The Myth of Sisyphus
by Albert Camus
Albert Camus takes as the starting point of this essay a familiar feeling of losing your bearings. At times the social, intellectual, philosophical, and religious constructs that we have which give the world meaning and coherence fall away and we are plunged into confusion. As Camus poetically describes it:
We are faced with the real possibility that life is meaningless. If this sense of meaninglessness persists, we are forced to ask whether life is worth living at all. Camus says that this question of suicide is the most basic philosophical question. He opens his essay with this fundamental point:
Much of the beginning of the essay is spent framing up the existential condition which Camus calls the absurd. Man is caught in a paradox. On the one hand, all empirical evidence shows that the world is unpredictable and chaotic. Lives come into existence and pass. Ideas are proven to be true then determined to be false. One belief is held than another. Even our own moods are constantly shifting. On the other hand, man has a persistent nostalgia for unity, a need to make sense of the world. This is the human condition, Camus suggests, a constant attempt to derive meaning from meaninglessness. And it is absurd.
Given this situation Camus explores the possible responses. First he examines a religious answer proposed by people like Soren Kierkegaard. Camus argues that the religious leap of faith that Kierkegaard proposes is unnecessary. This leap is an escape from the fact of life’s absurdity, a “philosophical suicide” as Camus puts it. Next he looks at the opening question of the essay, what about suicide as a response to the absurd? He concludes that this too is an unnecessary escape from the reality of life’s absurdity. He points out that a life without meaning does not necessarily lead to the fact that life is not worth living:
Camus’s response to this condition of the absurd is to “live in revolt.” By this he means that we accept the tension of searching for meaning in a totally chaotic world. We deny neither our hunger for unity nor the apparent disorder of the world. The last part of the book is dedicated to examples from history and literature of people who have lived this life of revolt to varying degrees.
The value of this book for me comes in Camus’s description of the absurdity of life (and accompanying confusion) and in his exploration of the possible human responses to this situation. He brilliantly captures the sense of strangeness that can unexpectedly engulf the world and twist my stomach in knots:
As Camus goes through the possible responses to this feeling of the absurd, it is clear that he has squarely faced this absurdity and has spent much of his life wrestling with it. He covers just about every existential thought I’ve had and many more. Only a man who has steeped himself in existential questioning can come up with such subtle and important philosophical points. For example he notes that philosophers like Chestov and Kierkegaard go to great lengths to show the limits of reason and man’s helplessness in the face of life’s absurdity. This, they say, is why man must take a leap of faith and turn to God. But if this leap of faith is in fact a solution to life’s absurdity then the absurdity never existed in the first place which means the need they described for a leap of faith did not exist either. I doubt I could have ever come up with such an insight on my own.
In the end I was not completely compelled by Camus’s conclusions. His assertion that a philosophical life is a constant struggle rang true, but I was unable to understand the historical and literary examples he used to illustrate this “life in revolt” (this is probably due to my unfamiliarity with the philosophers and literary characters he used as examples). I did not see the horror in the "philosophical suicide" that he attributes to religious philosophers. I have worn out plenty of philosophies on life and will probably continue to plow through many more. I have seen that an intuition or experience can solve an existential dilemma as well as, or even better than, the clearest thinking. Maybe I am not a true philosopher, but the reasons I could come up with for avoiding suicide would be centered around my relationships, certain moments of inspiration, and a very strong, clear sense from my body that I will protect it at all costs.
|Interested in existential philosophy?
Click here to learn more about the SKS.
|Click here to buy this book from amazon.com|