Jean-Paul Sartre was not a tranquil personality. When he found himself disagreeing with other intellectuals of his time—which was often—his first instinct was to dash off an amphetamine fueled essay in defense of his position. One such essay, “Existentialism Is a Humanism,” was written in 1946 during one of his attempts to unseat Martin Heidegger as the leading light of Europe’s post–World War II philosophical scene. But if Sartre’s existentialism was a type of humanism, it was at best drab and limited. Existentialism offered human beings total and unconditional freedom but not the slightest hint as to what humans should do with that freedom. As such, it failed to provide a basis for answering the one true philosophical question: How should we live our lives?
Albert Camus, Sartre’s occasional friend and frequent intellectual rival, was everything that Sartre was not. In addition to his movie-star good looks and rough charm, this product of the streets of Algiers had a natural talent as a playwright and novelist that Sartre bitterly envied. Sadly, Camus lacked Sartre’s considerable gifts for systematic and organized thinking. His most sustained attempt at a philosophical work, “The Rebel,” is an intellectual hash; his best philosophical works are miniature jewels such as “The Myth of Sisyphus” and “Reflections on the Guillotine.” Camus preferred to demonstrate rather than analyze, which is why his most insightful philosophical pieces are his plays and novels. This is unfortunate because Camus had one very singular, brilliant insight that, had he the gifts and the time to develop, would have given us something that existentialism never managed to: a basis for a true secular ethics. He called this one perfectly cut gem of an idea “absurdism.”
Camus articulates the central philosophical problem of the modern secular world as follows: “If we believe in nothing, if nothing has any meaning and if we can affirm no values whatsoever, then everything is possible and nothing has any importance. There is no pro and con: the murder is neither right nor wrong. We are free to stoke the crematory fires or devote ourselves to the care of lepers.” Unlike many of the postmodern philosophers who followed in the late twentieth century, Camus still had enough of a moral compass to experience this situation as problematic, even horrifying. His solution, if he can be said to have arrived at one, was the idea of absurdism. Given a talent for structure-building equal to Sartre’s, Camus’s philosophy could have been everything existentialism was never capable of being. But this did not happen, and so we must embark on a bit of an archeological expedition to see what was proposed and what was lost when absurdism was brushed aside by existentialism and then by everything that came after.
First, we must confront the fact that during most of the twentieth century, all philosophical questions were filtered through the philosopher’s political sensibilities. Most leading thinkers of the period coped with the nauseating dread that came from confronting a world without God by retreating into the comforting shelter of the various doctrinaire “isms” of the day. In their deep involvement with political movements, Europe’s philosophers manufactured a pale simulacrum of a life of meaning. Sartre’s protracted defense of the worst excesses of Stalinism is really not that much different from Heidegger’s description— never recanted—of Adolf Hitler as “the German reality, present, and future.” Both statements represent the abiding tendency of the time, which was nothing less than precisely the kind of “bad faith” these philosophers claimed to despise.
Camus approached the problem from a completely different angle. His interest in the minutiae of politics was never anything more than a thin patina over his one genuine philosophical concern: how to live so as to reduce the quantum of sheer human suffering in a world without recourse to any higher power. Camus made it clear that “I do not have much liking for the famous existential philosophy, and to tell the truth, I think its conclusions are false.” Absurdism was the alternative that Camus offered to confront this central philosophical concern.
Through many years of wrestling with the problem of a world without God, Camus eventually came to understand that the human animal’s “blind impulse is to demand order in the midst of chaos, and unity in the very heart of the ephemeral. It protests, it demands, it insists.” Humans, perhaps uniquely among all the animals on Earth, demand that life “mean” something. Camus believed that any attempt to find any “real”—that is to say, ultimate and universal—meaning in life would ultimately run up on the rocks. No such meaning exists, certainly not in relation to human beings. When Camus speaks of the human condition in the world as “absurd,” he is simply saying that the world is such that it is impossible for human beings to accept it and to reconcile with it. The absurd is found in “that divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints,” the inevitable frustration of the human “need for clarity and cohesion.”
As always, Camus was primarily concerned with the experience of the absurd from a human—which is to say, humanist—point of view. How can the individual find a way to achieve happiness and flourishing (Aristotle’s eudaimonia) in a world that is supremely indifferent to human aspirations and concerns? The state of the world forces the individual into conscious recognition of a fundamental paradox: we believe that our individual lives are of enormous importance, and yet we also must recognize that our individual lives are ultimately meaningless. Paradoxically, Camus sees this realization not as a wellspring of the sort of angst and despair so popular among his peers but rather as a spur for a kind of Nietzschean yea-saying: a principled affirmation of life despite its absurdity. Let us now look at how Camus manages this.
Absurdism in Practice
If Camus’ assessment of the human condition is correct, then playwright Samuel Beckett got it exactly right when he wrote: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” However, this bleak state of affairs has the virtue of giving us an honest place to stand as we struggle to live “as if” our individual lives and concerns matter. Bucking the intellectual trend of the time, Camus eventually rejected both abstract intellectualizing and political activism as grounds for confronting the absurd. Instead, starting from Nietzsche’s premise that life makes sense only as an aesthetic phenomenon, Camus proposes art (broadly understood) as the place where humans can take their stand and confront the absurdity of life.
Although Camus does introduce some aspects of absurdism in his essays (going as far back as 1937), it is fitting that his philosophy is fully realized only in his fiction. The nonfiction essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” which articulates the proper stance for a human being in an absurd world, is really nothing more than a commentary on his two seminal works of fiction written at the same time: the novel The Stranger and the stage play Caligula.
The Stranger (L’Étranger) presents us with the story of how an absurd protagonist comes into being. Camus offers the figure of Meursault, a man who faces an absurd world with an attitude of passive detachment and disinterest. In an almost offhanded way, Meursault kills an Arab on an Algerian beach. After a surreal and Kafkaesque trial he is sentenced to death by guillotine. It is at the very end of his life, waiting for the sun to rise on the day of his execution, that Meursault finally achieves the degree of philosophical insight into his situation that allows him to accept a world t
hat views him with, at best, “tender indifference.”
Caligula, the stage play that Camus wrote while he was writing The Stranger and “The Myth of Sisyphus,” is a much more problematic exploration of the absurd. It can be viewed as a magnificent cautionary tale, a paradigmatic negative example, and a dramatic exploration of exactly what absurdism is not. Caligula gives us a character who recognizes that in an absurd world “everything is permitted,” to use Dostoevsky’s immortal formulation. How does a man who lacks any ethical framework behave in an absurd world in which he wields absolute power? Camus demonstrates that such a man, in such circumstances, exercises his moral freedom through increasingly bizarre acts of random violence and cruelty. Camus does not believe that this state of affairs can be allowed to stand. Absurdism does not—indeed cannot— allow human beings the sort of absolute freedom in which “everything is permitted.” We see in Caligula exactly what waits for us should we allow the ultimately meaningless nature of life to be used as an alibi to do away with all ethical restraint.
Given this, we can see that Camus most definitely does not consider the essence of absurdism to be nihilistic. “A nihilist is not one who believes in nothing, but one who does not believe in what exists.” This may seem like a subtle distinction, but it is a critical one. By Camus’ definition, those “idealists” (both religious and political) who denigrate this world in order to privilege some other (imaginary) world are the true nihilists.
How, then, to formulate a meaningful ethical framework? Despite his insistence that absurdism is “a method and not a doctrine,” Camus gives us what is perhaps his strongest philosophical statement on the nature of absurdism: “I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning. But I know that something in it has meaning and that is man, because he is the only creature to insist on having one.”
It is quite possible that Camus has succeeded here in doing something that none of the other twentieth-century philosophers managed: describing exactly what humans are “for.” In a world where the only ultimate meaning is that which is formulated in full recognition of the absurd, humans are the meaning-creating animal par excellence. Camus understands where this will ultimately lead; indeed, it is where he has been leading us all along. Certain people have a long history of consciously creating their own meaning. We call them “artists,” and Camus believes that we can build a ground for ethical action by rediscovering—or, perhaps, reimagining—the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. Standing against “the arbitrary nature of the former opposition between art and philosophy,” Camus tells us that art not only “gives style” to our characters, as Nietzsche put it, but also gives style to reality itself.
It should be stated that Camus does not advocate a sort of Pollyannaish Saturday Evening Post vision of art. Quite the contrary: “Even the work that negates still affirms something and does homage to the wretched and magnificent life that is ours.” Nor is he proposing the kind of solipsistic, ultimately masturbatory navel gazing that seems to be all too common among modern “artists” in the traditional sense of the word. “If there is any man who has no right to solitude, it is the artist. Art cannot be a monologue.” It is this insistence that the world be treated as a shared aesthetic phenomenon that gives absurdism a framework for constructing a shared ethics. The rest of the project—filling in the content for this shared ethics—is work that remains ahead of us.
During a driving tour of southern France in 2007, my wife and I visited the quiet little village of Lourmarin to visit Camus’ burial place. The grave of this committed atheist is humble and surrounded by a vast sea of carved Catholic burial kitsch. I remember thinking that his simple limestone grave marker—so different from Sartre’s comfortable, bourgeois resting place in Paris—is so worn from a mere four decades of weathering that it will probably be rendered illegible in my lifetime. Absurdism has, to a large extent, suffered the same fate. Would Camus have attempted to systematize some of his ideas if he had not died an untimely death in 1960? Or would he have moved on, abandoning absurdism as just another of his many philosophical explorations? Unlike far too many of his contemporaries who seemed to feel a kind of philosophical “shipwreck euphoria,” Camus was still clearheaded enough to be alarmed at the implications of the death of God. I believe he would have made an effort to give us more to go on, something to enable us to bring some coherence to the present philosophical crisis. For now, we have to work with what he left us, that indelible image of the absurdist hero Sisyphus, the individual who is willing to stand for something in a world without God—the human being who demonstrates in every aspect of how he lives his life that he is “superior to his fate, stronger than his rock.”