Life for many people is clearly not worth living,examples range from
the elderly person wishing for euthanasia to the AIDS infected children of
Romania.The situation of many alive today was mirrored by the situation
founded by many in post-war Europe,where men ended up in a desolate landscape
- where God is not only dead but buried.Men werre without hope that a better
world would result from their efforts.The additional responsibility of
forming a new society was neither wanted nor chosen- so the question 'why is
life worth living - why not end it?' assumes a most important status.
A.Camus captured this mood in his essay 'The myth of Sisyphus'.Here [F1]
Sisyphus was condemned (as perhaps we all are) to do an useless and absurd
task for all eternity(viz.rolling a stone up a mountain,at the summit the
stone rolls back down,Sisyphus must roll it back up ad finitum).Sisyphus,like
most of us(including I suspect politicians) will not make the world a better
place nor will he make himself happy or even self-fulfilled.Camus suggests
that this mirrors the human condition - it is pointless,absurd and cannot
be justified in either religious or humanist terms.Camus suggestion as to
why life is worth living is that it is in the recognition and willed
acceptance of his absurd fate that this is itself transcended.
I have mentioned the absurd - Camus has an interesting distinction to make
[F2],that between feeling of the absurd and the notion of the absurd.
The feeling of the absurd arises in many ways,the indifference of nature to
human life(eg.Armenian earth-quake),the realisation of death,the pointlessness
of daily life and its monotonous routine-all of which reveal the iuselessness
of daily life.This feeling of the absurd is different to the notion of the
absurd although it is its foundation - the conviction of the absurd belongs
to the sphere of clear consciousness,which is essential to the very
existence of the absurd.The absurd does not exist in the human mind alone,
nor alone in the extra-mental world but in their presence to one another-
destroy one of these terms and the absurd is destroyed.The absurd ends with
death.The absurd cannot exist apart from man,it is through him it originates-
the world is simply irrational.One can say that to Camus,the world and human
life appear to be absurd once therir irrational and meaningless char acter is
To say, as Camus does[F3],that suicide is the only really serious
philosophical problem,is I feel,certainly on the face of it an rather odd
conception of the subject.However the pressuppostion upon which this
assertion is based is not as odd-man desperately seeks meaning both in the
world and in life and history which would form a basisi for his ideas and
values.He needs reassurance that his life is part of a process which is
directed to an ideal goal.The great religious and metaphysical systems of the
world have tried to supply this need,these however cannot stand up to
criticism(result of a lack of faith or verificationism).The end result is
that the world is revealed without meaning.The world simply is.Some
philosophers understand the absurd,but pursue a policy of escapicism eg.
K.Jaspers[F4] leaps from human belongings to the transcendental.The man who
is able to look the absurdity of human existence in the face,who sees the
meaning of life disappear is still faced by the question of suicide.Camus
believes[F5] that suicide is not an adequate response to the feeling of the
absurd.Suicide supresses one of the two poles which produce the absurd i.e.
the human being,the other being the world.Suicide is an admission of
incapacity and this is incosistent with human pride,to which Camus openly
appeals.According to Nagel[F6],arguments for absurdity insist that the
reasons which are available within life are incomplete,from this it is
suggested that all reasons which come to an end are incomplete- which makes it
impossible to give any reasons at all.Life is not a series of actions,which
each action having its purpose revealed by a later member of the sequence.
Their points of justification will come repeatably to an end withing a person's
life.The process on a broader universal scale has no bearing on the finality
of thses end points.There is no need for a larger context to prevent these
acts from being pointless,justifications have to come to an end somewhere.
If there is to be a philosophical sense of the absurd,it has to arise from
something which is universally perceived.This condition is supplied between
the different viewpoints viz.the seriousness with which we regard our lives
and the perceptual possiblity of regarding everything which we are serious as
arbitrary.Absurdity results when the two viewpoints collide.It is absurd as
we deliberately choose to ignore all the doubts which cannot be settled,we
take our lives seriously despite the absurd.Nagel despite asserting that
arguments usually used for absurdity are inadequate,does believe that such
reasons are trying to express something which is diffficult to state but is
fundamentally correct.Nagel[F7] does require defence on two counts,he has to
show that seriousness is unavoidable,and that doubt is inescapable.Despite
our aims,no matter how humble,in life we take ourselves and other people
seriously and devote most of our energy and time to the pursuit of our lives.
Because we are human we have the capacity to take a step back and reflect on
this process,it is the result of self-consciousness.We have the capacity to
step back and survey ourselves with the capacity for detachment with which we
can watch the struggle of an ant.
The crucial backward step is not taken by looking for another justification
and failing to get it,as we have already seen justifications come to an end
somewhere.Our absurdity lies not in the external view which can be taken of
us,but in that we ourselves can take such a view without the extinction of
being the person we are viewing.A person could attempt to escape from this
position by seeking aims nroad enough to make this stepping back impossible
(e.g. service to state,religion,even to the revolution)- the idea behind
this is that absurdity resluts when what we take seriously is small,
insignificant and individual.One problem with this is that the larger role
must be itself significant,in order for significant be conferred,and this
larger role can be doubted in the same way as the life of the individual.
It would seem that once this fundamental doubt has been started,it cannot
Nagel[F8] is critical of Camus in that the world might satisfy Camus's
quest dor meaning if it was in some way different,unfortunately this is
impossible.Doubt would occur in any conceivable world which contains things
capable of self-consciousness,consequently the absurd arises in opposition
to Camus from a collision of viewpoints within ourselves.
An objection to Nagel[F9] would be that his viewpoint does not exist,this is
however to misconceive the nature of the backward step.Its purpose is not to
give us an understanding of what is really significant,thus revealing the
absurdity of our lives.Normally we judge a situation to be absurd when we
are conscious of some standards of seriousness with which the absurd can be
contrasted.This contrast is not implied by philosophical judgement ,as such
judgement is dependent on another contrast which makes it a natural extension
from more ordinary cases.
Nagel[F10] then contrasts the absurd with epistemological skepticism. There
are four parallels between the two,first the final doubt is not contrasted
with any unchallenged certainties;our limitations is combined with a capacity
to transcend those limitations in thought,both can be reached via initial
doubts raised within systems of evidence and justification;both influence
the attitude to our beliefs,they change in that they are now coloured with
irony(this colouration offers no escape from the absurd).
Something more basic the reason and action sustains us- we continue to live
our lives when we have no reasons.If we relied entirely on reason our lives
and beliefs would collapse.When we take the backward step as we become the
ineffectual spectators of ouw own lives-ineffectual as we continue to live
them just as before,we devote ourselves to that we view as an curiosity.
This explains why the sense of absurdity finds its natural expression in the
bad arguments used by Camus and others.They act as an metaphorial expression
of the backward step.By taking this step we illustrate the capacity to see
ourselves without presuppositions,as arbitrary,one of the countless forms of
life.Only humans have the capacity for the sense of absurdity,as only man as
the capacity of self-conscious.
Is it possible to avoid a sense of absurdity by trying to avoid the backward
step? There are four alternatives[F11]. First one would have to avoid any of
the self consciousness involved(as we cannot consciously refuse to do that,
he would be aware of the position we were refusing to adopt) by neither
attaining it or forgetting it,both of which are impossible by will power.
Second,the other component of the absurd can be destroyed by renouncing ones
earthly life in order to identify as closely as possible with the universal
viewpoint(this is the aim of the atheistic buddhist religion).If you are
successful your superior awareness will not have to be carried though the
grind of mundane life -absurdity will be diminished.This result is often
the result of many years exertion of will power,which means that you must take
yourself seriously,the danger here is that you might undermine the aim of
unworldliness by pursuing it to vigourously.
Third,one could allow ones animal nature to drift,only responsive to impulse,
without making the pursuit of its needs a central conscious aim.Here at a
considerable disassocative cost less absurdity in life might result,although
such a life would be meaningless.Here a transcendental awareness is not
needed(this is the main condition of absurdity - the forcing of a
unconvinced transcendental consciousness into the service of a very limited
enterprise viz.human life).
Lastly, there is suicide.Camus approaches the absurd as some sort of problem
which is waiting for a solution which must be found.Camus rejects suicide
and urges defiance as a solution,although this does not reduce absurdity
it does lent it a certain nobility.Nagel believes that this response is both
romantic(in a derogative sense) and slightly self-pitying.It is an over
reaction as absurdity warrants neither as much lamination nor defiance as
The sense of the absurd need not be a matter for all this emotion unless we
make it so.A dramatic attempt of defiance betrays a failure to understand
the cosmic unimportance of the situation.If there is no reason to believe
that anything matters then absurdity itself does no matter,our approach
to our absurd life is one of irony not despair.
In this essay I have tried to show how two differing conceptions of the
absurd arises and how one can react differently.On the whole,I agree with
Nagel,however I feel one's reaction to the absurd will differ with one's
mood and circumstances and thus there should be room for defiance.
* Footnotes *
[F1] Page 107-111 in The Myth of Sisyphus (penguin,London 1955)
[F2] Page 32,op.cit.
[F3] Page 11,op.cit.
[F4] Page 516, The Philosophy of K.Jaspers(LOLP,Tudor press,N.Y.)
[F5] Page 53-55 Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus
[F6] Page 12,in Mortal Questions(Cambridge Universirty Press,Cambridge 1979)
[F7] Page 14, Nagel op.cit.
[F8] Page 17,op.cit.
[F9] Page 17,op.cit.
[F10] Page 18,op.cit.
[F11] Page 21,op.cit.
N.B. There is no bibliography.
© Ian Jordan (1990)
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