According to Albert Camus, the nature of man is fundamentally different from the nature of the world. Man is constituted in such a way that he inherently strives for clarity and meaning in his life; the world, on the other hand, is constituted in such a way that it consistently provides man with little more than irrationality and chaos. This essay is part of this blog series on existentialism created by the custom writing services at Ultius and it will be dedicated to a reflection of Albert Camus.
Existentialism: Part VIII: Albert Camus
Albert Camus is a man who personally rejected the label of existentialist, but who can nevertheless be called one of the bravest and most lucid advocates of the existential ethos in the twentieth century. This essay will have five main parts:
- The first part will consider Camus’s concept of the absurd
- The second part will consider his concept of revolt
- The third part will then proceed to discuss his novel, The Stranger, which is the work through which many college students primarily know the man
- The fourth part will then describe the friendship turned to rivalry that existed between Camus and his fellow contemporary Frenchman Jean-Paul Sartre (to whom a previous post in this series has already been given)
- Finally, the essay will reflect on the question of whether Camus was, despite himself, a fundamentally religious man
The Concept of the absurd
To start with, then, it would be impossible to grasp Camus’s thought without considering his fundamental concept of the absurd. “The absurd” is the name that Camus gives to the nature of the asymmetrical relationship that exists between man on the one hand and the world on the other. In addition to its common meanings including both satire and farce, this is the specific technical meaning that the absurd has within the context of Camus’s worldview.
Absurdism in The Myth of Sisyphus
Camus develops the concept of the absurd most clearly within his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. This is how Camus himself has put the matter within that work:
I said that the world is absurd, but I was too hasty. This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. It binds them one to the other as only hatred can weld two creatures together. (21)
Aside from testifying to the characteristically lyrical lucidity of Camus’s prose style, this passage also makes it very clear that the absurd is first and foremost a relationship; it is the prevailing relationship between man and the world. There is something in man that is not reducible to the world, and there is something in the world that is not compatible with the desires of man. Neither man per se nor the world per se is absurd in and of itself. The absurd, rather, is produced as a result of this confrontation between man and the world, and it persists as long as man remains in a lucid relationship with his world.
The concept of revolt
From the point of the absurd, Camus proceeds to develop the concept of revolt. He does this in a book-length essay known as The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. The essay considers revolt not just in its political aspect but also—and first and foremost—in its metaphysical aspect: that is, Camus speaks of revolt as man’s fundamental reaction to the intolerable nature of his own absurd condition. As Camus writes in The Rebel:
What is a rebel? A man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. He is also a man who says yes, from the moment he makes his first gesture of rebellion. A slave who has taken orders all his life suddenly decides that he cannot obey some new command (13)
Camus suggests that revolt is the logical reaction to the confrontation of the absurd. Moreover, insofar as all people share this confrontation, this metaphysical revolt against the absurd can be posited as the foundation of any and all real human solidarity.
Inconsistencies within Camus’ thought
Now, there are a couple logical issues with Camus’s line of thought in this regard. As Iyer has put the matter:
“Neither the primary affirmation of the absurd as a value, nor the subsequent deduction of solidarity from this premise, emerges out of any strict dialectical necessity” (27).
In other words, the conceptual development of Camus’s world picture, through which the concept of revolt emerges out of the concept of the absurd and that revolt itself then becomes the foundation of all human values, would seem to be missing a couple logical links, at the strictly philosophical level. Camus himself, though, always called himself simply a writer and not a philosopher per se (see Todd). And when one actually reads The Rebel, the quality of the writing itself is enough to take one’s breath away and leave one deeply inspired. It is only in retrospect that one comes to suspect that there is a certain element within the work that remains unspoken of.
The Stranger: An analysis
The Stranger was Camus’s first novel, and it is probably also most readers’ first introduction to the man’s works. This book opens with the following famous line and is the tone with which the narrator, Mersault, speaks of the passing of his own mother; and it gives a good indication of the way in which he tends to experience his own life in a deeply alienated way:
“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know” (3).
In general, Mersault does not have the social or emotional reactions to events that one would expect an ordinary human being to have. This is why Camus designated him with the title of “the stranger:” Mersault would seem to engage with the human condition itself as if he were in some way an outsider to it. In particular, while it is easy to understand the point that Camus is trying to make regarding the artificiality of the social world, the reader cannot help but wonder whether Mersault himself is beyond normality or just in some way sub-normal.
In truth, Camus’The Stranger is a somewhat overrated work of literature, especially relative to the other marvels that one can find within Camus’s oeuvre as a whole. That is, the reader wonders whether Mersault has transcended ordinary social reality, or whether he is just something of an idiot who is incapable of comprehending ordinary social reality. Nevertheless, the archetype of the stranger still contains the seeds of many of the themes that would come to characterize Camus’s mature philosophical thought. In particular, there is a scene near the end of the novel where Mersault, when face to face with his own execution for murder, has an outburst of subjective existential passion that is more or less uncharacteristic of him. Camus would suggest that this is exactly the kind of passion that one begins to feel when one comes to grips with the fundamental absurdity of the human condition.
Camus and Sartre
For some time, Camus was friends with Jean-Paul Sartre, a key existential philosopher who was discussed earlier in the present series of essays. However, their friendship fundamentally and irreparably fractured after Camus’s publication of The Rebel. This was primarily because Sartre was a committed Marxist and as such, he was a staunch proponent of the Communism that came to prevail within the Soviet Union, even to the point of initially denying the evidence regarding the existence of gulags and prison camps within that nation (see Aron). Camus, on the other hand, had no such ideological inclinations. If anything, the ethos of The Rebel is fundamentally anarchistic in nature: it deals with the fundamental problem of human freedom, and Camus takes aim at any and all societies that concretely produce the oppression of real human beings—including the Communist Soviet Union of his day.
Camus’ strive to be unique in his thought
It would seem that Camus rejected the label of “existentialist” for himself primarily due to the fact that that name was already taken by Sartre, and Camus wanted to make it clear that his own line of thought had little to do with Sartrean existentialism. The irony, though, would be that in terms of general ethos and attitude, Camus’s outlook is fundamentally more existential than Sartre’s vision of the world. For instance, Camus opens his work, The Myth of Sisyphus, with the following explosive statement:
“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 problem of philosophy” (3).
This immediacy of concern, as well as the directness and lucidity with which it is expressed, characterizes virtually all of Camus’s thought and work; and it is worlds away from the abstract speculations and convoluted sentences that characterize much of Sartre’s own formal philosophy.
Camus as a religious man?
Camus himself never considered himself to be a religious man. In The Myth of Sisyphus, for example, Camus explicitly differentiates himself from Kierkegaard and the “leap of faith” advocated for by the latter:
Between the irrationality of the world and the insurgent nostalgia of the absurd, he [Kierkegaard] does not maintain the equilibrium. He does respect the relationship that constitutes, properly speaking, the feeling of absurdity. Sure of being unable to escape the irrational, he wants at least to save himself from that desperate nostalgia. (38)
Camus essentially suggests that unlike Kierkegaard, he would rather stay lucidly aware of the existential disjunction caused by the absurd than take a leap of faith into the arms of the irrational. In this sense, Camus is explicitly opposed to a religious solution to the problem of the human condition.
Forming his own faith
On the other hand, however, the case could very much be made that Camus does respond to the absurd by developing his own tough faith—especially with the concept of the absurd as articulated in The Rebel. As Sire has written:
“What attracts all morally sensitive readers to Camus’s philosophy is its honesty . . . Without believing in anything ‘transcendent,’ he calls us to ‘transcend’ nihilism by our actions, to make meaning where there is no meaning” (paragraph 7).
This is the truly astonishing feature of Camus’s philosophy, and it points toward the way in which Camus fundamentally transcends some of his own basic premises.
Essentially, Camus believed not just in the lucidity inherent within man, but also in the creativity inherent in man: the creativity that can allow for exactly the kind of moral action that can overcome the temptations of nihilism at the pragmatic (if not theoretical) level. It would be fair to call this impulse and vision fundamentally religious in nature. Camus himself would have perhaps expressed disdain for such a qualification. Despite secular views, it would be fair to conclude that Camus was in fact a religious man, in the best and non-sectarian sense of the word. He had faith, and he made that faith real within his own existence.
Aron, Raymond. Marxism and the Existentialists. New York: HarperCollins, 1969. Print.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage. 1991. Print.
Camus, Albert. The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. New York: Vintage, 1992. Print.
Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Trans. Martin Ward. New York: Vintage, 1989. Print.
Kierkegaard, Søren. The Essential Kierkegaard. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton U P, 2000. Print.
Iyer, Sethu A. Testament: An Invitation to Lucid Romance. Austin: CreateSpace, 2016. Print.
Sire, James W. “Camus the Christian?” Christianity Today. 23 Oct. 2000. Web. 21 Apr. 2016. .
Todd, Olivier. Albert Camus: A Life. New York: Da Capo Press, 2000. Print.