Albert Camus and the Philosophy of the Absurd
“There is no more representative intellectual figure of the mid–20th century than Albert Camus.”
When I was younger I used to look at men like Albert Camus with judgment and superiority as if somehow, by their lack of effort, they’d brought bad philosophy and depressing worldviews upon themselves. Later, as life became genuinely depressing, I looked at them afresh, with a sense of kinship and fascination. I could relate to them and see the truth in what they said. Yes, they are wrong and yes, it is often their fault, but who am I that I’m any different? And now, after I’ve come through that depressive stage in my life, I see them with a blend of genuine pity and sorrow, because I see in them a lot of myself.
Albert Camus is one those philosophers who is close to my heart because he helped me see myself more clearly and thereby helped me get out of a very dark place. I am so thankful for Camus because he is the voice of reason who honestly says what modern man is really thinking, if he were able to be honest with himself. He is widely known as the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize in literature and the originator of absurdism, his philosophy of life. Here I just want to break down that philosophy and explain why it revolutionized my understanding of life, even the Christian life.
Absurdism as a Natural Result of Modernism
Camus was born into an absurd world (as all of us are), but the inherent absurdity of life was at the very center of his worldview because he was part of the first generation to do battle with postmodernism. He was born in 1913, a good 20–50 years after the climax of the modernist revolution—the climax being the theory of evolution—and so it was him and his colleagues who were left to put humpty-dumpty back together again—humpty-dumpty being the meaning of life—in a (seemingly) increasingly meaningless world.
The questions Camus had to answer were the result of evolutionary thinkers like Charles Darwin (1809–1882), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), and Karl Marx (1818–1883), whose achievements are Evolution, “God is dead,” and Communism, respectively. Each one was trying to make sense of a world without a God in the realms of science, religion, and politics, respectively.
The Enlightenment (18th Century)
That group of thinkers—we’ll call them The Evolutionists—were all trying to answer the fundamental questions put forward by their grandfathers, the men of The Enlightenment (so yes, all of this is in reaction to the Enlightenment). The questions from thinkers like Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were from ideas based on the assumptions that humans are alone in the world and have to figure things out for themselves. The Enlightenment was the period where everyone actually believed that to be possible.
The Renaissance (14th to 17th Century)
Modernism is the system of thought which states humans are capable of doing that, and it finds its roots in The Renaissance, where man, for the first time, systematically began with himself and tried to make sense of all of life around him. (Before all of that you had the pre-modern worldview which basically believes in a transcendent deity who understands and controls far more than we humans can imagine, and so we must trust him and see the world as an open system far beyond our capability to understand. But I won’t go back that far, so I digress.)
Postmodernism (20th Century)
So I just went backwards through history to show the intellectual heritage of us modern people (including Camus) to show you the problems Camus is dealing with. I said earlier that The Evolutionists (Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx) were trying to answer the questions of the Enlightenment. Well, they failed, and instead of birthing a new, better philosophical system, they introduced what has been called “postmodernism.” It’s called that because it didn’t introduce anything new; it just reacted to what came before in a much weaker way.
It’s into this world that Camus is born, a world that tells him that 1) life is a closed system, so it’s up to you to figure things out; 2) God is dead, so you can forget about Him; 3) life is therefore meaningless unless you can conjure up some meaning for yourself; 4) Oh and by the way, since the “hope” of Evolution is in the constant progress of mankind, it’s up to you, the modern technological human, to figure out what the rest of history couldn’t. So Camus was faced with these unsolvable problems, and the reason I align so well with him is that left to myself, I would believe the same things about life. My culture tells me the same things because history has led us all to this point. It’s logical. The rest of recorded human history has ruled out every option for us so that we are finally left with only two options: 1) appeal to God in a blind “leap of faith,” or 2) convince yourself why suicide isn’t an option (i.e., why you shouldn’t commit suicide). This is the Absurdity Camus sought to answer:
There is just one truly important philosophical question: suicide. To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy. Everything else … is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question.
Absurdism the Answer to Suicide
To review, Premodernism began with God and made sense of life from His point of view, Modernism began with man and produced all the Evolutionary heresies we have today, and Postmodernism is when man runs out of steam, realizing he’s backed himself into a corner where nothing means anything anymore. That’s Nihilism (which, again, you can thank the Nietzsche crowd for). It’s a worldview devoid not of knowledge or happiness or goodness or evil, but of meaning. In our pride we humans shooed God out of the system, and it’s taken almost half a millennia for us to realize that doing that cost us literally everything. If nothing means anything anymore, nothing has purpose or value.
The worldview in which suicide is an answer is the worldview resting on Nihilism, and that’s most of our world today.
Camus and his contemporaries were left with this poison of Nihilism as the only way to find ultimate answers, and since they were convinced this was the best thoughts human history had to offer (thanks Evolution), they were forced to live out their entire lives trying to find the antidote. Their answer: Existentialism. Existentialism is the belief that though God may not exist and life may be determined and within a closed-system, man’s experience of life in the here-and-now is all we can hope for. Man focuses on himself and his existence and derives meaning and joy from that. So an example is that the meaning of life comes from our ability to ascribe value to our own individual lives, not from some ultimate, absolute sense which transcends time and space.
Basically two types of Existentialism came out of that period: secular and religious. The secular existentialists, like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus himself, sought to make sense of the absurdity and meaninglessness of life without a God, while the religious existentialists, like Søren Kierkegaard, added God in the mix. James Sire quotes Camus on this and adds great commentary:
“A literature of despair is a contradiction in terms…. In the darkest depths of our nihilism I have sought only for the means to transcend nihilism.” Here the essence of existentialism’s most important goal is summed up in one phrase—to transcend nihilism.
The Definition of Absurdism
In my biographical post on Camus, I quoted this scene which, I think, sums up Camus’s experience of the absurdity of life:
[One day a child was hit by a bus and left for dead.] Walking away, Camus turned toward the landscape of blue sea and sky. Raising a finger toward the heavens he said: “You see, He says nothing.” Fouchet [his friend] was certain that Camus had no fundamental objection to religion, although he found the situation of man in the face of suffering and death, alone in the silence from the sky, unbearable.
This absurdity is the seeming inconsistency ingrained in life. One moment you have a beautiful, innocent child, and the next a pile of blood and tears. And yet, the world keeps turning as if nothing happened. Somebody somewhere keeps on laughing—probably a lot of somebodies. In a world without a God (or at least, in Camus’s case, a world without an apparently active God), these parts of life make no sense at all. They are absolutely absurd. And yet, this is the stuff life is made of; so maybe life itself is absurd. Listen to where one biographer said this absurdity comes from:
It occurs when our need for meaning shatters against the indifference, immovable and absolute, of the world. As a result, absurdity is not an autonomous state; it does not exist in the world, but is instead exhaled from the abyss that divides us from a mute world. “This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together.”
So Camus’s mission was to make sense of the Nihilistic “nothingness” philosophy passed down to him, and given the data and experiences of life around him, he identifies a world without apparent reason, and the more separation he sees between his expectations of how things ought to be and how things actually are, the greater the absurdity:
Absurdity is the child of disparity. It rises before us when our expectations fall short of reality. From the simplest to the most complex case, writes Camus, “the magnitude of the absurdity will be in direct ratio to the distance between the two terms of my comparison.”
The more Camus sought for meaning, the less he found. This is the absurdity of life. This is the dead-end of Postmodernism in all its depressing, ironic glory.
The Gospel of Absurdism
In the face of this absurdity, the only way forward is this: “Individuals should embrace the absurd condition of human existence while also defiantly continuing to explore and search for meaning.” The Gospel of absurdism is to keep on chugging, defiant to the end. And, again, suicide isn’t the answer (even though it seems logical in this worldview):
To the only philosophical question worth asking—whether suicide must be our response to an absurd world—Camus’ reply was clear: it cannot and must not be. If, as he wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, “revolt gives life its value,” suicide instead accepts—embraces, even—a life and world devoid of meaning and importance. It is essential, he affirmed, “to die unreconciled and not of one’s own free will. Suicide is a repudiation. The absurd man can only drain everything to the bitter end.… The absurd is his extreme tension, which he maintains constantly by solitary effort, for he knows that in that consciousness and in that day-to-day revolt he gives proof of his only truth, which is defiance.”
So at the end of the day, the only reason life is valuable is because it is made valuable by the struggle you put up against the absurdity. To give into the absurdity is to fail.
Empathizing with Camus
Now I could write for days about how deeply this philosophy has rooted itself down into our cultural psyche, but I want to end with some practical thoughts on why I think this is all so life-changing. Allow me to hit you with some bullets:
- We are postmodern in our worldviews, even if we do go to church every Sunday. Underneath it all, down in our core, we struggle with these same issues. When you begin to doubt that your life has meaning, you’ve just bought into postmodernism. Meaning wasn’t an issue before the Enlightenment. Used to be, people would fight for knowledge, but now we fight for meaning. God ascribes our meaning; we don’t earn it or have anything to do with ascribing it ourselves.
- But for the grace of God, so go I. Camus died in this darkness. He spent his entire life fighting for what he thought was true. Don’t you and I do the same thing? Just because God has enlightened us Christians to see and know the truth doesn’t mean we are better than him. Actually, as is often the case, Camus may have been a better man than most Christians these days because he actually had to fight to make sense of life instead of just checking his brain at the door and trusting in Jesus, my home-boy, to make life all better.
- Learn more about the way ideas work, because it takes effort to combat postmodernism in our own souls, much less out there in the messy world around us. Depression, anger, and any other extended sin is a result of your ideas smacking up against the way things really are. See the signs and learn to interpret them, then learn to use the Bible as it was meant to be used: as a map of the world, pointing the way through the complex web of ideas which Satan has strung in order to catch you and eat you alive.
The reason Camus changed my life is because after several years of recliner-bound illness, I had begun to let bitterness creep in and I had started to believe in what felt good. I began to believe the lies that my pain is wasted, that God isn’t good, that life is a cosmic joke (my language for “the Absurd”), and my life was and always would be meaningless. I’d begun to buy into it all, while reading my Bible daily and praying and serving the church, and it almost crushed me. Studying Albert Camus set me free because in him I saw myself and I realized how wrong I was, where I’d gone wrong, and how God wanted me to think rightly. When you fight daily, you need the proper tools. Ideas are your tools. Don’t buy into the world’s junk; let Albert be a warning sign to all of us of the absurd life the Christian God has rescued us from, of our place as small humans caught in between the terrible cosmic struggle between God and Satan, and of the sickening frailty of the human heart and mind to make sense of anything at all on his own.
Edit: A friend much smarter than me corrected me by saying I pulled a fast one on poor Nietzsche and threw him under the bus. It’s true; I’m broad-brushing here. So don’t take my words as the be-all end-all of these men, only a generalization meant to expose the problem Camus (and us) are up against in the simplest way possible.
Some notable scholars call our worldview a post-postmodern one, because we don’t even have as much surety as the postmodern bunch. We are collectively descending into nothingness. ↩
Albert Camus, L’Ete, quoted in John Cruickshank, Albert Camus and the Literature of Revolt, p. 3. ↩
Robert Zaretsky, A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning, loc 178. ↩
Robert Zaretsky, A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning, loc 354. ↩
Robert Zaretsky, A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning, loc 1831. ↩