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Albert Camus and the problem of absurdity

Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a French philosopher and novelist whose works examine the alienation inherent in modern life and who is best known for his philosophical concept of the absurd. He explored these ideas in his famous novels, The Stranger (1942), The Plague (1947), and The Fall (1956), as well as his philosophical essays, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) and The Rebel (1951). He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.

Camus was born to a poor family in war torn French Algeria. His father, a farmer, was killed in the First World War, leaving his deaf and illiterate wife to raise Camus and his elder brother. Despite the deprivation of his childhood, he won a scholarship to a prestigious lycée in Algiers and went on to study philosophy at the University of Algiers. He began his writing career as a journalist for Alger Républicain newspaper. After moving to Paris, he became involved in the Resistance movement, editing its clandestine paper, Combat, and was sought by the Gestapo. His memories of wars and experiences under the Nazi occupation permeated his philosophy and novels. His debut novel, The Stranger, and the essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, catapulted him to fame and brought him to the attention of Jean-Paul Sartre. After the liberation of France, he was a major figure in post-war French intellectual life.

His philosophy of absurdism can be exemplified in his essay Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus: 1942). Camus defined the absurd as the futility of a search for meaning in an incomprehensible universe, devoid of God, or meaning. Absurdism arises out of the tension between our desire for order, meaning and happiness and, on the other hand, the indifferent natural universe’s refusal to provide that. In the essay, Camus posed the fundamental philosophical question: is life worth living? Is suicide a legitimate response if life has no meaning? He compared humankind’s longing for order and meaning to the Greek mythological hero Sisyphus, who was condemned for eternity by the gods to roll a boulder up a mountain, only to have it fall to the bottom. Like Sisyphus, we continue to ask about the meaning of life, only to find our answers tumbling back down. The philosopher asserts that we should embrace the absurdity of human existence and take on the purpose of creating value and meaning.  Efforts and resilience – not suicide and despair – are the appropriate responses. Camus argued that Sisyphus is happy and that we must emulate his resilience. The Greek hero is admirable for he accepts the pointlessness of his task, and instead of giving up or committing suicide, he has risen above his fate by deliberate choice and toils on.

Image credit: Albert Camus by unknown. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In The Stranger, with its famous line “Mother died today. Or perhaps it was yesterday, I don’t know,” the anti-hero protagonist had to accept the absurdity of life, “opening up his heart to the benign indifference of the universe.” The novel conveys this conception of the absurdity of human existence and explores the alienation of a young man, known as Mersault, who has killed an Arab and is condemned to death for his refusal to conform to the bourgeois society’s expectation of him, and not for the murder itself. When he does not weep at his mother’s funeral or show any emotions, this compounds his guilt in the eyes of society and the juror who convicts him. This notion of the absurd can also be found in his other masterpiece, The Plague, in which human aspirations and happiness are undermined by the plague. Set in the town of Oran which is overcome by the deadly epidemic, the novel is an allegory of German occupation of France; the plague is a metaphor for fascism and a totalitarian regime, Nazism. Camus examines human responses to random evil and human solidarity in the face of an indifferent universe.

His political philosophy finds its expression in The Rebel, which examines the notion of rebellion in opposition to the concept of revolution. Responding to the political climate of the time in Europe, Camus made a critique of communism and denounced the idea of revolution because of its tendency to transform into totalitarianism and collapse into terror, such as Nazism and Stalinism. As a pacifist, he advocated a humanistic, ethical, and social upheaval to achieve justice. He was sympathetic toward the Arabs in Algeria and wrote numerous articles to castigate the inherent injustice in Algeria under French colonialism throughout his career (collected in a volume of journalism, Actuelles III: Chroniques Algériennes 1939-1958), although he kept a neutral stance during the Algerian Revolution for fear of inflaming partisan passions. He was also against the death penalty and was one of the few who spoke out against the United States dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.

Camus died prematurely in a car accident on his way to Paris with an unfinished autobiographical novel The First Man. It was an untimely end to a highly accomplished and remarkable career. He remains one of France’s greatest cultural icons.

Featured image: “Eiffel Tower” by Louis Pellissier. Public Domain via Unsplash

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