In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus defines the absurd with, “This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.” At the outset the essay poses a critical question on whether life is worth living or should be voluntarily terminated. Brought face to face with this absurd world, a person longs for the answers that would clarify his position and purpose in this universe, but being unable to find the satisfactory explanations he or she succumbs to despair. The very irrationality of human existence with regard to the world triggers this desperate dilemma of life’s worthiness or worthlessness. This seemingly futile existence, devoid of purpose, drives him to the brink of despair and makes him contemplate suicide out of sheer despondency and hopelessness.
Camus opens The Myth of Sisyphus with a presentation of two options: to commit suicide in the face of absurdity, or to live in denial. In an attempt to provide a meaning to this meaningless existence, some philosophers commit, as Camus puts it, “philosophical suicide,” this is: by espousing rationality with irrational beliefs in God and the afterlife. To Camus, an ideal or authentic individual is one who rejects suicide, both physical and philosophical, and heroically accepts his human condition without resorting to self-deceptive, religious illusions. This harsh, austere reality with no consolation of eternal life, Camus argues, offers freedom of action and choice and imposes no moral standards which would restrict individual life and confine it to the set of outworn conventional values.
The essay continues by characterizing an absurd form of reasoning. Camus states that upon acknowledging the mundane nature of the world encompassing us, the only thing left to is to continue a search for meaning, no matter how futile, simply because it seems to provide us with a meaning. He illustrates his perspective stating that ideally the only thing one should do is accept this feeling of absurdity, to accept that human life in itself is in fact meaningless.
This feeling of absurdity is what paves the way for the notion of the absurd. When the feeling of absurdity allows for the concept of the absurd to manifest, there is a tension or a disproportion between what we desire from the world and what the world itself can offer, or as Camus says, “a divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints.” He writes that there is a fundamental conflict between what we want from the universe (whether it be meaning, order, or reasons) and what we find in the universe (chaos). It is a fundamental and irreducible element of the human existence, because we, at our very core, desire from the world meaning, an explanation for our existence, which the world cannot offer us.
Camus asks if the conclusion that life is meaningless necessarily leads one to commit suicide. If life has no meaning, does that mean that life is not worth living? If that were the case, one would have no option but to make a leap of faith or to commit suicide. But Camus is interested in pursuing a third possibility: that we can accept and live in a world devoid of meaning or purpose.
Problem: The absurd, Camus observes, is a contradiction that cannot be reconciled, and any attempt to reconcile this contradiction is simply an attempt to escape from it – facing the absurd is struggling against it. Camus claims that existentialist philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Chestov, and Jaspers, and phenomenologists such as Husserl, all confront the contradiction of the absurd but then try to escape from it. Existentialists, then, find no meaning or order in existence and then attempt to find some sort of transcendence or meaning in this very meaninglessness.
The feeling of absurdity may bring about a crisis of meaning, or a destabilization of the set of commitments that we organize our lives around. It may manifest as a loss or an undermining of what we conceive to make life meaningful. We inherently desire some transcendent explanation by which we can understand our place in the world, or to generally make sense of it; we may seek to know the world itself as a whole, but we cannot. If we could understand the world as a whole, we would no longer have a place in it, because the world must be estranged from us as individuals – it must be beyond us. To have a relationship with the world, we must be separate from it, and we are. The world is simply not reasonable, and cannot be reduced to anything comprehensible, and within this void between the human desire for meaning and the absence of any comprehensible to us exists the absurd.
Again, the first option in response to the absurd offered in The Myth of Sisyphus is suicide. Following Camus’ logic, choosing suicide in the face of absurdity is not legitimate, because free will has been negated by the concept of the absurd, which renders even suicide futile. To decide one’s life is not worth living and to end it on account of the concept of the absurd is to negate free will, determining that suffering is useless, and to be undermined by a concept to which submission to the extent of suicide yields nothing. Just as those who take their own lives under the guise of the absurd, giving up on an existence they realize to be ultimately meaningless, believe that any effort to live is futile, and in that logic so too is suicide futile in a confrontation with the absurd. Moreover, if there is no living, there is no “good living.” The second option is denial. To quote Camus in transition from the first option to the second:
“…I see many people die because they decide that life is not worth living. I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living.”
The feeling of the absurd which Camus is referring to, perhaps by some assigned, comprehensible but false meaning of life or existence or the universe, keeps one from truly embracing and fully exercising his own existence, preventing “good living.” Because it is only through the acceptance of the absurd and a rebellion against it, a middle ground between voluntary death and denial, ignoring the absurd or refusing to realize it removes from the mind an essential knowledge – an essential knowledge that allows for the richest and most fulfilling life experience, beyond that of one which never fully comprehends the nature of the relationship between oneself and the world, or the disjunction between what one may frivolously desire from the world to substantiate existence and life and the world’s complexity which prevents it.
Living without appeal, the viable third option and rebellion against the absurd, is choosing to experience life even in the midst of the absurd, to accommodate our perception of the world as only what we can know of it. It is to rebel against the meaninglessness which absurdity imposes upon our lives, and to find fulfillment in the drudgery of it all, embracing – and thereby rising above – life’s very meaninglessness. Camus proposes that by choosing to live regardless of the absurd and by making choices throughout our lives, we give meaning into ourselves: by accepting that the world is beyond our reason, our comprehension, and realizing that the absurd is unavoidable as an irreducible element, a natural condition, of our existence. We may supersede or overcome the notion of absurdity by declining to let it dictate the action or end of our lives, neglecting to render those lives empty and meaningless under the guise of a concept which is so beyond us that to empower it is to detract monumentally from a life lived well.
Sisyphus lives without appeal, rising above the absurd by toiling infinitely in his tedious existence, a fate imposed upon him. Sisyphus is immortal, and cannot choose suicide in the face of the absurd. Through this, Camus communicates the inability of mortality to render our lives meaningless. A life is not meaningless by virtue of the fact that it will end; Sisyphus will live forever in a completely inconsequential existence, carrying out an extrinsically meaningless task for all eternity. However, though he did not choose to be condemned to bringing a boulder up to the crest of a hill only for it to roll back down to the bottom each time, he invests himself fully in the task under his own free will. Sisyphus lucidly acknowledges the complete inconsequentiality of his efforts, realizing that to the world, they do not correlate with some grandeur-laden explanation of the meaning of life. He accepts the absurd, but escapes its hold. Because he has come to “embrace his fate,” and comes to own his task – his mountain and his boulder – Sisyphus finds intrinsic value in his life.
Camus implies that the only meaning that can be drawn from life must be intrinsic, since any extrinsic value or meaning is nonexistent or well beyond the realm of human intelligibility. Suicide and denial in the face of the absurd are counteractive to good living. Acknowledging the absurd, and living one’s life regardless of the absence of concrete answers or formulas or meaning in existence, is what Camus implies. Life cannot be lived well without an understanding of the absurd, because any understanding of existence or life absent or in denial of the notion of the absurd would innately be false – and in that falsehood so could all other aspects of that life be perceived incompletely, falsely. An understanding of and rebellion against the absurd must be attained and employed if one is to fully exercise his own existence.
This work has captured the internal plight of much of the modern world. When a person begins to question his own monotonous reality, seeking to find meaning behind his daily motions of life and failing to find any at all, he comes to contemplate that void. Camus implies that if one were to honestly think about “nothing,” it would be the contemplation of the futility of most questions in life. He exemplifies the fact that the earth revolves around the sun. People lived and died in pursuit of that knowledge, and yet the question and answer alike do not matter, because we live in accordance to social structures and norms that are man-made and will one day be reformed, replaced, or blinked out of existence. The insignificance of human life in comparison to the infinite void of space and the abstract concept of time, which rules over humanity, is the notion which can manifest in the minds of men and bring about absurdity.
The mother of a dying child whose prayers go unanswered may encounter the absurd in a crisis of faith, where she no longer identifies with her religious beliefs as the foundation by which she draws meaning from her life. By Camus’ definitions, she has been living in denial of the absurd, and her confrontation with a crisis of faith is what brings her to realization of the absurd.
The absurd can be encountered in the daily life of anyone, in an employee, for instance, who suddenly questions the purpose of his days spent toiling nine to five in a cubicle for a company that manufactures plastic dinnerware. He may realize his commute to be devoid of extrinsic meaning, his daily labor, his taxes, and anything else in his life, and question the very worth of living. Time is passing and he will die, and so will everybody that he knows, and eventually there will be no evidence that he, or his friends and family, or the society in which they live, ever existed. He may be overcome by the divorce between himself and his surroundings, his desire for meaning and the world’s lack of comprehensible extrinsic meaning, and take his own life. Or maybe not.
He may invest himself in his work, his family – in something – acknowledging the absurd, the despondency, the despair, the eternal disquiet of life. And he presses on, toiling, trudging along, and faces this fundamental contradiction and maintaining constant awareness of it. He may reject suicide and denial, realize the world to his own capacity, and rise above the absurd and finding himself within the fundamental relationship existing between him and the world in which he finds himself. He may live in revolt, knowing that facing the absurd does not entail suicide. On the contrary, Camus suggests: it allows him to live his life to its fullest.
The book ends with a discussion of the myth of Sisyphus, who, according to the Greek myth, was punished for all eternity to roll a rock up a mountain only to have it roll back down to the bottom when he reaches the top. Sisyphus, the ideal absurd hero, and his punishment are representative of the human condition: Sisyphus must struggle perpetually and without hope of success. Says Camus, so long as he accepts that there is nothing more to life than this absurd struggle, then he can find happiness in it.