Absurdism: Coping with a Nonsensical World
Is it Unfair? Or Absurd?
There are often moments in life where the world seems unfair. Perhaps a workplace bully you know is well-liked by many. Maybe you’ve studied hard and achieved mediocre grades. Or maybe, despite working hard for your employer for several years, you’re one of the first to be fired to make corporate ends meet. It's these circumstances, when our expectations for the world fail in real life, that we feel inner conflict. Are my values wrong? Is what I’m pursuing meaningful? What is my purpose, and what values should I base my life around? Is everything that I’ve believed in, false? This conflict between yourself and the universe is the premise for French thinker Albert Camus’s philosophy: Absurdism.
What is Absurdism?
In his book, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Albert Camus explains absurdity as the conflict between human reason and an irrational universe. He explains that humans are always striving to make sense of the world through human ideological constructs. Yet time and time and again, the universe fails to obey these constructs and dashes our ideals on the rocks of reality. Absurdity is a human condition, a condition where our attempts to create meaning in our lives conflict with the meaningless universe.
These ideological constructs Camus refutes include religion and the afterlife. But it can also include a scientist’s belief in empiricism and the notion that the universe can be solved. Another construct could be state ideology, such as Fascism, where our ultimate meaning in life is to serve the state and our race. Or perhaps it's a personal construct, where we believe that our ultimate purpose is to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company. It could even be a belief in karma, where we must constantly do good things to have the universe do us good.
No matter the belief, Camus’s premise is all the same. We create constructs and purposes that are ultimately meaningless. And when we realize how meaningless everything is, we start to despair. As Camus puts it: “Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”
An Argument Against Suicide
As angsty and depressing as Camus’s philosophy is, Camus believes that there is a way for humans to be content in a meaningless universe. In perhaps his most important work, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus states: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”
In this book, he acknowledges the weight of having no purpose and the despair it can bring. Camus believes that humans commit suicide when they realize the nature of absurdity. When their human constructs of righteousness or an afterlife are destroyed and they realize the inherent irrationality of the universe. When people realize that not every good person is rewarded or every bad person is punished as the world should be.
Camus gives us 3 paths to follow when we reach this realization of the universe. We can either commit Philosophical suicide, Physical suicide, or rebel against the universe. Philosophical suicide is when we take a leap of faith and create our human constructs again. We get involved in a new religion, create a false understanding of the universe, or believe in a higher purpose. The realization of the absurd is too much to bear, and we retreat behind our artificial ideas. The physical act of suicide can be explained when we take our lives out of despair. We recognize the absurdity, and how we can never have meaning, so we decide to end it all. Again, the absurd is too much to bear, so we find a way to escape it.
Camus urges us to not commit suicide, physical or philosophical. He argues that philosophical suicide wouldn’t solve our issues. We would be no better than before. We’d initially be blissful and later distraught when our ideas of the universe are disproven. Camus says that this isn’t solving the issue, it's running away from it.
Camus further argues against physical suicide. Even though we live a 'meaningless' life, we are still losing something when we die. If our past and future are meaningless, as well as our death, then perhaps the only real thing is the present. Thus, Camus advises us to live fully. Camus tells us to enjoy the cup of coffee, enjoy the hot shower, and enjoy the emotions of love and happiness in the moment because once we die, we will never experience it again
Sisyphus and the Solution to Absurdity
Then what is the answer? Camus tells us to instead rebel against the universe. Yet what does this mean? Camus explains it in a retelling of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is the ultimate representation of the absurd hero. Sisyphus knows that his act of rolling the boulder uphill is meaningless and that it’ll roll down just for him to roll it up again. Yet he doesn’t kill himself or delude himself in believing that pushing the boulder will win him paradise in the afterlife. Instead, he resigns to his tragic faith, but as Camus puts it: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy”. Despite the weight of a meaningless life, Sisyphus still remains happy.
Put it this way. Sisyphus refuses to be crushed by the weight of a meaningless universe. He doesn’t kill or delude himself. That would be giving up to the irrational universe. Instead, he continues consciously pushing a boulder with no hope, but with a smile. He is rebelling against the irrational universe by finding happiness in the moment.
Camus is telling us to live. But to live consciously with the idea that everything is meaningless. Maybe it sucks that there is no meaning, but you can still enjoy that hot cup of coffee and the conversation of a loved one. Perhaps your goal of lifting heavier weights is meaningless. But you enjoy it, so why not indulge in it? Additionally, with no universal ideas to align ourselves, we are the freest we can be. We are not slaves to other people’s ideas of how we should act in society. Camus tells us to pursue whatever we find amusing or worthwhile. He tells us to absorb our experiences, pleasant or unpleasant, because it's all going to end when we die.
The choice of living freely and happy while conscious of the meaninglessness of life is clearly best. To spit in the face of absurdity and roll the boulder of our lives while being happy is the best way to exist.
Issues with Absurdity
Yet Camus's ideas can be controversial. The idea that there are no values can mean that we forfeit any responsibility. If we conclude that life is meaningless and that we should only try to be happy, should that happiness come at the expense of people who we care for? Would murder, stealing, or crime be an acceptance of the absurd? If there is no meaning behind the crime, what is stopping someone from doing it? Also, the idea that we’re supposed to try to be happy in the face of meaningless artificial? Isn’t the act of trying to be happy, purposeless, and not solve the issue in the first place?
There are many ideas that argue against Absurdism. Sartrean Existentialism is a philosophy that acknowledges the meaningless of the universe but believes that we can all individually create our own meaning. Another existential philosophy, Nihilism, doesn’t believe in our ability to create meaning nor our ability to be happy. Yet Camus offers one of the most intriguing arguments against suicide and presents an answer to an almost unsolvable problem: how to be happy without purpose. Camus’s philosophy is a hopeful one. No matter the depths of our despair in the face of ultimate death, we can find comfort in knowing that we have the chance and the choice to be happy in our lives.