I have now finished two books by Sartre and keep meaning to comment on them but get sidetracked with other interests. Camus has been of special interest to me because it kept hitting me in that uncomfortable place – “Yes, this sounds right. But it doesn’t feel right.” I tend to trust what feels right over what logically makes sense – but I still try to come up with a logical answer as to why. Solomon solved it for me which was a huge relief.
For years I’ve been trying to make sense of the world like Camus did – dropping God but attempting to maintain the metaphysical model. If you drop the hope but maintain the guilt, then there is no recourse but to view man as impotent. Even if you are able to “be happy” within your impotency, it’s still impotency. I think Solomon is right – we’ve gotten used to thinking of ourselves in this way. Even if we engage in a cause, it’s often more about distracting ourselves from our impotency than it is the belief that humanity can change. We aren’t living, we’re surviving. We aren’t at home in our world or with each other and we may very well destroy it and ourselves if we don’t manage to muster some faith in humankind in the world.
Camus was right in so many ways. He really was. The hope for the end of life is every bit as detrimental as the hope for another world because it keeps us focused on the future rather than the present. As bad as it gets, we always have a way out, right? At least we get to die and it’s over (unless we go to heaven or some other metaphysical plane). But of what value is that as far as living goes (even if we do go to heaven or wherever)? It makes sense that he would make Sisyphus immortal. He can’t get out of life through death because he lives forever. He doesn’t have the option to “live for a dying” like we do. He can only live to live. But if he did have the option to kill himself, would alternating between full engagement and revolt be enough to want to continue living? Wouldn’t the full engagement become nothing more than mere distraction at some point? I agree with Lynch – what is absurd is that Sisyphus doesn’t attempt suicide.
I imagine that I’ll be coming back to some of these thoughts I had on Myth of Sisyphus and Camus’s idea of the Absurd. Most were originally comments so thought I’d better put them into a post so I can find them easily and won’t lose them.
These may be a little jumbled and repetitive. I also may no longer agree with some of the points. Although after reading Solomon’s essay – I don’t think I was too far astray. (Unless, of course, I’ve misunderstood Solomon’s essay.)
I’m not so easily accepting the Absurdist view although I do accept the paradox. It seems to me what Camus is saying is that the human condition is a desert and it is from the desert we have to find meaning. So Sisyphus finds meaning while forever pushing a rock up the mountain in a self-congratulatory snubbing of the gods. He can be self-congratulatory because he has managed to accept the drudgery and turmoil and thereby finds happiness within it. (Or something like that.)
ACIM takes a different tact. Yes, the world is meaningless, so whatever meaning it has for us we’ve given it. The point is to accept life on its own terms rather than the way we want it to be. We hold on to beliefs for our future based upon our past experience, but both the past and the future are an illusion. All there is – is now. Any attempt to live in the future or the past is going to lead to anxiety. The world is meaningless in and of itself – we have given it its meaning and it is we who must take responsibility for that meaning.
I like this quote from Victor Frankl:
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. Each man is questioned by life and can only answer to life by answering for his own life, by being responsible. Responsibleness is the essence of human existence.”
I agree that Camus saw value in living life to the fullest and that he saw hope (although I think he’d scorn the term). But it’s the myth that I find problematic. I fail to understand how it proves that suicide is not a valid option. I’m not trying to say that suicide is a valid option, just that I think the myth and all of Camus’ reasoning in the book (which I admit to not always following) doesn’t convince me that it isn’t. I think my fundamental problem with it is that I’m not sure I agree with the idea of Absurdism. I recognize the paradox, I’m just not sure I find it absurd. (Nietzsche was able to recognize the limits of reason without becoming an Absurdist.)
Also, Camus seems to want to create meaning in the middle of what he believes to be drudgery and misery. Sisyphus is doomed to an eternity of drudgery and misery and has to make meaning out of it and can only seem to do so through a self-congratulatory thumbing of his nose at the gods (he scorns the gods/his fate I guess?). I don’t think Nietzsche would have agreed that the human condition is toil and drudgery. I think he would have called Sisyphus’ condition slave morality. The will to power isn’t mastery over others, it’s mastery over oneself and ones own life. While agreeing with Camus that we need a morality that celebrates this life rather than some future life and one that doesn’t seek to avoid suffering, Nietzsche also wants us to appreciate a morality that is born within us rather than imposed upon us. (I think that idea came from Solomon.) I don’t think he’d agree that we have to scorn our condition in order to find meaning in it.
A side note – the reason Nietzsche used the term “will to power” was as a an alternative to Schopenhauer’s “will to life” (self-preservation) which Nietzsche saw as pessimistic. Solomon defines Will to Power as “the enthusiastic vitality to act on the world (rather than reacting to it).”
Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning works much better for me (and talk about finding meaning within drudgery and misery!!). If I were to choose between Logotherapy and Absurdism, I’d definitely choose Logotherapy at this point. (And Existentialism over Absurdism, too.) I read Frankl’s book years ago and need to read it again. It had such a profound affect on me (probably one of the most profound of any book I’ve ever read). What I came away with is the understanding that we always have the ability to choose to be human, even if we are being treated like rats in a concentration camp at Auschwitz. We can choose to share our food with the starving because they are starving rather than take it from them because we are starving. To me, that fits much better with Nietzsche’s “Will to Power” than with the idea of “Will to Life”. It’s not about self-preservation. It’s self-mastery – even in dire circumstances.
I think Tolstoy’s idea of taking a moment to lick the honey from the tree is much more convincing. (Or Frankl’s decision to appreciate the sunset rather than count down whether he would be one of the every nth men to be executed.) But isn’t the willingness to lick the honey from the tree or the decision to appreciate the sunset about creating man-made meaning rather than upholding the absurd as in the Myth of Sisyphus? If you recognize the ability to enjoy what is,what does that have to do with scorning your fate? It’s a choice. Which meaning do we choose to uphold? Fear (of death) or love (of life)?
I agree that life is absurd. I understand that Camus is not saying that human life is absurd and I recognize that realization of the Absurd is only possible through our ability to reflect (and that it is somewhat misleading to think of this in terms of “consciousness”). I recently read Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and both have their own way of presenting a similar concept although their conclusions are slightly different. I think it is true that we have to accept the Absurd. We have to face it. But why maintain it? Why must we “kill” misplaced expectations when we have the ability to transcend them? And is it even possible to “kill” our misplaced expectations? I think the Existentialists would say that it isn’t possible to get rid of them. We’ve already created them and so all that is left to do is overcome them. (Thus, Nietzsche’s constant overcoming). Any attempt to rid ourselves of our expectations, thumb our nose at them, or rebel against them will do more to maintain their authority over us than to allow us to overcome them.
I am in complete agreement with the Existentialists that there is no Absolute, there is no fate, there is no answer to “why we are here”, etc. But to say that “Life is above all” is a sort of Absolute, is it not? Do you see the problem? We’re stuck inside that sort of mindset and have no way out. We can’t go back to the sort of innocence Camus wants us to return to because we are no longer innocent. We asked “why” and that corrupted our relationship to life and destroyed our innocence. It is we who are guilty and it is we who have created the punishment.
If we rebel against the irrational, what exactly is it that we are rebelling against? Doesn’t this, in a sense, require the conclusion that our reasoning abilities are “all there is”? And if so, then doesn’t this prove that we remain stuck in the “Absolute” mindset?
According to Nietzsche, rebellion, in any form, is always based on a slave morality. What Nietzsche proposes is a master morality based on the Will to Power, which simply means we become Masters of ourselves. I don’t think that he would agree that we are slaves to our fate (rational beings in an irrational world?). We always have the ability to transcend our circumstances, but we can’t transcend our circumstances through rebellion. Camus, of course, thinks Nietzsche’s ideas about being able to overcome slavery and suffering are romantic and so dismisses them as “hope”. But I disagree. Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence just means that if we knew we were going to have to live our life over and over and over again, we’d make better choices. We’d be master of our existence rather than a slave to it. Therefore we should live our lives “AS IF” there is Eternal Recurrence. It’s very similar to Sisyphus continually rolling that rock up the mountain, but the difference is that Sisyphus is a slave to his fate.
It’s just a slight shift, maybe. Yes, we have to accept the Absurd. But we don’t have to maintain it because we have the ability to transcend it. This is not about expecting something “better” or “getting rid” of what it is we don’t like about ourselves or about life, it’s simply a shift in perception.
Camus says man-made meanings should never replace absurdism. But in a sense, isn’t absurdism man-made? Does irrationality “exist”? Does rationality “exist”?
Mysticism is a journey into “unknowing” while belief in fate or God is an attempt “to know”. Mysticism is the experience of the transcendence of belief, even if only experienced temporarily. It is not belief in fate or belief in God or even belief in transcendence. I think that is what Dostoevsky was pointing to. It is through love of life (rather than any means to deny it based on a fear of suffering) that we are able to transcend our beliefs about it. This doesn’t require upholding the absurd, merely an acceptance of it. Once fully accepted, it can be transcended. (From Nietzsche’s perspective – constant overcoming.)
Life is most absurd when man acts rationally only because he expects a rational response to his rational behavior. (It could potentially be argued that irrational people don’t expect rational responses and if they do – this is simply further proof of their irrationality.)
It is the expectation for a rational response that creates the Absurd. Without the expectation, it doesn’t exist. The Buddhists would contend that expectation is the source of all suffering and the way to overcome suffering is to let go of expectations, not maintain them. (In other words, by all means, behave rationally. But don’t attach an expected end result to your behavior.)
This is from an article by Julian Young in Blackwell’s Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism (edited by Dreyfus). I think the article starts around p. 523…
Nietzsche remarks the “will to power” is always the will to more power. On one reading, this is the plausible claim that a sense of development, growth, ascending movement, continuing self-overcoming, is essential to a flourishing human life, specifically, that flourishes “in the present”. It is in the light of this remark that we can see, I think, that there is something wrong with the lives of Don Juan, the actor, and the friends of Camus’s youth – given that the later are offered as models, not merely of youth, but of an entire life. The problem with these lives is that they are entirely static and in the end, therefore, boring. The Don learns nothing from his love affairs; no affair is in anyway enriched by its predecessors. And the same is true for the actor – for Toad of Toad Hall or the democratic soul of Plato’s Republic. In short, though Camus is right to insist that life must be lived “in the present”, and right to warn against the kind of obsession with the future that ruins the present, he is wrong to exclude “building” from the life of the absurd here. On the contrary, the right kind of building, I would, with Nietzsche, suggest, is actually essential if such a life is to be a flourishing one. Certainly, to indulge in a momentary ad hominem – Camus himself abandoned Algieria for Paris , became himself “a man of purpose”
Camus’s insufficiently nuanced attitude to “aims” is not, however, the major difficulty in his account of the absurd hero. The major problem is as follows.
What we have seen is that the “happiness” of the absurd hero, is, in fact, overdetermined. On the one hand, we are compelled to “imagine Sisyphus happy because of his awareness of his own “nobility” of soul, his refusal to resign from a life ruined by the lucid awareness of death and with nothing to recommend it other than his own refusal to resign. On the other hand, however, Sisyphus is said to be happy because of his rapturous awareness of the “wondering little voices”, the sensuous joys of the earth, a rapture made possible precisely by lucid knowledge of the nothing. But if that is true, then Sisyphus’s life has, in fact, a great deal to recommend it and there is no possibility of gaining “dignity” through a “dogged revolt” against the resignation demanded of an intolerable situation.
There is, in short, a fundamental contradiction contained in Camus’s description of the absurd hero. Sisyphus cannot both be happy on account of his own noble “perserverance” in the face of a condition that is nothing but “torment” and “anguish” and live a life that is filled with rapture. The absurd here cannot be both in revolt and in rapture.
How should we proceed from here? How should we modify the life of the description of the absurd hero so that this life is an at least possible life? It seems to me clear, that we should abandoned the idea of “revolt”, which, in fact, seems to me to have almost nothing to be said in it’s favor.