This is part 2 of this article series wherein i try to examine my life, one of a modern man. After finding ourselves in a metaphysical pickle, we appeal to philosophy to show us a way out.
The Business of asking questions
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” ― Socrates
Socrates was in a business of asking questions, infamous for his pestering inquisitiveness at the local market. He used to catch up random people, men and women who wanted to buy groceries and ask them questions like “What is justice?” , “What is the nature of knowledge?” and so on. He did so in order to get diverse perspectives on questions raised by our living on this earth. He did not hope to find the one correct answer as if the local cobbler knows the core nature of morality. Rather he wanted to examine the life we all are living and wanted to implore others to do the same. He wanted to live an examined life, basing this to be a basic requirement of being human.
We are driven by basic desires and needs, and without examination about the true worth of each, whether we should be jealous or feel sad about a certain event, we just become animals who accept the fate given to us by our biology. We are wasting the marvellous organ that allows us to rule over the world, over all of the flora and fauna. We also cannot undertake such an examination without asking difficult questions and without collaborating on finding answers to these questions. Humans need a field of study that asks these questions so that we can collectively find knowledge about the world and reduce our ignorance. This field is nowadays called philosophy.
Philosophy is often called the business of asking questions, figuring out which questions matter the most and then attempting to solve those open threads. We may never find the true nature of time or knowledge, but the journey itself teaches us a lot. It equips us with ideas about our being, things we were completely unaware of and makes the world complex and simpler at the same time.
In the allegory of the cave, Plato tries to raise the study of such questions at a pedestal. He creates an analogy of our daily unexamined living as people living in a dark cave, where they perceive shadows on the damp walls of the cave and think of it to constitute life. They feel that these phantoms are the only thing that matter and enthusiastically discuss their various forms.
Then one day, accidentally, one of them escapes the cave and finds about the real beauty of the world. It takes him to adjust to this bright new world and to understand the nuances and vibrancy of the various colours he is perceiving for the first time, but eventually, his escape from the cave allows him to know the true nature of the world. This escape can only be achieved by proper examination of the world, by constant questioning about the true source of the shadows and philosophy is the discipline that allows achieving this escape.
We, therefore, turn to philosophy too to try to get out of the cave of our limited existence.
Existentialism deals with the question of existence, and how people react to the feeling of the irrationality of the world. Since this is akin to our experience in part 1, we would like to study how the philosophers try to answer these questions. Albert Camus was one such philosopher who may have some answers for us!
The important questions.
Albert Camus tries to take a step by step approach on this quest to find meaning and the below flowchart summarises his thought process. We would explore his actual thoughts as a traversal over the below tree.
The most important question in philosophy according to Camus is that of the meaning of life. He just doesn’t want to argue about the meaninglessness of life but want to see the logical conclusions of accepting the proposition that life is meaningless. In that search, he can guide us to solve our feelings of absurdity about life. Let’s just hope that he does not lead us into an even deeper pit.
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
He talks about the notion of the “Absurd” and we slowly build-up towards that concept. This philosophical notion is very close to the feelings of anxiety and strangeness, I had expressed in the previous article and therefore this looks like a promising place to look for ideas to solve our dilemmas.
Why think about the meaning of life?
Camus argues that the question of suicide and the meaning of life is the paramount worry we should deal with, just because the answers to this question is much more pertinent to our human lives. For those who feel life is meaningless can commit suicide in a trench of hopelessness, whereas others who are convinced of meaning will give their lives or take from others to preserve this meaning. No other question in philosophy holds so much weight by virtue of the consequences the questions hold. He mocks how no one ever committed suicide because he did not like the Ontological argument.
This is all well and good, but we are not philosophers, right? We need more compelling reasons to waste time in distressful pursuits like this one, which otherwise could be spent watching Game of Thrones.
Well, firstly we are fortunate that a philosopher is giving this question such high status, for now, we hope to find answers from the collective humanity to our uncertainties about life. Secondly, we as normal people are worried about our lives and don’t give a shit about something like Epistemology. So we should align with Camus in his quest and hold his hands.
As Socrates pointed out, lives ought to be examined if we want them to be fulfilling. We are human beings, and our brains are endowed with cognitive abilities far beyond what we need just for the propagation of our species. It is a marvellous engine of a Bugatti Veyron. We cannot expect it to run at a low RPM. We are tempted to push full-throttle and sometimes even forced to test it limits, albeit sporadically, by the circumstance around us. It could be that we are bored and decide to take our little toy for a ride(disambiguation through the link ;) ). It could be exacting circumstances, like the death of a loved one, a breakup or just a chance encounter with a boy at the station.
We are a car that can only run at full speeds and it is impossible to expect it to run slow, to turn down our imagination. Either we are happy with the ride or suffer from a Nausea caused by the absurd turns and curves along the way, those we manoeuvre somehow. Either we find some answers and meaning in the passing by scenery or we just crash our cars into the woods in a feeling of helplessness or laziness.
It is important to know this answer because of how it makes us feel. We are not gorillas sadly, who can trot along their way for their time being without paying heed. We are the members of the human race and we demand answers out of everything.
Is there a meaning to life? (or Absurdism)
When we were kids we were curious to know everything and logically asked our parents about it. We are taught the ways of the world at school, both of the physical and social. Newton and Marx. Thermodynamics and Democracy. Cells and Cells. Thus in the process of growing up, the world starts making sense to us, we understand the underlying reasons behind the workings of the world. The world seems less and less absurd to us. And also we lose our curiosity but first things first.
But then we start realising how these models of understanding fail from time to time. How people are not always good? How there is so much injustice in the world if there is a god? How do we cope with death? These questions plague us and in our free moments, we contemplate on our being.
Thus we start feeling a sense of absurdity in the ways of the world. And Absurd just does not imply that we feel impossible things are happening. But also that things are contradictory. There is a divorce in what we expect and what we get, from this world. We expect order and see chaos, expect permanence and see transience, expect god and find evil, everywhere.
It is the feeling we experience when we imagine ourselves as a dead cold body lying alone in the crematorium or a grave. It is the sense of helplessness against ageing, against the passing of time — the feeling that we are driftwood floating in the river of time. It is the feeling when you can’t understand your loved ones, feeling like that they are on the other side of a glass, their lips showing an attempt at communication but no words or meaning reaches you. This is an emotional plane of how we feel Absurd and is the starting point in the endeavour to understand absurdism.
At an intellectual level, we feel nostalgia for unity. A memory of days when everything made sense. We as rational beings want to create a system of understanding about our world in order to find our place in it. This was the reason first philosophical projects were started and continue to this day. But the yearning for unity by this mind is smacked cruelly by the irrational world which refuses to let go of any essence of itself.
“If I see a man armed only with a sword attack a group of machine guns, I shall consider his act to be absurd. But it is so solely by virtue of the disproportion between his intention and the reality he will encounter, of the contradiction I notice between his true strength and the aim he has in view.” — Camus
Thus the world in itself is not absurd, nor the existence of man or his intellect makes us absurd. It is their co-existence, of how man with it bounded rationality which can discover many answers but not all and an infinitely complex world he inhabits — that absurd gets formed. We men want to unify the world through models of understanding and the world refuses to let us do so. We try to find where do we go after death and the world hides those places deep within itself. There is a contradiction here- “what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object” - we don’t stop looking for answers and the world does not move an inch to let us uncover them.
Camus is against Rationalism, a view that the rational mind can make sense of the world. Like the laws of motion define succinctly the kinematics of bodies, we can also reach such laws for all facets of the world. But there are limits even to our celebrated rational mind and the clash of these limits with questions like “Why do we exist?”, creates the Absurd Man. Some people define everything outside these limits to be God and find solace in that answer. We would come back to it in a second.
What are our options then?
We are now convinced of the “Absurd” — that life is devoid of meaning and all meaning is outside our grasp. Suicide is an action that conveys that life is not worth living. That even one more second of existence is unbearable. There is a possibility that the conviction of absurd can lead a man to commit suicide. But it is not obvious. The feelings of absurd may or may not mean eventual suicide.
Absurd can easily drive one to kill self, for who has not seen the innumerable instances of suicides on TV stating the same reason. We live life wanting for it all to mean something — using our free will to forge artefacts, conceptual or otherwise, that justifies our being, our time spent here. We want to be unique beings and form connections with other such beings to know them and make the world known of our unique presence. But the absurd world snatches away from you all such aspirations and throws water over the raging passion for living. We discover patterns in how we act, in our habitual living and find it equivalent to all the drones we see on our way to work. We are after all automatons programmed by our biology and society. This feeling of exile, of being a stranger in a world that is driven by a need for meaning may drive us to suicide.
Sadly it does push many people to suicide. And teenagers to emo culture. But confusion about life may not mean that we stop living it. Even a search for meaning itself can form a reason for keep on living. Moreover, we do not observe all philosopher committing suicide because we have an instinct for living. We “ get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking”. And Camus wants to find if there are philosophical grounds for not committing suicide. He gives an inspiring account of why we should not kill ourselves and also creates a framework to judge how we should be living.
There are many ways to live your life in the face of the constant reminder of Absurd. Most of them are problematic and are considered to be a form of philosophical suicide by Camus. Let's find out his suggestion then. We are near our solution after emasculating in front of the problem for so long.
The concept of Absurd has three main components — The Bounded Rationality of the self, the unbounded complexity of the world and the clash between these two components caused by our drive to find meaning. This helps us form a method to consider the various solutions that people from time immemorial have suggested to solve the problem.
Camus considers these three basic pillars to be facts of life for once we are born, we have to face them. Thus any solution that discards one of the pillars or magically wish them away is not a proper solution. In a geometry question if you have a draw a triangle that satisfies three properties, then in your inability to draw the demanded triangle you cannot answer by drawing a triangle that does not satisfy one of the three conditions. It would be wrong though easy. Absurd is the only truth we are sure about and we shall preserve the only thing that crushes us, for then only we can find solace from the crushing.
Camus explores the various existential philosophers like Kierkegaard, Husserl and others who try to solve this problem from an absurd climate. As in they too feel that there is a conflict between us and the world, like Camus. But he is dissatisfied with a forced hope in all of them, a religious nature inherent in them. He is against all solutions that appeal to a transcendental meaning. That is, he does not want us to run away from the problem by saying that outside the limits exist something that is the solution. Here one can say that outside limits answer is possible but we are constricting ourselves to find a solution in intrinsic, using just what we know, manner. We can’t know about god and thus it is not a proper solution.
Formally, we can say that yes there are things about the chaotic world like death and meaning that our brains cannot understand. But there is a God that takes care of things outside our reach and we should be chill about the whole ruckus. This wishes away the irrationality of the world by conjuring an even more improbable being that somehow ensures order in the incomprehensible chaos. Particularly we cannot wish away the problem of the finitude of our life but summoning an eternal afterlife for us out of thin air. This is an escape from the real problem as one of the pillars is destroyed. This argument does not say whether God exists or not, but rather says that if we want to solve this problem using things we know then a god is not the correct answer to these anxieties. Considering the unknowability about nature and existence of god, using him as a solution is just an ignorance of the problem at hand. We have just taken a Leap of Faith and converted our Absurd world into the abode of god itself.
There are other arguments which appeal to the smallness of humans, asking if a man could have known everything then what need God would have in this world. Thus God will show us the way. But then we do not feel the struggle for we have invented a book that solves all the questions for us. Here we appeal to our living, in how we don’t feel that God is able to answer all our questions. Even in a god filled world, we still feel the struggle and the divorce of the absurd.
Moreover the solutions reek of a tone of reconciliation, that is we come to terms with Absurd and get on with it. This is not a solution as we are magically wishing away the struggle — the third pillar of Absurd which we have accepted to our hearts.
There are other solutions that can be classified as escapism. Involve yourself in projects, consider what you perceive to be your world(just live don’t worry about questions you cannot answer) — these again goes against one of the pillars of Absurd. So next time you settle on a philosophy of life, do check out the 3 boxes given by Camus.
On the other hand, another school of thought exist which try to posit that humans are all rational. How do they claim that is beside the point as they are trying to wish away the limitedness of the rationality we possess. More importantly, it is a framework that defines meaning in the world by considering our eyes to be the beholder of the meaning of the world, which is contrary to our analysis about the nature of the world. Hence we discard this too.
Camus finds that all solutions ask us to make a leap of faith, to consider something out of our reach to be true or to close our eyes and go on living.
“The danger, on the contrary, lies in the subtle instant that precedes the leap. Being able to remain on that dizzying crest — that is integrity and the rest is subterfuge.” — Albert Camus
He wants us to not take the leap through which we may be able to escape our precarious situation at the top of a shaky hill. Rather he calls us to remain on that hill and live despite the dizzying feeling since all leaps betray the real notion of the absurd.
“Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is.”
― Albert Camus
So after all this bashing, which I have only given a glimpse of, of past ideologies- what should we do know? For this Camus gives us three basic principles to live with.
We cannot wish away any of the three pillars of the absurd for it defines the truth of our being. Once we know the truth, all we can do is to preserve it , for our brains won’t accept any lies. Thus the absurd is here to stay and we will be living in a constant state of conflict — a metaphorical revolt at all times against meaninglessness of life.
“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
― Albert Camus
This entails a form of authentic living, wherein each moment you are aware the fragility and hollowness of each of your actions but still chose to live life in a sense of revolt or rebellion against this ugly inescapable fact of nature. We call this living in good faith as in, once we are of the true nature of each our links to the world, we can enjoy them to the fullest and not display excessive remorse on the loss of anything. Once we know that a friend, who is good otherwise, lies to us from time to time, we really don’t feel devastated the next time he repeats his action. This still, however, does not discard the possibility of committing suicide, as in we can break our friendship with this lying friend to get rid of him.
There are different notions of freedom that we meet in our day to day lives. One main distinction is freedom through rights vs freedom through free will. The first deals with societal/moral/normative constraints on actions, as in there are some actions(like murder) that we can do as flesh and bones but are not allowed to by virtue of some normative discipline. On the other hand, there are some things we cannot do even if we wanted to act as such. While we may claim that it is of the above type with physical constraints, but here we are talking about a broader class of actions. We may claim that there are some things we are programmed to do and it is not under our will to act on certain actions. We may feel free, but as ant behaviour seems predictable to us at a distance, we may be actually predictable beings when aliens study us from their high vantage points.
Thus the principle of Freedom Camus introduces is more closer to the second kind of freedom. He talks about value judgement, wherein saying something has value means that something “ought to be”, that things are better than others. In an absurd world, for him, all things have equal value. Zilch. Zero. All value propositions in this world are null and void. We can choose either of the forks in the road and the result would mean the same to us, for each is as meaningless as the other. If you are not convinced consider your life, how you are shaped so much by the accident of your birth. If you would have been born in a different time and place, your life would have gone entirely different. This complete dependence on the initial conditions makes giving values to any of the choices in life absurd because most of the things are not in our hand. It is already determined when we are thrown in the peculiarity unique to each of us, still completely randomly.
This is actually a very empowering notion and allows us true freedom. We live life according to rules of society trying to conforms to expectations it demands from us at each stage of our lives. We are expected to get good jobs, marry, have a social life and so on. But since each of these choices have an alternative and that alternative is equally palatable to us in the theory of absurdism- therefore there is no pressure on us to follow a certain action. We can do whatever we like without any consequences since there cannot be ramifications of any kind in an absurd world bounded by death and irrationality.
“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.
It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.”
― Jean-Paul Sartre
(Sartre was a counterpart to Camus and is another philosopher who talks about questions regarding the meaning of life.)
This is a very powerful concept as in the absence of an “ought to”, we are left to do as we please. This is, however, freedom through the things we are actually in control of and sometimes this is just our inner feelings. In The Stranger, Camus tells a story of a man who gets convicted to a death penalty under absurd circumstances, not really under his control. In the end, even in the prison cell, as the protagonist await his death sentence, he is able to find his freedom, freedom over his inner thoughts. He is constantly approached by godmen to accept religion for peace of his soul, but he brushes them aside astutely and remains in the revolt of his impending death. He exercises his freedom by feeling an elation in his being, even when he is constrained with a prison cell. Thus it is not how we just act but respond to the world, even though our internal emotions, that allows us to be free.
Passion/Quantity in Life
All experiences are equivalent since we don’t have to follow any preordained path. We are at once lucky to be given a chance of experiencing the beauty of this world. Also, death is one thing that ends this series of experiences. Therefore death is a boring option as it ends this chance of getting to know the vast world and also breaks the method we are following till now. It wishes away the problem of absurd by removing the conflict artificially. If we are no longer situated in this world, how can be there a conflict?
Hence suicide is hardly the solution. We hardly find nobility in any way of life for all is as meaningless as the other. Therefore there is no qualitative comparison possible to compare one life with others. Hence we are living with “quantity” of life, as in if we are given a life of 60 years of a fisherman in Italy or a 40-year martyr in French Revolution, we should choose the former as there is no nobility in the latter also. This is not a sign of cowardice and we should not be like the king who was scared of death and stay home to be safe(to eventually die of painting hitting our head). Rather it is a philosophically metaphoric point where we should live life to the fullest.
We are giving each moment its due for the present is the only thing important. Given the equivalence of all moments, we are never left nitpicking. We are not allowed to complain about living in a time when it was better or wishing for this happening instead of that. It thus reduces to — “I have my moment, equal to all others in value. I will use this moment to be happy as I am free to be so and do what I want exercising my freedom. There is only the present, which death would soon steal from me and hence I will live life to the fullest.”
There is never a nostalgia of a better time or the anxiety of a better future because there is no better or worse. We are given what we are, and we should use that moment according to our whims.
“Freedom is what we do with what is done to us.”
― Jean-Paul Sartre
The morality of an Absurd Man
This paradigm to view the world is very empowering, enabling us to do a wide array of actions without any reproach. Things have now become a matter of whim and so has the morality of our actions. Since all actions have zero value for each is meaningless as other, so murder is equivalent to saving life under the absurd. Morality has now become a whim, a free choice we can take as we want. This feels a bit problematic but there is a solution to this too. We wait a bit for that and be selfish, for we are solving the problem of suicide and not murder for the time being.
“He was free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate; to marry, to give up the game, to drag this death weight about with him for years to come. He could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good or Evil unless he thought them into being.”
― Jean-Paul Sartre
We return to the myth of Sisyphus and ask, what should he do. We are anxious for the answer for our fates are intertwined with that of Sisyphus as we stand in solidarity with him.
While he returns to the bottom of the hill at night, he thinks about his condition. Instead of giving in, he revolts in its face, always reminding himself of the futility of all but making this his world and using his freedom to be happy in spite of his fate.
In words of Camus- “I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
It seems Camus has solved the trouble for the ancient Sisyphus but modern man has much more complex issues. Let's see how we can apply this framework to treat various aspects of our life.
1. Work: We are always anxious about our careers and what should we choose to do. Since eventually, all choices we make are ineffectual to the apathetic world, we will use our freedom to do whatever we want. If you want to make your parents happy, you can choose a career that allows you to visit them regularly. If you want to earn money, then go into that finance job because it is not soul-crushing as long as you like the money. If you want to help the kids, just go and teach in a govt. school. All the anxiety about mattering to the world goes out of the picture, once you are aware of the reality of each job. Remember, we need to be authentic in all this, constantly reminding ourselves of the absurdity and randomness inherent in each choice and then go on doing the job in a spirit of revolt.
2. Relationships: We are often left in limbo about our decision regarding a romantic partner. We don’t really know that love is real or if we are just passing time. We are scared of breaking up from a relationship we want to get out of, in fear of being alone. We do not ask the special someone out, for a possible yes is better than a certain no. All these fears are allayed once we start thinking from an absurd perspective. In a few decades, you and the person you are going to approach, and all people both of you will ever know, are going to be dead. So what’s the harm in asking him/her out. And there is not true love, for nothing is eternal, so enjoy your companionship as long as you can, to the fullest. And when you feel the time comes, just break up. It will feel crushing but time will heal you both. Death certainly will. Two speck of dust should not be brooding so much over trivial matters. This kind of living is scary, as it gives you all the power and responsibility. But it is liberating and powerful for you can decide how you want to live, how you want to choose partners. “You are master of your fate, you are the captain of your soul” thus you have the power to do anything with just a constant reminder- as uncle Ben says —” with great power comes great responsibility”.
Rebel into your Summer
I personally feel that at the outset, Absurdism feels disheartening and a defeatist approach to life. People just don’t want to think about such thoughts for they are comfortable with escapism. I have overheard people refusing to take “Theatre of the Absurd” course, a very popular course with a great instructor, just because they don’t want to think about such stuff. But if you really get to the depth of it, as I have tried to show you, it is the most empowering way of thinking. And for those of you, who have faced a feeling of Absurd once — by death, boredom or just randomness of the world, there is no respite without such a systemic answer. There is no escape. Only Revolt.
There are no longer any bad scenarios. There may be undesirable ones but their undesirableness is now manageable for now we know we can be happy even in the face of it. The feelings won’t just go away automatically, but we may find, if we look deep inside us, with these lenses we may find a raging fire for life. Or as Camus says-
In the midst of hate, I found there was, within me, an invincible love.
In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile.
In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm.
I realized, through it all, that…
In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” -Albert Camus