Albert Camus’ Absurdism
Becoming an Absurd Hero
Albert Camus, the famous French-Algerian writer, wore many hats: journalist, playwright, novelist, political essayist, and activist. While he repeatedly rejected the label of “philosopher,” his work undeniably delves into deep philosophical territory. Camus is celebrated for his concept of the absurd, which he explored in his iconic novels like The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall, as well as philosophical essays like The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel. In recognition of his profound impact on literature, he received the Nobel Prize in 1957.
Albert Camus, 1957
While Camus strongly distanced himself from existentialism, he is credited for presenting a central existentialist dilemma of the 20th century. As Camus framed it, “There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.”
He asserts that humans perpetually seek the answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” Yet, in Camus’s perspective, this question lacks an answer. Life’s inherent lack of meaning means we have to come to terms with an ever-present void. This conflicting situation—our urge to find meaning and the inherent meaninglessness of life—is the essence of what Camus terms as the absurd. Camus’s philosophy examines the outcomes born from this paradox.
Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?
For Camus, there are three potential responses to this dilemma:
Suicide. One might think, if life lacks purpose, why persist? However, Camus dismissed this choice, labeling it as an act of cowardice. For him, death holds no more meaning than life, making suicide merely an evasion, not a genuine solution.
Philosophical suicide. This involves turning to a doctrine or belief that offers a prescribed meaning to life, whether religious, like Christianity, or ideological, like Marxism. In essence, it’s trading the absurd for comforting illusions, a choice Camus describes as philosophical suicide.
Absurdism. Camus advocates for the third path: recognizing, accepting, and even celebrating the absurdity of life. He believes that this absurdity is not just inevitable but is a defining trait of human existence. The genuine reaction, then, is a courageous and unwavering acknowledgment of it. He states that life can be lived more fully when accepted as meaningless. Such acceptance, devoid of despair, transforms an individual into what Camus termed an “absurd hero.”
In his iconic essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus draws a parallel between human existence and the fate of the Greek king Sisyphus, sentenced to eternally push a boulder uphill, only for it to roll down again. This punishment from Zeus came as a result of Sisyphus’s audacity in cheating death twice.
Sisyphus by Franz Stuck, 1920
Despite understanding the futility of his task, Sisyphus persists. Camus views him as a symbol of human resilience, representing the spirit of rebellion and epitomizing the human condition. Confronting the absurd every day, with elegance, wit, compassion, and a sense of purpose, is genuine heroism in the face of the absurd.
Concluding The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus wrote: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Words of wisdom
“But in the end one needs more courage to live than to kill himself.” —Albert 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.” —Albert Camus
“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” —Albert Camus
“What is a rebel? A man who says no.” —Albert Camus