Book: The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus Art: Mountain Landscape with Rainbow by Caspar David Friedrich Reading time: 6 mins
The philosopher Albert Camus said that “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide”. According to Camus, the fundamental question that philosophy should try to answer is whether life is worth living or not. Many people choose to die when they believe that life is not worth living and so we should understand what makes an individual reach that stage of thought. An understanding of this way of thinking helps answer whether there is meaning or value in life and if not, what this means.
Seeking the inherent meaning of life is not just something a philosopher takes on. Every human being is born curious, with the desire to know and understand the value of their life. What we find when we look, however, is not an intelligible existence, but an unreasonable and disordered world. In most cases, those who commit suicide do it because of a feeling that this world is too much and too incomprehensible. These feelings are worth understanding because many of us sometimes see the world as chaotic, but not all of us carry out the act of suicide. The conflict between our tendency to seek meaning and the chaotic world, which seems to offer no inherent meaning, gives rise to the feeling of absurdity. The question is then whether absurdity should be escaped with suicide, hope, or escaped at all.
The sense of absurdity is produced by our deepest desire. It is generated from the conflict between our appetite to find clarity in the world we live in, and the world which offers no explanation. By understanding the world, we reduce the strange and inhuman to the ordinary and human. Thus, the mind aims to reconcile reality and does this by reducing it to thought. Everything in this world, from our purpose on this planet to the presence of suffering, is given an explanation.
Camus called this the “nostalgia for unity” but also said that “the fact of that nostalgia’s existence does not imply that it is to be immediately satisfied”. This is because when we look out at the world, our desire to understand existence and find meaning is not satisfied. This “divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints” is the absurd.
Some attempt to escape absurdity through hope and somewhat succeed in doing so. For those who have religion, faith provides meaning and clarity. But we are all humans, and it is the human condition to seek meaning and be faced with moments when it is difficult to find it. There are also those who find hope in rationality and who use reason to explain the world and escape absurdity. To these individuals, reality is what it is and the intelligent position to hold is that there is no meaning to life, and nothing happens after it has ended. But rationality fails to curb their sense of absurdity because they find that in moments when they ruminate on their life, they still long for everything to be explained. As Camus says, “reason is impotent when it hears this cry from the heart”. Thus, even with hope both the religious and the rational inevitably feel the sense of absurdity. Hope is therefore ineffective in escaping the sense of absurdity.
“Of whom and of what indeed can I say: ‘I know that!’. 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. For if I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and to summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping though my fingers. I can sketch one by one all the aspects it is able to assume, all those likewise that have been attributed to it, this upbringing, this origin, this ardour or these silences, this nobility or this vileness. but aspects cannot be added up. This very heart which is mine will for ever 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. For ever I shall be a stranger to myself.”Albert Camus
If the absurd is the confrontation between our reasonable shouts for clarity and the unreasonable silence of the world, it therefore depends on both our self and the world. Absurdity does not exist in man alone, nor in the world by itself, but in their presence together. For example, if a virtuous man is accused of killing someone, he will reply that the accusation is absurd. The notion of absurdity here seems obvious, even comical, but it also has a fundamental reason. The absurdity in this situation is caused by the disproportion between the individuals’ characters and the reality of the crime. Therefore, something is absurd only when the person and the reality of the world is compared.
Thus absurdity springs from a comparison, between an action and the world that transcends it. If absurdity is born from the interaction between the human mind and the world, this suggests that the sense of absurdity is essential. It exists because it needs to exist. If absurdity is what unites human and world, it seems questionable that despair and suicide should be the attitude against it.
The Absurd individual
Escaping absurdity then seems foolish. Both hope and suicide require the individual to negate one side of the relationship between mind and world. Both require the individual to take an unjustified leap. Hope accepts our need for clarity but requires us to believe that the world can be explained, and life has meaning. Suicide, on the other hand, accepts the unreasonable world but ignores the minds powerful ability to reconcile reality. Thus, absurdity is an ailment that needs to be lived with, and not one that needs to be cured.
“At a certain point on his path the absurd man is tempted. History is not lacking in either religions or prophets, even without gods. He is asked to leap. All he can reply is that he doesn’t fully understand, that it is not obvious. Indeed, he does not want to do anything but what he fully understands. He is assured that this is the sin of pride, but he does not understand the notion of sin; that perhaps hell is in store, but he has not enough imagination to visualize that strange future; that he is losing immortal life, but that seems to him an idle consideration. An attempt is made to get him to admit his guilt. He feels innocent. To tell the truth, that is all he feels — his irreparable innocence. This is what allows him everything. Hence, what he demands of himself is to live solely with what he knows, to accommodate himself with what is, and to bring in nothing that is not certain. He is told that nothing is. But this at least is certainty. And it is with this that he is concerned: he wants to find out if it is possible to live without appeal.”Albert Camus
This is the psychological attitude of the absurd individual. The absurd individual lives with the reality of both their fate and their limitations. They do not try to escape the fact that their life may not have meaning. On the contrary, by being conscious of this fact, they are assured of their temporary life and comfortable with the unreasonable world. By being conscious of the limitations of what they can reason and control, the absurd individual possesses a humble attitude where reality is drained rather than explained. Fate is not resigned to, and neither is it brushed away. The absurd individual has a psychological attitude which is so conscious of their life, that another life would not be preferred and a greater life can not be lived.
Camus compares our futile desire to find meaning in a meaningless world with the story of Sisyphus, a figure in ancient Greek mythology. Sisyphus was a king who, after being judged as deceitful by the Gods, was forced to roll an immense boulder up a mountain. However, every time Sisyphus reaches the top of the mountain, the boulder rolls down. Sisyphus then climbs back down to begin his task again, and he repeats this for eternity. Like Sisyphus who is fated with his punishment and nevertheless attempts to push the boulder up the mountain, again and again, we are fated with absurdity and may nevertheless forever search for meaning and clarity. But Sisyphus’s punishment is made less tragic if we imagine him as an absurd individual.
“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. 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.”Albert Camus