Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a French writer and existentialist philosopher. He was born in Algeria, then a colony of France, which gave him a unique perspective on life as an outsider. Camus is widely acknowledged as the greatest of the philosophers of ‘the absurd’. His idea is simple: Human beings are caught in a constant attempt to derive meaning from a meaningless world. This is the ‘paradox of the absurd’.
Camus’ novels The Outsider (1942), The Plague (1947), and The Fall (1956) are classics of existentialist fiction. His philosophical writings The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) and The Rebel (1951) are profound statements of position. Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. Unlike fellow existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre, he accepted it.
It is instructive to consider the differences between Sartre and Camus. The men were friends in the war years. Together, they edited the political journal Combat. But Sartre and Camus fell out on account of their views on Stalin and communism. In the 1950s, Sartre threw his support behind Stalin’s vision of the global communist struggle. Camus was unimpressed by the “ends justify the means” mentality of the communist revolutionaries, and would have no truck with Stalin’s mass production of a perfected humanity. In The Rebel, he made his criticisms plain. Sartre responded in anger and ended their friendship.
The break-up was a long time coming. Philosophically, Camus differed with Sartre on key issues including the definition of existential authenticity. Sartre argued that authenticity involves making a fundamental choice about how to live – as a philosopher, writer, communist, whatever. The caveat is that we acknowledge that this is only a choice, and there are other choices we can make in life. Camus argued for what is ultimately, I think, a more uncompromising position: that existential authenticity demands that we admit to ourselves that our plans and projects are for the most part hopeless and in vain – and struggle on regardless. This, for Camus, is existential revolt – to affirm the absurdity of life and continue.
‘Revolt … is a constant confrontation between man and his own obscurity … [It] is certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation which out to accompany it’.
‘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’.
Struggle to get out of bed in the morning? Imagine being Sisyphus. Sisyphus is forced each day to roll a boulder to the top of a mountain to watch it roll down again. This is the human condition, Camus says. A backbreaking labour without purpose, payoff, or end. Then you die.
Yet Camus affirms Sisyphus as the absurd hero.
What makes Sisyphus heroic? Sisyphus endures his fate. But what makes him heroic is not just that he suffers his fate, it is because he is ‘superior’ to it. Sisyphus does not weep and lament his state and condition. Out of scorn for the gods who condemned him to this fate, he affirms his labor, and concludes that all is well. Fixing his eye on the stone at the bottom of the hill, he trudges down the slope to retrieve it. Camus ends: ‘One must imagine that Sisyphus is happy’.
To affirm the absurdity of existence and continue: this is revolt. Camus reflects:
‘It may be thought that suicide follows revolt – but wrongly. … [R]evolt gives value to life. … To a man devoid of blinders, there is no finer sight than that of the intelligence at grips with a reality that transcends it’ (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus).