Column: Embracing the absurd and the case against suicide
Columnist Hunter Bassler on Albert Camus and the absurdist school of thought.
Feb. 16, 2016
The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.
Life is meaningless and the universe is indifferent to mankind. Since most people are taught that there is someone, or something, behind the cosmic curtain running the show, dictating every action we make to be right or wrong, this statement can come as a bit of a shock. We all want to know why we are here and how the universe works. Well, according to existentialists, that’s a pointless pursuit. To existentialists, there’s no one behind the curtain and we are merely organisms spinning on a blue rock through space.
So, what then? What are we to do? Albert Camus, an Algerian philosopher, states that there are three possibilities when faced with this realization. The first possibility is that we can deny this statement by putting our faith in religion. We can view this meaningless life as a part of God’s larger plan. But Camus saw this as a harmful way of thinking because it distracts us from the world in which we actually live.
The second possibility is what Camus viewed to be the only truly serious philosophical problem: suicide. When faced with the meaninglessness of life, why not just kill yourself? It comes to the same thing in the end, right? Camus sees this possibility and says hell no. To Camus, suicide is a coward’s way out.
Instead, Camus points out a third possibility. He urges us to accept what he calls “the absurd,” and his school of thought, absurdism. The absurd, in philosophy, refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life, and the human inability to find any. In this context, “absurd” does not mean "logically impossible," but rather that it is humanly impossible to comprehend any true meaning.
In Camus’ famous essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, he demonstrates this possibility. The character Sisyphus went against the Gods’ orders and chained up Death so humans could live forever. As punishment, the Gods condemned Sisyphus to roll a boulder up a mountain everyday and then watch it roll back down, pointlessly, forever. Sounds like it sucks, right? But for some reason, Sisyphus remained happy. When faced with such a futile task, how could one stay positive and not get angry, annoyed or depressed? When faced with the utter hopelessness of his life, he revels in the absurd nature of his existence. Sisyphus knows it doesn’t matter. He realizes that his options are either to get pissed when the boulder inevitably rolls back down or chill out and not let it bother him.
Camus urges us to be like Sisyphus. Ultimately the act of rolling a boulder up a mountain is exhausting, work-filled and futile, but it would only be sad and depressing if Sisyphus kept trying to find meaning in his pointless task. When we realize the pointlessness of life, we shouldn’t deny it or kill ourselves due to existential angst, but rather accept the absurdity of life. By embracing the absurd, we are committing an act of revolution against the absence of meaning in life.
This draws a close to my series of existential columns, and there is no better way to end it than with my favorite philosopher: Camus. Unlike all of the other bleak and somewhat depressing existentialists like Sartre and Nietzsche, Camus is a breath of fresh air. He states not just that there is no meaning, but also provides a way to positively cope with it. We must accept the absurd, not because we hope we’re wrong, but because we know we are right. In the end, living is way better than not.