Though existentialism has roots in 19th-century philosophy, it became an influential philosophical movement only after World War II. Different values have been associated with this rubric, but one theme common to them all is that human beings come to existence and then make up a purpose for themselves. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s words, “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world — and defines himself afterwards.” Of all of the thinkers involved with this movement, French existentialist Albert Camus stands out for having written specifically on suicide in a way that reached average people rather than just philosophers.
Camus opens “An Absurd Reasoning,” the first essay in his collection The Myth of Sisyphus, with these words:
“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.”
He makes the seriousness of the question clear by essentially threatening to think through the problem, come to an answer, and then carry out that answer, even if it means to die. With a fierce wit he judges that his subject is urgent compared with other questions of philosophy, writing, “I have never seen anyone die for the ontological argument.”
Nodding toward Durkheim, Camus tells us that suicide has been dealt with only as a social phenomenon and that he is instead concerned with the connection between individual thought and suicide. The problem he lays out is the overall meaninglessness of existence and how absurd that makes our lives of sound and fury. But the absurd is tolerable. Camus writes that it is no more than wordplay to conclude that because life has no ultimate meaning it is not worth living. The lack of overall purpose or goal does not imply that there is no value to living.
For Camus, killing oneself is an unwarranted “insult to existence,” even though life is painful. He acknowledges that he is keenly aware of the sorrow and struggles of human life; he knows that it can be exhausting, repetitive, anxious, and depressing, but he concludes that once we fully recognize the absurdity of it all, a kind of love and joy arise. His philosophy sympathizes with anguish but cajoles the fellow sufferer to embrace life, all the more so because it makes no sense. We should, Camus writes, accept that our desires do not match up with the world as we know it, and yet love the unanswerable strangeness of it all.
Toward the end of the essay, Camus makes some compelling remarks about staying alive. He says that the absurd teaches us not to make the mistake of valuing certain kinds of lives and their experiences over other kinds of lives.
“For the mistake is thinking that the 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.”
There is nothing more than being aware of one’s life, whatever form it might take. For Camus, “one’s revolt, one’s freedom,” is this awareness, and it is the essence of living “to the maximum.” There is no life that is higher.
This is an unusual stance in philosophy. Philosophers are much more often found encouraging people not to worry about an early death, saying that we all die in the end and that it is of no importance how long our span of life is. Camus specifically argues with the ancient philosophers for teaching that a short, brilliant life is as good or better than a long, ordinary one. To his mind, the experience of being alive and feeling life is more important than anything in particular that life may offer. Such advice is aimed at those who have a painful fear of death and who cling so tightly to life that they forget to enjoy it as it passes.
Camus, however, is aiming his advice at those who are, to some degree, disappointed by life and entranced by the idea of death. That is why Camus gives more weight to the quantity of life than to the quality. He believes that the great gift that life offers is the same for all of us and builds up over the years, so no matter how difficult one’s life seems, it would be a terrible mistake to cut it short. That leaves premature death as a real problem to be feared, and Camus acknowledges this. It is often a matter of luck whether we have a long or short life, and Camus says that this is the one real trouble we must face.
These ideas turn philosophy on its head. Instead of wisdom consoling the mass of common people who are frightened of death, Camus sees a somewhat more hidden distress of humanity, which is being fed up with life. Instead of saying that death does not matter, Camus addresses the part of us that already believes that death might be preferable to life, and he says that once we have understood the absurdity of life and accepted it, we will see that more life is always better: “One just has to be able to consent to this. There will never be any substitute for twenty years of life and experience.” People feeling depressed and disheartened by life might feel that they are just marking time, getting through one day after another without much reason. Camus insists that there is a reason for getting through the days even when one does not feel joyous. He is certain that when we see the absurdity of the human condition, just living adds up to a rich experience that is, in its own way, joyful. In this sense Camus adds his voice to those who have said that we must not kill ourselves because of what we owe to our future selves.
Camus’s ideas are sorrowful but cheerful. No matter how much he believes in the fact of depression, he embraces life. In his words, “the point is to live.” He understands despair — “polar night, vigil of the mind” — but says,
“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. I know, to be sure, the dull resonance that vibrates throughout these days. Yet I have but a word to say that it is necessary.”
Camus counsels a kind of revolt, which means for him that we must have knowledge of the certainty of our ultimate fate — death — but refuse to be resigned to it. It is a paradoxical revolt in the face of acceptance — a very tricky idea but one which Camus feels sure we can manage. This is why suicide is anathema to his philosophy of the absurd experience. He says that people consider suicide the ultimate revolt, but the contrary is true. Life in the face of its pain, he writes, is the ultimate revolt. Suicide “is acceptance in the extreme.” Our challenge is to be aware of death and at the same time reject it. The tension between being keenly aware of death yet not being resigned to it is what creates the absurd, and keeping the absurd alive keeps the person alive.
Camus writes that it is essential that we do not die of our own free will because our embracing the absurd leads us to take all of life and give what we have. “Suicide,” he writes, “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.”
In the title essay of The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus famously describes our human lives as similar to the torture of Sisyphus, who was condemned to roll the same stone up the same hill, just to have it roll down again, over and over until the end of time. Sisyphus was being punished in part because he had escaped the underworld once and lived some years enjoying life on earth. Now he is back in the underworld at his quintessentially meaningless task. Camus finds this absurd and he finds coping with the absurd heroic.
Sisyphus perseveres and resists the lure of suicide. Camus holds that suicide tempts us with the illusory promise of freedom, but the only real freedom is to embrace the absurdity:
“You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.”
Camus asks us to fully imagine the huge effort Sisyphus must make, straining his body to push the huge stone, a hundred times over. We must see his face screwed up with the effort of it, his cheek pressed hard against the stone, his shoulder fully braced against its dirty surface, his foot wedging it to keep it from falling backward. At the end of his tremendous effort, “measured by skyless space and time without depth,” he is successful. Then he watches the boulder fall back down the hill in a matter of moments.
Down he goes again to restart his toil. It is during that return, that pause in concerted effort, that Sisyphus most interests Camus. That time is when Sisyphus is most conscious. He is not distracted by the work but is fully facing the absurdity of his situation. At those moments, Camus writes, Sisyphus “is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”
We are stronger than our rock. Sisyphus and the rock can be a man and his tedious, repetitive work, but the rock is also life itself, even if there is no task to perform that is as onerous as the labor of Sisyphus. Every day must be borne, and the reward for bearing it is another day. Still, Camus sees reason to rejoice as well as weep. He says that it is in the descent of our rolled-up rock that we are most aware of our predicament. “If the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy. This word is not too much.” The chief sorrow, he tells us, was in the beginning. Now when images of better times, like Sisyphus’s recollection of earth, become dominant in one’s mind, and when the desire for happiness becomes too much to resist, “melancholy rises in a person’s heart and grief is too heavy to bear.” Even this grief has an antidote: “Crushing truths perish from being acknowledged.”
Even Oedipus, Camus tells us, was in the end resigned to what fate had unfolded for him and concluded that all was well. Sisyphus is exhausted but continues. He even continues well.
“His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing.”
The person who understands the absurdity of the human condition is strengthened by it. He or she still has to work unceasingly to bear up under the weight of being, but it is worth it. There is no higher destiny, Camus declares. The absurd man is the master of his days. When he gazes backward over his life, he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, and like Sisyphus and his rock, the whole seemingly unreasonable effort turns out to have meaning, just because it constituted his life.
Thus, even while we are convinced that all human meaning comes from human beings, and not from outside them, we are still able to be impressed by its meaning if we allow ourselves to be. Camus says that each of us, like Sisyphus, is like a blind man who wants to see and yet knows the night has no end, but who is still “on the go.” Meaning and joy are inherent in our simple, yet heroically effortful, persistence. “The rock is still rolling.”
He ends the essay with a famous passage that combines all his strange pessimism and optimism.
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…. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
It is not a simple kind of happiness, but Camus asks us to perceive that it is happiness all the same. For those who find life hard to bear — or perhaps for all of us when we find life hard to bear — Camus is an odd but wonderful companion, entirely empathizing with our despair, yet cheering us on to live and even see a happiness in our struggle.
This is an excerpt from chapter eight of Jennifer Michael Hecht’s book Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It. You can download a PDF of the chapter here.