Life is worth living
Camus: If life has no meaning, then why don’t you just kill yourself right now?
DKB: That’s a bit of an extreme question to start a conversation with.
Camus: Not really. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is the fundamental question of philosophy.1
Many people die because they determine that life isn’t worth living, so the meaning of life is the most urgent question of them all.2
You wake up, work your nine to five job, go home, watch TV, sleep. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Stuck in an infinite loop.3
But one day the “why” arises, and that’s where everything begins. Your consciousness awakens, and you begin a journey of questioning. At the end of this journey comes the ultimate question: suicide or recovery.
The human heart has a natural desire for meaning and purpose. But the universe is devoid of meaning. It doesn’t have anything to offer us.
This contradiction between our longing for meaning, and the universe’s total indifference, is what I call the absurd.4
Is suicide a legitimate solution to the absurd? Or is there a better solution?
This is a fictional but realistic dialogue with the French philosopher Albert Camus, famous for his absurdist philosophy. His responses are either direct quotes, or based on his writings. Citations are included so you can see the original context for each response.
DKB: Well speak for yourself, because my life does have meaning. I believe that we’re all part of a benevolent universe, working together in harmony to serve some greater purpose.
Camus: A leap of faith is the most popular response to the absurd.
Every single existential philosopher suggests some kind of leap of faith.5
Kierkegaard said that if there was no transcendent reality, and all we had was this bottomless void of the absurd, then life would be despair.6
This cry doesn’t stop the absurd man, because he would rather accept despair, than feed on the roses of illusion.
I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I don’t know that meaning, and that it’s impossible for me to know it.7
How can I understand anything outside of human experience?
The abstract philosopher and the religious philosopher both start out from the absurd, then take a leap of faith to meaning. They sacrifice their reason in exchange for comfort.8 This is a philosophical kind of suicide.9
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that anything is wrong with this way of living, or looking down on anyone. I’m just wondering…is there something else we can do besides take that leap of faith?
DKB: What happens if we don’t take the leap of faith? What else is there?
Revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that would typically accompany it.10
Conscious revolt against the absurd is one of the only coherent philosophical positions. The constant confrontation between man and his own obscurity.
You might think that suicide follows revolt, but it doesn’t. Suicide, like the leap of faith, is extreme acceptance. You see your hopeless future, and rush towards it. True revolt is the simultaneous awareness and rejection of death.11
Revolt is what gives life its value. Spread out over the length of a life, it restores majesty to that life.12
Suicide is a rejection of life, but the absurd man maintains his life and his consciousness. He knows that in his day-to-day revolt, he gives proof of his only truth, which is defiance.13
DKB: Okay, but what would I actually do without meaning or purpose?
What does it mean to live a good absurd life?
Camus: Quantity over quality!
Living the absurd life means substituting the quantity of experiences for the quality. If all that matters is my conscious revolt, then what counts is not the best living but the most living.14
Quantity of experiences doesn’t depend on the circumstances of our life. It depends solely on us.15
To two people living the same number of years, the world always provides the same amount of experiences. It’s up to us to be conscious of them.
Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, and one’s freedom, to the max, is living to the max.
The sole obstacle in life is premature death. In the rebel’s universe, death is the supreme injustice.
No depth, no emotion, no passion, no noble cause, and no sacrifice, could make a conscious life of forty years equal to a conscious life of sixty years. There will never be any substitute for twenty years of life and experience.
A cashier at the grocery store is equal to the president if consciousness is common to them. All experiences are indifferent in this regard.16
The succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man. The absurd revolt is a tribute that man pays to his dignity in a campaign in which he is defeated in advance.17
By the mere activity of consciousness, I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death, and I refuse suicide.18
DKB: If you really believed all this, then wouldn’t you be completely immoral, break every law, and have no regard for other people?
Camus: I have seen people behave badly with great morality, and I note every day that integrity has no need of rules.19 Everything is permitted, yes, but that is not an outburst of joy, but a bitter acknowledgement of a fact.20
The certainty of God giving meaning to life is far more attractive than the ability to behave badly without punishment. The choice would not be hard to make. But there is no choice, and that’s where the bitterness comes in.
The absurd does not liberate, it binds.
“Everything is permitted” doesn’t mean that nothing is forbidden. The absurd just views the consequences of all those actions as equivalent. It doesn’t recommend crime, because that would be childish, but it makes clear the futility of crime.
Likewise, if all experiences are indifferent, then living a life of duty and altruism is as legitimate as any other. You can be virtuous on a whim.
An absurd man always considers the consequences of his actions calmly. He is always responsible for his actions, but he is never guilty of anything.21
DKB: I don’t know…if I adopted this philosophy then I’m not sure what I’d do.
Maybe I’d give up my blog and go travel the world, to collect as much experiences as I can before I die, or something like that?
Camus: Give up your blog? What are you talking about?
Being a creator is the ultimate absurd rebellion.22
Creating is living doubly.
To work and create for nothing, knowing full well that your creation has no future, is living the dream.23
The absurd creator knows that whether their work lasts for days, or centuries, it remains completely unimportant. Performing these two tasks simultaneously, negating and magnifying at the same time, is the path of the absurd creator.
Human will has no other purpose than to maintain conscious awareness, but it could not do that without discipline. Of all of the schools of discipline and presence, creation is the most effective.24
Creation provides the clearest evidence of man’s sole redeeming quality: the dogged revolt against his condition, perseverance in a hopeless effort.
It calls for daily effort, self-mastery, and intense self-discipline. And all of that for nothing. The end result is a fleeting, short-lived work of art.
Perhaps the great work of art has less importance in itself, than in the ordeal it demands of a man, and the opportunity it provides him to approach a little closer to his naked reality.
The final challenge for the creator is to free themselves from their creation. They have to truly accept that their creation has no value in the grand scheme, and with this they complete their understanding of the absurd.25
Surprisingly, this gives them more freedom in the realization of that work, just as becoming aware of the absurdity of life empowers them to dive into their creative work wholeheartedly.
So create your heart out, and live life on your terms. The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.
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"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. These are games; one must first answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act. These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect." ↩
"Galileo, who held a scientific truth of great importance, abjured it with the greatest ease as soon as it endangered his life. In a certain sense, he did right. That truth was not worth the stake. Whether the earth or the sun revolves around the other is a matter of profound indifference. To tell the truth, it is a futile question. On the other hand, I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living (what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying). I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions." ↩
"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. “Begins”—this is important. Weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness. It awakens consciousness and provokes what follows. What follows is the gradual return into the chain or it is the definitive awakening. At the end of the awakening comes, in time, the consequence: suicide or recovery." ↩
"I said that the world is absurd, but I was too hasty. This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together. It binds them one to the other as only hatred can weld two creatures together." ↩
"Now, to limit myself to existential philosophies, I see that all of them without exception suggest escape. Through an odd reasoning, starting out from the absurd over the ruins of reason, in a closed universe limited to the human, they deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them. That forced hope is religious in all of them. It deserves attention." ↩
"Kierkegaard may shout in warning: “If man had no eternal consciousness, if, at the bottom of everything, there were merely a wild, seething force producing everything, both large and trifling, in the storm of dark passions, if the bottomless void that nothing can fill underlay all things, what would life be but despair?” This cry is not likely to stop the absurd man. Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable. If in order to elude the anxious question: “What would life be?” one must, like the donkey, feed on the roses of illusion, then the absurd mind, rather than resigning itself to falsehood, prefers to adopt fearlessly Kierkegaard’s reply: “despair.” Everything considered, a determined soul will always manage." ↩
"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. What I touch, what resists me—that is what I understand. And these two certainties—my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle—I also know that I cannot reconcile them." ↩
"It is futile to be amazed by the apparent paradox that leads thought to its own negation by the opposite paths of humiliated reason and triumphal reason. From the abstract god of Husserl to the dazzling god of Kierkegaard the distance is not so great. Reason and the irrational lead to the same preaching. In truth the way matters but little; the will to arrive suffices. The abstract philosopher and the religious philosopher start out from the same disorder and support each other in the same anxiety." ↩
"I am taking the liberty at this point of calling the existential attitude philosophical suicide. But this does not imply a judgment. It is a convenient way of indicating the movement by which a thought negates itself and tends to transcend itself in its very negation. For the existentials negation is their God. To be precise, that god is maintained only through the negation of human reason." ↩
"One of the only coherent philosophical positions is thus revolt. It is a constant confrontation between man and his own obscurity. It is an insistence upon an impossible transparency. It challenges the world anew every second. 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." ↩
"This is where it is seen to what a degree absurd experience is remote from suicide. It may be thought that suicide follows revolt—but wrongly. For it does not represent the logical outcome of revolt. It is just the contrary by the consent it presupposes. Suicide, like the leap, is acceptance at its extreme. Everything is over and man returns to his essential history. His future, his unique and dreadful future—he sees and rushes toward it. In its way, suicide settles the absurd. It engulfs the absurd in the same death. But I know that in order to keep alive, the absurd cannot be settled. It escapes suicide to the extent that it is simultaneously awareness and rejection of death." ↩
"That revolt gives life its value. 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 unequaled." ↩
"It is essential to die unreconciled and not of one’s own free will. Suicide is a repudiation. The absurd man can only drain everything to the bitter end, and deplete himself. The absurd is his extreme tension, which he maintains constantly by solitary effort, for he knows that in that consciousness and in that day-to-day revolt he gives proof of his only truth, which is defiance. This is a first consequence." ↩
"Now, faced with this particular concern, belief in the absurd is tantamount to substituting the quantity of experiences for the quality. If I convince myself that this life has no other aspect than that of the absurd, if I feel that its whole equilibrium depends on that perpetual opposition between my conscious revolt and the darkness in which it struggles, if I admit that my freedom has no meaning except in relation to its limited fate, then I must say that what counts is not the best living but the most living. It is not up to me to wonder if this is vulgar or revolting, elegant or deplorable. Once and for all, value judgments are discarded here in favor of factual judgments. I have merely to draw the conclusions from what I can see and to risk nothing that is hypothetical. Supposing that living in this way were not honorable, then true propriety would command me to be dishonorable." ↩
"For the mistake is thinking that that quantity of experiences depends on the circumstances of our life when it depends solely on us. Here we have to be over-simple. 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. Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum. Where lucidity dominates, the scale of values becomes useless. Let’s be even more simple. Let us say that the sole obstacle, the sole deficiency to be made good, is constituted by premature death. Thus it is that no depth, no emotion, no passion, and no sacrifice could render equal in the eyes of the absurd man (even if he wished it so) a conscious life of forty years and a lucidity spread over sixty years." ↩
"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. There are some that do either a service or a disservice to man. They do him a service if he is conscious. Otherwise, that has no importance: a man’s failures imply judgment, not of circumstances, but of himself." ↩
"The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man...Conquest or play-acting, multiple loves, absurd revolt are tributes that man pays to his dignity in a campaign in which he is defeated in advance." ↩
"Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death—and I refuse suicide." ↩
"There can be no question of holding forth on ethics. I have seen people behave badly with great morality and I note every day that integrity has no need of rules. There is but one moral code that the absurd man can accept, the one that is not separated from God: the one that is dictated. But it so happens that he lives outside that God. As for the others (I mean also immoralism), the absurd man sees nothing in them but justifications and he has nothing to justify. I start out here from the principle of his innocence." ↩
"That innocence is to be feared. “Everything is permitted,” exclaims Ivan Karamazov. That, too, smacks of the absurd. But on condition that it not be taken in the vulgar sense. I don’t know whether or not it has been sufficiently pointed out that it is not an outburst of relief or of joy, but rather a bitter acknowledgment of a fact. The certainty of a God giving a meaning to life far surpasses in attractiveness the ability to behave badly with impunity. The choice would not be hard to make. But there is no choice, and that is where the bitterness comes in. The absurd does not liberate; it binds. It does not authorize all actions. “Everything is permitted” does not mean that nothing is forbidden. The absurd merely confers an equivalence on the consequences of those actions. It does not recommend crime, for this would be childish, but it restores to remorse its futility. Likewise, if all experiences are indifferent, that of duty is as legitimate as any other. One can be virtuous through a whim." ↩
"All systems of morality are based on the idea that an action has consequences that legitimize or cancel it. A mind imbued with the absurd merely judges that those consequences must be considered calmly. It is ready to pay up. In other words, there may be responsible persons, but there are no guilty ones, in its opinion. At very most, such a mind will consent to use past experience as a basis for its future actions." ↩
"In this regard the absurd joy par excellence is creation. “Art and nothing but art,” said Nietzsche; “we have art in order not to die of the truth.”" ↩
"To work and create “for nothing,” to sculpture in clay, to know that one’s creation has no future, to see one’s work destroyed in a day while being aware that fundamentally this has no more importance than building for centuries—this is the difficult wisdom that absurd thought sanctions. Performing these two tasks simultaneously, negating on the one hand and magnifying on the other, is the way open to the absurd creator. He must give the void its colors." ↩
"Elsewhere I have brought out the fact that human will had no other purpose than to maintain awareness. But that could not do without discipline. Of all the schools of patience and lucidity, creation is the most effective. It is also the staggering evidence of man’s sole dignity: the dogged revolt against his condition, perseverance in an effort considered sterile. It calls for a daily effort, self-mastery, a precise estimate of the limits of truth, measure, and strength. It constitutes an ascesis. All that “for nothing,” in order to repeat and mark time. But perhaps the great work of art has less importance in itself than in the ordeal it demands of a man and the opportunity it provides him of overcoming his phantoms and approaching a little closer to his naked reality." ↩
"The final effort for these related minds, creator or conqueror, is to manage to free themselves also from their undertakings: succeed in granting that the very work, whether it be conquest, love, or creation, may well not be; consummate thus the utter futility of any individual life. Indeed, that gives them more freedom in the realization of that work, just as becoming aware of the absurdity of life authorized them to plunge into it with every excess." ↩