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.
There is probably no better introductory sentence than the above. The Myth of Sisyphus, a philosophical essay by Albert Camus, is published in 1942 with the English translation arriving about a decade later. I had tried to make this reading several times in past, the first being when I was still in high school. Yet I always failed for I was too young to understand at the beginning and too frightened to find out the answer later on, even when I had read a great deal of literature by the same author. Time has come though for a man to face his fear and read each page like drinking sip after sip a bitter cup of tea which appeared to slay his very soul at the outset but it only served to remove layer after layer the thin veils of truth with him admiring her naked beauty in the end.
There principally three schools of thought regarding the crucial question and as a result three definite actions that precede it. First, nihilism is adamant there no meaning, either intrinsic or extrinsic and this amount to declaring that life is not worth living. Quite accurately, as Nietzsche puts it, “one must preach by example”, an absolute pessimist by dire consequence of his belief once he proclaim himself as such, should thus opt for death. Camus notes “I haven’t seen however anyone dying for an ontological argument” or more satirically I would rephrase it “I have never talked to a true nihilist for he is a dead nihilist”. The most ridiculous case is probably set by Schopenhauer who advocated in favor of suicide until his late senior age. Joking aside, this ideology can be viewed an direct reaction towards the resolute certainty which the opposing side professes.
Second, the leap of faith, that belief which manifest itself in all forms and flavors in religion, spirituality, existentialism, asserts there is at least somewhere, somehow some meaning. It clearly depends how much or what kind of meaning one has in mind; there can an almighty God or a personal sense of purpose which transcends life. This world is not devoid of hope, therefore is worth living and this amounts to a concise summary of the aforementioned system. In the word of Camus “that nostalgia for unity, that appetite for the absolute illustrates the essential impulse of the human drama”. I cannot judge people who dedicate their lives on that urge although perhaps I have done it in the past. Nonetheless, this is why it is called a leap of faith or keenly “philosophical suicide”, because it eludes the problem in a convenient way by which the very negation of thought, in spite of being sometimes within human reason, becomes essentially a renewed eternal truth. “But seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable” dear Kierkegaard, Shestov, Heidegger, Husserl, Sartre.
Here lies what is left other than plain and philosophical suicide: the notion of the absurd. In a rather lyrical definition, “absurd is that divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints, the nostalgia for unity, this fragmented universe and the contradiction that binds them together”. In all honesty there is no way to know whether the world has a meaning outside the human condition; it would be impossible to comprehend it anyway and it would inevitably require a leap. How then can one live conscientiously in a world deprived of hope, “without appeal” and yet not suicide? Suicide is avoiding once again from the whole reality by terminating it physically.
Negating one of the terms of the opposition [i.e. suicide be it plain or philosophical] amounts to escaping it. To abolish conscious revolt is to elude the problem. The theme of permanent revolution is thus carried into individual experience. One of the only coherent philosophical positions is thus revolt. It is a constant confrontation between man and his own obscurity. It is an insistence upon an impossible transparency. It is that constant presence of man in his own eyes. That revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it.
Consciousness and revolt, these rejections are the contrary of renunciation, and constitute the first consequence of the absurd. Thereafter follows the notion of freedom. In order to understand if a man is free we need to know whether or not he has a master. Apparently, the acceptance of a presence of God reduces the problem of freedom all over to the quest of meaning; the paradox of free will and the omnipotent God is well-known from antiquity (see Epicurus’ analysis) and all subtleties are unable to resolve it. The question might be cast as “what freedom can exist in the fullest sense without assurance of eternity?” Unexpectedly, a less restricted one.
To the extent to which one imagines a purpose to his life, he adapts himself to the demands of a purpose to be achieved and became the slave of his liberty. To speak clearly, to the extent to which I arrange my life and prove thereby that I accept its having a meaning, I create for myself barriers between which I confine my life. I do like so many bureaucrats of the mind and heart who only fill me with disgust and whose only vice is to take man’s freedom seriously. The absurd enlightens me on this point: there is no future. Henceforth this is the reason for my freedom.
After this critical observation the notion of freedom acquires a definite time limit, “it does not write a check to eternity but it takes the place of its illusions which all stop with death”. Owing to those two principles, death and the absurd, one receives the only reasonable freedom: without the promise of the eternal the absurd man is released from everything outside his universe. After his conscious revolt, his choice for a life with no consolation, he realizes he is free until the end of his time. This constitutes the second consequence of the absurd.
What about morality or emotions? Belief in the meaning of life always implies a set scale of values, choices and preferences. It assumes a predefined distinction of good and evil and merely calls for conformity. In the absurd reasoning no code of ethics and no effort are justifiable a priori. One could argue that we have just created the portrait of a sociopath, an amoral human being, who unchained from the necessities of social albeit indifferent norm is maybe entitled to kill. Does this remind us the Stranger? We have to wait to find out for Camus said in the preface “the Myth of Sisyphus marks the beginning of an idea which I was to pursue in The Rebel. It attempts to resolve the problem of suicide, as The Rebel attempts to resolve that of murder”, while the essay concludes:
All that remains is a fate whose outcome alone is fatal. Outside of that single fatality of death, everything, joy or happiness, is liberty. A world remains of which man is the sole master. What bound him was the illusion of another world. It frolics in myths, but myths with no other depth than that of human suffering and, like it, inexhaustible. Not the divine fable that amuses and blinds, but the terrestrial face, gesture, and drama in which are summed up a difficult wisdom and an ephemeral passion.
This is finally compared with the actual myth of Sisyphus (or of Danaides) . The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor. One though does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness. Both Dostoevsky with Kirilov and Sophocles with Oedipus in their tragic works assert that “all is well”. Likewise the absurd man personified in this last excerpt declares:
At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.
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. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
The machine-shop worker keeps asking me if I am happy whenever we come across within the absurd walls of our routine, now I think I have an appropriate answer.