“Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason.” – Albert Camus
1. The Absurd
For Camus, the Absurd is the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life, and the human inability to find any meaning in a purposeless, meaningless, and irrational universe, with the “unreasonable silence” of the universe in response. Trying to define this, is like water slipping through one’s fingers.
However, this world in itself is not absurd, what is absurd is our relationship with the universe, which is irrational. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. It is all that links them together.
Thus, the universe and the human mind do not each separately cause the Absurd, but rather, the Absurd arises by the contradictory nature of the two existing simultaneously.
Camus associates our condemnation to the absurd to the mythological character of Sisyphus, a man condemned by the gods to a lifetime of rolling a boulder up a hill, a back-breaking and gruelling labour, only to reach the top of the hill and have the boulder inevitably roll back down to the bottom for him to start all over again, condemned to a lifetime of pain and anguish and working hard only to have his efforts be completely futile in the end.
In perhaps one of his most celebrated quotes, Camus states that:
“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Happiness in the sense of living with a full acknowledgment of one’s absurd life, together with a defiant non acceptance of it, becoming enchanted of life, the complete opposite of nihilism.
Revolt is an essential concept for Camus, it is the maintenance of a lucid awareness of the absurdity of life. To affirm life and continue, he states that:
“One of the only coherent philosophical positions is thus revolt. It is a constant confrontation between man and his own obscurity. It is an insistence upon an impossible transparency. It challenges the world anew every second… It is not aspiration, for it is devoid of hope. That revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it.”
To revolt is to say no to one’s own absurd existence, and in the process say yes to some other more desirable existence.
Camus, like Nietzsche, held his embrace of fate to be central to his philosophy and to life itself:
“a will to live without rejecting anything of life, which is the virtue I honour most in this world.”
This concept of Amor Fati, to love one’s fate, is mostly linked to the Stoics. Marcus Aurelius, wrote that:
“A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.”
And Epictetus echoed the same idea:
“Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will—then your life will flow well.”
Nietzsche expressed it in what he calls the Eternal Recurrence.
This affirmation to a more desirable existence leads to rebellion. He wrote in The Rebel, published in 1951 that:
“In order to exist, one must rebel. But rebellion must respect the limits that it discovers in itself. In contemplating the results of an active rebellion, we shall have to ask ourselves whether it remains faithful to its first noble promise or whether it forgets its purpose and plunges into a mire of tyranny or servitude. In absurdist experience, suffering is individual, but from the moment that a movement of rebellion begins, suffering is seen as a collective experience. As the experience of everyone, therefore the first step for a mind overwhelmed by the absurdity of things, is to realise the feeling of strangeness is shared by all men. That the entire human race suffers from the division between itself and the rest of the world.”
Rebellion, from this point of view, is a fabricator of universes and a metaphysical demand for unity.
However, he also talks about tyranny. Rebellion does not always lead to desirable outcomes. Camus talks about nihilistic forms of rebellion to be common, he lived in the midst of some of the worst totalitarian regimes of the 20th century: Hitler, Stalin, Mao.
He believed them to be forms of rebellion against the absurd, upon the recognition that there is no life beyond this existence. But, contrary to what he espouses, these movements expressed hatred of life and a desire, in a godless universe, to play the role of both god and devil.
He championed what he calls a genuine rebellion, which is not to implement a utopia by destructive means as nihilistic rebellions do, but which recognises the necessity of shared communal values and attempts to bring about solidarity, individual freedom and a relative harmony among human beings.
“If men cannot refer to a common value, recognised by all as existing in each one, then man is incomprehensible to man.”
He concludes with the phrase “I revolt, therefore we exist” implying the recognition of a common human condition. The argument of The Rebel was to replace ideas of revolutionary action with a concept of revolt and rebellion.
Thus, for Camus:
“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
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