C’est la Vie – Albert Camus’s Take on Absurdity

 – Written for Intro to Philosophy – 

Albert Camus was a 20th century French philosopher and author whose life and legacy could easily be considered absurd. As one of the founding fathers of the absurdist school of thought, he would likely be pleased to be referred to as such. Absurdity in philosophy reaches further than the concept of the incomprehensible or unbelievable; although it is complex in nature, coming to peace with it can feel remarkably mundane. “The Absurd” refers to the human tendency to desperately seek some kind of objective meaning in life despite the human condition making it impossible to find. In Camus himself’s words, “The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”

It is important to note that it is neither mankind nor the universe itself that defines the absurd, but the juxtaposition between two inherently contradictory ideals. Camus finds this struggle to be a universal fact, and it is the basis of most of his teachings. In his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus delves deeply into the effects becoming aware of the absurd can have on the human psyche. An absurdist worldview implies that life itself has no true objective meaning. When all hope seems lost, however, Camus raises the important point that life can still be lived without meaning. In Sisyphus, Camus determines that there are three possible outcomes after making this realization: suicide, faith, and revolt.

The opening line in The Myth of Sisyphus is “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest … comes afterwards.” For the first few sections of the book, Camus touches upon suicide and why people consider or follow through with it. There are many reasons, he determines, why someone might want to end their own life, but the deeper reasoning always stems from the absurd. When a mere man is faced with the reality that his life is devoid of meaning, the mind’s first response is a desire to cease living it. Why should one exist if not for some greater purpose?

Camus understands the mentality behind suicide as an answer, but he quickly dismisses it as “irrational” and “nonsense”. Of the suicidal dilemma, Camus writes, “I am interested––let me repeat again––not so much in absurd discoveries as in their consequences. If one is assured of these facts, what is one to conclude, how far is one to go to elude nothing? Is one to die voluntarily or hope in spite of everything?” Suicide to Camus is an irrational yet human desire born out of knowledge of the absurd, and while he is certain it is not the answer, too many men fall victim to the despair of this unattainable knowledge. Whether their motivations be some kind of afterlife or simply an end to their suffering, suicide is not the answer they truly seek. “If one could say just once: ‘This is clear,’ all would be saved.”

If not suicide, then what? Camus considers another simple answer: faith. By putting your life in the hands of some higher power such as a god, you are inherently denying the existence of the Absurd. Camus quickly dismisses this ideology as existential folly, pointing fingers at many known thinkers who he claims are “escaping” the Absurd despite being aware of its reality. Camus claims, “The Absurd, which is the metaphysical state of the conscious man, does not lead to God. Perhaps this notion will become clearer if I risk this shocking statement: the Absurd is sin without God.”

At first, this seems very black and white–acceptance of the Absurd leads to suicide, denial leads to the fabrication of faith–but Camus raises the claim that there is a third option. A major question he raises in Sisyphus is whether or not one should continue to live life even if it has no meaning. When pondering this, he says, “It was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have a meaning to be lived. It now becomes clear, on the contrary, that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning.” To “revolt” against the meaninglessness of life is to live life to the fullest, as opposed to taking the leap of faith and committing “philosophical suicide.”

Camus believes in revolting against the absurd, but that is not synonymous with rejecting it. If one rejects the absurd, they are not truly living. To Camus, the point is not to overcome the feeling of meaninglessness the absurd throws at you, but to learn to live with it, even embrace it. Being religious is not without its downsides. When discussing Chestov’s views on god as the absurd, Camus states, “Everything is sacrificed here to the irrational, and, the demand for clarity being conjured away, the absurd disappears with the terms of its comparison. The absurd man, on the other hand, does not undertake such a leveling process. He recognizes the struggle, does not absolutely scorn reason, and admits the irrational.”

Camus views religion when used in retaliation to the absurd as a weak and desperate attempt at denying the phenomenon’s existence. In order to truly face the absurd, one must accept it and face it head-on. Relying on religion in the face of absurdity is resigning oneself to their inability to live without meaning. As an alternative to faith, Camus describes “The Absurd Man”, a creature of boundless passion and infinite potential. “The certainty of a God giving meaning to life far surpasses in attractiveness the ability to behave badly with impunity. The choice would not be hard to make. But there is no choice, and that is where the bitterness comes in.” The absurd is difficult to live with once one has come to terms with it, but not impossible. Through faith, one fabricates a universal meaning, deciding to live with a false sense of ignorance. Through revolt, one fights hard for their humanity and gives life a subjective “meaning” of their own. Religion in response to the absurd is not the worst outcome, but it is in no way harmless.

Having thoroughly covered the thoughts and beliefs of Albert Camus, I find it essential to review them through my own modern eyes. Personally, I believe Camus is a very grounded and sane individual. My whole life, I have struggled with a strange sense of morals and a sheer lack of tangible purpose. For quite some time, I agonized over the sheer despair and meaninglessness of my young life. Those were years wasted, I recently realized, as in the end, why must one strain himself with thoughts of the great beyond? Our lives are right in front of us, the moment is here to be cherished.

Camus writes, “And here are the trees and I know their gnarled surface, water and I feel its taste. These scents of grass and stars at night, certain evenings when the heart relaxes––how shall I negate this world whose power and strength I feel? Yet all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure this world is mine.” Those words resonated with me, and I believe that Camus has spoken a lot of the philosophies I myself could never put words to. I’m not sure I can think of a claim he makes within Sisyphus that I inherently disagree with, but that doesn’t shock me; I am open-minded by nature. I have lived two decades, and among them, some years were devoid of life, love, or passion.

As I have grown, I believe I have come to terms with the absurd and accepted my place in this universe as an insignificant speck. Reading Camus only made me realize I was not alone in my mentality. I’ve found comfort in the concept of the absurd, just as he did. I have always asked myself, “Do we really need answers?” To simply accept that the universe is more complicated than I could ever understand is the only answer I truly need. Once upon a time, during the depths of my despair, I confess I considered suicide. Sometimes the darkness weighs down on me, but I have a life, friends, family, love. I refuse to let irrationality get the best of me again, and after all, as Camus himself said, “Everything considered, a determined soul will always manage.”

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