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—should I go on?
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 can’t 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 discovery. In response, we are tempted to leap into faith, but the honest know that they do not understand, and 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 other alternatives than: 1) accepting absurdity; 2) embracing hopeful metaphysics; or 3) Camus’ defiance. Perhaps we can just say we don’t understand life at all, but we affirm it anyway. (Sort of a Nietzschean move.) We just try to live without being sure of anything. Then we might ground the meaning of our lives in the small part we can play in bringing about a more meaningful reality, by working to transform reality. This is no answer, but a way to live.
[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.