I am starting a new series of posts reflecting on some of my favorite philosophers. (When I say “favorite” I mean philosophers whom I have enjoyed studying and whose ideas I find poignant and interesting – not that I necessarily agree with their views.)
My first selection is Albert Camus (1913-1960), a Nigerian-born French writer and existentialist philosopher (the “s” at the end of his last name is silent). I studied Camus in a class on existentialism in college and read two of his books: The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus (TMOS). His philosophy is often called “Absurdim” (although like most existentialists he rejected almost all labels for his views). In TMOS, Camus defines the absurd as the divorce of man from his setting – that is, the tension that arises from the drive toward meaning in the human heart and the inherent meaninglessness of the universe. The absurd is the will toward meaning in a meaningless world, the desire for life and perpetuity when death and extinguishment are inevitable, the appetite for unity and clarity in the face of total randomness. Camus’ writing is poetical and illusive, so it is difficult to pin him down, but I think that is a fair summary of what what he means by the absurd (at least in TMOS). Of course, throughout the book he expresses this idea with variously different pictures – in one provocative passage, for example, he describes the absurd as “sin without God” (p. 40).
The driving question of Camus’ TMOS is, “does the absurd dictate death?” (p. 9). Camus claims the only really important question is suicide: since life is absurd, should we kill ourselves? Interestingly, he says no. The universe is meaningless, but the proper response to this is neither escapism nor pessimism. Rather, the proper response is a “revolt” (an important term for him, along with the terms “freedom” and “passion”) against the longing for meaning. We must become conscious of hopelessness without yielding to despair. According to Camus, there is a kind of meaning in revolting against meaning. As he puts it at very end of the book, “within the limits of nihilism it is possible to find the means to proceed beyond nihilism.” Paradoxically, the meaning of life is to embrace its lack of meaning. The meaning of life is to “kiss the absurd” (p. 54).
The title of the book finally becomes clear in these last few pages of the book, as his presentation climaxes and its shocking implications are drawn. Sisyphus was the figure in ancient Greek mythology who was bound to eternally roll a stone up a hill, only to watch it fall down repeatedly. Camus writes, “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” (p. 123).
Some other quotes that particularly stood out to me:
“Forever I shall be a stranger to myself. In psychology as well as in logic, there are truths but no truth” (p. 19).
“A stranger to myself and the world, armed solely with a thought that negates itself as soon as it asserts, what is this condition in which I can have peace only by refusing to know and to live, in which the appetite for conquest bumps into walls that defy its assault? To will is to stir up paradoxes” (p. 20).
“I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me?” (p. 51).
I will conclude with some thoughts on what I find interesting about Camus, and how I respond to him. I certainly don’t look down on Camus or feel any desire to bash him. I respect him and, on some level, sympathize with him, because I understand the difficulty and anguish of the feeling of absurdity that characterizes much of life in a fallen world. If I did not have the work of Christ in my life, I think I would see the universe as absurd as well. For me, this is the great value of Camus’ philosophy, that it expresses very poignantly the emptiness, randomness, and profound sense of estrangement that characterizes life without God and without meaning.
But I don’t think Camus’ response is the correct one. For starters, there seems a convenient inconsistency in denying life meaning, and then in the next breath assigning it a certain kind of meaning in the revolt against meaning. Which is it: meaning, or no meaning? And if no meaning, why not suicide? I cannot shake the feeling that Camus wants to have his cake and eat it, too. But more basically, it is not clear to me from Camus’ philosophy why human beings should long for a meaning and clarity that does not exist. It seems quite strange that a meaningless universe should produce creatures so obsessed with meaning. As C.S. Lewis put it, fish don’t feel wet in water: the very intensity of man’s revolt against meaninglessness – for example, the fact that the question of suicide even arises – seems to suggest that absurdism is not the whole truth. And if a happy explanation of the universe seems to make more sense of our human predicament than a sad one, why not choose the happy explanation?
Part of me wonders if it is unwise to try to argue with absurdism, just as Aristotle said its unwise to try to prove the obvious. You don’t argue with a madman: you give him medicine. Perhaps Camus’ philosophy (when understood honestly in light of its radical implications) is its own refutation. There is a craving in the human heart for happiness, for clarity, for truth, for meaning, and this craving is as clear as conscience. No one really thinks Sisyphus is happy.