A student came to me and said he wanted to write his minor thesis in ethics on suicide. But listening to him, it was quite clear he would not be interested in the sophisticated arguments of official ethicists like Bernard Williams – he wanted to delve into the question of the value of life, and ask whether one could find some existential arguments against suicide. As it often goes, somewhere from the depths of my memory came a name: ‘you should read Camus! He is a rather neglected philosopher (at least in my country), but I know he wrote sensible things on this subject.’
I had never read Camus, however, it was just some implicit knowledge from my student days that made his name come up. But I had to know now whether what I had said made sense, so I started to read his ‘Myth of Sisyphus’. And thus the book started: ‘there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.’ Reading on, one finds that Camus takes the subject broadly: it is not the act of suicide which interests him, but the psychological, or rather the existential condition which sees no sense in living. His is a philosophy which does not remain in the borders of technical reasoning, but which draws from literature and life’s experience to penetrate the condition of real human beings. Thus he comes to his clear description of a well-known state of many modern humans, living in an ‘exile without remedy [being] deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land.’ This, he calls, is the feeling of absurdity.
In fact, what Camus describes is an awareness of the limits of the religion of modernity: the belief in the absolute power of reason. This religion tried to teach men that they could solve all problems of existence by reason, and its aide: technology. The problems of hunger, of communicating and trading over long distances, of sadness, of disease, of… death? Well, death cannot be solved in any way by reason or technology. And what is more: technology and reason provide no hope (as traditional religion might do) that there is or has been any state of comfort (home, in a spiritual sense) accessible to us. We just live and die and that’s it.
Nietzsche, a main inspiration to Camus, had shown the same already. His answer to the comfortless condition of a modern man (i.e. to the one conscious of the limits of reason) would be endurance. Power, keeping oneself together through will-power, in the midst of the harshness of our fate. Camus, however, has another answer. He was a revolutionary in the heart (which Nietzsche clearly was not). Modern man, he holds, cannot retreat (without giving up his honesty) to easy dreams of eternal life, nor is he honest when he chooses to give up, when he chooses suicide. But he can do more than will his way through life: he can keep up the work of toiling towards a better life and protesting the injustice of his fate at the same time, without ever being certain his efforts will lead to anything.
Albert Camus lived from 1913-1960. All citations are taken from his The Myth of Sisyphus, Vintage Books, New York, 1983 (original French edition 1942).
I dedicate this piece to the memory of my young friend Malick, who drowned at age 26, trying to reach Europe from Africa by fisherman’s boat, while being allowed, just because of his place of birth, no legal way in. He studied computer science, but in his heart he was a philosopher, who analyzed today’s world from a perspective that refused to be just local. Reading his posts (re)introduced me to many forgotten revolutionary and existential thinkers.