Each Person Determines His or Her Life's Meaning
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 10 - The Meaning of Life
Albert Camus, from The Myth of Sisyphus
Kem Stone - 5 August 2008
It has been almost exactly one year since I began the undertaking of writing an exposition and reflection on every
text in Classic Philosophical Questions, and I can not think of a more appropriate text to conclude with than this
excerpt from Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus. I have already written extensively on Camus, as his writings were the
subject of my college thesis, and they remain the single greatest influence on my own personal outlook on life. It
was a pleasure to return to the most influential of all these texts after a year of in-depth study of other
philosophical issues and positions, and to see it with a new pair of eyes. Camus never considered himself a
philosopher, only a writer who deals with philosophical issues, and this text certainly reads more like a poetic
reflection on life’s absurdity than a strict philosophical examination of the problem. Yet the approach that Camus
takes to the issue is more brilliant than many of most meticulously constructed philosophical arguments that exist.
His framing of the problem of the absurd, his unwillingness to turn away from the problem by taking any leaps of
faith, and his championing of living in unflinching recognition of the absurd as one of the greatest virtues possible
for human beings, are points that I not only agree with, but that I live by. I will venture into a detailed exposition
of the sections of the Myth of Sisyphus that are included in this anthology, and conclude explaining why I have
adopted Camus’ positions in my own life and why I believe they are so valuable.
Camus begins with one of the most striking and oft-quoted claims in philosophical literature: “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 question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions,
whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards” (605). Such a statement may strike some as
blatantly false, and others as incontrovertibly true. Those who object do so on philosophical grounds, such as by
claiming that the epistemological question of whether or not we can know that life is worth living is more primary.
Yet such points are merely academic, as the question of whether life has any intrinsic value must be, in my opinion,
the most important question that any person can ask. Should I live? To me this seems far more important than
any question of metaphysics, epistemology, or ethics, as if the answer is negative all other issues cease to matter.
Camus supports this claim by noting that nobody has ever died for the ontological argument. Galileo abjured his
claim that the earth revolves around the sun rather than be burned at the stake because this was not a point worth
dying for. Many, however, have died because of ideas or illusions that provide a reason for living, and thus the
question of whether any reason exists can be considered the most urgent of all questions.
In most academic literature, suicide is treated as a social phenomenon, but Camus’ focus is on the relationship
between suicide and individual thought. The act of suicide, he writes, is always prepared in the silence of a man’
s heart, even though he may not be aware of it. It is difficult to discern the precise instant that this impulse comes
to the forefront of the mind and the man makes the confession in his heart that life is too much or that it can not be
understood. But it is far less difficult to see what it is that drives a man to this confession, and here Camus
introduces the idea of the absurd. “A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But,
on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is
without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce
between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity” (606). Camus intends to
determine whether and to what degree suicide is a solution to the absurd.
One of Camus’ first principles is that once a man has recognised the absurd, it must forever afterwards dictate his
conduct. Although the body has its own judgment which is often different from that of the mind (it will instinctively
shrink from annihilation), the proper response to this contradiction is not to elude it. Many people elude the
problem by living not for life itself but for some idea that will transcend it and give it meaning, yet as Camus writes
in another powerful and oft-quoted line, such efforts are almost always doomed to failure. “It happens that the
stage sets collapse. Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work,
meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm—
this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness
tinged with amazement” (606). The inevitable “awakening”—or the confrontation with the absurd—puts a man
on a path that leads either to suicide or recovery.
There are a number of things that can trigger the confrontation with the absurd. A day may come when a man
notices that he has reached a certain age, and by acknowledging himself as situated in relation to time, as
belonging to time and unable to escape from it, the absurd arises in the revolt of his aging flesh. Another possible
trigger is a sudden awareness of how “dense” the world is. As soon as one starts to deeply ponder his
surroundings and recognise just how alien something as simple as a stone or a hill can be, or how foreign
something as familiar as a tree or the sky really is to the mind which perceives, one has recognised the absurd.
Even studying the mechanical gestures of men, their meaningless pantomimes, their stupidity or inhumanity, can
give rise to what Jean-Paul Sartre described as “nausea” and which Camus calls the absurd. Even the stranger
who greets us in the mirror, or the twin brother we encounter in our own photographs can give rise to this feeling.
Finally and probably most common of all is the attitude we take towards death. There is no experience of death,
so in life all we can do is work out the problem while knowing that the solution will only come afterward. A true
recognition of the inevitability and incomprehensibility of death will almost invariably lead a man to a direct
confrontation with the absurd.
To accept the absurd is to accept that one’s most forceful existential desire can never be fulfilled. “The mind’s
deepest desire, even in its most elaborate operations, parallels man’s unconscious feeling in the face of his
universe: it is an insistence upon familiarity, an appetite for clarity…the mind that aims to understand reality can
consider itself satisfied only by reducing it to terms of thought. If man realised that the universe like him can love
and suffer, he would be reconciled” (608). Of course, one can never know whether the universe can love or
suffer, and it seems extremely unlikely that it can. The mind craves a universal unity that probably does not exist.
Furthermore, by merely making the assertion that all is One, a person sets himself apart from the very unity he
insists upon. So the absurd arises from the difference between the way the world is and the way man wishes it to
be, the clash between the horde of irrationals that spring up everywhere and the wild longing for clarity in the
After reiterating that once a man has accepted the absurd, all must be sacrificed to it, Camus asks whether life
itself should be among these sacrifices. After seeing the world for the desert of meaninglessness that it is, can one
still live in this desert? Camus establishes that the absurd does not spring from the scrutiny of an individual fact or
impression, but that it always arises from a comparison. For instance, we deem a verdict absurd if it is considered
contrary to the facts presented. We would consider it absurd for a man armed with a sword to go up against an
army of machine-guns because we understand the disproportion between his intention and the actual
consequences he will face. “The absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is
born of their confrontation. In this particular case and on the place of intelligence, I can therefore say that the
Absurd is not in man…nor in the world, but in their presence together. For the moment it is the only bond uniting
them” (610). Carrying this logic to its conclusion, Camus finds that in order to live in the face of the absurd, one
must adopt an attitude with three basic elements: a total absence of hope (though not despair), a continual
rejection of the world (though not a renunciation), and a conscious dissatisfaction with the way things are (though
not merely an immature unrest). Anything that conjures away these elements, such as an appeal to a higher
meaning, ruins the absurd and devalues this attitude. Kierkegaard warns that if man has no eternal consciousness
and if at the bottom of everything there is only a seething force producing everything, what would life be but
despair? The absurd man hears the warning and fearlessly adopts the reply. Perhaps life is only despair and
nothing more, but a determined soul will manage to live with that idea.
Camus has established that it can not be known whether this world has a transcendent meaning, but in the section
entitled “Absurd Freedom” he asks whether a meaning that exists outside one’s own condition can even be
considered meaningful at all. For a tree or a cat, there would be no such problem because the meaning of the life
of a plant or an animal is contained within the life itself. It is the alien nature of the world to human consciousness
that gives rise to the idea that some additional meaning is needed. The essence of Absurd Freedom is that by
rejecting any possibility of a transcendent meaning to life, one is free to determine his or her own life’s meaning.
One gives up on the hope of a higher meaning, and although none of the problems and conflicts of the world are
settled, all are transfigured. The absurd man may be tempted to give up this freedom—it is a truly frightening thing
to take on the responsibility of choosing your own life’s meaning—but Camus insists that he must maintain his
resolve to never accept anything he does not fully understand. History has no shortage of religions or prophets,
but each requires a leap of the understanding that the absurd man is not willing to make. His only certainty is that
nothing is certain. His only concern to is to live his life without appeal to anything outside of that life.
Finally, Camus turns back to the question of suicide. He wanted to determine whether or not a life had to have
meaning in order to be lived, but what he found is that life is actually better lived if it has no meaning. A man’s life
takes on a higher value if he lives in a constant state of conscious revolt, neither accepting his absurd condition nor
seeking an excuse to negate one of the terms of the arguments that led him to recognise this condition. “To
abolish conscious revolt is to elude the problem. The theme of permanent revolution is thus carried into individual
experience. Living is keeping the absurd alive….Just as danger provided man the unique opportunity of seizing
awareness, so metaphysical revolt extends awareness to the whole of experience. It is that constant presence of
man in his own eyes. It is not aspiration, for it is devoid of hope. That revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate,
without the resignation that ought to accompany it” (612). It may be thought that suicide follows revolt, but it is
actually the opposite. Suicide is not revolt but acceptance in its most extreme form. Suicide settles the absurd by
engulfing it in the death of the mind that it springs from. Living with the absurd is a simultaneous awareness of and
rejection of death. The contrary of suicide is the man condemned to death, as his condition contains the essence
of the absurd. Suicide is just the opposite.
If one accepts the reasoning that leads him to suicide, and yet ultimately rejects suicide without also rejecting the
reasoning, his life takes on a new value. Indeed, that absurd revolt is what gives life its value. Camus finally
describes this value in what may be the most powerful passage in the entire text. It is certainly one of the most
influential passages I have ever read, as these above any others are the words I actually live by: “Spread out over
the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that 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. The sight of human pride is unequalled. No
disparagement is of any use. That discipline that the mind imposes on itself, that will be conjured up out of
nothing, that face-to-face struggle have something exceptional about them. To impoverish that reality whose
inhumanity constitutes man’s majesty is tantamount to impoverishing him himself. I understand then why the
doctrines that explain everything to me also debilitate me at the same time. They relieve me of the weight of my
own life, and yet I must carry it alone” (612). For a man who chooses to live by the values of the absurd, it is
essential to die unreconciled and not of his own free will. By his steadfast and constant awareness of the absurd,
as well as his unwavering conscious revolt, he gives proof of his only truth: defiance.
The reason I agree so strongly with Camus does not merely lie in our shared vision of life as a ceaseless and
pointless struggle, but is actually rooted in our shared epistemological attitude: that one must not accept as truth
anything that requires a leap of faith. By rejecting absolutely everything that can not be rationally deduced or
logically proven, we put ourselves on a direct path to the confrontation with the absurd, as the world will never be
reducible to the terms of human thought. We thus find ourselves presented with only three options. We can
break our resolve and elude the absurd by taking that leap and appealing to a transcendent meaning beyond life,
but as we began by rejecting this very option, we will never be able to elude the awareness that our worldview is
based on a probable falsehood. The second option is suicide. Because we have accepted that there is no
transcendent meaning to life, we find that nothing we do can have any purpose at all. Camus rejects suicide
because he builds upon the absurd as a first principle, and suicide stands in contradiction to the absurd. I do not
reject suicide on philosophical grounds—I believe it is perfectly acceptable to take one’s own life—but merely as
a matter of personal preference. Although I would welcome death if it comes, I have resolved to let it happen on
its own accord, without any assistance from me.
That only leaves the third option, which is to live in unflinching recognition of the absurd. What we find when we
do this is that by stripping life of any possibility of transcendent value, it actually takes on a more intrinsic value.
Life is not an instrumental good—a temporary trial of the soul whereby its ultimate fate is determined—but a
basic good. The value of life is not to be found in heaven but here on earth. If we decide that life is worth living in
spite of its meaninglessness, we affirm that life is worth living for its own sake. This naturally makes us stronger
than the mass of men, who must cling to some transcendent meaning in order to continue struggling. We can live
without appeal to any higher power, without the hope of reward or punishment in another existence. We struggle
in full recognition of the fact that our struggles earn us nothing, and thus ours is a deeper struggle. We live moral
lives in full recognition of the fact that our goodness will not earn us any heavenly reward, and thus ours is a
deeper morality. We live in full recognition of the fact that there is no reason to live, and thus our lives are a
deeper kind of life. We understand that our responsibilities are not mitigated by God, karma, or the hand of fate,
and thus ours is a deeper responsibility.
It is on this issue that I will conclude this journal, as I feel there is no single issue more important in this phase of
human existence than that of responsibility. I have studied and given careful thought to nearly every central issue
within the broad field of philosophy, and concluded that most of these issues are highly abstract and have almost
no practical bearing on the ultimate fate of the universe. This is an issue that stands above all others in its urgency.
It is precisely because most people in the world do take the first option when confronted with the absurd—to
make a leap of faith whereby they can convince themselves that life is not absurd—that humanity as a whole is
heading towards a global catastrophe that will result in the unspeakable suffering of billions. Most people believe
that because God is in control and God is good, He would never let such a catastrophe happen and humanity will
ultimately live out whatever divine purpose He has envisioned. Others believe that while this catastrophe may be
inevitable, it is God’s will and we must therefore allow it to occur, or even help it along. Only a handful believe
that there is no God in control of everything, or that even if God exists He does not guarantee the survival of our
species. But it is only by this attitude—that we must be responsible for ourselves and operate under the
assumption that God and fate do not exist—that we can have any hope of either averting the catastrophe or at the
very least ensuring the survival of those who can start over and rebuild human civilisation with morality,
sustainability, and personal responsibility in mind from the beginning.
If I have learned anything from my constant search for answers in this incomprehensible world, it is that no certain
answers can be found. I see nothing of the world in my consciousness and nothing of my consciousness in the
world. One is the ultimate in density while the other is the ultimate in emptiness. Their confrontation is the
absurd. After recognising the absurd and living with the ever-present existential frustration that follows, I have
decided not to turn away from it in search of another truth but to accept and embrace it as the truth. From that
truth there follow two of the most fundamental philosophical ideas by which I live. First: life must be worth living
for its own sake. We cannot appeal to an imaginary reality outside of life in order to bring value into this life.
Second: we are responsible for everything we do. All of our decisions, from how we choose to treat others to
which philosophical theories we choose to live by, are our decisions and no one else’s. In this idea lies the
greatest hope for humanity, and the greatest value of philosophy.