Albert Camus is a philosopher and literary author whose works are notably known for their treatment of the concept of the Absurd. He spends a lot of time in The Myth of Sisyphus, defining this conflict of our searching for meaning in an indifferent universe, but also he extends this theme into some of his other works such as The Stranger. Camus will ultimately argue for man to free himself from being bothered by the question of finding any sort of meaning in life.
Albert Camus introduces to his readers the Absurd – the central issue of much of his writings – in The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus exemplifies the issue by recounting the Greek myth of Sisyphus, a king who was eternally punished by Zeus to endlessly roll a boulder up a hill because it would always roll back down on him. Sisyphus is the absurd hero for Camus because he is engaging in a very physically demanding task which one would expect to receive pleasure or satisfaction upon completion; though Sisyphus’ work is never over. His labor serves no real purpose in that he is forced to repeat the same process of rolling the boulder back up the hill each time without any sort of reward or release from his anguish. As Camus puts it, his “whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing,” (E, 197). So with this example of Sisyphus, Camus wants his readers to recognize that while man likes to hope and wish for some intrinsic value or meaning to the projects he engages with out in the world, in reality, there is no such meaning. The universe is totally “silent,” as it were, when the rational man submits his inquiries and demands answers from it. All of these points denote the main problem that Camus believes characterizes human existence: The Absurd. Upon coming to a conscious awareness over the Absurd is, furthermore, something which fills man with a sense of disillusionment. At first glance, then, man is like an alien in his world, not having a single reason to justify his existence or belonging to such a strange world which he feels unwelcome living in (E, 189).
The other question which is at stake here is how man can be free if his existence is, in a way, defined by the Absurd. But in order to understand our freedom, we first need to consider the limitation on it. So Camus offers a notion of this when he says that the Absurd limits him in that he cannot pursue a qualitative means of living (since this implies value-judgments), but rather that he can only pursue quantitative living (E, 195). Man, in becoming conscious of the Absurd, is essentially putting his existence in relation to his eventual death; since Camus would argue that the Absurd depends on death (E, 196). That is to say that death is the finality of man’s existence, and the fact that everyone will go through living for no reason just to die is essentially what gives the Absurd its force in opposing the will of the man in revolt. But despite this limitation, freedom can be had by passionately living out a number and variety of experiences, all of which are part of man’s own conscious experience of living in the world. Camus is suggesting here that, furthermore, a scale of values is unnecessary when it comes to “evaluating” freedom, because merely having conscious experiences while revolting against the Absurd in the background is enough to give life for the person living it its value and freedom (E, 194). The fact that man is involved in such a brave project is great, but also man is free in that he does not need to expect anything more or less from life knowing that the Absurd and his involvement through revolt is all that there is.
I have to object here on a number of different levels, because, for one, this conception of freedom seems to be a very weak one. The idea that one can freely live out his life when the Absurd is its central theme just doesn’t make much sense, since the Absurd wouldn’t be just putting up a relative limit on action, but an absolute limit. In other words, the biggest question that must be asked is “Why should I do anything at all if nothing that I choose to do has any value or significance?” I believe here that, theoretically, any action that one performs is based off of a desire which one hopes to satisfy, which is then shaped into a reason which gets motivated in one’s action. But if one follows Camus’ view and comes to consciousness of the fact that we are living in a benign universe which offers us no objective justification, then one who operates on this “view from eternity” could not derive any reason whatsoever for acting. Also, since Camus would urge us to refrain from inventing such reasons to fill this void – though this is something which we intuitively would strive to do anyway – there is no coherent concept of reason left to draw on to understand human agency. Furthermore, one couldn’t even form any concrete desires, because this would entail that something can be implicitly valuable and worthy of being desired. In short, the prima facie consequence of Camus’ discussion of the Absurd leaves humans as entirely passionless beings, despite his emphasis on revolting with passion. The worry here is that ultimately Camus has given us a vacuous, rather than substantial notion of freedom, since, in a universe devoid of meaning or value, there is nothing positive which our supposed freedom can work toward achieving.
But there is also a significant inconsistency in Camus’ argument as well. Specifically when he states that the value of life is wrapped up in the revolt against the Absurd, this seems to be implying that everything is without value, save for a particular exception which needs to be made in order for real human action to even be possible. The exception isn’t justified, because in making the exception, Camus is placing a normative demand on us stating that the revolt is the proper reaction to have when becoming aware of the Absurd. But assuming that this is true, it seems to follow that Camus must also be deriving a reason ex nihilo for us to act in this particular way. The problem, moreover, is that he can’t make this derivation while holding on to his theory of the Absurd, because the consequence would then be that a reason can be found in something entirely unreasonable. This conjunction of “Be conscious of the Absurd and take up a reactionary effort to revolt from it” cannot be logically carried out, since, again, there is no means to becoming motivated to take such an action; given that there are no reasons which can be had to justify any possible action. Camus is asking us to do something that we may initially and intuitively agree is appropriate in such a situation, but upon further analysis it proves itself to be an act of “philosophical suicide.”
Camus could respond to my objection of him presupposing a reason to revolt by suggesting that if we are to take a step back and reflect on our lives, the fact that we are here and living is itself presupposed; there is no convincing external explanation which can be given to answer the question of how or why we arrived on the scene. It still remains, Camus might venture to say, that we do continue to live the life that we’ve been given, despite the fact that our existence doesn’t have at its core a rational explanation. So in essence what Camus is arguing is that life doesn’t need a reason for one to live it, as evidenced by the fact that we are born into the world without reason (despite our cries!). This ties in with the revolt because the revolt is just a means of extending our lives, because without it, the only other serious recourse of action when confronted with the Absurd is suicide. In short, Camus would hold that the issue is really much simpler than what I’ve made it out to be – we should revolt, not because there is a reason to but because revolting is really what is meant by living at all. Just as there’s no inherent reason that goes into living, there’s no inherent reason that goes into revolting either; it just happens to be given to us as the nature of our continued existence.