Friday, December 15, 2006

by Richard Barnett

Should we, in possession of a sound mind and with complete freedom of will, kill ourselves? To an inhabitant of Britain in the early 21st century, curled up on a sofa with a glass of wine and the TV remote control within easy reach, the question sounds laughable. To a condemned man facing the gallows or firing squad, the question is perhaps even more ridiculous. However, look more closely and it becomes apparent that the entire history of Western philosophy is contained within this question. As individuals, as members of a society and as a species we seek meaning[1]. From the earliest Socratic dialogues to post-Modernist contextual analyses Western philosophy is driven by a search for meaning within the human experience: in our inner lives, and in our interactions with each other and the world. Enormously powerful religious, political and philosophical structures have been built on the foundations of this search.

For at least four thousand years the idea of a higher level of intelligence - a single benevolent God or a pantheon of deities with different characters and interests – has provided a tremendously powerful source of meaning in the everyday life of the human race. But what would be the consequences for human life if the foundations of this meaning were to crumble? If meaning derives from a particular faith, or inheres in a particular relationship, what happens if this faith is destroyed, or if this relationship is broken? The suicide implied in this question is not a response to mental illness, or to intolerable grief. It is a rational choice, made with the realisation that life has no higher meaning. If life is genuinely meaningless, why should we tolerate the pain, disappointments and sheer hard slog of our day-to-day existence? Is it not better to put a final end to our weltschmerz?

So far, this discussion has been in fairly abstract terms. It is now time to place the question in a historical and subjective context. For a variety of reasons, 19th-century Europe experienced a decline in Christian faith. As the 19th century turned into the 20th century, many Christian observers wrote of their hopes for a revival of faith, and described the new moral order that they believed would bring together all nations. From the perspective of the 21st century it is apparent that these hopes were horribly misplaced. Through mechanised and impersonal wars on a global scale, through economic depression, through brutal totalitarian regimes, the ability of traditional systems of morality and meaning to provide answers was questioned. How could science claim to represent objective progress, if what it gave the world was the machine-gun, Zyklon-B, long-range bombers and the atom bomb? How could a loving God allow the deaths of millions of soldiers in pointless battles over a few hundred yards of mud? If every event was part of some higher scheme, what sort of benevolent deity (no matter how ineffable) could condemn six million human beings to a terrifying and ultimately pointless death? As Primo Levi has pointed out: if God is omnipresent, He was in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

This dissatisfaction with conventional morality was present on the personal, as well as philosophical, level. In the vast Western industrial and post-industrial societies, the concept of personal freedom and individuality became compromised. In the face of mass conformity – the ‘herd morality’, as Martin Heidegger described it – could each individual assert his or her own unique identity? At the start of the century an increasingly pessimistic Friedrich Nietzsche had prophesied ‘the death of God’, and the events following his prediction had for many destroyed any possibility of faith in a benevolent creator. The question of meaning was once again raised. Where could the human race look for truth, for knowledge, for some comprehension of what had happened? Religious belief provided little more than a dead end. Science and rationality seemed empty after so much incomprehensible suffering. Political and social structures provided no answers; were they not to blame, at least in part, for encouraging hatred and division? This problem – the source of meaning in a Godless universe – was at the core of existentialist theory, and was addressed directly by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus.

Existentialism is perhaps one of the most misrepresented schools of philosophy. The word alone conjures up images of sour-faced Frenchmen in black polonecks, sitting in boulevard cafes and holding forth on the pointlessness of existence whilst puffing on a Gauloise. On a more serious level, existentialism is often depicted as a bleak and nihilistic world-view, dismissing human life as meaningless and ethics as an illusion. However, even a cursory reading of the key existentialist texts does not support these criticisms. The father of existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), was a fundamentalist Christian whose stated aim was ‘to go back into the monastery out of which Luther broke’ – in other words, to return to the stark, uncompromising beliefs of pre-Reformation Christianity. Although the movement later became avowedly atheistic in outlook, Kierkegaard’s ideas provided the framework in which later writers such as Camus and Sartre operated. To understand their outlook, it is therefore necessary to take at least a brief look at this structure.

Kierkegaard’s work began as a reaction to the rationalist school of Immanuel Kant and George Hegel. Opposing Kant’s notion of religious faith as an essentially rational concept, Kierkegaard claimed that faith was necessarily irrational. It could not be subject to logical analysis and proof, as this would destroy its meaning. Faith, he asserted, should be a matter of fervent devotion, a ‘leap in the dark’. True existence is not just ‘being there’. Each individual must choose his or her way of life freely, and be passionately committed to it. In asserting the primacy of the individual and their free choice, Kierkegaard also created a notion of ‘subjective truth’ [2]. The ethical choices that confront humans on a day-to-day basis are not accessible to reason and cannot be shown to have ‘true’ or ‘false’ answers. Such choices cannot therefore be made on rational grounds, but rather should be resolutions in the face of the objectively unknown.

Even this very brief description of Kierkegaard’s existentialism demonstrates the great importance he attributed to meaning and morality. Existentialism does not assert that all choices are meaningless: rather, it insists that individuals take complete responsibility for their choices, and do not attempt to disguise their motives with false claims of rationality. Unlike so many western philosophers, Kierkegaard insists on the primacy of feelings, of angst and irrationality, of living life passionately despite the unavoidability of uncertainty. Paradoxically, despite Kierkegaard’s intense Christianity there is nothing within his philosophy that demands religious belief. An existentialist world-view is as capable of accommodating the most ardent believer as it is the most dutiful sceptic.

This theme of existentialism was developed not only in philosophy, but also in some of the most important literature of the period. In The Brothers Karamazov (1880) Fyodor Dostoyevsky explored the tensions between the conservative Russian ruling classes and a younger generation coming to terms with the irrationality of everyday life. Much of Leo Tolstoy’s writings (in particular the monumental War and Peace (1869)) are suffused with a sense of absurdity: he portrays the human race as a mass of isolated individuals cast adrift in a world that neither loves nor hates them, but rather is completely indifferent to their sufferings. In the early decades of the 20th century existentialism as a philosophy developed in this direction. Kierkegaard’s profound belief in the existence of a benevolent creator was differentiated from the ‘leap of faith’ necessary to imbue life with meaning.

Any history of existentialism in the 20th century must have as a central theme the influence of world events on the development of this philosophy. I raised this point at the start of the essay, but it is worth restating it here. Existentialism is frequently described as a philosophy of ‘response’: the response of a species that desires meaning and comprehension to the revelation that the Universe is ultimately devoid of higher meaning and order. However, it must also be seen as a response on a practical, as well as abstract, level to the political and military crises of the time in which it developed. The two most important 20th-century existentialist writers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, lived under Nazi occupation for much of the Second World War (in Paris and Algeria respectively). Rather than dismiss what they saw around them as anomalies in an otherwise rational and ordered universe, they saw the Nazi atrocities as expressions of human choice – the choice to act immorally [3].

It was in the bleakest years of the Second World War – 1942 and 1943 – that the most influential Existentialist texts were published. Sartre’s Being and Time (1943) is a remarkable statement of optimism and human freedom in the midst of meaninglessness and despair. Like Kierkegaard, Sartre emphasized the importance of individual uniqueness rather than mere mediocrity and conformity. An individual, he argued, is always free to choose (the only freedom he lacks is to not choose), and can always ‘negate’ (or reject) his own characteristics and those of the world he lives in. The ‘meaning of life’ is not something bestowed upon the human race by a higher power, but is created in our actions, our choices and, most importantly, in our commitment to the choices we make. However, this freedom is tempered by a great responsibility: the responsibility to stand by the choices we make and to remain ‘authentic’ or true to ourselves. It is in making choices, in asserting our ultimate freedom in the face of an uncaring world, that human life can be lived in its fullest and richest sense.

Sartre also introduced the notion of angst into his philosophy. Critics of existentialism have frequently taken angst to represent the ultimate pointlessness of life, and used it as an example of the pessimistic nature of existentialism. A reading of Being and Time shows the reverse to be true. Angst (or weltschmerz – world pain) is an idea employed by many different philosophies under several guises. In Christianity it represents the vestiges of original sin within the human soul. Life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’ (in the words of Thomas Hobbes) because human nature is essentially sinful, and needs to be saved in order to be happy and enjoy eternal life. Sartre hated the concept of original sin. He argued that angst is the natural response of the individual to the realisation that his search for higher meaning and order in the universe is ultimately pointless. However, this is not a reason to despair. Angst is a symptom of freedom, a powerful demonstration that life is being lived in complete self-awareness, and should be accepted and celebrated.

Camus’ first major work, L’Etranger (1942), proposed a rather more defiant model of existentialism. Whilst adopting Sartre’s essentially optimistic view of existence, Camus went a stage further. He argued that, although human life could be made meaningful in the way that Sartre described, death made all actions ultimately futile. The only response was to accept that we are all ‘condemned to death’. Once this occurred every individual should rebel against this ‘ultimate negation’, throw themselves into life and with every choice affirm their existence in the face of death. Camus described this human battle with ultimate meaninglessness and indifference as the Absurd.

The Myth of Sisyphus, also published in 1942, is perhaps the clearest statement of Camus’ philosophy of the Absurd. In it, Camus directly addressed the question that began this essay: should we commit suicide? His answer to the question is a powerful argument for optimism, and a complex rhetorical and polemical rejection of the need for faith in a higher power. Unlike many works of philosophy, Camus is overwhelmingly concerned with the impact of his ideas on everyday life. His existentialism is essentially a way to live, a mode of thinking for coping with the harsh and confusing realities of everyday life. But it is also an elegant and minimalist piece of theory, rejecting abstruse philosophical concepts in favour of the basic truths of human existence.

Camus begins with the image of Sisyphus. A mythical King of Corinth, Sisyphus scorned the Gods and escaped from the Underworld. He was condemned to spend all of eternity pushing a rock up a mountain, only for it to roll back down to the bottom. There was no end in sight for Sisyphus, no respite and no sense that what he was doing had any meaning. This is the metaphor that Camus chooses for humanity. If we discard the notion of God, Heaven and Hell, we are left with a titanic and lifelong struggle that, ultimately, we are condemned to lose. Death comes not as a release from our struggle, but as a negation of all that we accomplish by our efforts. Against all this, Camus asks, in the face of death and in the full knowledge that we are defeated before we begin, can we be happy?

We can. Life is not absurd; the Absurd is life. This painful and futile struggle that we are all condemned to participate in (for, as Sartre pointed out, the only choice that is denied to us is to opt out) is all that we know. It is the only reality we have; all else is faith. In this world, Camus’ individual is forced to confront the limitations of his knowledge:

I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I cannot know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms… I do not want to found anything on the incomprehensible. I want to know whether I can live with what I know and with that alone.’[4]

No invocation of an Absolute Reality; no Categorical Imperatives or Creators. Camus is determined to use only what he can know to answer his question. There can be no appeal to religious faith, based as it is on centuries of tradition and dogma. It is at this point that he finally parts company with the religious existentialism of Kierkegaard. Where Kierkegaard finds comfort in the notion of a benevolent Creator, Camus sees nothing but nostalgia, a fond memory of the illusion of order.

Awareness of the Absurd is a one-way street. There can be no ‘leap of faith’, no return to belief: to do so would be self-delusory. Indeed, Camus describes religious belief in the face of the Absurd as ‘philosophical suicide’. Consistency, authenticity, self-awareness – these form the basis of the Absurd life. Another quote from Primo Levi (himself a lifelong atheist) provides an eloquent example of what Camus is driving at. In October 1944 Levi was arrested and sent to Auschwitz. As the camp doctor examined him, deciding whether he would be gassed or sent to work, Levi found himself tempted to pray for assistance:

A prayer under these conditions would not only have been absurd (what rights could I claim? And from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene, laden with the greatest impiety of which a non-believer is capable. I resisted the temptation: I knew that otherwise were I to survive, I would have to be ashamed of it. [5]

Man is therefore presented with two choices. He can reject life and kill himself; but in doing so he allows both Absurd life and meaningless death to triumph over him. Or he can become a rebel in all senses of the word, constantly rejecting death in the complete knowledge that he will one day die. At this point Camus moves from the metaphorical language of rebellion to a more practical discussion of self-awareness in everyday life. The mechanical, repetitive nature of life in industrial society contains for Camus both tragedy and comedy. Seen from within such an existence is tragic, with no room for individual expression and no higher meaning than day-to-day survival. From the outside - from the perspective of one living the Absurd life - a repetitive existence is comic: a meaaningless mechanical dumb-show. By recognising life as comic, by incorporating it into the Absurd, one can escape the endless tragic repetitiveness.

A few brief paragraphs can give only a flavour of Camus’ arguments in The Myth of Sisyphus. In addition to the tragicomic nature of everyday existence he examines the Absurd elements of various lives: the actor, the conqueror, the writer, the seducer and so on. Creativity is for Camus a very particular and intense form of rebellion; the fruits of the creative life provide the only possibility of even limited immortality. However, he acknowledges that most individuals simply cannot devote their lives to art or literature. To struggle is sufficient. An Absurd hero is not a warrior or a poet, but an ordinary individual who accepts the inevitability of death and yet fights it with all his power:

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 towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. [6]

What Camus produced in The Myth of Sisyphus was perhaps the most uncompromising and individual atheist polemic of the 20th century. As such, it has found many critics. Some have argued that it proposes little more than an inverted system of faith, riven with contradictions and quasi-religious dogma. Others take exception to Camus’ rejection of rationality as a means of understanding everyday life. Perhaps most significantly, the uncertain and apparently irrational world in which Camus wrote has been replaced by one that is, at least in the short term, more stable. In the affluent and self-satisfied West of the early 21st century it is difficult to conceive of life as a consuming and passionate struggle against a meaningless death.

Despite these criticisms, The Myth of Sisyphus still repays generously the effort involved in reading it. As a historical document it displays the astonishing degree to which philosophy could flourish under a repressive occupation. On a more personal level, it is a fascinating journey into the mind of an articulate young man confronted with the realisation that his knowledge of the world is extremely limited. More than that, it is a powerful assertion of human freedom, and a command to the individual to take responsibility for the course of his life. Perhaps most exceptionally, The Myth of Sisyphus is a piece of literature with its roots in practical experience, rather than a series of abstract, quasi-mathematical syllogisms. The way in which individuals make their lives meaningful is ultimately a personal, subjective choice, and Camus’ work is an elegant and fiercely intelligent contribution to this subject.


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