggests that questions of meaning supersede all other scientific or philosophical questions. As Camus puts it: “I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.”[i]

What interests Camus is what leads to suicide. He argues that “beginning to think is beginning to be undermined … the worm is in man’s heart.”[ii]  When we start to think we open up the possibility that all we valued previously, including our belief in life’s goodness, may be subverted. This rejection of life emanates from deep within, and this is where its source must be sought. For Camus killing yourself is admitting that all of the habits and effort needed for living are not worth the trouble. As long as we accept reasons for life’s meaning we continue, but as soon as we reject these reasons we become alienated—we become strangers from the world. This feeling of separation from the world Camus terms absurdity, a sensation that may lead to suicide. Still most of us go on because we are attached to the world; we continue to live out of habit.

But is suicide a solution to the absurdity of life? For those who believe in life’s absurdity it is a reasonable response—one’s conduct should follow from one’s beliefs. Of course conduct does not always follow from belief. Individuals argue for suicide but continue to live; others profess that there is a meaning to life and choose suicide. Yet most persons are attached to this world by instinct, by a will to live that precedes philosophical reflection. Thus they evade questions of suicide and meaning by combining instinct with the hope that something gives life meaning. Yet the repetitiveness of life brings absurdity back to consciousness. In Camus’ words: “Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or factory, meal, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday…”[iii] Living brings the question of suicide back, forcing a person to confront and answer this essential question.

Yet of death we know nothing. “This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction.”[iv] Furthermore I cannot know myself intimately anymore than I can know death. “This very heart which is mine will forever remain indefinable to me. Between the certainty I have of my existence and the content I try to give to that assurance, the gap will never be filled. Forever I shall be a stranger to myself …”[v] We know that we feel, but our knowledge of ourselves ends there.

What makes life absurd is our inability to know ourselves and the world’s meaning even though we desire such knowledge. “…what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.”[vi]The world could have meaning: “But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it.”[vii] This tension between our desire to know meaning and the impossibility of knowing it is a most important truth. We are tempted to leap into faith, but the honest know that they do not understand; they must learn “to live without appeal…”[viii] In this sense we are free—living without higher purposes, living without appeal. Aware of our condition we exercise our freedom and revolt against the absurd—this is the best we can do.

Nowhere is the essence of the human condition made clearer than in the Myth of Sisyphus. Condemned by the gods to roll a rock to the top of a mountain, whereupon its own weight makes it fall back down again, Sisyphus was condemned to this perpetually futile labor. His crimes seem slight, yet his preference for the natural world instead of the underworld incurred the wrath of the gods: “His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing.”[ix] He was condemned to everlasting torment and the accompanying despair of knowing that his labor was futile.

Yet Camus sees something else in Sisyphus at that moment when he goes back down the mountain. Consciousness of his fate is the tragedy; yet consciousness also allows Sisyphus to scorn the gods which provides a small measure of satisfaction. Tragedy and happiness go together; this is the state of the world that we must accept. Fate decries that there is no purpose for our lives, but one can respond bravely to their situation: “This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral 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.”[x]

Reflections – Camus argues that life is meaningless and absurd. Still we can revolt against the absurdity, and find some small modicum of happiness. Essentially Camus asks if there is a third alternative between acceptance of life’s absurdity or its denial by embracing dubious metaphysical propositions. Can we live without the hope that life is meaningful, but without the despair that leads to suicide? If the contrast is posed this starkly it seems an alternative appears—we can proceed defiantly forward. We can live without faith, without hope, and without appeal.

I believe we are called upon to live without appeal, as appeals are intellectually dishonest. But perhaps there are alternatives between accepting absurdity and hopeful metaphysics besides Camus’ defiance. Perhaps we can embrace the absurdity of life, reject speculative metaphysics, and ground the meaning of our lives in the small part we can play in bringing about a more meaningful reality. We can find meaning by working to transform reality.

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[i] Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 72.
[ii] Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” 73.
[iii] Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” 74.
[iv] Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” 75.
[v] Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” 75.
[vi] Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” 75.
[vii] Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” 76-77.
[viii] Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” 77.
[ix] Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” 79.
[x] Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” 81.