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In a World Without Meaning, Why Live? - Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus"

Monday, April 28, 2014

In a World Without Meaning, Why Live? - Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus"

In my attempt to rebuild my philosophy from the ground up, I examined the most fundamental of questions: suicide. Per Camus, suicide is the most important philosophical question and thus I decided to read Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus and that is the book that will be analyzed/explained first.

Absurd Life

So I know this isn’t truly starting at “the big” question of whether humans actually exist, but for the sake of argument, we must assume that humans do in fact exist in the physical sense. I’m sorry Descartes (and to some extent Hume), but musing over those questions, while great for keeping one up at night, will get me nowhere in my search for a new value system. Thus I will start with a few basic assumptions, nothing more:
  1. Humans exist in a physical form
  2. Death is a real thing and, although the definition is debatable, there is a distinction between life and death (sorry Lanza)
  3. Humans have some sort of free will
  4. There is no god (This one is debatable but, I have written answers to The Kalām Cosmological Argument, twice, The Fine Tuning Argument, twice, and The Transcendental Argument, among others)

Now you may notice that I am “missing” one…an assumption far too many people make, and that is, “the universe is knowable and quantifiable”. In a word, that humans can find objective truth. This is left off the list because it may not be true. For French philosopher Albert Camus (in his book The Myth of Sisyphus), the world was inherently absurd. For him, the absurdity in the universe arose from the inability for humans to find a meaning for existence (due to many issues). This meant that there was no way humans could discern any reason to be and thus the big question is asked: if there is no meaning in life, why not kill yourself?

Camus took this very question into account when he said “[t]here 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”. This issue must come before all else because, if one wishes to live one’s philosophy, this will dictate whether or not one should commit suicide. Camus looks around at people dying by their own, or other’s, hands when he says “I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living (what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying)”, and thus Camus begins a journey.

But counter to Schopenhauer’s view of suicide, Camus essentially said “fuck that”. For him, the answer is simple: “revolt”. Killing oneself is an act of weakness, of cowardice. A reaction to not being able to understand life. This revolt can take many forms, from the artist, to the hedonist, to the imperialist, it just requires an embrasure of the now. As much as it pains me to say this, rap artist Drake was on to something when he said “You only live once ‒ that’s the motto nigga YOLO” in his song The Motto.

Camus provides a perfect analogy for man to live by, the story of Sisyphus. According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a king who was constantly being deceitful towards the gods (who didn’t take kindly to that). The gods punished him by forcing him to push a boulder up a hill just to see it roll back. He was then forced to repeat the action for eternity. (x)

Camus likens the human condition, that of mindless work, school, etc. to that of Sisyphus. We are like small ants running around doing mindless tasks for as long as our tenure in this universe allows. But for Camus, that is not enough. He says man should be like Sisyphus, to not just engage in these tasks, but to be joyful. To be happy. The absurd man stares this pointlessness in the face and laughs, for, as Camus concludes, “[t]he struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”.
[Below are some notes that I started to write]


An Absurd Reasoning

Absurdity and Suicide

Camus starts off his essay with the following frank words: “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.” He rationalizes this as being the most fundamental of questions for a few reasons: first, in order to respect a philosopher, he must practice what he preaches (or so says Nietzsche); second, Camus looks around at the world and sees people dying both for values that they deem more important than themselves, as well as because they are simply suicidal; and third, Camus understands that all other philosophical positions can be rescinded with ease, but the question of a value in life cannot. It is in its own world, and thus Camus seeks to evaluate it above all else.

Camus then proceeds to give a mini genealogy of how he views suicide, namely, as an act done solely in one’s heart (he likens it to a piece of artwork) and who’s explanations must transcend the typical “oh, he was sad”. In fact, Camus posits a different view of suicide, one of confession when he says “…killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it” [emphasis added]. This is the prime thing, a lack of understanding of the world and subsequent frustration and suicide. But then Camus says something odd, something I would probably disagree with. He says “the principle can be established that for a man who does not cheat, what he believes to be true must determine his action”…ergo, if one deems life not worth living due to the absurdity of it, suicide is to be had. But here, I feel Camus oversimplifies relations between ideologies and actions. While in an ideal world, each individual would act based upon the specific ideology to which they subscribe, that is not the world we live in. In fact, we live in a world that is completely counter to that. We have “communists” tweeting with their iPhone 5s’ and Nietzscheans (Nietzsche would reject this idolatry) operating under Judeo-Christian morality. So one cannot simplify human relations and actions so easily, but that has little bearing on the rest of this post, just my comments. (All this being said, later Camus does address this somewhat pointing out the irony in it all)

At the end of this section, Camus sums up the point of the essay and that is to see if there is a logical train of thought between “life has no meaning” to “one ought to kill oneself”, if one can carry out the logic of suicide and meaninglessness to the bitter end. For as Camus says, “It is always easy to be logical. It is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end.”

Absurd Walls

This next section is crucial to understanding what, and to what extent, “the absurd” actually is. In the beginning, Camus indicates that absurdity is a common occurrence, one which “can strike any man in the face”, but that of course begs the question of what the absurdity actually is. Camus indicates that, in part, the absurd is the inability to understand the deep motivations and thoughts behind human action (suck it psychologists) when he says “it is probably true that a man remains forever unknown to us and that there is in him something irreducible that escapes us”. But this does not portray the whole picture, for Camus concedes that some people can be understood via the “totality of their deeds” which means that, at some level, there is a way to create order, or at least understanding, in the world.

The next important point in Camus’ work comes when he explains how one comes to be open and to question life. Camus indicates that people go through their lives according to habits, that is, the monotony of life. These habits guide individuals through the weeks, months, years, etc. until a simple question arises in their brains, “why?”. This one word question, according to Camus, is enough to turn an average business person into one questioning the nature of existence.

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