What would be the point of living if you thought that life was absurd, that it could never have meaning? This is precisely the question that Camus asks in his famous work, The Myth of Sisyphus. He says, “There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” He was haunted by this question of whether suicide could be the only rational response to the absurdity of life.
What is it
Albert Camus is most famous for his existential works of fiction including The Stranger as well as his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus. He led the French resistance press during Nazi Occupation and became one of the youngest Nobel laureates in literature. His contemporary, Hannah Arendt, described him as “head and shoulders above the other intellectuals.” How does Camus' philosophy of Absurdism compare and contrast with Sartre’s popular existentialism, especially in their conceptions of freedom? What political and philosophical issues of his time were he deeply involved in, and what relevance does his thinking still hold for the problems of contemporary life? John and Ken remain sensible with Robert Zaretsky from the University of Houston, author of A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning.
John starts with the heavy question: what is the meaning of existence? Ken finds Camus’ answer is quite depressing: there is no meaning and the search for meaning is absurd! Ken thinks you should find meaning where you can: religion for example. But aren’t those just illusions of meaning? Ken asserts that we find meaning in friends and community, but John sours that idea by reminded us that all of us will die! How is that not absurd? Ken, referencing Nietzsche, even if life is absurd and meaningless, that doesn’t justify suicide! There is comfort in illusions! But John returns to Camus’ absurd hero and explains that the hero embraces his absurdity, which is at least an honest confrontation with the truth!
John and Ken are joined by guest Robert Zaretsky, a historian from the Honors College at University of Houston and the author of A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning. Robert reminisces that Camus grabbed his attention in his youth because of how personal Camus’ voice felt. John asks: what exactly does Camus mean by the absurd? Robert explains that the absurd is the consequence of a silent world in confrontation with the human longing for meaning and clarity. So, Ken clarifies, the Absurd does not exist in itself in the world, but rather it is in our relation to the world.
Ken asks: why does Camus think life is really absurd? What are his arguments? Robert responds that Camus would not necessarily say that he is providing arguments. Rather, Camus provides illustrations for his thoughts, much like a novelist or a playwright would do. This distinguishes him from Sartre. John then asks, how similar are we really to Sisyphus? After all, even if the 9-5 job is boring, we get to go home and have leisure time! Robert responds that the sheer repetition of Sisyphus’ task underscores the absurdity.
Was Camus against having hope, in all senses of the word “hope?” Ken extends this question and asks, is there the possibility of a world that is not absurd? Robert responds that there is no hope, but that is not a reason to despair. We continue to insist on human dignity. But Ken responds, to what end? Robert responds that you don’t go to the end. Camus’ metaphysical and political rebel is by nature a moderate that has a deep sense of limits. The rebel is interested in continuing resistance, and maintaining a balance between the way the world is and the way the world ought to be to avoid violent action.
- Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 6:05): In the midst of Occupied Paris, Camus loved to involve himself in theater, since it often made it past the Nazi censors. He ran the resistance newspaper and wrote famous novels such as The Stranger. Camus was born and raised in Algeria by his working-class and illiterate mother. He eventually moved to Paris where he met Jean-Paul Sartre. Both he and Sartre were “playboys” and all was well until they became interested in the same girl. Thanks to his charm and look, Camus won her over and this led to bitterness and resentment from Sartre. After the war and the common cause of resistance was over, Sartre and Camus had only differences, and after Camus’ publication of The Rebel, they ended their friendship. Camus tragically died in a car crash in 1960.
- Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:28): Ian Shoales discusses the personal lives of Sartre and Camus and their differences. Their biggest difference was their positions on violence for noble ideas.