Camus’ Concepts of the Absurd and Revolt
When I was in my early twenties, I sought to cultivate an aura of intellectual and cultural sophistication. One of the ways I did this, probably unsuccessfully, was to read French existential philosophy and literature. There was something impressive about the term existentialism and I liberally laced my conversation with this word and its adjective existential. One thinker and writer who to his chagrin was labelled an existentialist, Albert Camus, became my favourite philosopher, partly because of his novella, L’Étranger (The Outsider). I was fascinated by the anti-hero, Mersault, who is an outsider from his society because of his emotional detachment. This stems from his view that the universe exists for no reason, he exists for no reason also and so there is no need to attach any particular value to anyone or anything. He therefore seeks a life of uncomplicated pleasures. He does not care that his girlfriend Marie loves him. He shows no emotion when his mother dies and when he shoots a man for wounding his friend Raymond with a knife, he does so with no particular emotion. It is simply an act of revenge that must happen. Again, when he is found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, he is indifferent. Life has no ultimate purpose and Mersault is just living his allotted time. Only once in the novel does Mersault lose his indifference and display powerful emotions. When Mersault is visited by the prison chaplain whilst awaiting decapitation, he becomes enraged at the chaplain’s attempts to talk him out of his apatheism and embrace Christianity. Mersault regards the chaplain as patronising and declares that since we all die one day, nothing ultimately matters. This sense of meaninglessness appears to be the cause or one of the causes of Mersault’s indifference.
There was much of Mersault in Camus personally. Not in the sense that he was indifferent to other’s deaths and showed no remorse over wrongdoing, but that he was in many situations in life an outsider placed in the position of an observer of others and of himself. He was raised by a single parent, his mother, who relied on the state to help make ends meet when single parenthood was regarded as scandalous; he was considered a Frenchman when he lived in Algeria and an Algerian when he lived in France; among Islamic North Africans he was an infidel and among French Catholics he was an apostate; he was denounced by the Communists after leaving their party; and hunted as a resistance fighter by the Nazis in Occupied France.. Truly, Camus knew well what it was like to be on the edge of conventional and dominant social, economic, and political structures and how painful, even dangerous, that could be. Though the position of the objective, separate observer can yield great insights into the nature of humanity and existence, it is also an isolating position which deprives the outsider of the connections with others that are necessary to a fulfilled life. This explains why Camus assigned such high value to the ideals of friendship, brotherhood and sisterhood, and comradeship. However, it is Camus’ yearning for sodality that is fundamental to the problem which he describes as the Absurd. This concept expresses the incongruity between the desire of humanity for order, moral values, and meaning whilst living in a universe that provides none of these things, for it neither knows nor cares about human desires. Taken on their own, humanity’s desires and the universe’s indifference are not absurd, but are when seen in conjunction with one another. What then, if there is one, is Camus’ solution? Camus considers three possible answers to the Absurd: suicide, religion and revolt. The first two he dismisses as evasions of the problem; the third is his chosen solution.
The first choice, suicide, is a total solution to meaninglessness. If we determine that our life has no meaning or has the meaning we do not like, we can terminate it. This might mean in the mind of the suicidal person going to a better existence in the afterlife or the end of existence entirely. Camus rejected this option. Suicide, Camus declared, was a renunciation of life: it was not a true revolt against the Absurd but a cowardly retreat.
The second choice of believing in a supernatural world of comfort and compensation Camus dismissed as an evasive and false belief. By positing a transcendent state, the religious believer evades facing squarely the Absurd. Metaphysical worlds also do not exist, therefore they do not provide a solution for the Absurd and the religious believer, by staking his or her life on the belief in one, is committing philosophical suicide, which is as destructive as physical suicide.
The best solution according to Camus is to accept and embrace courageously the Absurd as an integral part of human existence by carrying on living as best one can. This is a kind of defiant revolt against the Absurd. There is also an advantage to this in that life, though not made meaningful by either a metaphysical or an intraphysical source, can be lived better if humans themselves give it meaning.
Camus exemplifies this attitude of revolt through his philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is a character in Homer’s The Iliad who is punished by the Zeus, king of the Greek gods, for cheating death twice. His punishment is that he must push a boulder up a hill only for it to fall back down and to repeat this process forever. What Camus admires about Sisyphus is that despite the hopelessness of his situation, he pushes on, manifesting humour and good moral qualities such as compassion and even a sense of purpose. He is the epitome of defiant revolt against his unending, meaningless existence.
Although Sisyphus embraces his fate alone, Camus is careful to warn us that revolt against the Absurd is not an individualistic stance or an act in isolation. The revolutionary recognises the existence of the common good and values which are common to all people, not just to him/herself. Therefore, when the revolutionary defies the Absurd, s/he does so not only for his/her own good but also for the good of all. S/he acts in co-operation with his/her fellow human beings. The existence of the common good and shared values suggests that a human nature exists after all. This is the reason why Camus did not identify as an existentialist, for existentialists believe that existence precedes essence.
During that period of my life when I considered myself an atheist, this was my attitude also. Life had to be lived in defiance of the Absurd, but I saw defiance in the form of a successful life as determined by myself as a kind of revenge. I was determined not to be rendered passive or crushed by meaninglessness. I gave meaning to my life and banished the thought of absurdity, except for those moments when I was walking home late on a cloudless night and could see the vast expanses of space which seemed to be about to bend down and swallow me up.
Camus’ Misunderstanding of Christianity.
What then did Camus get wrong with regards to Christianity? I think two things: Christianity does not teach its adherents to avoid the Absurd by escaping into metaphysical unrealities. Rather, it explains the Absurd and teaches its adherents to love others courageously in the face of it. Second, Christianity teaches that the Absurd will one day be fully resolved when Jesus returns. This resolution, however, has already begun, not through a metaphysical solution but through an incarnated one in the form of the God-man, Jesus. Moreover, before humanity and the universe are reconciled, the most fundamental reconciliation must happen: that between a holy God and sinful humanity.
The Absurd’s Origin
Unlike Camus for whom the universe just is and humans have appeared in it with concerns for which the universe neither knows nor cares, Christianity states that creation was never intended to be this way. What God created was ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31) and humans were designed to find fulfilment in their relationship with God and satisfaction from bringing order to and providing benign supervision of creation (vv. 26-28).
The disjunction of humanity and creation into an absurd incongruence of human care and the universe’s indifference was caused and continues to be affirmed by human sin. The world that was made for humanity (and all the other creatures that inhabit it) has become alien to us because we humans, who were created to oversee the natural order, are in rebellion against God and therefore no longer can exercise benevolent supervision over it from a place of divinely-supported security. Our coming into existence is marked by grievous pain and our existence is a struggle for survival, which ends in death (Genesis 3:16-19). The same curse has descended on all creatures who share our planet. What therefore Camus perceives as an absurd fact is from the Christian perspective a tragedy, for this state of affairs was never intended to be, though one day will cease to be.
Living in the Face of the Absurd/Tragedy
Camus advocates that we live in defiance of the Absurd by living as best we can for ourselves and others. Interestingly, Camus never saw that this was also the life advocated by Jesus. Christians are not to retreat from a tragic world, but are to love their neighbours as themselves through lives lived for others. One of the most dramatic examples of loving others is found in what is known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). In this story, a man falls victim to robbers who take his possessions, beat him and leave him for dead. A passing Samaritan shows compassion for the man by cleansing and bandaging his wounds and paying for his recovery at an inn. He promises the innkeeper that if the man’s recovery costs the innkeeper money also, he, the Samaritan, will reimburse him. The fact that the story’s hero is a Samaritan is significant since Jesus’ people, the Jews, loathed their neighbours the Samaritans for their unorthodox worship of God. The loathing was indeed mutual. Jesus is challenging stereotypes and teaching love for enemies. This is the standard to which Christians are to aspire in their conduct. They are not to retreat from the world into pious, sheltered huddles, but are to act from selfless love when others are suffering. Is Jesus also advocating courage as Camus did? Yes. To help a robbery victim put a person in danger of the same fate because the robbers might have been hiding nearby, hoping to make a victim of anyone who had stopped to help the first victim. To describe Christian ethical doctrine as cowardly, therefore, is a slander and condemned by Jesus’ own words.
It is one thing to identify the Christian ideal, but have Christians lived up to it? I do not have room to describe the plethora of compassionate and brave ways in which Christians have worked for the good of others over the past two millennia. I also do not wish to argue that Christians have been perfect in their obedience to Jesus’ command to love. However, the Christian track record is very good. Contra to the New Atheists’ slogan that religion poisons everything, David Bentley Hart’s book Atheist Delusions, for example, provides ample data that Christianity has been very good for humanity. Permit me one example from the many in his book that is a propos within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic: hospitals are the invention of ancient Roman Christians and a tradition of medical care that was preserved by medieval and early modern Christians. The Christians who established and staffed hospitals historically and the many Christians who work in medicine today are not retreating into a supernatural hermitage, but are deeply engaged with a tragic world for the better. If Christian belief is false, and Camus says it is, then the curious thing is that it is no less, and I think more, effective than his idea of Sisyphean courage in stimulating works aimed toward the common good.
For Camus, there is no end to the Absurd as long as human beings and any other beings that can express discontentment with their lot are existent in an indifferent universe. The problem of the Absurd ends for the individual when the individual dies, but the generic problem remains. The great hope of Christianity is that the tragedy of existence is in the process of being resolved and will one day be wholly resolved. The solution is not a metaphysical one according to Christianity, although God, a metaphysical being, is the rescuer, but an incarnated one in that God the Son enters the tragic world to redeem those who are repentant.
The central events of Christian salvation did not take place in a metaphysical realm, but took place on earth through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Where the alienation of humanity from God and creation began is also the place where it was faced squarely and resolved by God the Son who incarnated in human flesh, was born like any other human being (Luke 2:7) and manifested as Jesus of Nazareth who has a dual nature of the divine and of the human.
Jesus’ death meets four human needs:
- Jesus’ death by crucifixion paid the penalty of death that humans deserve because of their sin (Hebrews 9:26).
- The wrath of God against our sin was propitiated by his death (1 John 4:10).
- Jesus, by dying, opened the way to reconciliation between God and humanity (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
- Humans can now be redeemed from the power of sin (Hebrews 2:15).
These needs are only met in a person’s life if s/he chooses to repent of his/her sin and receive the benefits of Jesus’ death (Acts 2:38). The importance of choice is in this matter probably would not be lost on existentialists for whom freedom is a characteristic of human consciousness.
Jesus’ death therefore removes the barrier of sin which has caused the tragedy of human alienation from God. Certainly, it is a tragedy that humans and the rest of creation are disjointed, but the more fundamental disjunction, that between humanity and God the Creator, must first be repaired.
More human needs are met through Jesus’ resurrection. There are three:
- Jesus’ resurrection guarantees our renewal (1 Peter 1:3). When Jesus rose from the dead, his human nature and body were now perfectly suited for life with God forever. This is the new life that we now have in part, if we are Christians. Our spirits are renewed to know and love God and hate and resist temptation and sin, but our bodies remain as they are, subject to weakness, growing old and ultimately succumbing to physical death. The reason for this is that Christians remain in the fallen world as the Body of Christ to testify to the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the sake of the salvation of others. Our renewed spirits enable us to testify in power and love to the unsaved, but the price is that we remain in bodies suited to this world of decay and death (2 Corinthians 5:8-9).
- The very good news is that one day we will receive perfect resurrection bodies. By this I mean that our bodies will be incorruptible and perfect. The guarantee of this is Jesus himself whom Paul describes as the ‘first fruits’ (1 Corinthians 15:20). Just as the first produce of a harvest provides an understanding of what the rest of the harvest will be like, so Jesus’ resurrection gives us an understanding of what Christians’ resurrections will be like.
- Jesus’ death assures Christians of their justification (Romans 4:25). By raising Jesus from the dead, God the Father gave his approval to what Jesus had accomplished on the cross. Furthermore, if God the Father raised Christians with Jesus (Ephesians 2:6), then the Father has sealed us with his approval also.
The teleological end of the reconciliation of God and those who repent and turn to him is everlasting life with God where there is no sin and suffering. The children of God will live forever loving God and receiving his love (Revelation 21).
The whole of creation will also be renewed in that it will be released from decay and death and become free also as the children of God are (Romans 8:21). This will happen when God’s people receive their resurrection bodies (8:19, 22-23). The universe will no longer be indifferent and destructive towards humanity and neither will humanity continue to despoil natural resources and threaten the ecosystem.
The unrepentant and unbelieving whose sin would pollute the regenerated world will be judged and punished according to their behaviour (Romans 2:5-7). As they will remain everlastingly unrepentant, they will be quarantined in a place of punishment called hell (Luke 16:22-24).
In postmodernist terms, Christianity out-narrates Camus’ Sisyphean courage. It is a better story in that it explains and resolves the Absurd through the salvation provided by Jesus. The skeptic might retort that that is indeed what Christianity is-a fanciful story-whereas Camus’ philosophy remains true to what is indeed the case: a description of the absurd conjunction of a world of human cares within a universe of indifference. Of course, such a conclusion can only be drawn if the evidences for the Christian faith are found to be untrue. There is good reason to believe that the Christian God exists and that the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus are historical events with existence-changing importance. To explore these arguments is beyond the scope of this article. The open-minded skeptic is advised to read an excellent guide to the subject such as Douglas Groothuis’ Christian Apologetics.
Having said this, there are some responses that can be made to Camus within the space that I have that are suggestive of the plausibility of metaphysics and Christianity. Camus is an atheist and a physicalist, and yet when Camus argues that the conjunction of human desire for order and value within an indifferent universe is absurd, he is making a metaphysical statement, for to make this statement, he must view the disjunction from a position outside of it. This suggests something unique about the human perspective which parallels the uniqueness of humans within the Judeo-Christian account of creation. Camus draws on his monotheistic heritage when he advocates courage as a way of revolting against the Absurd. He presents courage as an objective moral value for it is required of all humans at all times as the most virtuous way of behaving in the face of the Absurd. Cowardice in the form of metaphysical flight and suicide is objectively immoral in Camus’ eyes, since these reactions will never be acceptable. It is Judeo-Christianity that sustained the pervasiveness of objective moral belief in Camus’ French context; Islam was responsible for it within Camus’ Algerian context. Though the universe might seem absurd from the point of view of human cares, it is nevertheless sufficiently intelligible for Camus to be able to describe it as indifferent. It is also intelligible scientifically because it can be described through scientific laws. Yet why is the universe intelligible when it need not be and why do humans have a language perfect for describing those regularities, which is mathematics? Perhaps we are more suited to the universe than Camus suggests in that we are in a position to understand it, even if it is indifferent to our desires for overall meaning? To make these judgments requires a mind that is capable of making them, yet natural selection, which atheists such as Camus regard as the explanation for the diversity of life on earth (and some theists too), does not seem to provide an explanation for the human mind. Natural selection in tandem with random genetic mutation means that those characteristics that are most likely to help a species survive will be reproduced within that species. How does having the capacity to judge the human position within the world as absurd help human beings to survive? Our minds are overendowed with abilities that go way beyond survival and which sometimes threaten our survival as in the suicidal response to the Absurd. This suggests that our being is derived from something, even someone, beyond this world according to a creative principle other than natural selection and survival of the fittest. Ironically, it is Camus’ philosophy, like any higher level of thought and consciousness, that raises these questions and in the case of Camus’ atheism and naturalism, raises them against his philosophy.