Man’s Grapple with the Absurd
A look at Camus’s Existentialism
Camus ignored or opposed systematic philosophy, and had little to no faith in rationalism focusing instead on the immediate personal experience and musing about such questions as the meaning of life in the face of death. The essential paradox arising in Camus’s philosophy concerns his central notion of absurdity. Beginning with the Aristotelian idea that philosophy is propelled by man’s curiosity, Camus argues that human beings cannot resist asking the question: “What is the meaning of life?” Camus, however, goes on to deny all the systematic attempts to find a definitive answer to this question and rejects every scientific, theoretical, teleological, metaphysical or any other man-made constructs to account for its objective explanation. Their ontological inadequacy is the first reason why the universe, nature and all the human enterprise (God/religion, relatives, society, values, etc.) should be taken with a grain of salt.
The Myth of Sisyphus
The Myth of Sisyphus is Camus’s philosophical essay. In the plot, the major character of the myth, Sisyphus is condemned to roll a rock up to the top of a steep mountain, only to find the rock rolling back down to the bottom every time he reaches the top. He was cursed to endure the hopeless struggle for eternity. Camus argues that life is essentially meaningless, although humans continue to try to impose order on the existence and to look for answers to unanswerable questions. Sisyphus embraces this predicament and never gives up on rolling the rock. Camus uses the Greek legend of Sisyphus, who is condemned by the gods for eternity to repeatedly roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again once he got it to the top, as a metaphor for the individual’s persistent struggle against the essential absurdity of life. It represents the absurd dilemma of mankind, which is essentially irresolvable. According to Camus, the first step an individual must take is to accept the fact of this absurdity. If, as for Sisyphus, suicide is not a possible response, the only alternative is to rebel by rejoicing in the act of rolling the boulder up the hill. Camus further argues that with the joyful acceptance of the struggle against defeat, the individual gains definition and identity.
Absurdism is a philosophical perspective that holds that the efforts of humanity to find meaning or rational explanation in the universe ultimately fail (and, hence, are absurd) because no such meaning exists, at least to human beings.
What is the meaning of existence?
For Camus, the answer was perhaps somehow depressing. He believed that life lacked any meaning, that nothing so existed as ever to be a source of meaning, and, hence, there was something fundamentally absurd about the human beings’ restless quest to find a meaning. Logically, then, his philosophical position was called (existentialist) absurdism.
Camus defined the absurd as the futility/meaninglessness of a search for meaning in an incomprehensible/complex universe, devoid of God, or meaning. Absurdism arises out of the tension between our desire for order, meaning and happiness and, on the other hand, the indifferent natural universe’s refusal to provide that.
But why did he think life was inherently without meaning? Don’t you think that people are always desirous of taking the edge of the shallowness of their life by creating a meaning one way or the other?
Take religion. It certainly seems to provide comfort to many people, but this could not amount to genuine meaning for Camus because it involves an illusion. Either God exists or he doesn’t. If he doesn’t, then it’s obvious why he could not be the source of life’s ultimate meaning. But what if God does exist? Given all the pain and suffering we go through in the world, the only rational conclusion about God is that He’s either powerless or unwilling and emotionless. So, God’s existence could only make life more absurd, not less.
Of course, God is not the only possible source of meaning to consider. Think of our relations to other people—our family, our friends, our communities. We love and care for others in this cruel world, and perhaps that’s why we continue to live. That’s what gives existence meaning.
The problem here is that everyone we know and love will die someday. They themselves suffer and ultimately die. What is the solution for it, then? He openly embraces the absurdity of his condition.
Albert Camus’s entire philosophical project is centered on the idea of the absurd. Humans have the drive to find meaning in things and where it does not exist, we usually try to create one. However, as the universe is cold and indifferent to this quest for meaning, we will always be faced with absurd situations where our attempts to find meaning fail. Our lives are meaningless and will remain so. Camus considers absurdity as a confrontation, an opposition, a conflict or a “divorce” between two ideals. Specifically, he defines the human condition as absurd; as the confrontation between man’s desire for significance, meaning and clarity on the one hand – and the silent, cold universe on the other.
Many of the people out there, demoralized by the vicissitudes of life, turn to suicide as the most viable solution available to them. This is particularly so when they are confronted with the shallowness of a life that is devoid of any clarity or purpose. For them, suicide is a means to quicken the resolution of one’s ultimate fate.
“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is a suicide,” so claims Camus in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Touching upon the question of whether it is worthwhile living, Albert Camus asserts that suicide is not a desirable option open to us, because there can be no more meaning in death than in life.
Most cases of suicide are not born out of reason, but out of impulse/emotion. There is rarely contemplation and rigorous thought process involved on the part of those committing suicide. People might be carried away to commit suicide by the tapestry of forces at play — for instance, the death of a loved one, removal from a job, strained or toxic relationship, or any other tragic incident — “seldom is the decision to take one’s life born of pure reason.” Instead, when nauseated by existence, people are led by their passions to choose escape over struggle. Suicide is a confession: “I can’t face it anymore.” Choosing suicide is also like running away from the absurd.
Suicide is not a worthwhile solution, because if life is veritably absurd, then it is even more absurd to counteract it; instead, you should engage in living and reconcile yourself to the fact that you live in a world without any purpose.
For Camus, the beauty lies in people’s confronting life toe to toe, that is what makes life worth living. Since objective definition, in other words fixed essence, is elusive, people may subjectively create their own meaning in their lives to account for their existence and be able to make living a thrilling experience.
Camus discourages us from running away from the absurd. Rather, we are told to face it head-on. We should also revolt/resist the absurd. When we accept and revolt against the absurd, we choose not to commit suicide. Camus recommends that you “get outside, enjoy the sunshine, go for a walk by the beach, play some football, have lunch at a café with a friend, refuse to give into despair, and embrace the meaninglessness of existence by choosing to carry on with what you enjoy doing despite the lack of meaning to your actions.” We are simultaneously advised to reject the idea of an afterlife because it is not only highly unlikely for such an afterlife to exist, but, in fact, such wishful ideologies are self-defeating attempts to shift your focus away from the colours of the real world. Any feeble stab at justifying the existence of an afterlife is just another way to turn your back on the meaninglessness (the absurd) of life, however eloquently as well as reasonably you may try to prove it.”