The Philosophy of Absurdism and Albert Camus

Presenting the father of the philosophy of absurdism Albert Camus and his two important works "The Myth of Sisyphus" and "The Stranger".

Absurdism is the concept that humans exist in a purposeless, chaotic universe. What is the absurd? First coined by the famous French Algerian philosopher Albert Camus, the term refers to the inevitable tension between the human desire to discover a sense of meaning and purpose in life and the universe's meaninglessness. As such, absurdity is a conflict between humans' desire to find the reasons or meanings for their existence and the struggle to get such answers. Since life is absurd, there is no point to go and try to find the right answers. Uncomfortable when first read, I know. As human beings, we tend to question the universe and have a burning desire to find meaning. We can't help to ask questions such as ''What is all of this for?'', ''Why am I alive?'', ''Is there any reason I should live?'' However, there is a certain comfort in knowing that sometimes the thing is meaningless and there are no answers to certain questions. This is the core belief underneath the philosophy of absurdism.

Albert Camus is often regarded as the philosopher of the absurd as he used the term ''absurd''. He is the author of several well-known works of existentialist and absurdist philosophy, notably "The Myth of Sisyphus" (Le Mythe de Sisyphe) and the book "The Stranger" (L'Étranger). Camus introduces us to the concept of absurdism at the start of "The Myth of Sisyphus" with the very opening sentence of the essay that says:

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards”. — Albert Camus

Camus' article makes it abundantly clear that he is against suicide as a way of escaping our sense of absurdity. Suicide appears to be a major philosophical dilemma for him. Such a claim might seem bizarre at first glance, but it is consistent with the existentialism and absurdism proposed by significant philosophical thinkers ranging from Friedrich Nietzsche to Jean-Paul Sartre. That is where Camus introduces perhaps the most essential idea in absurdism: the concept of the ''Absurd Hero''. An absurd hero is someone who realizes the absurdity of life yet chooses to live with boldness and honesty. This hero conquers the challenges of living without relying on traditional sources of meaning or transcendent values. This perfectly explains the bold statement at the beginning of the essay "The Myth of Sisyphus". 

Now let's understand the meaning behind title of the "The Myth of Sisyphus". According to Greek mythology, after Sisyphus died, the gods sentenced him to an eternity of unending and pointless labor. His punishment was to roll a large boulder up a steep hill in the Underworld. However, just as he reached the crest and the boulder was about to roll over the other side, it fell from his grasp and tumbled back down the hill. According to Camus, Sisyphus' acceptance of his fate and willingness to keep rolling the boulder despite its futility is an example of rebellion against the absurdity of existence. Sisyphus' choice to embrace absurdity and continue pushing the boulder represents humanity's ability to look for meaning and purpose in life through bold honest living. Camus challenges us to picture Sisyphus as happy. Sisyphus is the perfect example of an absurd hero as he knows his punishment is up for an eternity and there is no means for him to escape it, yet he is happy since it is the only way he can continue to exist. Camus merely argues that, just as Sisyphus finds satisfaction in the completion of the task he undertakes rather than in the meaning of the task, human beings also must live for the sake of living rather than for the meaning.

“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

The novel "The Stranger" by Albert Camus is another foundational work of the absurdism movement, perhaps the best piece of literature that precisely portrays the notion underlying absurdism. Meursault, the novel's protagonist, leads a seemingly detached and emotionally indifferent life. Meursault is occasionally referred to as an "absurd hero" because of his disdain for traditional conventions and desire to live in the present without regard for the past or future. The beginning of the novel reflects the disdainful and ''absurd'' nature of Meursault:

“My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know. I received a telegram from the old people's home: "Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Very sincerely yours." That doesn't mean anything. It might have been yesterday.”

Albert Camus makes use of Meursault's apparent emotional detachment and actions throughout the novel to emphasize the central concept of absurdism: the conflict between individual existence and the absurdity of life. Camus employs outstanding storytelling and an intriguing tone to provide the reader with a thorough understanding of Meursault's psychological world. His thoughts lead to his actions, which are entirely disordered and nonsensical, resulting in his murder of an Arab guy on a beach near Algiers for no apparent reason. The murder is completely random and unplanned, motivated by a combination of extremely basic circumstances such as the severe heat, Meursault's emotional detachment, and his sense of being surrounded. Following the murder, Meursault is charged with premeditated murder and sentenced to death by guillotine. Camus also emphasizes the absurdity of the judicial system and how society attempts to put meaning and order on incidents that seem to have no significance. Throughout the trial, Meursault's continuous indifference further alienates him from social norms and expectations. Meursault's confrontations with death, both in the murder and in his approaching execution, are handled in such a casual manner as to underline the absurdity of existence. Meursault himself discusses death and life in the following quote:

“Thus, I always began by assuming the worst; my appeal was dismissed. That meant, of course, I was to die. Sooner than others, obviously. 'But,' I reminded myself, 'it's common knowledge that life isn't worth living, anyhow.' And, on a wide view, I could see that it makes little difference whether one dies at the age of thirty or threescore and ten-- since, in either case, other men will continue living, and the world will go on as before. Also, whether I died now or forty years hence, this business of dying had to be got through, inevitably.”

In a nutshell, Albert Camus's association with absurdism is apparent in his meditation on the idea of the absurd, his use of the myth of Sisyphus, and the significance of living wholeheartedly and honestly in an indifferent and chaotic world. Throughout the article, I attempted to lay out the main premise behind the philosophy of absurdism through two fundamental and widely recognized pieces of existentialist and absurdist philosophy: "The Myth of Sisyphus" and "The Stranger" by Albert Camus.