Sceptical of grand ideas for humanity, we might find it difficult to pursue the path in search for the meaning of life. According to absurdism - popularised and developed by Albert Camus - there is no essence to existence, and there are three ways to face the Absurd of being alive in a ridiculous, irrational universe.
A Short Introduction to Absurdism
The 20th Century was a battleground of ideas. The warped philosophies of Nietzsche and Marx, perverted by Nazi and Soviet authoritarians, turned the world into a war zone, committing humanity’s most wicked crimes in history.
After the Second World War, new movements of thought emerged, and from the ashes of modernism’s hopeful ideology, post-modernity became our predominant mentality – it’s relativism, irony, and scepticism towards every grand, universal meaning spread across the minds of the great minds and intellectuals.
Albert Camus, the author of such novels as The Plague and The Stranger, with his superb essays The Myth of Sisyphus and Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt gave birth to absurdism.
According to this philosophy – to put it in a nutshell – in a meaningless universe it’s up to the individual to find their own meaning, a set of values, a way of life.
Absurdism developed in parallel to existentialism, another major thought movement. What is the difference between the two philosophies?
Absurdism vs Existentialism
Promoted by Jean Paul Sartre in particular – obviously among other contemplators, as the movement is sometimes attached to Kierkegaard – existentialism is based on the premise that existence precedes essence: there is no fundamental essence or meaning of being human, hence how we live our lives, our actions, is what defines us – not nationality, religion, sex, skin colour, culture, and so on.
The meaning of the universe is subjective, created through a combination of our choices and awareness, and not bestowed upon us by a higher entity whatsoever.
The paramount distinction is that, for absurdists, the meaning of life is immaterial in the face of death and thus is rather temporary.
Absurdism lies on the notion that existence is absurd in itself, and if there is an objective and universal premeditated aim of the universe, it’s beyond our comprehension.
Therefore, you can try to find your own meaning, but it’s most likely irrelevant and insignificant to the universe, or the general human struggle as a whole.
So what was Camus’ idea of coming face to face with the absurdity of existence?
Albert Camus and Facing the Absurd
In an irrational universe, according to absurdism, there are three ways to confront the nihilism of life.
The first of them is suicide, which Camus entertains as a possible way out, yet he is nonetheless against the idea in general, for it only embraces the absurd.
The second choice is philosophical suicide – giving up to religious or political doctrines that give us ready-made reasons to live.
Such ideologies are taken for granted, without our questioning their validity, because they give our lives a meaning and let us forget about the absurd – yet they simultaneously stop the individual from further exploration.
To some extent, philosophical suicide could be likened to Sartre’s bad faith – the sole notion that we have to do something, or that we are something essentially – just as capitalism creates bad faith that one has to make money to survive while there are so many other out-of-the-box alternatives we hardly ever entertain.
Thinking that one is intrinsically a Pole, a German, or a Portuguese, while there is no biological hard-wiring to nationality, nation-states themselves but social constructions that oughtn’t to limit us.
Lastly, there’s the option that Albert Camus himself advocates for – becoming the ‘hero of the Absurd’.
As he elaborates in his essays, both The Myth of Sisyphus and Rebel, the best one can do is rebel against the Absurd and try to live a life of meaning in a universe that is meaningless or whose meaning is beyond human comprehension.
What should we understand through that? Using Camus’ example, as he elaborates in his essay, we should imagine Sisyphus happy – a man punished to repeat a futile task for eternity, who accepts the fatal tragedy of his situation, and nonetheless is content with it as his last revolt against those who punished him – be it gods, the universe, or fate.
Camus expanded on the idea of rebellion in Rebel, where he case-studied rebellious spirits and actions from slave uprisings, through Jesus and Nietzsche, to romantics.
Becoming the hero of the Absurd is accepting the inherent capacity in humans to seek meaning in a ridiculous world; not giving up in the face of nihilism but fighting with a fervor yet greater.
Facing the cruel Creator, sometimes with a special affection for pristine nature, and standing up for beloved humanity – deprived as they may be – was a recurring theme across literature, poetry, and philosophy.
Absurdism as a Way of Life
Contemporarily it’s becoming gradually more difficult to find one’s identity – Western and Eastern religions, nationalities of birth and of choice, even political stances may seem unsatisfactory to settle upon.
Especially today, when we’re facing global threats – from the pandemic to global warming – we’re only being instilled in the conviction that human life on Earth is feeble, certainly not eternal, and immaterial on the larger scale – and ironically, in both cases it’s nature that shows us how grandiose our thinking could be.
But, according to Albert Camus and other absurdists, these thoughts and realisations shouldn’t stop us from trying to live our lives – rebelling against the Absurd.
What’s the short answer then? Choose your own values to pursue, create a life of your own, and never stop searching.
From Absurdism to your self-confidence, here’s how you can boost yours:
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