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Albert Camus (1913-1960)

Biography

  • author, journalist, philosopher
  • 1957: won the Nobel Prize for Literature
  • Although he was widely regarded as one of the most important existentialists, he rejected the use of the term.
  • Camus was a pacifist, but became a Resistance fighter during World War 2.
  • He died in a car accident in 1960, a death he had previously described as absurd. A train ticket was found in his coat pocket after his death.
  • He wrote many works, including The Stranger (1942), The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), and The Plague (1947)

Absurdity

  • The fundamental philosophical question is whether or not one should simply commit suicide, given the uncaring absurdity of the universe.
  • Life is Absurd
    • Life is built on hope for tomorrow, but each day is a day closer to death.
    • To feel better, we romanticize life–idealized romantic love, purpose, destiny.
    • Stripped of romanticism, life is foreign, strange, and inhuman.
    • The confrontation between our rationality and an indifferent universe is absurd.
    • The ultimate absurdity is our effort to control/understand the universe.
      • Science/objectivity are futile pursuits, because they cannot answer the meaning of life and death, which we crave
      • Our efforts to define and control are no different than those of people in Greek myth.

The Myth of Sisyphus

  • As a punishment from the gods for his trickery, Sisyphus was made to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill, but before he could reach the top of the hill, the rock would always roll back down, forcing him to begin again. The maddening nature of the punishment was reserved for Sisyphus due to his hubristic belief that his cleverness surpassed that of Zeus. As a result when Sisyphus was condemned to his punishment, Zeus displayed his own cleverness by binding Sisyphus to an eternity of frustration with the boulder rolling away from Sisyphus when he neared the top of the hill.
  • In the last chapter, Camus outlines the legend of Sisyphus who defied the gods and put Death in chains so that no human needed to die. When Death was eventually liberated and it came time for Sisyphus himself to die, he concocted a deceit which let him escape from the underworld. Finally captured, the gods decided on his punishment: for all eternity, he would have to push a rock up a mountain; on the top, the rock rolls down again and Sisyphus has to start over. Camus sees Sisyphus as the absurd hero who lives life to the fullest, hates death and is condemned to a meaningless task.
  • Camus presents Sisyphus’s ceaseless and pointless toil as a metaphor for modern lives spent working at futile jobs in factories and offices. “The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.”
  • Camus is interested in Sisyphus’ thoughts when marching down the mountain, to start anew. This is the truly tragic moment, when the hero becomes conscious of his wretched condition. He does not have hope, but “[t]here is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” Acknowledging the truth will conquer it; Sisyphus, just like the absurd man, keeps pushing. Camus claims that when Sisyphus acknowledges the futility of his task and the certainty of his fate, he is freed to realize the absurdity of his situation and to reach a state of contented acceptance. With a nod to the similarly cursed Greek hero Oedipus, Camus concludes that “all is well,” indeed, that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

REVOLT!

  • We must realize that only personal experience matters.
  • In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus identifies four avenues to resist:
    • Don Juan, who chose not to lead a “noble” life, but one filled with exceptional moments.
    • The Actor, who embodies other lives, who depicts ephemeral lives for ephemeral fame. “He demonstrates to what degree appearing creates being.” “In those three hours he travels the whole course of the dead-end path that the man in the audience takes a lifetime to cover.”
    • The Artist, who creates.
    • Camus’ third example of the absurd man is the conqueror, the warrior who forgoes all promises of eternity to affect and engage fully in human history. He chooses action over contemplation, aware of the fact that nothing can last and no victory is final.

Solidarity

  • Camus believed that individual suffering was absurd.
    • We make our own suffering paramount and lose sense of perspective.
  • We need solidarity in the face of suffering.