Anyone who endeavours to give serious, unencumbered thought to the nature of reality will inevitably come face
to face with the absurd. When it comes to the world we find ourselves in, there are far more questions than
answers, and no explanation can be trusted with absolute certainty. Those of us aware of the current
cosmological picture of the universe know of its overwhelming size and duration, and the extremely distressing yet
undeniable likelihood that human beings have shown up quite accidentally. When we remove the comfortable idea
of a benevolent creator of the cosmos and confront the possibility that life is essentially meaningless and devoid of
purpose, we find ourselves staring directly into the eyes of absurdity.
Once we’ve had this encounter, only two options are open to us. Either we accept that life and existence are
essentially absurd, or we take a “leap of faith” and trust that some transcendent force is in control of everything.
For those of us unwilling or unable to make such a leap, certain questions cannot be avoided. First and foremost,
why go on living if life has no purpose? We are born and we die, and nothing we do in the meantime has any
enduring significance. Eventually every person we have known will be dead, and the very memory of our
existence will be annihilated. The earth itself will eventually be engulfed by the sun, and even the entire universe
will expand and cool until all matter completely decays into the void. If complete destruction is indeed the fate of
everything, what reasons can we have for doing anything?
Such questions have plagued philosophers for over a century, and there have been many attempts to answer them,
most notably in the work of thinkers associated with existentialism. Once Nietzsche declared that God is dead, it
became necessary to replace Him. Without God to explain our existence or justify our notions of right and wrong,
we find ourselves in total darkness with no solid ground to stand upon. How did we get here and what are we
supposed to do while we’re alive? For centuries, Christianity provided convenient answers, but once Christianity
was called into question the very foundations of life and society were shaken. We do not know how we got here,
and have no concrete guidelines for how we ought to live. It would seem that our values, if they are to come from
anywhere, must come from ourselves.
This is the heart of the message put forth by philosophers from Nietzsche to Jean-Paul Sartre, and can be found in
the work of writers such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Albert Camus. Each of the above, having recognised the
world as essentially absurd, were confronted with the nihilism that immediately follows from their conclusion.
Most of them, believing that human beings must have values in order to live properly, sought to find a way of
reaching beyond nihilism. Unfortunately, without God or any transcendent principles to appeal to, this was no
And it may be that none of them succeeded. Sartre put the responsibility for the selection of values squarely on
our shoulders, but offered little by way of guidance for how to go about determining which values we ought to
select. Nietzsche provided negative reasons to reject the values of “slave morality” but offered very few positive
reasons to adopt the values he considered superior. Philosophers of existentialism have strong arguments for why
we must choose our own values, but seem to have no logical basis for the values they themselves choose—it
seems merely a matter of personal preference. And if the selection of values is just a matter of personal
preference we are left once again in the darkness of nihilism.
Nowhere can this struggle be seen more definitively than in the work of Albert Camus. By his own admission,
Camus was not a philosopher, but he did concern himself with the most profound moral questions at the heart of
human experience. His personal journey from Christian influences at a young age to the acceptance of absurdity
and the attempt to establish values without God is virtually a microcosm of the idealistic development of the West
in the 20th century. While Camus’ message may not be the clearest or even the most consistent of the
existentialists, he expresses his ideas with a sharp eloquence that paints a picture of the human struggle that is
perhaps more powerful than the most sophisticated philosophical argument.
The ideas he expresses are just as relevant as they were when he wrote them, and although his influence may be
waning, the force of the questions he attempts to answer remain just as powerful as ever. The bulk of his work
can be summed up as an examination of two basic, fundamental questions that follow once a person has accepted
the absurd: that of suicide and murder. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus considers whether, having concluded
that life is absurd, one has thereby concluded that it is not worth living. This question is also a central theme in
The Stranger and Caligula, and Camus’ answer is that in spite of its absurdity, life is indeed worth living. From
there Camus asks, since there is no God or transcendent system of morality, do we have the right to kill others?
This is the central issue of The Rebel and a theme in his novels The Plague and The Fall. Camus concludes that
just as absurdity does not justify the taking of our own lives it does not justify the taking of others’ lives.
In this essay I will undertake a thorough examination of Camus’ message from the beginning of his career to its
end. Although I will critique his arguments where there are weaknesses, I will defend Camus’ essential claims that
absurdity does not justify suicide or murder. My analysis will also demonstrate the incredible difficulty of
establishing an ethical system grounded in the absurd, and I will consider the implications of this for humanity at
this time in our history.
I will begin with a look at Camus’ absurdist phase, the period of time before he really begins to defend certain
values. This will encompass The Myth of Sisyphus and Caligula. The next section will deal with Camus’
transition from absurdist to moralist, which will include Letters to a German Friend, The Rebel, and The
Plague. These two sections will focus on the common threads running through each work, and I will discuss for
each of them the influence of Christianity as well as its treatment, the role of absurdity, and the values Camus is
proposing or defending. By contrast, my final section will focus on what does not remain consistent in Camus’
ethics. By contrasting the positions Camus takes in The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus to the sentiments
expressed in his final novel, The Fall, I will highlight the difficulties of reconciling morality and the absurd.
I ultimately hope to demonstrate the importance of the issues with which Camus concerns himself and offer some
support for his conclusions. It may be the case that we are cosmic accidents with nothing to guide us along in our
inexplicable lives, but as long as we recognise our responsibility and do the best we can, there is hope for us. We
may never be able to find the solid ground for our values that so many philosophers have sought after, but if
Camus’ ideas have any merit, we might not need to.
The Struggle of Sisyphus: Absurdity and Ethics in the work of Albert Camus
Kem Stone - July 2006