The Struggle of Sisyphus: Absurdity and Ethics in the work of Albert Camus
Absurdist Phase Overview
Kem Stone - July 2006
Along with The Stranger, the works described above serve to represent Camus’ absurdist phase.  Compared to
the claims he makes in the latter half of his career, the positions he takes during this period are far more widely
acceptable and defensible.  
The Myth of Sisyphus merely claims that life is worth living in spite of its absurdity, a
sentiment that many people would be inclined to agree with even without giving the matter much careful
consideration.  Of course, it could be objected that Camus’ appeal to earthly pleasures as a reason to live might
not be enough for some.  The millions of children in destitute, poverty-stricken parts of the world who are plagued
by disease and starvation may have every right to insist that their lives, if they indeed have no meaning, are not
worth the pain of living.  How might Camus reply to such an objection?  There are very little clues, but one can
assume that he would designate their lives and their struggles, should they choose to endure them in the face of
absurdity, with an even greater “metaphysical honour” than ours.  And this is something I believe nearly everyone
would accept.

While
Caligula does not and is not meant to offer any ethical claims, its point of view is certainly uncontroversial.  
Very few, I believe, would argue that one must strive to be God in this life and earn one’s freedom by taking it
from everyone else.  It is an extremely common, almost universal belief that we ought to accept the impossible and
do only what we can in the world.  And so
Caligula does not offer any radical new ideas—nor does it contend
to—but merely supports in dramatic fashion the ideas that many people already live by.

If any objections to the ideals put forward in Camus’ absurdist phase are to be offered, they are most likely to
come from Christianity or similar religions.  A Christian would strongly object to the idea that we ought to live for
earthly pleasures—such an idea is considered one of the greatest evils.  The best life for a Christian is a holy life,
to reject all things worldly and live only for the sake of God.  Most Christians would also object to the claim that
we ought to accept life’s absurdity.  Life
can be explained—we were put here by God to serve him—and to
dismiss things as absurd amounts to the terrible sin of rejecting God.  But there can be no hope of resolving a
debate between Christianity and Camus without proof of God’s existence or non-existence, and this will probably
never come.  However, for the claims of Christianity to be correct God
must exist, and he must exist as
envisioned in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Yet as we have seen in our discussion of Gnosticism, Camus’ claims
are defensible even if God exists, as long as we grant that God is completely transcendent and unknowable.

And so it appears that Camus’ positions of his absurdist period are completely valid.  If life is absurd, we are left
without rules to live by, but this does not prevent us from living.  As long as the value of our lives comes from
within life itself and not in the promise of a life to come, we need not despair over absurdity.  Our lives can have
value without God as long as we do not insist that values can only come from God.  Such an attitude is both
appealing and admirable, and if universally adopted could lead to the resolution of many of the world’s problems,
most obviously those that result from conflicts over religion, of which there have been too many to list.

However, if we accept that values do not come from God, we still have the far more difficult problem of
determining where our values ought to come from.  If we decide they come from nowhere we are left with
nihilism, and Camus’ position falls apart.  Camus does not argue that life is worth living if it has
no value, but
merely that it can be worth living if we accept certain values of our own choosing.  But what values should we
choose?  How can we possibly go about determining which values are superior to others without God or any sort
of common standard by which to measure them?  It may be that absurdity does not lead us to suicide, but does it
not leave the door open to justified murder?  Logically, if values are selected by people, then the values which
survive are those of the strongest.  And should the strongest decide that it is
right to eliminate the weakest, the
absurd offers nothing to refute this.

This is a problem that Camus leaves open during his absurdist phase, but once these fears actually start becoming
reality during World War II, they are issues that he can no longer ignore.  Hitler takes on the role of Caligula,
murdering his subjects on the basis of his own self-selected values, while Camus finds himself playing the part of
Cherea, challenging these values in spite of the cold, harsh logic on which they are based.  This is where he begins
his moralist phase and endeavours to show that the absurd, just as it cannot be used to justify suicide, can not
justify murder.  The words of Cherea as he decides to join the plot against Caligula are a premonition of the
mission Camus himself would take on only a few years after writing them:

    No, if I join forces with you, it’s to combat a big idea—an ideal, if you like—whose triumph would
    mean the end of everything.  I can endure your being made a mock of, but I cannot endure Caligula's
    carrying out his theories to the end.  He is converting his philosophy into corpses and—unfortunately
    for us—it’s a philosophy that’s logical from start to finish.  And where one can’t refute, one strikes.  
    (Camus, CTOP, 21)

We will now look at Camus’ moralist phase and determine exactly what his strike against logically justified murder
amounts to.