Rebelling at the Absurd – Albert Camus


Below are notes on Albert Camus — In my opinion, one of the most interesting philosophers of all time.

The Myth of Sisyphus

The Myth of Sisyphus is a philosophical theory, a vision of “the absurd.” Sisyphus is an example of all of us, life spent in futile quests. The absurd is born, Camus says, of our increasingly impersonal, abstract, scientific view of the world. Ultimately, only personal experience is meaningful.

I. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus gives us a philosophical theory, or rather, perhaps, a vision, to accompany the odd and disturbing view of the world of The Stranger.

  • Sisyphus was condemned by the Olympian gods to spend all eternity in fruitless labor, rolling a rock up a mountain until it would roll back down of its own weight, again and again and again.
  • Nothing could be more absurd, Camus tells us, than a life of such futility.

II. The “absurd” is this vision, this sensibility that has come to preoccupy the modern mind.

  • Camus defines the absurd as a confrontation between “rational” human beings and an “indifferent” universe.
    • It is the view that, despite our hopes and expectations (for justice, for salvation, for peace and harmony), the world does not deliver or care.
    • Meursault accepts the indifference of the universe as “brotherly” in The Stranger.
  • Camus is an atheist. (But he also says that if there were a God, it would not matter—life would still be absurd.)

III. In The Stranger, Camus suggests that death makes life absurd.

  • This view has been around since ancient times.
  • The character of Sisyphus makes it painfully clear that an eternity of futility is more absurd than a mere lifetime of futility. Death, then, is a kind of blessing, an escape from perennial boredom.
  • Sisyphus and Ecclesiastes both suggest the absurdity that our lives amount to nothing.

IV. One of Camus’s targets in the Myth is the contemporary glorification of science and “objectivity.”

  • Galileo’s retractions before the threats of the Church were more comic than tragic, Camus suggests, because it is life, not truth, that really counts.
  • The absurd is born, Camus suggests, of the impersonal, abstract, scientific view of the world and what one contemporary philosopher has called “the view from nowhere.”
  • Ultimately, only personal experience is meaningful.

V. Reason is characterized by the question “why?”

  • A. This is a quest for explanation, for justification, for an account that makes an action or an event comprehensible.
    • But every “why?” leads to another “why?”
    • All series of “why?” questions end nowhere.
  • B. In terms of understanding as well as satisfaction, life is essentially absurd.
    • Understanding does not give us satisfaction.
    • The absurd is a confrontation between our rational minds and an “indifferent” universe.
  • C. Sisyphus can be interpreted in two ways in this context.
    • He devotes himself to his labor so completely that he must be considered happy. Thus, the role of reflection, of reason, is a problem. It leads to a question—“what does this amount to?”—to which the answer is “nothing.”
    • He undertakes his task with resentment, and his resentment of the gods thereby makes his life meaningful. Sisyphus rebels by refusing to accept the absurdity imposed on him.

VI. Camus presents reason as a problem.

  • “Rationality” has different meanings.
    • It refers to “consciousness” on the one hand. Only human consciousness can see absurdity in a repeated pattern.
    • It refers to the intelligibility (comprehensibility and justice) of the world on the other.
  • In this, Camus reminds us of some characters invented by the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, in particular, Ivan Karamazov and the spiteful figure in Notes from Underground.

VII. In what sense is Meursault [The Stranger] an absurd hero?

  • For him, there is no commitment. In the first part of the novel, he doesn’t rebel. In the second part, he rebels when he rebuffs the priest.
  • Either we find the meaning of life in our lives, Camus seems to be saying, or not at all.
  • From The Stranger and Sisyphus, the answer is that life is its own meaning; philosophical reflection does not give us meaning.
  • In Camus, only insofar as we are engaged in our lives do our lives make sense.

Amazing stuff, right?

Thanks for reading,

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