Biography of Albert Camus / Биография Альбера Камю



Major Works: The Stranger (1942), The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), The Plague (1947), The
Rebel (1951)
Major Ideas:

  • Absurdity lies in the opposition between the human need for meaning, on the one
    hand, and the unconcerned and meaningless world, on the other.
  • The presence of the absurd makes the problem of suicide the most fundamental
    philosophical question. The absurd does not dictate death; what gives life its value is
    the consciousness of the absurd together with the revolt that consists in a defiant
    heroism that resists injustice.
  • By rebelling against the absurd conditions that waste life—whether they be social,
    political, or personal—the rebel shows solidarity with other persons and encourages
    the struggle for a more human world.

Although Albert Camus was not fond of being called an existentialist, the writings that made him the 1957 Nobel laureate in literature did much to popularize that philosophical movement. Novelist, playwright, and essayist, Camus was born and educated in Algeria, where he founded a theater group for which he wrote and produced plays. In 1940, he moved to Paris, became active in the French Resistance against the Nazi occupation, and later practiced journalism. He was friendly with Jean-Paul Sartre but the two had a falling out and became philosophical rivals, even though many of their views were similar. Camus was not an academic philosopher. Living in difficult times when life could not be taken for granted, he set aside the technicalities of philosophical theory to appraise life’s meaning. It seemed to Camus that traditional values and ways of life had collapsed. He dramatized that situation in plays and novels such as The Stranger (1942) and The Plague (1947) and reflected on it philosophically in essays that asked, «Does life make sense?» His demise leaves the answer in suspense, for Camus died suddenly. A lover of fast cars, he lost his life in a crash.

The Myth of Sisyphus

With its desire for scientific precision and mathematical clarity, much modern philosophy has tried to do away with mythical forms of expression. Yet few philosophical works in the twentieth century have exerted greater popular appeal than Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). In this work, Camus adapted a theme from ancient tales about Greek gods and heroes. He was especially attracted to Sisyphus, a mortal who challenged fate. Sisyphus would not submit to the authoritarian gods, and the gods retaliated by requiring him throughout eternity to push a huge boulder up a hill only to see it roll down again.

Endless repetitions of this task apparently gained him nothing, but he persisted in his task. We have not progressed fundamentally beyond the mythical condition of Sisyphus, Camus argued. With that theme in mind, Camus begins The Myth of Sisyphus as follows: «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.» Camus did not think that God or religious faith can provide what we need to resolve this problem. His quest, Camus reports in a preface to the Myth written in 1955, is to live «without the aid of eternal values.» He felt that an appeal to God and religion is no longer credible, for in our time «the absurd» has center stage. Absurdity comes to us in a feeling that can strike a person, as Camus said, «at any streetcorner.» One «feels alien, a stranger»-even to oneself. This feeling arises through an encounter between the world and the demands we make as rational beings. Specifically, Camus explained, absurdity arises from the confrontation between «human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.» We ask a thousand «whys?» that lack answers.

We want solutions, but we stir up absurdity, because no sooner does thought assert something than it seems to negate what is affirmed. «The absurd,» wrote Camus, «depends as much on man as on the world.» Thus, when we ask the question of life’s meaning, we realize that our demand for an answer gives rise to the feeling of absurdity as much as any characteristic of the world itself. Nevertheless, even if it cannot be satisfied, the yearning for rational answers should not go away. Its reality makes us the human beings that we are. If human awareness did not exist, the absurd would not exist, either, Camus asserts. But exist it does, and thus the meaning we take for granted can crumble almost before we know it. «It happens that the stage sets collapse,» observed Camus. «Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm—this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.»

The feeling of absurdity, Camus went on to explain, is not «the notion of the absurd.» That feeling comes to us because «the absurd is essentially a divorce.» It is what results when human consciousness and the world collide and separate. Convinced that he could not escape the absurd as long as he lived, Camus insisted that existence implies «a total absence of hope.» He could see nothing that might make it possible for him to transcend the absurd. Death, however, would put an end to it. Hence, suicide is an option. Indeed, since absurdity infests existence so painfully, would it not make sense to say that the absurd invites us to die, even dictates that we should?

Camus’s answer was emphatically «No!» Far from solving any problem, suicide is the ultimate retreat. In fact, it is the unforgivable existential sin: «It is essential to die unreconciled,» insisted Camus, «and not of one’s own free will.» Suicide compounds the negation of meaning by making it impossible to capitalize on the recognition that «the absurd has meaning only insofar as it is not agreed to.» Absurdity will not go away if we say that we refuse to die.

On the contrary, it will remain. But Camus thought we should let it remain in order to defy it. Paradoxically, he even advises that we should make a point of contemplating the absurd, because «life will be lived all the better if it has no meaning.» Defiance of the absurd maximizes life’s intensity in a way that would not be possible if some transcendent God guaranteed life’s significance. Camus contended that there is a logic that makes sense in the face of the absurd. «I want to know,» he wrote, «whether I can live what I know and with that alone. . . . I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it.» Thus, to hope that there is a way beyond the absurd in this life is philosophical suicide. One cannot remain honest if one has succumbed to the temptation offered by that hope.

But at the same time, Camus understood that reason alone will not be enough to persuade us that he is right. Strength of will is required to draw the conclusions Camus wanted from his logic of the absurd. Among other things, we will have to decide what it means that «there is so much stubborn hope in the human heart.» Sisyphus is Camus’s absurd hero. Sisyphus loves life and hates death. His passions have condemned him, but the grandeur of Sisyphus is that he never gives up and is never dishonest. He accepts his fate only to defy it. Thereby he gives meaning to existence, meaning that cannot negate absurdity but refuses to succumb to it. Sisyphus is a creator who makes sense in circumstances that apparently rob human life of significance.

Camus wanted us all to find a way to live like Sisyphus. He spoke at length about how artistic creativity, for example, can move us in that direction, but his point was that each individual must find his or her own way. It is important to note the picture of Sisyphus with which Camus’s Myth ends. Although it would be natural to focus on Sisyphus as he pushes his rock up the hill, Camus asks us to reflect on Sisyphus when he reaches the top. He knows the rock will roll down, and it does. But as Sisyphus heads down to retrieve it, he does not despair.

He surmounts his fate by scorning it, and so, Camus concludes, «we must imagine Sisyphus happy.» Sisyphus sees clearly; he has ceased to hope for release. Yet by giving up hope and facing absurdity squarely, he has created meaning—not only for himself but, by his example, for others as well. Although existence will never satisfy us, life has meaning if we make it so by our determination. The Rebel Camus drew three consequences from the existence of the absurd: «my revolt, my freedom, and my passion.» Decision was his, and his love of life led him to defy the absurd. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus drew those consequences from a reflection on suicide. In its
sequel, The Rebel (1951), Camus expanded on his earlier themes. This time, murder provoked him. The twentieth century was proving that history is a slaughter-bench, drenched with disease, injustice, and especially man-made death. The absurd does not dictate suicide, but, Camus wondered does it legitimize murder? Again Camus answered emphatically «No!» If the absurd implies that everything is permitted, it does not follow that nothing is forbidden.

Building on the insight that the most authentically human response to absurdity is to protest against it, Camus emphasized that such defiance is and should be fundamentally social and communal. Life is fundamentally lived with others. Absurdity enters existence not simply because one’s private needs go unmet, but because so many conditions exist that destroy family and friends, waste our shared experience, and rob human relationships of significance. Hence, far from dictating suicide or legitimating murder, the absurd should lead to rebellion in the name of justice and human solidarity. «I rebel,» wrote Camus, «therefore we exist.»

Here, like Sisyphus, we face an uphill climb, because the rebellion Camus advocated is characterized by moderation. By moderation, Camus did not mean to say that our actions should be hesitant, dispassionate, or weak. But he did not want the rebel to become the revolutionary who so often destroys life under the pretense of saving it. «The logic of the rebel,» asserted Camus, «is to want to serve justice so as not to add to the injustice of the human condition, to insist on plain language so as not to increase the universal falsehood, and to wager, in spite of human misery, for happiness.»

Camus was no pacifist. He knew that at times the logic of the rebel might even require the rebel to kill. But Camus’s true rebel will never say or do anything «to legitimize murder, because rebellion. in principle, is a protest against death.» As if the task of rebellion were not difficult enough, Camus once more reminds us that the rebel can never expect to escape the fate of Sisyphus: «Man can master in himself everything that should be mastered,» he wrote. «He should rectify in creation everything that can be rectified.

And after he has done so, children will still die unjustly even in a perfect society. Even by his greatest effort man can only propose to diminish arithmetically the sufferings of the world.» Perhaps things would have been different if the world had been ours to create, but at least «man is not entirely to blame; it was not he who started history.» On the other hand, Camus added, neither «is he entirely innocent, since he continues it.» The task before us, Camus concluded, is «to learn to live and to die, and, in order to be a man, to refuse to be a god.»