Favorite Philosophers (1): Camus

I am starting a new series of posts reflecting on some of my favorite philosophers. (When I say “favorite” I mean philosophers whom I have enjoyed studying and whose ideas I find poignant and interesting – not that I necessarily agree with their views.)

My first selection is Albert Camus (1913-1960), a Nigerian-born French writer and existentialist philosopher (the “s” at the end of his last name is silent). I studied Camus in a class on existentialism in college and read two of his books: The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus (TMOS). His philosophy is often called “Absurdim” (although like most existentialists he rejected almost all labels for his views). In TMOS, Camus defines the absurd as the divorce of man from his setting – that is, the tension that arises from the drive toward meaning in the human heart and the inherent meaninglessness of the universe. The absurd is the will toward meaning in a meaningless world, the desire for life and perpetuity when death and extinguishment are inevitable, the appetite for unity and clarity in the face of total randomness. Camus’ writing is poetical and illusive, so it is difficult to pin him down, but I think that is a fair summary of what what he means by the absurd (at least in TMOS). Of course, throughout the book he expresses this idea with variously different pictures – in one provocative passage, for example, he describes the absurd as “sin without God” (p. 40).

The driving question of Camus’ TMOS is, “does the absurd dictate death?” (p. 9). Camus claims the only really important question is suicide: since life is absurd, should we kill ourselves? Interestingly, he says no. The universe is meaningless, but the proper response to this is neither escapism nor pessimism. Rather, the proper response is a “revolt” (an important term for him, along with the terms “freedom” and “passion”) against the longing for meaning. We must become conscious of hopelessness without yielding to despair. According to Camus, there is a kind of meaning in revolting against meaning. As he puts it at very end of the book, “within the limits of nihilism it is possible to find the means to proceed beyond nihilism.” Paradoxically, the meaning of life is to embrace its lack of meaning. The meaning of life is to “kiss the absurd” (p. 54).

The title of the book finally becomes clear in these last few pages of the book, as his presentation climaxes and its shocking implications are drawn. Sisyphus was the figure in ancient Greek mythology who was bound to eternally roll a stone up a hill, only to watch it fall down repeatedly. Camus writes, “each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (p. 123).

Some other quotes that particularly stood out to me:

“Forever I shall be a stranger to myself. In psychology as well as in logic, there are truths but no truth” (p. 19).

“A stranger to myself and the world, armed solely with a thought that negates itself as soon as it asserts, what is this condition in which I can have peace only by refusing to know and to live, in which the appetite for conquest bumps into walls that defy its assault? To will is to stir up paradoxes” (p. 20).

“I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not 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?” (p. 51).

I will conclude with some thoughts on what I find interesting about Camus, and how I respond to him. I certainly don’t look down on Camus or feel any desire to bash him. I respect him and, on some level, sympathize with him, because I understand the difficulty and anguish of the feeling of absurdity that characterizes much of life in a fallen world. If I did not have the work of Christ in my life, I think I would see the universe as absurd as well. For me, this is the great value of Camus’ philosophy, that it expresses very poignantly the emptiness, randomness, and profound sense of estrangement that characterizes life without God and without meaning.

But I don’t think Camus’ response is the correct one. For starters, there seems a convenient inconsistency in denying life meaning, and then in the next breath assigning it a certain kind of meaning in the revolt against meaning. Which is it: meaning, or no meaning? And if no meaning, why not suicide? I cannot shake the feeling that Camus wants to have his cake and eat it, too. But more basically, it is not clear to me from Camus’ philosophy why human beings should long for a meaning and clarity that does not exist. It seems quite strange that a meaningless universe should produce creatures so obsessed with meaning. As C.S. Lewis put it, fish don’t feel wet in water: the very intensity of man’s revolt against meaninglessness – for example, the fact that the question of suicide even arises – seems to suggest that absurdism is not the whole truth. And if a happy explanation of the universe seems to make more sense of our human predicament than a sad one, why not choose the happy explanation?

Part of me wonders if it is unwise to try to argue with absurdism, just as Aristotle said its unwise to try to prove the obvious. You don’t argue with a madman: you give him medicine. Perhaps Camus’ philosophy (when understood honestly in light of its radical implications) is its own refutation. There is a craving in the human heart for happiness, for clarity, for truth, for meaning, and this craving is as clear as conscience. No one really thinks Sisyphus is happy.

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  1. Gavin:Great post! I have to agree with you: Camus and others in his vein do a mighty fine job of describing our world. When I was in undergraduate, I was unequipped to wrestle with philosophy as a committed Christian–I didn’t know what a world-view was (I just knew that there were men in the freshman dorms that needed Jesus). I remember having a dreadful thought that I kept at bay for three years of college: what I am learning in philosophy class and critical theory classes makes more sense to my lived experience that what I was learning in Bible study. We were reading Camus and Foucault and Niezsche. It is only in the past few years that I have returned to those thinkers, because their honest evaluation of the world is refreshing and indeed does put a cold finger on “the way things are” in this fallen world. They were brave men in many respects. I find it interesting in light of your post, that there was a huge surge of absurdist/existentialist movies and novels for the past 10 years. Writer Michael Chabon calls them: a string of meaningless events with epiphanic dew. You know what I mean… no cohesive plot–just character development with an epiphany at the end. Chabon is one of the most popular fiction writers of our day, and he is revolting against this. So he writes novels with ripping plot-lines and meaningful dialogue. And a purpose. It is interesting I think

  2. Interesting post Gavin–I look forward to your other profiles of philosophers. I took Ancient Philosophy in college, but have never studied Modern Philosophy. It’s great to have help filling in the gaps!

  3. Wow, Gav, wonderful post. It’s great when Christians can read a very un-Christian thinker and not get defensive and try to blow him out of the water but listen a bit. Michael Fox’s book A Time to Build, on Ecclesiastes, compares Qohelet to Camus.Another good thing about Camus – he’s a wonderful writer. His novels are just superb. But like you, I don’t find his position very satisfying intellectually.

  4. Good post. Though when you brought up your objections, and in particular the “why not suicide then?” line of reasoning, many believe that Camus’ death (car crash, if I remember right) was in fact suicide.

  5. As I understand it, Camus believed there was no objective meaning in the world, but that the subjective meaning that came with recognizing this fact was enough to negate suicide as an option. At least that’s what I get from it.

    I’m suspicious of Nick’s sources… I don’t believe Camus was even driving the car in which he died, and he was found with recently purchased tickets in his pocket and as well as unfinished manuscripts. Sounds like a fringe theory to me. A much more widely accepted idea is that his death was engineered by KGB operatives (Camus was an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union).