Does it ever feel like life is just, well, ridiculous? What does Albert Camus mean by absurdity?
According to Albert Camus, absurdity defines our lives. He observes that we search for meaning and purpose and ask huge questions about our existence. But, for all our searching and asking, we come up with just beliefs, theories, and hopes—and always come up short of certainty.
Read more to learn about Camus’s philosophy of the absurd.
Albert Camus on Absurdity
According to Albert Camus, absurdity in life is inescapable. This is the thesis of his definitive philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus begins his argument with the claim that both the universe and death are unknowable. Theories of existence—such as the belief that God provides life and an afterlife, that there’s a cosmic purpose to human existence which we may realize through our actions, or that death is the end of consciousness and life has no inherent meaning—are just theories, unprovable within the limits of human experience. Despite this, Camus argues that humans have an innate need to believe that our lives have purpose and that there’s continued existence after death, to the point that our inability to definitively answer these questions torments us. This contradiction between our needs and our reality is what Camus calls the absurd.
Camus’s theory of absurdism is built on the foundation of existentialism, a philosophical field of inquiry concerned with defining life’s meaning and purpose, as well as how people may live “authentically.” Various existentialist thinkers embraced Christian doctrine (life exists at the will of God and to fulfill his divine plan), nihilism (life has no meaning and existence is random), and variations on utilitarianism or hedonism (life has no inherent meaning, but can be made meaningful by the pursuit of happiness for yourself and others). Absurdism differs from these approaches in that it’s less concerned with answering existential questions than with how people respond to those questions and their own inability to answer them.
Though Camus is generally regarded as an existentialist thinker, he rejected the label, which was coined during his lifetime to describe the Marxist philosopher (and one-time friend) Jean-Paul Sartre and applied to other philosophers only retroactively. Besides those Camus cites directly, scholars often refer to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer as major influences on The Myth of Sisyphus.
Many people become aware of the absurd nature of their existence during their lives. Camus describes this as the sense of dread, terror, and frustration people may feel once they realize that someday they’ll die and be forgotten by others—if not immediately, then on the massive timescale of the universe. Faced with the inevitability of this oblivion, people wake up to the ridiculousness of their everyday routines and become alienated from their old belief systems. Everything in their lives—relationships, personal or career achievements, religion, and so on—suddenly seems irrelevant in the face of the absurd.
|Absurd Realization Versus the Existential Crisis
What Camus is describing is commonly referred to in psychology as the existential or “midlife” crisis, in which a person—particularly someone at a transitional life stage, such as teenager-to-young-adult or adult-to-elderly—begins to feel that their life or personal identity lacks meaning, coherency, or any sense of accomplishment. These crises can lead to severe depression or impulsive, self-destructive behavior, such as ending romantic relationships, switching careers, becoming addicted to stress-relieving substances, and so on.
Additionally, many psychologists believe that existential crises don’t occur at random, as Camus describes, but are generally triggered by a traumatic event, such as the death of a loved one or a divorce—the collapse of something that previously gave life meaning. Some scholars have also suggested that the existential crisis isn’t a universal phenomenon, but a culturally specific one seen primarily in Europe and the United States.
According to Camus, there are three possible responses to being confronted with the absurd. The first is to deny it by seeking philosophical or religious justifications for living that promise either an afterlife or a sense of purpose; Camus considers this philosophical rejection to be self-delusion. The second response is to commit suicide, escaping the suffering of an absurd existence by rejecting life itself. The third response, which is the only one Camus supports, is to commit to living an absurd life. This means continuing to live even with the pain of knowing that life is finite and possibly meaningless. Camus describes this as both living without hope and living in a state of permanent rebellion.
(Shortform note: In his book Everything Is F*cked, self-help blogger Mark Manson also encourages people to live without hope, arguing that unhappiness comes less from the circumstances of our lives than from our constantly comparing ourselves with others and striving for change that may not be possible. Camus similarly encourages us to accept and deal with our imperfect reality, rather than trying and ultimately failing to escape the absurd.)
|Camus’s Exploration of the Absurd
Camus provides another symbol for the absurd in his novella The Stranger, published earlier in the same year as The Myth of Sisyphus and described by Camus as being part of the same thematic “cycle.” The protagonist, Meursault, spends much of the book in prison awaiting execution by guillotine. Though he’s terrified of death, he continues to take pleasure in his daily existence, claiming that even if he had been condemned to spend his life trapped in a hollow tree trunk, “little by little I would have gotten used to it.” Like Sisyphus, Meursault finds life satisfying and worth living for its own sake, even when it’s mostly defined by pain and there’s nothing he can do to escape his punishment.
In philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s analysis, the way the novels were written and the timing of their release seems to suggest that they build on each other, with The Stranger evoking the sense of the absurd and The Myth of Sisyphus exploring the concept of it.