Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) may rightly be called the philosopher of the Absurd. In his essays, stories and plays, he mercilessly confronts the world on its own terms and finds that he cannot reconcile his human urge to unify and explain all experience with the world’s incurable plurality and lack of coherence. He finds this situation ‘absurd’!
Confronting L’absurde, one has, according to Camus, three options: commit physical suicide, commit philosophical suicide or accept the absurd and live the absurd life to the fullest.
So Camus begins his master philosophical reflection (1942), The Myth of Sisyphus:
- There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. (All quotes in this essay are from The Myth of Sisyphus unless otherwise noted.)
If living in this world is incurably absurd, why do it? Why go on? Why not just end it as quickly and as painlessly as possible?
- Does the Absurd dictate death? This problem must be given priority over others…
- …Killing yourself amounts to confessing…that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it…that that is not worth the trouble.
- Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit…and the uselessness of suffering.
- Is one to die voluntarily or hope in spite of everything?
Ultimately, Camus rejects the option of physical suicide. Like ‘philosophical suicide’ (below), it negates the Absurd; it amounts to running away from what’s real.
Camus claims no priority on the recognition of the Absurd. Throughout his essay he acknowledges other philosophers and writers who have confronted the Absurd: Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers, Chestov, Husserl, Sartre and Dostoevsky, et al.
- …All started out from that indescribable universe where contradiction, antimony, anguish or impotence reigns.
But Camus gently accuses all of them of committing “philosophical suicide”, of “hoping in spite of everything”. To paint with an overly broad brush, Camus suggests that each of these men uses the terror of the Absurd to ‘prove’, in the end, that there must be some order, some purpose, some meaning capable of overcoming that terror.
- Now, to limit myself to existential philosophies, I see that all of them without exception suggest escape…
- Chestov presupposes the absurd but proves it only to dispel it. Such subtlety of thought is a conjurer’s emotional trick.
Camus’ claim to uniqueness rests on his unwillingness to seek relief in some species of faith or hope from the terrifying conclusions forced on us by the Absurd.
- I judge the notion of the absurd to be essential and consider that it can stand as the first of my truths…And carrying this absurd logic to its conclusion…implies a total absence of hope…A man who has become conscious of the absurd is forever bound to it.
- To Chestov reason is useless but there is something beyond reason. To an absurd mind, reason is useless and there is nothing beyond reason.
- …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.
- And carrying this absurd logic to its conclusion…implies a total absence of hope…A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future.
What makes Camus’ brand of nihilism particularly heroic is his willingness to maintain his position while freely acknowledging that he does not know whether he is right or wrong. As we will see later, radical skepticism is closely related to nihilism and so precludes any philosophical certainties.
- 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? I can understand only in human terms.
- …It is not the affirmation of God that is questioned here, but rather the logic leading to that affirmation.
Both Camus and Sartre admit that is possible that God exists but, if so, it is irrelevant.
- Hence, what he (the absurd man) demands of himself is to live solely with what he knows…and to bring in nothing that is not certain. He is told that nothing is. But this at least is a certainty.
- 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…I can sketch all the aspects it is able to assume…but aspects cannot be added up…Between the certainty I have of my existence and the content I try to give to that assurance, the gap will never be filled. Forever I shall be a stranger to myself.
In other words, my existence will always surpass my essence. (On this point, Camus is in sync with his rival, Sartre.)
- This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction…So that science that was to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis…if through science I can seize phenomena and enumerate them, I cannot, for all that, apprehend the world.
Like Schopenhauer (and others), Camus understands the essential world as ‘representation’. He does not doubt its existence because that existence confronts his ‘will’ (“I can touch”…an act of the will).
Further, Camus is well aware of what the discovery of indisputable meaning in our world would entail.
- If thought discovered in the shimmering mirrors of phenomena eternal relations capable of summing them up and summing themselves up in a single principle, then would be seen an intellectual joy of which the myth of the blessed would be but a ridiculous imitation.
But in spite of these profound acknowledgements of self-doubt, Camus tenaciously holds his ground.
While Camus may justly be called the philosopher of the Absurd, 300 years earlier another Frenchman, Blaise Pascal, focused on a similar idea in his Pensees.
- We do not require great education of mind to understand that here there is no real and lasting satisfaction; that our pleasures are only vanity; that our evils are infinite; and, lastly that death which threatens us every moment…there is nothing more real than this, nothing more terrible. (Pensees)
- For it is not to be doubted that the duration of this life is but a moment; that the state of death is eternal… (Pensees)
- When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after…I am frightened… (Pensees)
Faced with an analysis of the human condition similar to Camus’, Pascal came to a very different conclusion, which is known as Pascal’s Wager.
- “God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here…Let us weigh the gain and loss in wagering that God is…If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. (Pensees)
- …There is no good in this life but in the hope of another. (Pensees)
From a common starting point, Pascal and Camus end up diametrically opposed. Camus’ absurd man “has ceased to belong to the future” while for Pascal, there is no good other than the future. Of course, Camus and Sartre would accuse Pascal of “bad faith”…but I’m not sure Pascal would care.
This poses a particularly difficult challenge for Camus. We are trained to think that all action has a motivation, a purpose, a goal; we are told from earliest childhood that actions have consequences. But if this is not true, if there is no future, no transcendent meaning, no objective values, no hope, then how does one go about living one’s life? If we reject physical suicide and refuse philosophical suicide (hope), then what options are open to us?
- No code of ethics and no effort are justifiable a priori in the face of the cruel mathematics that command our condition.
- All systems of morality are based on the idea that an action has consequences that legitimize it or cancel it.
- The absurd enlightens me on this point: there is no future. Henceforth this is the reason for my inner freedom…completely turned toward death…the absurd man feels released…death and the absurd are here principles of the only reasonable freedom…
- “Everything is permitted,” exclaims Ivan Karamazov. That, too, smacks of the absurd.
Contrast Camus’ concept of freedom with that of Pope Leo XIII. Leo, of course, believed in transcendent values, in objective Truth and Right. Therefore for Leo, the only real freedom is the freedom to do what is right and profess what is true. To do otherwise is to be enslaved (e.g. by evil) for who would voluntarily profess something she knew to be false or do something she knew to be wrong? For Leo, such a person would be living in “bad faith”.
By contrast, Camus’ freedom is unfettered by such concepts as transcendence and objectivity. Camus’ heroes are free to create ex nihilo. In that sense, they are gods.
- 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.
- It is essential to die unreconciled and not of one’s own free will…The absurd man can only drain everything to the bitter end, and deplete himself.
According to Paul’s First Letter to Corinthians, at the end of time Christ will subject all things to himself, even death, and then subject himself to the Father so that “God may be all in all” (Chapter 15). In contrast, Camus’ hero drains everything and depletes himself.
- That idea that ‘I am’, my way of acting as if everything has a meaning…all that is given the lie…by the absurdity of a possible death…Death is there as the only reality.
For Paul, in the end even death is subjected to Christ and to God. For Camus, death subjects everything to itself; that is the essence of the Absurd. Everything hangs on this point! Paul and Camus would agree that death and meaning are utterly incompatible. In fact, they constitute the archetypical incompatibility. Either death is ultimately subjected to something greater and more general than itself (Being) or death ultimately subjects everything to itself and then nothing else has any meaning or value. This is the fundamental divide underlying all human speculation.
- Before encountering the absurd, the everyday man lives with aims, a concern for the future…He still thinks that something in life can be directed. In truth, he acts as if he were free…
- Belief in the meaning of life always implies a scale of values, a choice, our preferences. Belief in the absurd, according to our definitions, teaches the contrary…In an absurd world, there can be no scale of values, no value driven choices or value based preferences. Choices, actions cannot be justified by anything outside themselves.
- Yes, man is his own end. And he is his only end.
How many have struggled to find a way to reconcile death with meaning, even to find meaning in death! A tragic waste! There can be no common ground between irreconcilable opposites.
So with no objective values and no concern for the future, we are left to live life entirely as we wish. Of course, that does not mean that we must behave as libertines. Each of us is free to fashion a code of ethics for herself. But we must not imagine that these private codes have any objective justification or that they are in any way binding on others.
That said, Camus devotes most of the rest of his essay to sketching styles of life that might be consistent with living out the implications of the Absurd. Up to this point, I have had little argument with Camus; from here on, however, I think he gets himself into some serious trouble. As we will see, Camus begins to slip objective values into his system, albeit through the back door.
- I cannot conceive that a skeptical metaphysics can be joined to an ethics of renunciation.
- …belief in the absurd is tantamount to substituting the quantity of experiences for the quality.
- I must say that what counts is not the best living but the most living…value judgments are discarded…A man’s rule of conduct and his scale of values have no meaning except through the quantity and variety of experiences he has been in a position to accumulate.
- For on the one hand the absurd teaches that all experiences are unimportant, and on the other it urges toward the greatest quantity of experiences.
- A man’s rule of conduct and his scale of values have no meaning except through the quantity and variety of experiences he has been in a position to accumulate.
First, Camus dismisses the possibility that asceticism and the absurd could be compatible. This seems strange. If there is no objective value in the world, why mightn’t someone renounce that world (short of suicide), relish his solitude, and focus on his ‘inner self’? Practitioners of Taoism and Zen, well acquainted with the Absurd, often follow this practice.
Even more disturbingly, Camus substitutes ‘quantity’ of experience for the forbidden ‘quality’. But isn’t quantity itself a kind of quality? You might successfully invoke mathematics to argue that quantity is essentially different from quality but if, as Camus asserts, more of some things is better than less, doesn’t quantity then become a value?
One recalls a particularly crass expression from the 1980s: “Whoever dies with the most toys wins,” as well as Gatsby’s famous exclamation in the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel: “Living well is the best revenge”. Perhaps not our finest values…but values nonetheless!
Camus further explains that the quantity of our experience replaces any consideration of quality…but only so far we are conscious of those experiences.
- For the mistake is thinking that that quantity of experiences depends on the circumstances of our lives when it depends solely on us…To two men living the same number of years, the world always provides the same sum of experiences. It is up to us to be conscious of them.
- A sub-clerk in the post office is the equal of a conqueror if consciousness is common to them. All experiences are indifferent in this regard.
Now another value has been introduced: consciousness! Not the abstract phenomenon of consciousness but the act of being conscious of a particular experience. Conscious experience is certainly different, qualitatively, from unconscious experience. Is this not precisely the goal of Taoists, Zen Buddhists, and cloistered monastic orders? Is it not the case that many have ‘renounced’ the world precisely in order to become more ‘conscious’ of the events that make up their lives?
So now we have two new values: quantity of experience and conscious awareness of that experience.
- …To the absurd man a premature death is irreparable. Nothing can make up for the sum of the faces and centuries he would otherwise have traversed.
Where is this sum? (Earlier, Camus referred to experiences as ‘accumulated’.) What suggests to Camus that experience can be totalized in this way? And what about the zero term in the equation? I mean, of course, death. Doesn’t death automatically multiply all the terms in any equation by zero?
Death is not an experience that you ‘add’ to other experiences. In fact, death is not an experience at all. Death is the absence of experience and, even more viciously, the negation of all experience.
- …there is no experience of death…it is barely possible to speak of the experience of others’ deaths…and it never quite convinces us.
- The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man.
“The succession of presents”…another odd construct! Does this not reintroduce past and future into the absurd world, albeit in a clever disguise? By definition, succession implies that something went before (past) and something is yet to come (future). In any unbounded temporal sequence, every term is past to some terms and future to others.
And what is the supposed nature of that ‘succession’? Are we to suppose that each successive present is entirely unrelated to the other presents in the sequence (a conclusion demanded by Camus’ logic)? If so, what is the meaning of ‘succession’?
Or is Camus recovering the concept of the eternal? If the present is more than an infinitesimal point separating indefinite past from indefinite future, then it must not exist on the timeline at all. It must be a-temporal; and if conscious experiences of the present have any extension, that extension must be a-temporal as well. The problem here, of course, is that a-temporal experiences are precisely what we mean when we talk about the eternal…which Camus categorically rejects.
Truth is, ‘the problem of the present’ can only be resolved by asserting that ‘the present’ has a-temporal extension (Bergson, Whitehead) and that ‘presents’ relate to one another by being embedded in one another according to their relative extensions. Ultimately, all presents must be embedded in a single, overarching present, and that present is precisely what we mean when we talk about ‘eternity’, a concept anathema to Camus.
So how are we to live in an absurd world? Camus details several options but he makes it clear that this does not constitute an exhaustive catalogue of possibilities.
First, Don Juan. A “Don Juan” is a collector of experiences. He seeks long life, variety and intensity.
- What Don Juan realizes in action is an ethic of quantity, whereas the saint, on the contrary, tends toward quality.
- Life gratifies his every wish and nothing is worse than losing it.
- Loving and possessing, conquering and consuming – that is his way of knowing.
- Don Juan has chosen to be nothing.
In fact, as we shall see, all of Camus’ absurd heroes have chosen to be nothing. This seems odd. What is choosing to be nothing but suicide…or at least renunciation, two lifestyle choices rejected by Camus?
Second, the Actor.
- The actor has three hours to be Iago…Never has the absurd been so well illustrated…
- …There is no frontier between being and appearing.
- …The distance separating him from the creatures into whom he infuses life is not so great…there is no frontier between what a man wants to be and what he is…For that is his art – to simulate absolutely…to apply himself wholeheartedly to being nothing or to being several.
Of course, to be ‘several’ is precisely what it means to be nothing. Recall the unclean spirits possessing the swine in the Gospels. They are called ‘legion’.
- That is called losing oneself to find oneself. In those three hours he travels the whole course of the dead-end path that the man in the audience takes a lifetime to cover.
Elsewhere we’ve learned that “all the world’s a stage and we…” One does not have to be a professional actor to play a part. Here Camus might have borrowed liberally from this rival, Jean Paul Sartre (I am not what I am and I am what I am not). For Sartre, all aspects of lived life are play acting.
Third, the Conqueror. This is the man of action.
- Conscious that I cannot stand aloof from my time, I have decided to be an integral part of it.
- Between history and the eternal, I have chosen history.
In Eric Rohmer’s movie, Ma Nuit Chez Maude, two old friends meet by chance after 15 years. One is a practicing Catholic, the other a Marxist. Both agree that they have accepted Pascal’s Wager (above). Each has dedicated his life to something transcendent: either God (eternity) or History (time).
- There is a God or time, that cross or this sword. This world has a higher meaning that transcends its worries or nothing is true but those worries…Deprived of the eternal, I want to ally myself with time.
Another odd phrase, “ally myself with time.” Even if one believes that it is impossible to escape time’s tyranny, why would one want to be allied with that great destroyer? Better to join with the poet and exclaim, “Do not go gently into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Camus acknowledges that the project of the conqueror is ultimately futile:
- Victory would be desirable. But there is but one victory and it is eternal. That is the one I shall never have.
- Nothing of the conqueror lasts, not even his doctrines.
- At the end of all that, despite everything is death. We know also that it ends everything.
- …Death exalts injustice. It is the supreme abuse.
As Camus has repeatedly pointed out throughout The Myth of Sisyphus, death is inconsistent with objective values. If death is the final reality, then values are meaningless. On the other hand, if meaningful values are a reality, then death is odd man out.
Camus suggests (above) that death is not merely the absence of value but the ‘exaltation of injustice’. Of course it is! But this observation from Camus’ pen is vital because injustice implies justice. By acknowledging injustice, Camus has once again let the camel’s nose of objective value into the tent of the Absurd.
What is justice, after all, if not a transcendent value that gives meaning to existence? The Book of Psalms, an Old Testament collection of hymns and prayers dedicated to the Divinity, focuses almost exclusively on values in general and justice in particular. Psalms in turn forms the substance of the Divine Office of the Roman Catholic Church, marking as sacred the hours of every day.
These are only examples how an absurd man may live life:
- The lover, the actor, or the adventurer plays the absurd. But equally well, if he wishes, the chaste man, the civil servant, or the president of the Republic…The imagination can add many others, inseparable from time and exile, who likewise know how to live in harmony with a universe without future…
“Harmony”? What is harmony? Once again, Camus has introduced a value laden term.
- This absurd godless world is, then, peopled with men who think clearly and have ceased to hope…There is thus a metaphysical honor in enduring the world’s absurdity. Conquest or play-acting, multiple loves, absurd revolt are tributes man pays to his dignity in a campaign in which he is defeated in advance.
At this point one has to ask, honor or hubris, dignity or petulance?
Finally, Camus turns to art and the creative artist. He proposes an ‘absurd aesthetic’:
- All existence for a man turned away from the eternal is but a vast mime under the mask of the absurd. Creation is the great mime…it is itself an absurd phenomenon.
- The absurd work requires…an art in which the concrete signifies nothing more than itself.
- The absurd creator…must give the void its colors.
And so, finally, for Camus:
- Yes, man is his own end. And he is his only end.
- There is but one world…Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable…There is no sun without shadow.
- “I conclude that all is well,” says Oedipus, and that remark is sacred…(Sisyphus) too concludes that all is well…One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Camus is to be praised for his analysis of the Absurd. His description of the human condition takes a back seat to no one’s. Yet his project, in the end, fails. Try as he might, he cannot escape the need to let valuation and gradation into his scheme. And this raises a question: Is it possible to talk about the world in any non-trivial way without making reference to value? And if not, does that mean that values are indeed real or is it merely an invitation to silence?
In the course of our lives, we are confronted with facts we think we know, people we think we meet and judgments we think we make. From these nearly universal experiences, three great philosophical questions organically arise: What is the nature of ‘knowledge’? What is the nature of ‘the other’? What is the nature of ‘value’? These questions form the basis of three major branches of philosophy: epistemology, ontology and ethics/aesthetics. They also give rise to the three great ‘null hypotheses’: skepticism, solipsism, nihilism.
These null hypotheses cannot be disproven logically but neither can they be so defended. Skepticism can only be thought of in contrast to knowledge, solipsism in contrast to ‘the other’, and nihilism in contrast to value. Like Camus’ ‘injustice’ (above), these concepts cannot stand alone; they cannot be thought ‘positively’. Each assumes, at least provisionally, the existence of the very thing it ultimately denies.
Further, if the null hypotheses do hold, then the questions they purport to answer have no meaning: the nature of ‘knowledge’ implies at least the possibility of knowledge; the nature of ‘the other’ implies the existence of another; the nature of ‘value’ implies real values. If knowledge, the other and value are all fictions, can one meaningfully inquire as to their natures?
Camus understands that these questions are related and in each case his philosophy of L’Absurde incorporates the null hypothesis.
- The method defined here acknowledges the feeling that all true knowledge is impossible. Solely appearances can be enumerated.
- In one of its aspects, eternal nothingness is made up precisely of the sum of lives to come which will not be ours.
- In an absurd world, there can be no scale of values, no value driven choices or value based preferences.
St. Paul also understood the fundamental and interconnected nature of these questions. In his famous meditation on love in his First Letter to Corinthians, he wrote:
- Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests…but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. If there are prophesies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing…At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope and love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (I Cor. 13: 4 – 13)
Paul’s mediation on love is a passionate affirmation of the world. It belongs alongside two other great affirmations, Mary’s in the Gospel of Luke:
“Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word…My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior…behold from now on all ages will call me blessed.”
And Molly Bloom’s in Ulysses:
“Yes…O and the sea and the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put thee rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
Earlier we spoke of Pascal’s confrontation with the Absurd but we could have looked back much further. It seems that Paul was also well acquainted with the apparent absurdity of the human condition. But unlike Camus, and even Pascal, Paul proposes positive answers to the three fundamental questions: The nature of knowledge is faith, the nature of ‘the other’ is love, the nature of value is hope.
“…But the greatest of these is love.” How so? Love involves reciprocity, even ‘co-penetration’, between self and other. It is through that co-penetration that I am known by the other (faith) and that I know the other (hope). The experience of love proves the reality, the truth, of faith and hope.
For Camus, the only connection between man and the world is L’absurde.
- The absurd depends as much on man as on the world…it is all that links them together. It binds them to one another as only hatred can weld two creatures together. This is all I can discern clearly in this measureless universe where my adventure takes place.
For Camus, man and world are defined, perhaps created, by their mutual antagonism.
Anaximander, the father of Western philosophy, held precisely the opposite view. He believed that real entities only come into being only by ‘granting each other reck’…by letting others live. St. Paul recalls that same pre-Socratic tradition. For him, it is the positive mutuality of love that makes faith (knowledge) possible and hope (values) real.
So we applaud Camus for his penetrating analysis of the human condition and for his refusal to escape the lived reality of that experience by suicide, physical or philosophical. However, we find Camus’ prescriptions for living the absurd severely lacking. At the end of the day, they simply constitute another value system among value systems and, frankly, not a particularly attractive one at that.
In Blaise Pascal, we encounter a more rigorously logical response to L’absurde; but in St. Paul, we encounter a convincing refutation of Absurdism. According to Paul, the reality of love, something we should be able to experience according to Camus’s epistemology, undermines skepticism, solipsism and nihilism. Love (‘the other’) proves the reality of Truth (knowledge/faith) and Right (value/hope). Therefore, death is undone! Absurdity is overcome!