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Albert Camus

David Cowles

Jun 1, 2023

“Either death is ultimately subjected to something greater and more general than itself (Being) or death ultimately subjects everything to itself and then nothing else has any meaning or value.”

Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) may rightly be called the philosopher of the Absurd. In his essays, stories and plays, he mercilessly confronts the world on its own terms and finds that he cannot reconcile his human urge to unify and explain all experience with the world’s incurable plurality and lack of coherence. He finds this situation ‘absurd’!

Confronting Absurdity, one has, according to Camus, three options: commit physical suicide, commit philosophical suicide or accept the absurd and live the absurd life to the fullest. So Camus begins his master philosophical reflection (1942), The Myth of Sisyphus: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” (All quotes in this essay are from The Myth of Sisyphus, unless otherwise noted.)

If living in this world is incurably absurd, why do it? Why go on? Why not just end it as quickly and as painlessly as possible? “Does the Absurd dictate death?”

Ultimately, Camus rejects the option of physical suicide. Like ‘philosophical suicide’ (below), it negates the Absurd; it amounts to running away from what’s real.

Camus claims no priority on the recognition of the Absurd. Throughout his essay he acknowledges other philosophers and writers who have confronted the Absurd: Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers, Chestov, Husserl, Sartre and Dostoevsky, et al. “… All started out from that indescribable universe where contradiction, antimony, anguish or impotence reigns.”

But Camus gently accuses all of them of committing ‘philosophical suicide,’ of “hoping in spite of everything.” To paint with an overly broad brush, Camus suggests that each of these men uses the terror of the Absurd to ‘prove,’ in the end, that there must be some order, some purpose, some meaning capable of overcoming that terror.

Camus’ uniqueness rests on his unwillingness to seek relief in some species of phony faith or false hope – relief from the terrifying conclusions forced on us by the Absurd. “A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future.”

What makes Camus’ brand of nihilism particularly heroic is his willingness to maintain his position while freely acknowledging that he does not know whether he is right or wrong. As we will see later, radical skepticism is closely related to nihilism and so precludes any philosophical certainties:

“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. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms.”

Both Camus and Sartre admit that it is possible that God exists but, unlike Pascal (below), they attach no importance to the matter: “Hence, what he (the absurd man) demands of himself is to live solely with what he knows…and to bring in nothing that is not certain. He is told that nothing is. But this at least is a certainty.”

Camus offers a concise exposition of the Existentialist’s dilemma: “Of whom and of what indeed can I say: ‘I know that!’ This heart within me, I can feel, and I judge that it exists… I can sketch all the aspects it is able to assume…but aspects cannot be added up…”

“Between the certainty I have of my existence and the content I try to give to that assurance, the gap will never be filled. Forever I shall be a stranger to myself.” In other words, my existence will always surpass my essence: “This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction…”

Camus may justly be called the philosopher of the Absurd, but 300 years earlier another Frenchman, Blaise Pascal, focused on a similar problem in his Pensees:

“We do not require great education of mind to understand that here there is no real and lasting satisfaction; that our pleasures are only vanity; that our evils are infinite; and, lastly, that death which threatens us every moment…there is nothing more real than this, nothing more terrible… For it is not to be doubted that the duration of this life is but a moment; that the state of death is eternal… When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after… I am frightened…” So am I.

Faced with an analysis of the human condition similar to Camus,’ Pascal came to a very different conclusion, known as Pascal’s Wager. From a common starting point, Pascal and Camus end up diametrically opposed. Camus’ absurd man “has ceased to belong to the future” while for Pascal, there is no good other than the future. 

Of course, Camus and Sartre would both accuse Pascal of ‘bad faith,’ of ‘philosophical suicide’…but I’m not sure Pascal would care.

We are trained to think that all action has a motivation, a purpose, a goal; we are told from our earliest childhood that actions have consequences. But if this is not true, if there is no future, no transcendent meaning, no objective values, no hope, then how does one go about living one’s life? If we reject physical suicide and refuse philosophical suicide (hope), then what options are open to us?

“No code of ethics and no effort are justifiable a priori in the face of the cruel mathematics that command our condition…All systems of morality are based on the idea that an action has consequences that legitimize it or cancel it. The absurd enlightens me on this point: there is no future.” 

Contrast Camus’ concept of freedom with that of Pope Leo XIII. Leo, of course, believed in transcendent values, in objective Truth and Justice. Therefore, for Leo, the only real freedom is the freedom to do what is right and profess what is true. To do otherwise is to be enslaved (e.g., by evil) for who would voluntarily profess something she knew to be false or do something she knew to be wrong? For Leo, such a person would be living in ‘bad faith.’

By contrast, Camus’ freedom is unfettered by such concepts as transcendence and objectivity. Camus’ heroes are free to create ex nihilo. In that sense, they are gods:

“It was previously a question of finding out whether life had to have a meaning to be lived. It now becomes clear, on the contrary, that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning…That idea that ‘I am,’ my way of acting as if everything has a meaning…all that is given the lie…by the absurdity of a possible death…Death is there as the only reality.”

Contrast to St. Paul: In the end, even death is subjected to Christ and Christ to God. For Camus, death subjects everything to itself; that is the essence of the Absurd. Everything hangs on this point! 

Paul and Camus would agree that death and meaning are utterly incompatible! In fact, they constitute the archetypical incompatibility. Either death is ultimately subjected to something greater and more general than itself (Being) or death ultimately subjects everything to itself and then nothing else has any meaning or value. This is the fundamental divide underlying all human speculation. Camus:

  • “Before encountering the absurd, the everyday man lives with aims, a concern for the future…He still thinks that something in life can be directed. In truth, he acts as if he were free…”

  • “Belief in the meaning of life always implies a scale of values, a choice, our preferences. Belief in the absurd, according to our definitions, teaches the contrary…In an absurd world, there can be no scale of values, no value-driven choices or value-based preferences. Choices, actions, cannot be justified by anything outside themselves.” 

  • “Yes, man is his own end. And he is his only end.”

So with no objective values and no concern for the future, we are left to live life entirely as we wish. Of course, that does not mean that we must behave as libertines. Each of us is free to fashion a code of ethics, a NFT, for herself. But we must not imagine that these private codes have any objective justification or that they constitute a ‘categorical imperative’ or that they are in any way binding on others…or even on one’s self.

That said, Camus devotes most of the rest of his essay to sketching styles of life that might be consistent with living out the implications of the Absurd. Up to this point, I have had little argument with Camus; from here on, however, I think he gets himself into some serious trouble. As we will see, Camus begins to slip objective values into his system, albeit through the back door; for example:

“I cannot conceive that a skeptical metaphysics can be joined to an ethics of renunciation… I must say that what counts is not the best living but the most living…value judgments are discarded…A man’s rule of conduct and his scale of values have no meaning except through the quantity and variety of experiences he has been in a position to accumulate…For on the one hand, the absurd teaches that all experiences are unimportant, and on the other it urges toward the greatest quantity of experiences.”

First, Camus dismisses the possibility that asceticism and the absurd could be compatible. This seems strange. If there is no objective value in the world, why mightn’t someone renounce that world (short of suicide), relish his solitude, and focus on his ‘inner self’? Practitioners of Taoism and Zen, well acquainted with the Absurd, often follow this practice.

Even more disturbingly, Camus substitutes ‘quantity’ of experience for the forbidden ‘quality.’ But isn’t quantity itself a kind of quality? You might successfully invoke mathematics to argue that quantity is essentially different from quality, but if, as Camus asserts, more of some things is better than less, doesn’t quantity then become a value?

One recalls a particularly crass expression from the 1980s: “Whoever dies with the most toys wins,” as well as Gatsby’s famous exclamation in the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel: “Living well is the best revenge.” Perhaps not our finest values…but values nonetheless!

Camus further explains that the quantity of our experience replaces any consideration of quality…but only so far as we are conscious of those experiences: “For the mistake is thinking that that quantity of experiences depends on the circumstances of our lives…To two men living the same number of years, the world always provides the same sum of experiences. It is up to us to be conscious of them…A sub-clerk in the post office is the equal of a conqueror if consciousness is common to them. All experiences are indifferent in this regard.”

Now another value term has been introduced: consciousness! Not the abstract phenomenon of consciousness but the act of being conscious of a particular experience. Conscious experience is certainly different, qualitatively, from unconscious experience. But is this not precisely the goal of Taoists, Zen Buddhists, and cloistered monastic orders? Is it not the case that many have renounced the world precisely in order to become more conscious?

So now we have two new values: quantity of experience and conscious awareness of that experience: “…To the absurd man, a premature death is irreparable. Nothing can make up for the sum of the faces and centuries he would otherwise have traversed.”

Where is this sum? (Earlier, Camus referred to experiences as ‘accumulated.’) What suggests to Camus that experience can be totalized in this way? And what about the zero term in the equation? (I mean, of course, death.) Doesn’t death automatically multiply all the terms in any equation by itself, i.e., by zero?

Death is not an experience that you ‘add’ to other experiences. In fact, death is not an experience at all. Death is the absence of experience and, even more viciously, the negation of all experience: “…There is no experience of death…it is barely possible to speak of the experience of others’ deaths…and it never quite convinces us.”

So how are we to live in an absurd world? Camus details several options, but he makes it clear that this does not constitute an exhaustive catalog of possibilities.

First, Don Juan. “Don Juan” is a collector of experiences. He seeks a long, varied and intense life: “Don Juan has chosen to be nothing,” i.e., to lose himself in himself. In fact, as we shall see, all of Camus’ absurd heroes choose to be nothing. This seems odd. What is choosing to be nothing but suicide…or at least renunciation, two lifestyle choices rejected by Camus (above)?

Second, the Actor: “The actor has three hours to be Iago…Never has the absurd been so well illustrated…There is no frontier between being and appearing… In those three hours, he travels the whole course of the dead-end path that the man in the audience takes a lifetime to cover.”

Third, the Conqueror. This is the man of action, but Camus acknowledges that the project of the conqueror is ultimately futile: “Nothing of the conqueror lasts, not even his doctrines.” (Ozymandias?)

As Camus has repeatedly pointed out throughout The Myth of Sisyphus, death is inconsistent with objective values. If death is the final reality, then values are meaningless. On the other hand, if meaningful values are a reality, then death is the odd man out.

Camus suggests that death is not merely the absence of value but the ‘exaltation of injustice.’ Of course, it is! But this observation from Camus’ pen is vital because injustice implies justice. By acknowledging injustice, Camus has once again let the camel’s nose of objective value into the tent of the Absurd. And what is ‘beloved justice,’ after all, if not a transcendent value that gives meaning to existence? 

Finally, Camus turns to art and the creative artist. He proposes an ‘absurd aesthetic’:

“Absurd work requires…an art in which the concrete signifies nothing more than itself… The absurd creator…must give the void its colors.”

Camus is to be praised for his analysis of the Absurd. His description of the human condition takes a back seat to no one’s. Yet his project, in the end, fails. Try as he might, he cannot escape the need to let valuation and gradation into his scheme. 

This raises a question: Is it possible to talk about the world in any non-trivial way without making reference to value? And if not, does that mean that values are indeed real or is it merely an invitation to total silence?

In the course of our lives, we are confronted with facts we think we know, people we think we meet and judgments we think we make. From these nearly universal experiences, three great philosophical questions organically arise: What is the nature of ‘knowledge’? What is the nature of ‘the other’? What is the nature of ‘value’? These questions form the basis of Philosophy’s Big Three: epistemology, ontology and ethics/aesthetics. They also give rise to the three great ‘null hypotheses’: skepticism, solipsism, nihilism.

These null hypotheses can neither be defended nor disproven logically. Skepticism can only be thought of in contrast to knowledge, solipsism in contrast to ‘the other,’ and nihilism in contrast to value. Each assumes, at least provisionally, the existence of the very thing it ultimately comes to deny.

Further, if the null hypotheses do hold, then the questions they purport to answer have no meaning: the nature of ‘knowledge’ implies at least the possibility of knowing; the nature of ‘the other’ implies the existence of another; the nature of ‘value’ implies real values. 

Camus understands that these questions are related, and in each case his philosophy of L’Absurde incorporates the null hypothesis: “The method defined here acknowledges the feeling that all true knowledge is impossible. Solely appearances can be enumerated…In one of its aspects, eternal nothingness is made up precisely of the sum of lives to come, which will not be ours…In an absurd world, there can be no scale of values, no value-driven choices or value-based preferences.”

St. Paul also understood the fundamental and interconnected nature of these questions. In his famous meditation on love in his First Letter to the Corinthians, he wrote:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests…but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. If there are prophesies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing…At present, I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope and love remain, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” (I Cor. 13: 4 – 13)

Paul’s mediation on love is a passionate affirmation of the world. It belongs alongside two other great affirmations, Mary’s in the Gospel of Luke and Molly Bloom’s in Joyce’s Ulysses:

“…But the greatest of these is love.” How so? Love involves reciprocity, even ‘co-penetration,’ between self and other. It is through that co-penetration that I am known by the other (faith) and that I know the other (hope). The experience of love proves the reality, the truth, of faith and hope.

So we applaud Camus for his penetrating analysis of the human condition and for his refusal to escape the lived reality of that experience by suicide, physical or philosophical. However, we find Camus’ prescriptions for living the absurd severely lacking. At the end of the day, they simply constitute another value system among value systems and, frankly, not a particularly attractive one at that.

In Blaise Pascal, we encounter a more rigorously logical response to L’Absurde; but in St. Paul, we encounter a convincing refutation of Absurdism. According to Paul, the reality of love, something we should be able to experience according to Camus’s epistemology, undermines skepticism, solipsism and nihilism. Love (‘the other’) proves the reality of Truth (knowledge/faith) and Right (value/hope). Therefore, death is undone! Absurdity is overcome…according to Paul…not Albert.


Image: Portrait from New York World-Telegram and Sun Photograph Collection, 1957.


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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