You will never be happy if you continue to pursue the meaning of happiness, nor shall you live if you spend your life searching for a meaning of life. Albert Camus held this view of life in high sincerity, and this was the basis for much of his philosophy. At heart of Camus’ writings was the theory of the absurd. The absurd is what he explores in his famous essay, The Myth of Sisyphus.
First off, what actually does Camus mean by the absurd? To put it simply, he believed that life is devoid of meaning. This was an increasingly popular view in the context of his life. Life seems absurd and meaningless when there is a disparity between life and our experience of life; it is that experienced, perceived gap which is the absurd. It could strike us at any point in our lives, but does so when we reflect upon life; and the force the absurd has upon us can be reflected by the degree in which we accept or perceive the gap between us and meaning, or between us and the essential, unobtainable nature of the thing we’re thinking about.
He was fascinated by the phenomenon of suicide, and famously declared that suicide was the one truly great philosophical problem. Camus said that one contemplates suicide when the absurd becomes too powerful, or too enveloping. Life loses its meaning, and we wonder why we bother to do the things we do at all. When we reach the point at which the absurd strikes sufficiently to cause one to contemplate suicide, the option is seemingly binary- yes/no. But actually, it is yes/no by degree, since it is always a decision balancing the perceived gap of life with our notion of life. To decide yes/no is, in Camus’ eyes, the decision of what the value of life is, and therefore is a highly loaded decision. It must also, to a point, contain an assessment of what life is.
Time is absurd. We say things like ‘I’ll do that tomorrow’ or ‘you’ll understand when you’re older’. Man places himself in time, situates himself to other points in time. We belong and exist in time. Time, however, is a profound uncertainty. Firstly, we are never privy to whether tomorrow will arrive or not, nor what obstacles may appear in a proposed tomorrow. Secondly, our perception of time is flawed, we never imagine it correctly, remember it correctly, so how can we think in and about it correctly?
Other people are an absurdity to us. We can know a person by seeing them once and drawing up, in our minds, an idea of who that person is. We can meet that person 100 times and create an aggregate idea of that person, which will help us better understand aspects such as likes and behaviours of a person. There will always be a gap between knowing a person and knowing who they really are though. There are in fact essential details of a person we will never know, such as ‘what it is like to be this person’. We think we can imagine what it is like to be a person, but what we are actually imagining is what it is like for us to be that person.
The world around us, too, is absurd. The world can make perfect sense to us, but this is because we ‘humanise’ it, or to be more precise, we comprehend it in relation to our personal experience of it. The more we try to understand the world, the closer we look, the further we move from an understanding of the world. Some people say that the more we see the world, the more we see ourselves. Camus would say that this is because we have to translate the world into ‘us’ before it makes sense, and therefore we are bridging that gap with imposed identity, an imagined familiarity.
He addresses the solutions other philosophers propose to the paradox of absurdity, but dismisses each one for the same reason: he feels that every philosopher before him has never truly appreciated that to accept the absurd means to maintain and hold absurdity. Kierkegaard, for example, believes that the world is absurd, and proposes that we meet with the absurd nature of life by placing faith in God. Camus believed that he had missed the point of absurdity. To place faith in God proposes to project into time and space beyond certainty and ignore absurdity.
Camus’ belief in the absurd can sound stark and depressing. However, it doesn’t have to be so. He calls to mind the life of Sisyphus, a man condemned to roll a boulder to the top of a mountain only to watch it roll down and start over eternally. Human life is like the life of Sisyphus. We have to imagine that Sisyphus is happy. In the same way, we must imagine that we are happy.
The absurd strikes us most when we are tired, at the end of a long day, and it strikes Sisyphus most when the rock has rolled down and he prepares to roll it back up; moments of contemplation. In this moment, we can perceive absurdity, even suffer absurdity. The true solution is to see that Sisyphus is his own master, as we too are our own masters. To accept absurdity is not to accept sterility and futility, it is to allow us to dismiss the universe as law over our life. Freedom is what we imagine it to be, and henceforth, life is a blank canvas. To accept the life of Sisyphus is true freedom. Kierkegaard believed that life had to be meaningless so that God can create meaning in it, Camus believed that because life is meaningless we can create what we want from it.