CAMUS: The Absurd Hero

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Thus, 21st century French philosopher Albert Camus begins his celebrated essay titled, The Myth of Sisyphus. In this video, we will discuss Camus’ thoughts on the Absurd condition of human life and the three responses to that condition – physical suicide, philosophical suicide, and acceptance.

Camus defines the Absurd as man’s futile search for meaning in a meaningless universe. This absurd condition of man’s existence is brilliantly captured in a dialogue from Woody Allen’s film Play It Again, Sam. In the film, Woody Allen’s character approaches a woman in an art gallery, and he tries to engage her in conversation, hoping to land a date in the process.

Allen: That’s quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn’t it?
Woman: Yes, it is.
Allen: What does it say to you?
Woman: It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror, and degradation, forming a useless, bleak straitjacket in a black, absurd cosmos.
Allen: What are you doing Saturday night?
Woman: Committing suicide.
Allen: What about Friday night?

One response to the Absurd is to commit physical suicide. “Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering.” But Camus argues that physical suicide is merely an attempt to escape the Absurd. It does not reconcile the conflict between man’s desire for significance and the universe’s cold indifference.

Another response to the Absurd is to commit philosophical suicide. Camus claims that people who find meaning in the concept of God or in the concept of transcendence have taken a “leap of faith” and have committed philosophical suicide. One of the most prominent people to adopt this response to the Absurd was 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. “Kierkegaard wants to be cured. To be cured is his frenzied wish, and it runs throughout his whole journal. The entire effort of his intelligence is to escape the antinomy of the human condition.” Camus rejects this position because, like physical suicide, it is merely an attempt to escape from the Absurd, rather than an attempt to overcome it.

The last response to the Absurd, and the response that Camus supports, is that of acceptance. According to Camus, the Absurd Hero acknowledges the truth of the Absurd and embraces the freedom that it bestows upon him. In a world devoid of absolutes, man is free to create his own meaning and purpose. This process of creation is enough to make him happy. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”

The Ancient Greek King Sisyphus is the epitome of Camus’ Absurd Hero. According to myth, Sisyphus put Death in chains so that men would no longer die. The gods eventually freed Death, and then punished Sisyphus. They condemned him to ceaselessly roll a boulder to the top of a mountain, only to watch it roll back down again. “You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which his whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.”

It is important to note the similarity between Sisyphus’ punishment and man’s Absurd existence. Both Sisyphus and man are condemned to futile and hopeless labor. But Sisyphus teaches man the way to overcome his fate. “Sisyphus teaches the higher commitment that negates the gods and raises rocks. He 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!”

To conclude, Camus identifies man’s search for objective meaning in a meaningless universe as Absurd. There are three responses to the Absurd – physical suicide, philosophical suicide, and acceptance. Camus rejects the first two options because they are merely attempts to escape the problem. To accept the Absurd, however, is to overcome it. By accepting that the world is devoid of absolutes, man is free to create his own meaning and purpose.

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10 thoughts on “CAMUS: The Absurd Hero

  1. So it looks like the only way to find any meaning in the meaningless universe is to create your own meaning, sort of personal responsibility for everyone…

  2. Awesome. I found (and maybe this is just me trying to resolve absurdity) that the joy in my life comes from following my passion, and in that way rolling the boulder has become a labour of love, so to speak, rather than something that I have to do.

    Seneca asked, ‘To what end do we toil’ and perhaps Camus’ reply is, ‘The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.’

  3. Thank you for this well done presentation on Camus, one of my favorite writers. I would suggest there’s another way between Camus’ philosophical suicide and acceptance, which is perhaps best expressed as paradox. While there are no absolutes, the making of meaning itself is what defines human life. The human being is a meaning-maker and the making of meaning is itself a spiritual matter of a different ilk. Consider T.S. Eliot, for example:
    “At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
    Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
    But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
    Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
    Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
    There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

    Just chiming in here. Kafka is another favorite of mine because he, like Camus, does not shrink from the absurd. At the same time, I remain a theologian, looking to the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who called for leaving behind the god of childhood fantasies, the rescuer god, for the One who calls each of us to full responsibility for the world.

  4. I find myself questioning whether or not dying voluntarily is a just way of escaping the absurdity of life. If a person comes to the realization that there is no point in life and that they find life to have purpose to live, why would they end their existence now and face an eternity of nothingness rather than searching for happiness in the rest of their lives and taking advantage of the time that they had prior to facing this blank eternity? By finding happiness in their lives I do not mean committing philosophical suicide, I simply mean that that person may find things that they enjoy doing. Making their life seem purposeful for the betterment of themselves. Would the act of living with and putting off the idea of the absurd be considered an acceptance of the absurd?

    Like Camus said, the only way to live a life in good faith is to to live life to their most honest potential and to not make decisions based on what others think or live their life in a manner meant to impress others. So in this instance is committing physical suicide living in true faith? Or does this depend on the circumstances in which the person decides to commit suicide? After all the only true way to avoid the angst of absurdity is to accept it for what it is and become the master of their own faith. If Camus only believes in acceptance being the only escape, then does he also believe that committing suicide is living in bad faith.

    All in all, fantastic article, I really enjoyed it and I hope that you guys can continue this discussion and add to the conversation. Thanks.

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