What’s the meaning of life? Why does Albert Camus think that’s a ridiculous question to ask?
The existentialist philosopher Albert Camus believes that, ultimately, life is absurd. We search in vain for meaning and purpose because it’s impossible to find them. He says we can choose to live in denial of this reality, end our own lives, or accept the absurd reality we inhabit.
Keep reading to learn why Camus believes we should embrace the absurd.
Living an Absurd Life
Though Camus dismisses attempts to define the meaning of life, particularly religious ones, he also believes that life is the only thing that matters, as it’s the means by which you experience consciousness, pleasure, and growth. Life may be given by a benevolent God, or it may lack any deeper meaning; either way, you should attempt to get as much out of it as you can before your inevitable death. In other words, you should embrace the absurd.
Camus describes this as an eternal struggle for freedom, with every person rebelling against the unknowability of the universe. Though this rebellion will fail, he argues that it makes you stronger, more intelligent, and more appreciative of your experiences.
(Shortform note: Camus would expand on the connection between rebellion and self-improvement in The Rebel (1951), which argues that creating a perfect civilization is impossible, but revolting against injustice is still a noble goal that betters the individual and the society they live in. However, Camus was less supportive of rebellion in the real world—he was a pacifist opposed to any form of revolutionary violence and was critical of the Algerian Revolution (1954-1962), which overthrew the French colonial government and triggered the mass exodus of the European pied-noir population to which he belonged.)
Getting the most out of life means living in the present and seeking out as many fulfilling experiences as possible. This doesn’t require you to constantly pursue new, exotic, or extreme experiences, but to take an interest in the world around you at all times and to make choices without being concerned with artificial limitations on behavior, such as morality or social stigmas. Camus argues that you should “feel” your life as intensely as if you’d been condemned to death the next day, and this one was the last you’d ever have—especially since, in a sense, everyone is condemned to death.
(Shortform note: It’s unclear how seriously we should take Camus’s advice to ignore morality. While Meursault is certainly amoral—he feels no remorse for the murder he commits seemingly at random—Camus had deeply held moral convictions, which are made obvious in his other nonfiction work. As a journalist, he reported on the exploitation of native Algerians by the French government, and in his Letters to a German Friend, he condemned the occupying Nazi force for their cruelty and violence, writing that even if “this world has no ultimate meaning,” humans still have an obligation to fight for “justice.”)
Live Like Sisyphus
Camus describes the Greek mythological figure of Sisyphus as the perfect example of an absurd figure; for crimes he committed in life, the gods condemned Sisyphus to spend eternity in the underworld pushing a massive boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down again as soon as he reached the top. His commitment to this futile task, repeated over and over, represents everyday life, as people strive for meaning or for an escape from death that they can never achieve. Sisyphus himself represents the drive to live since he was known for his defiance of death—different versions of the myth have him tricking or trapping Hades, the God of the Dead, in order to escape temporarily back to the surface—which still couldn’t save him from it.
Though Sisyphus is generally invoked as an example of divine punishment or torture, Camus believes that Sisyphus is happy despite his fate. He’s alive—in the sense that he still has a consciousness, even though he no longer has access to the world of the living—and he has a task to commit himself to, even if that task can never be completed. He continues to experience the world and to draw pleasure and strength from it. Camus argues that, like Sisyphus, a person committed to the absurd must dedicate themselves to being fully present for every second of life. Life’s value doesn’t come from the promise of eternity, or from any external source, but is self-evident.
Camus ends the essay by providing further examples of absurd figures in fiction and the arts, particularly in the work of novelist Franz Kafka. Kafka’s protagonists struggle to survive in hostile worlds with authoritarian, incomprehensible rules, whether this means Josef of The Trial being sentenced to execution for an unknown crime or K. of The Castle spending years trying and failing to gain entrance to the titular seat of government. Despite their frustration and suffering, Kafka’s characters cling to life—going to work and building relationships with the untrustworthy figures around them—even as their expulsion from the world (via exile or death) seems inevitable.
Exercise: Confront the Absurd
Camus argues that everyone will recognize the absurd at some point in their lives, but that most people respond to this with philosophical rejection, as living an absurd life seems too painful to cope with.
- Have you ever experienced what Camus describes as the absurd? How did it make you feel, and how did you respond to it?
- Camus argues that any attempt to concretely define the meaning of life is a form of self-delusion. Do you agree? Why or why not?
- What does living an absurd life mean to you? How would you go about living it yourself—are there any changes you’d make to your behavior or lifestyle (for example, would you stay in your current career)?