Camus' Concept of the Absurd in Myth of Sisyphus

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Albert Camus (1913–1960) was a French-Algerian philosopher, journalist and novelist. Perhaps not as much of a philosopher (as he denied himself to be) as a novelist with a strong philosophical bent, he is most famous for his work on the Myth of Sisyphus and his novels of ideas, such as The Stranger and The Plague. Camus used both his fictional novels alongside with the Myth of Sisyphus in contest with philosophy itself to present his central concern of what Camus calls the feeling of the Absurd. He claims that the Absurd is the fundamental conflict between humans’ eternal search for what we ask/want from the universe (meaning, order, or reasons) and what in turn we find in it: shapeless silent chaos. Camus states that we will never in fact find any sort of meaning that we want from life itself. People will either reach the conclusion that one may hide behind a meaning given through a transcendence by faith (leap of faith), placing hope in a God or the irrational beyond this world (which in turn would ultimately lead to philosophical suicide), or people will embrace that life is inherently meaningless.

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I find that some of his explanation of the method for modern man to effectively deal with the Absurd world to be realistic, as we may never find any sort of absolute meaning. However, I discord in relation to his assumptions of meaning being in essence universal, static, “unobtainable”, and eternally searched for; which in turn leads me to think of his approach of the Absurd Man on responding to Absurdism as contradicting. Camus’ conclusion and idea of the Absurd only works successfully on the true assumption of two premises: that our being is bound in nature to the search of meaning, and that the ultimate meaning does not exist. Even if these premises are to be considered true, although there is no proof, I believe that it does not entail that we are not capable of giving a subjective meaning to our lives ourselves instead of revolting against not receiving an answer from the irrational. Apart from the fact that living to revolt against the absurd is just as similar as providing oneself meaning to escape the reality of life’s lack of one. Therefore, in order to further elaborate on my thesis, I believe that it is foremost important to provide context and understanding about Camus’ interpretation of the feeling of the Absurd and the assumptions he proclaims in reference to the Myth of Sisyphus.

Albert Camus graduated specializing in philosophy, while also obtaining certificates in sociology and psychology at the University of Algiers. There he was brought to contact with two of the major branches of twentieth century philosophy: existentialism and phenomenology. Although he self-proclaimed not to be a philosopher or an existentialist at the very least, he opposed systematic philosophies and rationalism. Nevertheless, his line of thought explicitly rejects religion as one of its foundations, centering his work on choosing to live without God. The latter is clearly evident in the manner that Camus comments on religious existentialists, such as Kierkegaard (although it is not necessarily fair and correct to label him as such), and his critic of other existentialists approach to the discovery of the absurd.

Camus wrote both his first novel, The Stranger, and his first philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, around the same time at the beginning of World War II. when he was working for the French Resistance. Even though it isn’t fair to reduce an author’s idea to their autobiographical background, the special circumstance in which both papers were written can help express the tone of their content. Perhaps Camus’ metaphor of individualistic exile that he uses to describe part of humans’ predicament of meaningless and futile struggle had a personal influence. From his own experience as a man alone and far away from his home eternally struggling against this seemingly relentless unconquerable power (ie. Germany, and other countries). Furthermore, Camus idea of acceptance of his fate could be influenced by the cruel reality that one soldier probably must have to accept the fate that independent of their efforts and struggles, their influence toward either fate of defeat or victory in the war could prove meaningless on the grand scheme of things. Therefore, in the place of this eternal of this contradiction, would anything but suicide prove to be the only escape from this conflict?

Camus opens the essay on The Myth of Sisyphus exactly by asking the same question. “There is only one really serious philosophical problem,” Camus says, “and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that” (MS, 3). Perhaps a proper manner to display this question would be of under what circumstances is suicide justified? Does this latter conclusion that life is meaningless and that is pointless to struggle for an answer necessarily lead one to commit suicide? If life has no meaning, does this imply it is therefore not worth living? Given the content of The Myth of Sisyphus, however, it seems that essential philosophical question assimilates more to simply whether or not one should kill themselves. For him, it seems clear that his concern about such is less theoretical than actually practical over this life-and-death issue of whether and how to live and not the justification of death.

I believe that it is of importance that Camus’s argument for suicide is explained as a logical contradiction. He expresses that by suicide, one only amounts to confessing that life is not worth the trouble. As seen in Camus’s political continuation of Absurdism,“The Rebel”, he states:

'Every solitary suicide, when it is not an act of resentment is, in some way, either generous or contemptuous. But one feels contemptuous in the name of something. If the world is a matter of indifference to the man who commits suicide, it is because he has an idea of something that is not or could not be indifferent to him. He believes that he is destroying everything or taking everything with him; but from this act of self-destruction itself a value arises which, perhaps, might have made it worth while to live. Absolute negation is therefore not consummated by suicide.' - The Rebel, 7.

Someone who commits suicide recognizes 'the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering' (MS, 6). Suicide, is acceptance taken to the extreme, instead of a denial of the Absurd. One accepts their fate and leaps toward it, in which “Suicide settles the absurd” (BW, 480). In other words, to stay alive means refusing to resign oneself to the absurd, to be aware of the inevitability of death and also to reject it. Suicide does not follow revolt, one must die unreconciled and not of one’s own free will (BW, 480).in order to achieve the logical result of revolt

It seems that Camus perceives the question of suicide as a natural response of people’s encounter and discovery of feeling of the Absurd. One perhaps might say it is absurd to continually keep attempting to reach an understanding of meaning in life when there is none, and that it is also absurd to hope for some form of answer to existence, or a continuation of such existence, after death given that such results in the extinction of our being. However, Camus also thinks it absurd to try to know, understand, or explain the world; any attempt to rationalize or gain rational knowledge of life is seen as useless. Therefore putting himself against science and philosophy, he dismisses any form of claims from rational analysis: “That universal reason, practical or ethical, that determinism, those categories that explain everything are enough to make a decent man laugh” (MS, 21).

If we are to consider all previous premises to be true, wouldn’t our other main options is but to take a leap of faith in order to escape? However, Camus describes the Absurd to be seen as the ultimate contradiction that cannot be reconciled, hence any attempt to reconcile it is simply an attempt to escape from it. Therefore he clearly depicts that any choice of those two options is inherently futile and that leap of faith, just as suicide, is a form of acceptance of the Absurd. In his eyes, existentialist philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Chestov, and Jaspers, and phenomenologists such as Husserl, are all able to understand the contradiction of the absurd but then try to escape from it; they find no meaning or order in existence and then attempt to find transcendence or meaning in this very meaninglessness. “They deify what crushed them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them. That forced hope is religious in all of them” (BW, 463). Camus believes that these existentialist philosophers are incoherent between their initial premise and conclusions: “starting from a philosophy of the world’s lack of meaning, it ends up by finding a meaning and depth in it” (MS, 42). However, Camus evidently agrees that although we may attempt to avoid such escapist efforts and irrational appeals through one’s life, he’s conscious of the human desire of submitting to such. He would say that we are unable to free ourselves from “this desire for unity, this longing to solve, this need for clarity and cohesion” (MS, 51). Nevertheless, when he states “The absurd is lucid reason noting its limits” (MS, 49), he emphasizes that it is urgent for one to recognize and not succumb to the temptation to leave rational thought in order to attempt on reconciling the irrational with logic. Therefore Camus is only interested in pursuing a last possibility; instead of attempting to flee from the conflict, we can revolt against it and live in a world empty of meaning. However, what exactly are we ought to revolt against exactly?

Camus introduces his concept of the Absurd within the following: “In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting,is properly the feeling of absurdity (MS 6)”. Camus believes that the recognition of the Absurd happens when we become aware of our meaningless existence in the world and of the overall unimportance of our daily actions. It is interesting to think that by his definition, Absurdity comes to us in our ordinary life as a feeling before an idea. Consider that most if not everything in our lives is mechanical and methodical. People just go through work, transports, eating, meeting friends without questioning the world around us until the very day one looks back to themselves and asks “why?”. This “flash of reality” comes randomly from some kind of weariness at times when one has become tired of the mental and physical routines. At this point, one no longer recognizes the beauty in nature, but only its incoherency.

When we are faced with the Absurd, we begin to re-evaluate all that is known to be true: beliefs, morals, and perhaps even our own existence. However, the consequence as one once has come to terms with this truth is that it becomes part of one’s self. This means that once one has become aware of the absurd, they are tied to its reality. Although consequential, Camus depicts this moment as not so bad in his way of thinking, because this moment of weariness is when conscience is clarified and invites one to reinhabit oneself and review the previously given truths of the world; distinguishing between what is true and false in the world. In result, Camus asserts that all one will find is an immensity of contradictions, but this remounts to no reason on stopping of one’s search.

Camus often also refers the feeling of absurdity with the feeling of exile. As rational beings, we instinctively associate life with meaning or purpose. Hence when we act under this assumption, we feel at ease and familiar. However, as said before, once we have acknowledged the validity of the perspective of a world without values or meaning, there is no turning back. As a result, those who have acknowledged the Absurd may feel like strangers in a world lacking of reason. Even if we choose to live as if life has a meaning, escaping through a leap of faith, the absurd will linger. The feeling of absurdity exiles us from the familiar comforts of a meaningful existence.

Although one may think the opposite, Camus did not intend to apply a negative connotation to the Absurd. He simply observed and interpreted an absence of a universal meaning. By dismissing the idea of an universal absolute purpose, he turned to creating one's own definition of the world. He believes that as one accepts to living with the Absurd, it is only a matter of facing this fundamental contradiction and maintaining awareness of it. Facing the absurd does not lead to suicide, but allows one to feel free from the existential conflict of searching for meaning and to live life to its fullest. This result is in fact displayed through Sisyphus depiction as Camus’ Absurd Man by the conclusion of the essay, where Sisyphus is seen as 'stronger than his rock' after he has accepted his fate and the futility of attempting to obtain a different one.

Camus elaborates on the three consequences that result from one living in acceptance and against the Absurd and characterize the Absurd Man: 'my revolt, my freedom, and my passion.' The first (revolt) refers to one not ceasing in both search for reason and of being aware that such is only futile; one eternally revolts hopeless of an answer. The concept of “freedom” refers to one’s act of concentrating not on one’s liberty from the irrational (such as God or physical laws), but rather on freedom on an individual level. Meaning that one isn’t committed on living to a particular goal, but for every new moment. Although Camus is not worried by the restraints done by the irrational anymore, he still acknowledges the problem of freedom of an individual in relation to the state, as well as that of the prisoner to social norms. Lastly, Camus refers to 'passion' as the final consequence of living the absurd, in which one lives beyond the concern of future and of the past and enjoys the present moment to its fullest.

In accordance to the consequences of living as an Absurd Man, Camus provides four different fictional characterizations of what an Absurd Man ought to be. First he depicts the seducer, Don Juan. He who moves from woman to woman, seducing each one in turn with the same tactics previously used. Although counter intuitive, Camus dismisses the accusation that Don Juan hopes to achieve any transcendence beyond his daily journeys; he pursues the passions of the moment. Second is the Absurd Man as the actor, who is not content on simply observing life and therefore imagines living many different from his own; The actor gathers and accumulates the diverse intensity many lives into the span of his only one career. Third is the Absurd man depicted as the conqueror, or rebel, who is drawn to rebellion and conquest in order to overcome their individual’s full potential. One may may induce Camus own personal view as the conqueror as he partook on the Second World War. Fourth is the Absurd Man depicted as the artist, who doesn’t attempt to reason, explain, and picture the world as it would be universally, but creates entire particular worlds.

In conclusion, after providing understanding of the origin of the feeling of the Absurd and of solution as the Absurd Man and his different examples, I believe it is clear to see some of the contradictions of his point of view. I believe that when Camus advocates on embracing the absurd he is not necessarily asking for one to find their our own meaning independently of social conditions but that he ultimately promotes that one makes their struggle against the Absurd their meaning. Although it doesn’t constitute to finding their own meaning, as in Nietzsche’s Egotism, but another form of philosophical suicide. Similar to that of the other existentialists, Camus seems to embrace this answer, which in turn would actually be the lack of one, given from the irrational and formulating a way of life based on it. He attempts to prescribe a way of living, which is a denial of the absurd premise of his own argument, rendering his solution incoherent. However, I believe that it is not the same leap of faith at the very least, though perhaps Camus might seem to rely on a faith of a negative kind, in the opposite direction to what Kierkegaard adopts.

Even though Camus uses the premise that there’s is no answer to any of the irrational, he seems to be more clearly determined throughout the essay to display his belief that there is no God and that life is meaningless more than he is determined to argue for that meaninglessness. It’s true that it’s not his goal, as he states, to present a philosophical system, but to display a personal diagnosis and opinion of a certain way of looking at the world, yet he still attempts in providing a formula of how to approach meaninglessness just like the other philosophers he criticized. I believe that, not only inherently contradicting, Camus' solution is also impossible. Following Camus’ arguments, I imagine that he might concede life can be experienced in meaningful ways, such as the seducer’s passion (love) or the conqueror’s revolt (pain). Both of these examples might involuntary entail responses such as hope and despair (respectively given the character), which even on a non-universal level are clear to exist beyond the experiential qualities but are bound by the experiences themselves. Therefore creating the conflict between an individual’s moments of meaning through one’s experience and the premise that life is inherently meaningless.

Works cited

  1. Camus, A. (1942). The Myth of Sisyphus. Vintage.
  2. Camus, A. (1947). The Plague. Vintage.
  3. Camus, A. (1946). The Stranger. Vintage.
  4. Sherman, D. J. (2009). Albert Camus. Infobase Publishing.
  5. Todd, O. L. (2013). Albert Camus: A Life. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
  6. King, R. (2006). Camus. Oxford University Press.
  7. Schrift, A. D. (2014). Albert Camus. Cambridge University Press.
  8. Bree, G. (1984). Camus. Wiley-Blackwell.
  9. Brée, G. F. (1962). Camus and Sartre: Crisis and Commitment. University of Illinois Press.
  10. Bree, G. F. (1959). The Philosophy of Camus. Philosophical Library.

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