Albert Camus (caMOO) was a French author and essayist, as much a literary figure as a philosopher. Though he never accepted the label himself, he was a major figure in 20th-century existentialism, a literary-philosophical movement that accepts and even embraces the fundamental meaninglessness of life.
Existentialism consists of two insights: first, nothing means anything. Life is pointless. There is no God and no absolute morality. It’s all nonsense and chaos. And, second, we have to be OK with that state of affairs. The first part is a lot like nihilism, but existentialism differs from nihilism in its attitude. The nihilist might give up or retreat into mere self-serving pleasure. The existentialist embraces meaninglessness because it brings with it a kind of freedom: if there is no absolute meaning to anything, then we are free to come up with our own meanings. And that, in itself, might be all there is to the meaning of life.
Camus spent much of his life in the middle of war. He was born in French Algeria in 1913, just as the French empire was descending into the chaos of World War I. Though he lived far away from the fighting, the war came home to Camus when it took his father’s life at the Battle of the Marne. Despite the tragedy, Camus grew into a talented scholar and athlete. He briefly played goalkeeper in the junior leagues and dreamed of becoming a professional athlete.
He had to give up sports after contracting tuberculosis as a teenager, and he threw himself into his studies instead. Growing up in a French colony, he came to see the racism and injustice of colonialism. As he got into his twenties, Fascism began its rise in Europe and he found a new form of authoritarianism to oppose. Though never bought into Communist ideology, he joined various Communist parties because he saw them as the best tool for defeating Fascism and colonialism.
He moved to Paris in 1940 to pursue work as a political journalist, but was almost immediately derailed when Nazi Germany invaded France. The same tuberculosis that ended his soccer career also prevented him from joining the French army, but he worked as a writer for the French resistance during the Nazi occupation.
After the war, Camus gained international fame for his political and philosophical writing as well as his novels and plays. He won the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming one of only a handful of philosophers ever to gain that honor. He died only a few years later in a car accident – the irony of this mundane death after such a remarkable life might have appealed to Camus’s sense of the absurd, and maybe even to his dark sense of humor.
Absurdism vs. Existentialism
Though he’s considered to be one of the great figures of existentialism, Camus never accepted the label. He read and was influenced by existentialists like Kierkegaard and Heidegger, and shared their basic question: given the meaninglessness and indifference of the universe, how can human life go on? But Camus felt that the early existentialists unfairly cheated their way out of the problem by ultimately invoking irrational and spiritual sources of hope. “They deify what crushes them,” he wrote, “and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them. That forced hope is religious in all of them.”
Camus preferred to call himself an absurdist, which was existentialism in a more condensed, concentrated form. It’s a kind of existentialism that denies the possibility of any metaphysical or spiritual sources of hope. It’s a kind of existentialism that tries to recover happiness without hope.
We must imagine Sisyphus happy.
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a Corinthian king who spent his whole life trying to cheat the god of death. As punishment for his insubordination, the god Hades placed Sisyphus on a hill with a giant stone at the bottom. He told Sisyphus he could return to the world of the living if he could roll that stone all the way to the top. But whenever Sisyphus gets near the top of the hill, the boulder rolls all the way to the bottom and he has to start again. Sisyphus will spend all eternity struggling against that rock, trying to reach the top but never quite getting there.
It sounds like an unbearable fate. But Camus argued that it was basically the condition of all humans as we struggle to understand our purpose and the meaning of life. We struggle mightily, but are doomed never to know the answers – because there simply are no answers to be had.
For Camus, the solution was simple: imagine Sisyphus happy. Imagine that this damned soul, with his shoulder against a rock, might find some joy in his work. When he gets close to the top of the hill and the rock slips from his grasp, when he watches it tumble all the way back down to the bottom, he has a choice. He can give up, sit down in the dirt and bemoan his fate, or he can choose to go back down and start again, even though he knows it won’t work. He might also comfort himself with false hopes of future success, but Camus argues that that’s hardly any better than just giving up. Sisyphus must find a way to live without self-delusions. The truth is that he is doomed never to escape Hades, but he still has the freedom to decide how he will meet that fate. If he can find joy in that freedom, he can live well despite his damnation. And so can we. We can choose to go about our lives, to exercise the little freedoms that confront us in the day-to-day, and be happy even though we know it’s all pointless.
In Pop Culture
The enemy always wins. And we still have to fight him.
There’s more than a little Existentialism in Game of Thrones. It presents us with a bleak, brutal world in which the characters have to find some way to live well in spite of everything. In one episode, Lord Beric Dondarrion and Jon Snow are marching through the far north, facing the Army of the Dead, when Dondarrion says: “The enemy always wins. And we still need to fight him.” He follows the line with a warm smile, as if the idea of fighting for life brings him real joy despite his knowledge that it’s a losing fight.