The world is absurd
“We lead a difficult life, not always managing to fit our actions to the vision we have of the world.” Albert Camus
Albert Camus’ death was the ultimate testament to the central philosophy of his life.
Camus had spent New Year’s 1960 in the south of France, together with his family, and the family of his friend, Marcel Gallimard.
His family took the train back to Paris, but Camus decided to stay an extra day, and then ride back to Paris in his friend’s car.
On the 4th of January, 1960, as they was approaching the French capital, Marcel lost control of the car, which veered to the right and hit a tree. Camus was dead on the spot, Gallimard died a few days later in the hospital.
When the investigators came to the wreckage, they discovered that Camus still had the return half of a train ticket in his shirt pocket. He had originally intended to take the train with his family, but that split second decision to instead ride back with his friend, ended up costing him his life.
Albert Camus was a lifelong proponent of absurdism, believing that life is just a string of random acts. He saw the inherent disconnect between man’s eternal search for meaning, and a universe utterly devoid of it.
For Camus, the world was irrational, chaotic, and random. His philosophy found inspiration in nihilism and existentialism, but went its own way.
The eulogy at Camus’ funeral was given by Jean-Paul Sartre, another great French existentialist philosopher of the mid-20th century. The two had once been great friends, but their friendship soured.
In his speech, Sartre summarized how the randomness of Camus’ death reflected his philosophy:
“I call the accident that killed Camus a scandal because it suddenly projects into the center of our human world the absurdity of our most fundamental needs.” Jean-Paul Sartre
The cycle of life: wake up, go to work, do stuff, go back home, sleep
Camus realized how utterly pointless the things that humans do really are. He noticed how the entire life of a person was just a series of acts leading nowhere.
Most philosophers before him tried to find a purpose for life. Camus said that there was no purpose, no meaning in the world.
It was just you, as an individual person, facing a big universe which doesn’t care.
Camus penned probably his greatest work “The Myth of Sisyphus”, at the start of World War 2, as Nazi Germany was steam-rolling France and unleashing a wave of terror on the world.
The war demonstrated to him how utterly senseless the world can be, and how inherent justice is not part of it.
In his piece, he reflected on the global state of affairs, but also on the normal every day predicaments of the common person.
In ancient Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a man who tried to cheat death and defy the gods. For that he was punished by them, made to push a stone up a hill, and then as he was reaching the top have the stone slip from him and roll back down again.
He was to do this for all eternity, with no breaks.
For Camus, this myth symbolized the common person’s daily struggles. It was about the boring daily routine that most people have to undergo day in and day out: wake up, go to work, do stuff, go back home, go to sleep… rinse and repeat.
This is the normal reality for the vast majority of people, one that they cannot escape from. Just like Sisyphus, they are condemned to push a stone up a hill, and before reaching the top, having it roll back down again.
Camus saw only 3 ways out of this impasse:
- Commit suicide
- Take a leap of faith
- Accept the absurd
His life work was dedicated to helping people pick the right choice. Suicide was not really a choice, and he struck it out right away, but the two other options are the ones that you need to examine.
Most people take the leap of faith. Instead of accepting the absurdity of the world, they search for a hidden meaning behind it all.
They suspend reason, and instead turn to faith. They believe in a God, karma, or just some sort of a higher purpose for this world.
This is what the existentialist Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard did. He saw the absurdity of the world, but turned to religion to hide from it.
He explained his choice by pointing at the anxiety that we all feel as humans.
“Deep within every human being there still lives the anxiety over the possibility of being alone in the world, forgotten by God, overlooked among the millions and millions in this enormous household.” Soren Kierkegaard
However for Camus, this was not the answer. He saw it as an escape from reality. As a way to soothe your mind, but with your eyes closed to the nature of the real world.
If you want to survive in this world, you need to accept it for what it really is: absurd, random, without a higher meaning. Only this acceptance will truly set you free.
In order to exercise your freedom, you need to live without appeal, as Camus termed it.
“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.” Albert Camus
Camus rejected any type of Aristotelian teleological explanations of the world. The world has no inherent purpose, and neither do things.
Absurdism doesn’t interest itself in the why, only in the what. For Camus, the idea was not to explain the reason for the world’s existence, but only to describe its being.
It doesn’t matter why things pass in the way they do. You just have to accept that they do.
“If the world were clear, art would not exist.” Albert Camus
What to do in an absurd world?
The beauty of the absurd is that in a way it liberates you. It gives you freedom from society’s rules.
You make the rules.
You give the world your own meaning.
The key to this is to accept the absurdity of the world, and that there is no overall meaning to the universe. However, you as a person can create your own personal meaning, and then try to pursue it.
“There is no longer a single idea explaining everything, but an infinite number of essences giving a meaning to an infinite number of objects. The world comes to a stop, but also lights up.” Albert Camus
That is the theory behind what Camus is preaching.
You accept the lack of a grand meaning in the universe, create your own personal meaning, and then set on pursuing it, knowing full well that you will probably never achieve it.
It’s this quest for an arbitrary meaning that you create for yourself that is crucial for surviving in an absurd world, without taking an irrational leap of faith.
“The struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart.” Albert Camus
Throughout history, different people have given their lives different meanings.
Michel de Montaigne, one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance, encapsulated perfectly what it means to give your life meaning.
“I write to keep from going mad from the contradictions I find among mankind, and to work some of these contradictions out for myself.” Michel de Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne overcome the absurdity of the world by writing. This was his way to keep sane in a world full of contradictions, and the irrational behavior of humans.
Each person gives meaning to their life through their own actions. This is what inspires them to work hard to achieve goals, and keep on going when things get tough.
Brian Greene, the son of a high school dropout from New York, became a physicist in order give his life a personal purpose.
When he found “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Greene was immediately mesmerized by the message.
Reading that book opened up his intellectual world. It made him see the connection between exploring the cosmos, and contemplating what makes life worth living.
The thoughts of Camus inspired him to embark on a quest to find out how the universe works. In essence, Greene is trying to find answers to the questions that Camus was asking.
He feels a sense of delight in contemplating how wonderful nature really is. His story is a good example of how just looking at ordinary objects can sometimes spark a life of creativity.
For Greene, it was reading Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman’s description of a flower that exemplified how one can find joy in the world.
That moment, right there and then, he discovered his calling. He was hooked.
“And when I read Feynman’s description of a rose — in which he explained how he could experience the fragrance and beauty of the flower as fully as anyone, but how his knowledge of physics enriched the experience enormously because he could also take in the wonder and magnificence of the underlying molecular, atomic, and subatomic processes — I was hooked for good.” Brian Greene
The world might be absurd, but there are simple experiences that give it a certain beauty.
You can go about finding this beauty in many different ways.
Sitting on a cliff looking at the waves roll in, taking in the enormous power of water, not only to give life, but also to shape the land around you.
Punching and kicking in a martial arts class, learning about the power of your own body, and surpassing your greatest expectations by working on your willpower.
Reading a book, and learning about what happens on our planet, whether it be the actions of humans in history, or the ingenuity of animals and the natural world.
All these are moments in time, in your life, when you contemplate the universe and its absurdness, which while random, still gives rise to all the wonders around you.
The power of Camus’ prescriptions however comes into full view when he discusses how you should deal with the difficulties that you are bound to encounter in this life.
Difficulties, challenges, injustice are a given, a perpetual aspect of your existence. However, it is how you face them that defines your life.
“Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion.
Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent.
The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” Albert Camus
For Camus, it is this acceptance of life’s struggle that is key to seeing the absurd and not being bothered by it.
The thing is, the world doesn’t care. It doesn’t care about you, your hopes, your dreams, or your conditions. You need to accept it.
Injustices will be done to you. There will be no way to prove that someone did them, furthermore no one will care.
This is the simple reality of this world. You can keep on complaining, or just accept that this world is absurd and move on with your life.
This is what Sisyphus did every time he was walking down the hill towards his rock. He knew that he was going to have to repeat his futile exercise, and that it was going to end in failure.
Yet, he cherished the experience.
Embrace the absurdity of your existence and the universe!
No matter your standing in life, you have to realize that life is about the passage of time. Every tomorrow brings you closer to death.
That’s why you need to start living your life today. Don’t hold off on things, but instead maintain your presence in the current moment.
Learn to enjoy the little things that life gives you: the fact that it is sunny today, the fact that a pretty girl smiled at you, or that you have the possibility of satisfying your curiosity by reading about how the world works.
It is these things that make life worth living.
Camus ended his essay on “The Myth of Sisyphus” by one simple statement. By reflecting on this short sentence, you can unlock for yourself the secret of enjoying life in an absurd world.
“One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Albert Camus