The Philosophy of Albert Camus
The philosophy of Camus revolves around the concept of the absurd. To Camus, the absurd is a conflict, a clash between man's inherent rationality and the world's unreasonable, meaningless rejoin to it. The rationality of man stems from his innate desire to unify things. Humans always ask "why?": Why does something happen, why does nature work the way it does, and so on. We wish to find answers and explanations, which is one reason why we have turned to science to do so. Understanding and unifying the world into a rational, logical system gives us security in its familiarness.
However, despite all our efforts, Camus maintains that we are unable to rationalize the world, purely because the world is by nature an irrational construct. Paradoxes develop when we probe too deep; Camus also calls science "poetry", because it has really only been able to extremely fluently describe our world, but not to explain it. Science can tell you what happens when a billiard ball strikes another one, but not why this happens. We cannot find a meaning behind Newton's Laws of Gravity. All this has been previously established by other existentialist philosophers; Camus builds upon their foundation.
As a result, when rational man comes into contact with unreasonable world, we experience the absurd. We seek answers, but we find none. Camus mentions three elements of the absurd: hopelessness, continued rejection, and conscious dissatisfaction. All hope is lost because we recognize that there can be no resolution to our search for rationality. Yet as a rational being we continually reject and feel dissatisfied with this outcome, because we still have that desire for unity and explanation within us. Life appears to be meaningless.
The absurd can be found in many aspect of ours lives. It manifests itself in our emotions, when we suddenly ask ourselves "what's the point of it all?", perhaps after many many years of routine labour that now seems meaningless. When we are confronted with nature, and feel its uncaring, irrational power, we feel terrified; whether we are alone in a dark forest or in the middle of a great snowstorm. The meaninglessness sets in, we grasp for truths, but we find none. We are alien and alone in this massive universe.
Greatest of all is the concept of death. Death is absurd, because it shoves the futility of our lives right in our face. We find our own lives to be meaningless in the face of certain death; we find our actions pointless given that centuries later they would have been forgotten, and soon after that the last traces of our very existence will disappear into the voids of space.
This leads to Camus' discussion of suicide, in particular philosophical suicide. Suicide is an act made by a man who, upon realizing the absurd, escapes it by severing the connection his rational mind has with the unreasonable world. One way is of course to end his life; other ways of escaping the "desert of the absurd" are what Camus terms philosophical suicide; exemplified by the philosophy of Kierkegaard.
Kierkegaard's leap of faith is an act of suicide to Camus, because in doing so the believer rejects the rationality of man, and instead embraces the absurdity of the world (ie. God). Reason was found to be insufficient to comprehend eternal truths (it leads to despair), and so Kierkegaard abandons it, resulting in a "humiliated reason" where Man's innate desire for unity is squelched in place for a passionate faith in that which is unreasonable. Kierkegaard has rejected that which is part of man, and thus has committed suicide. His escape from the desert involves a form of hope; he appeals to a higher power to bring meaning to his life.
Camus does not wish to let something as important as the meaning of his life lie in the hands of a hope, no matter how great this hope is. He does not want to deny his rationality; he will not make the leap because he knows there is no security in it. Camus wants to "live without appeal"; he wants to live within the desert of absurdity. Is this possible?
Of course, Camus believes so. He gives an example of what he terms "the absurd man"; a character who is able to stay on within the absurd, and thus not need to appeal to God or some eternal truths to give meaning to his existence. The absurd man lives without appeal through the maxims of revolt, freedom and passion.
Such a person can be found in the legendary figure of Don Juan. Don Juan is the ultimate womanizer; his life revolves around courting and seducing a woman of his choice, having his way with her, and then leaving her for a new conquest. On a superficial level, Don Juan appears to be morally corrupt, and probably lacking in any depth, being a person interested only in the purely physical pleasures. However, Camus looks at this seducer from a different perspective: as an authentic person who has led a life being true to himself.
Don Juan lives only in the present. He refuses to accept morality, because morality is something that is eternal; as an absurd man he recognizes the irrationality of the world and thus rejects universal truths such as ethics. This gives him his freedom, freedom from the eternal and freedom to do as he wills; his ability to transcend himself. This also means the Don Juan is not enslaved by any essence of him being a seducer and a womanizer; at every moment he is aware of his choices, and makes that choice to continue being what he wants.
As for passion, one does not need to think very far to understand why Don Juan has so much of it. Passion refers to a desire for experience, and lots of experience. With the lack of eternal truths, we can no longer qualify experiences and thus seek those of "higher calibre"; one who seeks passion can only wish to seek more and more of it. Therefore Don Juan is highly passionate; experiencing his life at every passing moment, living for that moment.
Yet, mere quantity of experience is not enough; the absurd man must be fully conscious of his experiences as well. Don Juan loves every single moment of his delicate dance; from the first encounter, to the flirtation, and the eventual intercourse. He does not tire of it and go through the motions without enjoyment; every single affair is just as exciting and exhilarating. Don Juan repeats this constantly, experiencing life to the fullest.
Consciousness also refers to consciousness of his actions. Don Juan is not a stupid man, nor is he nearsighted and shallow. He is acutely aware of his foolishness, knowing that one day age will catch up with him and he may experience impotence and then death. Even as he structures his life around the act of coitus, he does not feel any fear in the fact that this "meaning" to his life will one day be gone; he absurdly recognizes that nothing is eternal and so it matters not.
When the time arrives and he is unable to continue with his quest for women, legend has it that he enters the priesthood and ends his life in asceticism and celibacy. This is not an act of repentance, nor one of melancholy; Don Juan is neither. Knowing that his past life is now over, he continues to live in a new way, still experiencing life, and finding joy in new things: "... through a narrow slit in the sun-baked wall, some silent Spanish plain, a noble, soulless land in which he recognizes himself." (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus 76) He has no regrets for his actions, and remains true to what he is and was.
This is Don Juan's revolt, a revolt against both impotence and death. At the beginning, he refuses to let the fact that he will eventually be impotent deter him from his passionate journey. He is proud of his life, and proud of the way in which he exists, and rejects this impotency, in fact he even scorns it through his sexual conquests. Yet when fate finally catches up on him, he takes it in his stride, and continues living without a trace of remorse. Taking sexual activity as life and impotence as death, Don Juan has revolted by continuing to love life and deny death to the very end.
Camus finally culminates his quest for a life without appeal in the Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is the ultimate absurd man. Twice did he escape his death, first by imprisoning the Grim Reaper in chains when death came to bring him to the underworld. After death is freed by the gods and Sisyphus brought to where he belonged, he eluded the gods once more by getting permission from Hades to return to Earth, for the purposes of chastising his wife who failed to bury him properly (at his instruction). Upon seeing the warm sun once again, Sisyphus did not return to the underworld as he was supposed to, but continued to live on till the gods finally had to intervene and bring him back.
For his actions, the gods gave Sisyphus a punishment of pushing a gigantic boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down to the ground once it reached the summit. He must do this for eternity, forever rolling the rock and watching it fall back to its place.
Sisyphus shows absurdity in the same three ways as all absurd men: his revolt is literally that; a revolt against the gods themselves. He asserted his freedom by putting Death in chains, and was so passionate for life he risked the anger of the gods to spend a few more years out in the world he loved.
Camus labels Sisyphus the Absurd Hero. His final punishment, that of pushing the rock up the hill, is utterly meaningless since all of his efforts will never amount to anything. The rock is analogous to our mortal lives; all the effort we put into it is futile, as death (the descent of the rock) is all that awaits it.
Yet, Sisyphus is not being punished at all, really. As an absurd man, he realizes that this task of his is truly meaningless, and he has no hope of ever being relieved of it. Hope, and then subsequent despair as this hope is dashed, would have been the punishment the gods planned for him. However, because he does not hope, he feels no anguish, once again revolting against the gods by not accepting the punishment.
The moment when the rock falls back to the ground from the summit and Sisyphus has to walk down that hill once more, is the moment Camus is most interested in. This is the moment of greatest consciousness, when Sisyphus is temporarily free from his burden and able to contemplate his life. This Sisyphus is Camus's ultimate absurd man. Through a scornful attitude at the gods who gave him this destiny, he asserts the absurd once more.
He revolts against the gods by refusing their punishment. He is free, and exercises that freedom through his refusal of his punishment. And he continues to assert his passion for life by not feeling any remorse or regret at his previous life; he loved his life, and even though he is reduced to this futile labour he does not feel that he should have behaved any differently; on one hand he knew full well his actions would result in the anger of the gods and so he anticipated this; on the other he even enjoys his futile labour, since life is labour just as futile as pushing the rock. Through his final task, he is still able to defy the gods and feed the flames of his passion; what more could he want?
Thus Camus concludes that Sisyphus must be happy. Sisyphus lives a life without appeal, and enjoys it; so can we, as we roll the rock called our lives in a meaningless world, and be happy for it all the while.
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