The Nature of the Absurd
A nihilist is not one who believes in nothing, but one who does not believe in what exists.
My contention has been that death and the certain prospect of death make an absurdity out of life. But, argues Albert Camus, even if we humans were immortal, this would make life no less absurd. According to Absurdism, humans historically attempt to find meaning in their lives. Traditionally, this search results in one of two conclusions: either that life is meaningless, or life contains within it a purpose set forth by a higher power—a belief in God, or adherence to some religion or other abstract concept.
I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I cannot 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. What I touch, what resists me — that I understand. And these two certainties — my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle — I also know that I cannot reconcile them. What other truth can I admit without lying, without bringing in a hope I lack and which means nothing within the limits of my conditions?
In philosophy, “the Absurd” refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any. In this context, absurd does not mean “logically impossible,” but rather “humanly impossible.” The universe and the human mind do not each separately cause the Absurd, but rather, the Absurd arises by the contradictory nature of the two existing simultaneously.
I said that the world is absurd, but I was too hasty. This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together. It binds them one to the other as only hatred can weld two creatures together. This is all I can discern clearly in this measureless universe where my adventure takes place.
Accordingly, Absurdism is a philosophical school of thought stating that the efforts of humanity to find inherent meaning will ultimately fail (and hence are absurd) because the sheer amount of information, as well as the vast realm of the unknown, make total certainty impossible. As a philosophy, absurdism furthermore explores the fundamental nature of the Absurd and how individuals, once becoming conscious of the Absurd, should respond to it. The absurdist philosopher Albert Camus stated that individuals should embrace the absurd condition of human existence while also defiantly continuing to explore and search for meaning.
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. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.
Absurdism shares some concepts, and a common theoretical template, with existentialism and nihilism. It has its origins in the work of the 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who chose to confront the crisis that humans face with the Absurd by developing his own existentialist philosophy. Absurdism as a belief system was born of the European existentialist movement that ensued, specifically when Camus rejected certain aspects of that philosophical line of thought and published his essay The Myth of Sisyphus. The aftermath of World War II provided the social environment that stimulated absurdist views and allowed for their popular development, especially in the devastated country of France.
At this point of his effort man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.
Camus perceives filling the void with some invented belief or meaning as a mere “act of eluding”—that is, avoiding or escaping rather than acknowledging and embracing the Absurd. To Camus, elusion is a fundamental flaw in religion, existentialism, and various other schools of thought. If the individual eludes the Absurd, then he or she can never confront it. Camus also concedes that elusion is the most common response to the absurd.
Even with a spiritual power as the answer to meaning, another question arises: What is the purpose of a belief in God? Kierkegaard believed that there is no human-comprehensible purpose of God, making faith in God absurd itself. Camus, on the other hand, states that to believe in God is to “deny one of the terms of the contradiction” between humanity and the universe (and is therefore not absurd but what he calls “philosophical suicide”). Camus (as well as Kierkegaard), though, suggests that while absurdity does not lead to belief in God, neither does it lead to the denial of God. Camus notes, “I did not say ‘excludes God’, which would still amount to asserting”.
Intelligence, too, tells me in its way that this world is absurd. Its contrary, blind reason, may well claim that all is clear; I was waiting for proof and longing for it to be right. But despite so many pretentious centuries and over the heads of so many eloquent and persuasive men, I know that is false. On this plane, at least, there is no happiness if I cannot know. That universal reason, practical or ethical, that determinism, those categories that explain everything are enough to make a decent man laugh. They have nothing to do with the mind. They negate its profound truth, which is to be enchained. In this unintelligible and limited universe, man’s fate henceforth assumes its meaning. A horde of irrationals has sprung up and surrounds him until his ultimate end. In his recovered and now studied lucidity, the feeling of the absurd becomes clear and definite.
Creation as Rebellion
Nothing can discourage the appetite for divinity in the heart of man.
For Camus, the beauty people encounter in life makes it worth living. People may create meaning in their own lives, which may not be the objective meaning of life (if there is one), but can still provide something to strive for. However, he insisted that one must always maintain an ironic distance between this invented meaning and the knowledge of the absurd, lest the fictitious meaning take the place of the absurd.
In absurdist philosophy, the Absurd arises out of the fundamental disharmony between the individual’s search for meaning and the meaninglessness of the universe. As beings looking for meaning in a meaningless world, humans have three ways of resolving the dilemma. Kierkegaard and Camus describe the solutions in their works, The Sickness Unto Death (1849) and The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), respectively:
- Suicide (or, “escaping existence”): a solution in which a person ends one’s own life. Both Kierkegaard and Camus dismiss the viability of this option. Camus states that it does not counter the Absurd. Rather, the act of ending one’s existence only becomes more absurd.
- Religious, spiritual, or abstract belief in a transcendent realm, being, or idea: a solution in which one believes in the existence of a reality that is beyond the Absurd, and, as such, has meaning. Kierkegaard stated that a belief in anything beyond the Absurd requires an irrational but perhaps necessary religious acceptance in such an intangible and empirically unprovable thing (now commonly referred to as a “leap of faith“). However, Camus regarded this solution, and others, as “philosophical suicide”.
- Acceptance of the Absurd: a solution in which one accepts the Absurd and continues to live in spite of it. Camus endorsed this solution, believing that by accepting the Absurd, one can achieve the greatest extent of their freedom, and that by recognizing no religious or other moral constraints and by revolting against the Absurd while simultaneously accepting it as unstoppable, one could possibly be content from the personal meaning constructed in the process. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, regarded this solution as “demoniac madness”: “He rages most of all at the thought that eternity might get it into its head to take his misery from him!“
There exists an obvious fact that seems utterly moral: namely, that a man is always a prey to his truths. Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them. One has to pay something. A man who has become conscious of the absurd is forever bound to it. A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future. That is natural. But it is just as natural that he should strive to escape the universe of which he is the creator.
Absurdism originated from (as well as alongside) the 20th-century strains of existentialism and nihilism; it shares some prominent starting points with, though also entails conclusions that are uniquely distinct from, these other schools of thought. All three arose from the human experience of anguish and confusion stemming from the Absurd: the apparent meaninglessness in a world in which humans, nevertheless, are so compelled to find or create meaning. The three schools of thought diverge from there. Existentialists have generally advocated the individual’s construction of his or her own meaning in life as well as the free will of the individual. Nihilists, on the contrary, contend that “it is futile to seek or to affirm meaning where none can be found.” Absurdists, following Camus’s formulation, hesitantly allow the possibility for some meaning or value in life, but are neither as certain as existentialists are about the value of one’s own constructed meaning nor as nihilists are about the total inability to create meaning. Absurdists following Camus also devalue or outright reject free will, encouraging merely that the individual live defiantly and authentically in spite of the psychological tension of the Absurd.
To work and create “for nothing,” to sculpture in clay, to know one’s creation has no future, to see one’s work destroyed in a day while being aware that fundamentally this has no more importance than building for centuries — this is the difficult wisdom that absurd thought sanctions. Performing these two tasks simultaneously, negating on the one hand and magnifying on the other, is the way open to the absurd creator. He must give the void its colors.
Camus himself passionately worked to counter nihilism, as he explained in his essay “The Rebel,” while he also categorically rejected the label of “existentialist” in his essay “Enigma” and in the compilation The Lyrical and Critical Essays of Albert Camus, though he was, and still is, often broadly characterized by others as an existentialist. Both existentialism and absurdism entail consideration of the practical applications of becoming conscious of the truth of existential nihilism: i.e., how a driven seeker of meaning should act when suddenly confronted with the seeming concealment, or downright absence, of meaning in the universe. Camus’s own understanding of the world (e.g., “a benign indifference”, in The Stranger), and every vision he had for its progress, however, sets him apart from the general existentialist trend.
The absurd … is an experience to be lived through, a point of departure, the equivalent, in existence of Descartes’ methodical doubt. Absurdism, like methodical doubt, has wiped the slate clean. It leaves us in a blind alley. But, like methodical doubt, it can, by returning upon itself, open up a new field of investigation, and in the process of reasoning then pursues the same course. I proclaim that I believe in nothing and that everything is absurd, but I cannot doubt the validity of my proclamation and I must at least believe in my protest. The first and only evidence that is supplied me, within the terms of the absurdist experience, is rebellion … Rebellion is born of the spectacle of irrationality, confronted with an unjust and incomprehensible condition.
Though the notion of the ‘absurd’ pervades all Albert Camus’s writing, The Myth of Sisyphus is his chief work on the subject. In it, 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. He continues that there are specific human experiences evoking notions of absurdity. Such a realization or encounter with the absurd leaves the individual with a choice: suicide, a leap of faith, or recognition. He concludes that recognition is the only defensible option.
Rebellion in itself is not an element of civilization. But it is a preliminary to all civilization. Rebellion alone, in the blind alley in which we live, allows us to hope for the future of which Nietzsche dreamed: “Instead of the judge and the oppressor, the creator.” … Of all the schools of patience and lucidity, creation is the most effective. It is also the staggering evidence of man’s sole dignity: the dogged revolt against his condition, perseverance in an effort considered sterile.
Freedom cannot be achieved beyond what the absurdity of existence permits; however, the closest one can come to being absolutely free is through acceptance of the Absurd. Camus introduced the idea of “acceptance without resignation” as a way of dealing with the recognition of absurdity, asking whether or not man can “live without appeal”, while defining a “conscious revolt” against the avoidance of absurdity of the world. In a world devoid of higher meaning or judicial afterlife, the human nature becomes as close to absolutely free as is humanly possible.
I am not a philosopher, because I don’t believe in reason enough to believe in a system. What interests me is knowing how we must behave, and more precisely, how to behave when one does not believe in God or reason.
The rejection of hope, in absurdism, denotes the refusal to believe in anything more than what this absurd life provides. Hope, Camus emphasizes, however, has nothing to do with despair (meaning that the two terms are not opposites). One can still live fully while rejecting hope, and, in fact, can only do so without hope. Hope is perceived by the absurdist as another fraudulent method of evading the Absurd, and by not having hope, one is motivated to live every fleeting moment to the fullest. In the words of Nikos Kazantzakis’ epitaph: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.
For Camus, suicide is a “confession” that life is not worth living; it is a choice that implicitly declares that life is “too much.” Suicide offers the most basic “way out” of absurdity: the immediate termination of the self and its place in the universe.
The final conclusion of absurdist reasoning is, in fact, the repudiation of suicide and the acceptance of the desperate encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe. Suicide would mean the end of this encounter, and absurdist reasoning considers that it could not consent to this without negating its own premises. According to absurdist reasoning, such a solution would be the equivalent of flight or deliverance. But it is obvious that absurdism hereby admits that human life is the only necessary good since it is precisely life that makes this encounter possible and since, without life, the absurdist wager would have no basis. To say that life is absurd, the conscience must be alive.
The absurd encounter can also arouse a “leap of faith,” a term derived from one of Kierkegaard’s early pseudonyms, Johannes de Silentio (although the term was not used by Kierkegaard himself), where one believes that there is more than the rational life (aesthetic or ethical). To take a “leap of faith,” one must act with the “virtue of the absurd” (as Johannes de Silentio put it), where a suspension of the ethical may need to exist. This faith has no expectations, but is a flexible power initiated by a recognition of the absurd. (Although at some point, one recognizes or encounters the existence of the Absurd and, in response, actively ignores it.) However, Camus states that because the leap of faith escapes rationality and defers to abstraction over personal experience, the leap of faith is not absurd. Camus considers the leap of faith as “philosophical suicide,” rejecting both this and physical suicide.
You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth. Nothing is told us about Sisyphus in the underworld. Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them.
Lastly, a person can choose to embrace their own absurd condition. According to Camus, one’s freedom – and the opportunity to give life meaning – lies in the recognition of absurdity. If the absurd experience is truly the realization that the universe is fundamentally devoid of absolutes, then we as individuals are truly free. “To live without appeal,” as he puts it, is a philosophical move to define absolutes and universals subjectively, rather than objectively. The freedom of humans is thus established in a human’s natural ability and opportunity to create their own meaning and purpose; to decide (or think) for him- or herself. The individual becomes the most precious unit of existence, representing a set of unique ideals that can be characterized as an entire universe in its own right. In acknowledging the absurdity of seeking any inherent meaning, but continuing this search regardless, one can be happy, gradually developing meaning from the search alone.
To shed light upon the step taken by the mind when, starting from a philosophy of the world’s lack of meaning, it ends up by finding a meaning and depth in it.
Camus states in The Myth of Sisyphus: “Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death, and I refuse suicide.” “Revolt” here refers to the refusal of suicide and search for meaning despite the revelation of the Absurd; “Freedom” refers to the lack of imprisonment by religious devotion or others’ moral codes; “Passion” refers to the most wholehearted experiencing of life, since hope has been rejected, and so he concludes that every moment must be lived fully.
Every ideology is contrary to human psychology.
The absurdist is not guided by morality, but rather, by their own integrity. The absurdist is, in fact, amoral (though not necessarily immoral). The Absurdist’s view of morality implies an unwavering sense of definite right and wrong at all times, while integrity implies honesty with one’s self and consistency in the motivations of one’s actions and decisions.
The preceding merely defines a way of thinking. But the point is to live.
In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.
– (All quotes in this article are from Albert Camus)