Albert Camus on the Will to Live and the Most Important Question of Existence
By Maria Popova
“If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so… The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance,” Alan Watts wrote in his 1951 meditation on how we wrest meaning from reality. But if to dance or not to dance is the central question of existence, are both choices endowed with equal validity, dignity, and moral courage?
Not so, argued Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) a decade earlier in The Myth of Sisyphus (public library), which begins with what has become one of the most famous opening sentences in literature and one of the most profound accomplishments of philosophy.
A decade and a half before becoming the second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded him for the “clear-sighted earnestness” with which he “illuminates the problems of the human conscience,” 28-year-old Camus writes:
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.
Camus, whose entire sensibility was predicated on the notion that our search for meaning and happiness is a moral obligation, argues that this elemental question — a question, to be clear, posed as a philosophical thought experiment and not in the context of mental health in a medical sense — must be judged “by the actions it entails.” He writes:
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.
In a sentiment that Carl Sagan would come to echo nearly half a century later in his increasingly necessary case for mastering the vital balance of skepticism and openness, Camus considers how we might go about answering that ultimate question:
On all essential problems (I mean thereby those that run the risk of leading to death or those that intensify the passion of living) there are probably but two methods of thought: the method of La Palisse and the method of Don Quixote. Solely the balance between evidence and lyricism can allow us to achieve simultaneously emotion and lucidity.
That the answer should necessitate such contradictory orientations of mind and spirit, Camus argues, is simply a reflection of the fact that contradiction — or, rather, complementarity — is the essence of the question itself:
A priori and reversing the terms of the problem, just as one does or does not kill oneself, it seems that there are but two philosophical solutions, either yes or no. This would be too easy. But allowance must be made for those who, without concluding, continue questioning. Here I am only slightly indulging in irony: this is the majority. I notice also that those who answer “no” act as if they thought “yes.” As a matter of fact, if I accept the Nietzschean criterion, they think “yes” in one way or another. On the other hand, it often happens that those who commit suicide were assured of the meaning of life. These contradictions are constant. It may even be said that they have never been so keen as on this point where, on the contrary, logic seems so desirable.
In a testament to his lifelong conviction that we have in us the ability to overcome even the most difficult conditions, Camus considers our irrepressible creaturely will to live:
In a man’s attachment to life there is something stronger than all the ills in the world. The body’s judgment is as good as the mind’s, and the body shrinks from annihilation. We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking. In that race which daily hastens us toward death, the body maintains its irreparable lead.
In this sense, he argues, the act of choosing nonexistence over existence requires a willingness for absurdity:
One must brush everything aside and go straight to the real problem. One kills oneself because life is not worth living, that is certainly a truth — yet an unfruitful one because it is a truism. But does that insult to existence, that flat denial in which it is plunged come from the fact that it has no meaning? Does its absurdity require one to escape it through hope or suicide — this is what must be clarified, hunted down, and elucidated while brushing aside all the rest. Does the Absurd dictate death? This problem must be given priority over others, outside all methods of thought and all exercises of the disinterested mind. Shades of meaning, contradictions, the psychology that an “objective” mind can always introduce into all problems have no place in this pursuit and this passion. It calls simply for an unjust — in other words, logical — thought. That is not easy. It is always easy to be logical. It is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end.
At that last crossroad where thought hesitates, many men have arrived and even some of the humblest. They then abdicated what was most precious to them, their life. Others, princes of the mind, abdicated likewise, but they initiated the suicide of their thought in its purest revolt. The real effort is to stay there, rather, in so far as that is possible, and to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions. Tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show in which absurdity, hope, and death carry on their dialogue. The mind can then analyze the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance before illustrating them and reliving them itself.
Camus examines the layered emotional realities out of which these considerations arise in the first place:
Like great works, deep feelings always mean more than they are conscious of saying… Great feelings take with them their own universe, splendid or abject. They light up with their passion an exclusive world in which they recognize their climate. There is a universe of jealousy, of ambition, of selfishness, or of generosity. A universe — in other words, a metaphysic and an attitude of mind.
A man defines himself by his make-believe as well as by his sincere impulses. There is thus a lower key of feelings, inaccessible in the heart but partially disclosed by the acts they imply and the attitudes of mind they assume.
In a sentiment of piercing relevance to our golden age of productivity, where we vacate our own lives under the spell of busyness, Camus considers how the sense of meaninglessness sets in as we find ourselves in an existential hamster wheel of our own making:
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. In itself weariness has something sickening about it. Here, I must conclude that it is good. For everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it.
Echoing his previous assertion that “there is no love of life without despair of life,” Camus writes:
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.
He turns to the ultimate answer to this ultimate question
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… Obeying the flame is both the easiest and the hardest thing to do. However, it is good for man to judge himself occasionally. He is alone in being able to do so.
But it is bad to stop, hard to be satisfied with a single way of seeing, to go without contradiction, perhaps the most subtle of all spiritual forces. The preceding merely defines a way of thinking. But the point is to live.
Complement the indispensable The Myth of Sisyphus with Camus on strength of character, the art of awareness, what it means to be a rebel, happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons, and his moving correspondence with Boris Pasternak, then revisit Galway Kinnell’s beautiful and life-giving poem for a young friend contemplating suicide.
Published November 7, 2016