Camus on the Absurd

Camus on the Absurd

“Do you want the rest of the seal,” he asked? “Or can I finish it?”

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.


Two cavemen sat on the edge of the ocean. In the primordial silence arose the sound of prehistoric man chewing on raw fish.

Time passed. The evening slowly drew in across the water. The two men hugged their robes of bark and skin tighter around them.

“You know, Alfred, I’ve been thinking,” said John.

His friend raised his eyebrows.

“I’ve been thinking,” said John, “baby seal is tasty, right, I mean, really tasty, but, when you get right down to it, does it really matter? You know? In the end it’s all just fish, right? What’s the point?”

He sighed. Across the ocean a woolly mammoth roared.

Alfred shrugged. He was used to his friend by now.

“It’s got to mean something … something more, you know? Something bigger. It’s got to be bigger than just baby seal.”

“You want a shark?”

“No! Although, shark is tasty. No, not bigger like that. Bigger metaphorically.”

“What’s metaphorically?”

“It’s when a thing isn’t actually another thing but is still that other thing.”

Alfred blinked. The silence lingered.

“Do you want the rest of the seal,” he asked? “Or can I finish it?”


Today, I woke up and began my day with a protein shake. I’ve been exercising and eating differently in an effort to lose weight and this is part of that. Shortly after, I went and had a shower. Then I came to the cafe where I’m writing these words. I’ll write some more, edit a bit, worry a bit, and then schedule an email to be sent a few days later.

Allowing for irrelevant variations in detail, this has been my life for the last few months. In fact, this has been my life for the last 30 years. Every day, I get up, do some stuff, feel bad about not doing other stuff, eat a bit, think a bit, feel a bit, piss a bit, shit a bit, sleep a bit. Next day? Same. And then at some point I’ll die.

Most of the time, I’ve had no problem with this. As Camus says,

Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm—this path is easily followed most of the time.

But, says Camus,

it happens that the stage sets collapse … one day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.

I know this experience well and perhaps some of you do too. The experience of the stage set collapsing, of suddenly getting off the treadmill or even just seeing that it is a treadmill, and wondering: Why? What is the point of doing all this? Why am I bothering?

For whatever reason, we seem to have always been compelled to ask questions like: What does it all mean? Why are we here? What are we here for? What really matters? Does anything matter? What’s the point of it all?

Is it really all just fish?


It appears to be a deep and perennial human need to want the world to mean something. We need it to make sense.

We need good to triumph and evil to fail. We need there to be something bigger than ourselves - ideas of Love, of God, of Beauty, of Sharks, of Success, of Self-Actualisation, of Progress - that somehow gives a point to the things that we do.

At the most basic level, we need a reason to get up in the morning. And there is no shortage of people and institutions selling us those reasons.

The gurus on YouTube, Richard Dawkins, Paolo Coelho, the self-optimisers, the productivity bros, the tech bros, the spiritual bros, the yoga teachers, the chakra activators, priests, philosophers, and Jordan Peterson - all of them, some more honourably than others, are catering to this need and actually only exist because of it.

As Voltaire said of God, if Alain de Botton didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

To find Camus in the midst of all this is to find a spring of the purest Alpine water in the midst of a sea of boiling bullshit. And as you would expect of Alpine springs, the water is freezing cold.

No, says Camus. No to all this bullshit. No to all our desperate attempts to convince ourselves that the world has a meaning. No to God, no to Kierkegaard, no to the deluded narcissists and the snake-oil salesman who prey on human need and pain.

The facts, says Camus, are simple: We long for the world to make sense. But the world does not respond to our longing.

[Man] feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.We are desperate for meaning and for reasons.

As most of my romantic life has borne out, to be desperate for something does not mean that we can have it. The absurd is the space between wanting to kiss Chloe Blackburn and knowing that this will never happen.

The absurd, says Camus, is neither the desperation nor the impossibility - it is the confrontation between the two.

Why is it impossible for us to satisfy our desperate longing for the world to make sense? After all, there are many people who do satisfy their longing and there are many ways in which they do this - through beliefs in God, science, divine Oneness, nirvana, etc. etc. etc. Isn't this a refutation of Camus?

Well, says Camus, it's not impossible per se. But it is impossible if you want to remain within the proper limits of reason. If you refuse to take the leap into the irrational, if you refuse to believe things that reason does not support, then you must accept that your longing for the world to make sense will never be satisfied.

There’s one important subtlety in Camus’ position that I want to make explicit.

Camus is not a nihilist. He is not saying that the world is meaningless. He is saying rather that he does not know if the world has a meaning or not.

And he is saying that as he does not know, he is not going to simply believe that the world has meaning.

I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it.


So how does Camus answer the philosophical problem with which he began his essay, namely, the problem of whether to kill oneself or not?

I’ll be writing longer pieces over the coming weeks and months that go into his answer in detail. For now, though, let Camus have the last word, as he did the first:

The fundamental subject of “The Myth of Sisyphus” is this: it is legitimate and necessary to wonder whether life has a meaning; therefore it is legitimate to meet the problem of suicide face to face. The answer, underlying and appearing through the paradoxes which cover it, is this: even if one does not believe in God, suicide is not legitimate.