"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide." If we judge the importance of a philosophical problem by the consequences it entails, the problem of the meaning of life is certainly the most important. Someone who judges that life is not worth living will commit suicide, and those who feel they have found some meaning to life may be inclined to die or kill to defend that meaning. Other philosophical problems do not entail such drastic consequences.
Camus suggests that suicide amounts to a confession that life is not worth living. He links this confession to what he calls the "feeling of absurdity." On the whole, we go through life with a sense of meaning and purpose, with a sense that we do things for good and profound reasons. Occasionally, however, we might come to see our daily actions and interactions as dictated primarily by the force of habit. We cease to see ourselves as free agents and come to see ourselves almost as machine-like drones. From this perspective, all our actions, desires, and reasons seem absurd and pointless. The feeling of absurdity is closely linked to the feeling that life is meaningless.
Camus also associates the feeling of absurdity with the feeling of exile, a theme that is important not just in this essay but also in much of his fiction. As rational members of human society, we instinctively feel that life has some sort of meaning or purpose. When we act under this assumption, we feel at home. As a result, absurdists feel like strangers in a world divested of reason. The feeling of absurdity exiles us from the homelike comforts of a meaningful existence.
The feeling of absurdity is linked to the idea that life is meaningless, and the act of suicide is linked to the idea that life is not worth living. The pressing question of this essay, then, is whether the idea that life is meaningless necessarily implies that life is not worth living. Is suicide a solution to the absurd? We should not be fooled, Camus suggests, by the fact that there are only two possible outcomes (life or suicide)—that there are only two possible answers to this question. Most of us continue living largely because we have not reached a definitive answer to this question. Further, there are plenty of contradictions between people's judgments and their actions. Those who commit suicide might be assured life has meaning, and many who feel that life is not worth living still continue to live.
Face to face with the meaninglessness of existence, what keeps us from suicide? To a large extent, Camus suggests that our instinct for life is much stronger than our reasons for suicide: "We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking." We instinctively avoid facing the full consequences of the meaningless nature of life, through what Camus calls an "act of eluding." This act of eluding most frequently manifests itself as hope. By hoping for another life, or hoping to find some meaning in this life, we put off facing the consequences of the absurd, of the meaninglessness of life.
In this essay, Camus hopes to face the consequences of the absurd. Rather than accept fully the idea that life has no meaning, he wants to take it as a starting point to see what logically follows from this idea. Rather than run away from the feeling of absurdity, either through suicide or hope, he wants to dwell with it and see if one can live with this feeling.
As his starting point, Camus takes up the question of whether, on the one hand, we are free agents with souls and values, or if, on the other hand, we are just matter that moves about with mindless regularity. Reconciling these two equally undeniable perspectives is one of the great projects of religion and philosophy.
One of the most obvious—and on reflection, one of the most puzzling—facts about human existence is that we have values. Having values is more than simply having desires: if I desire something, I quite simply want it and will try to get it. My values go beyond my desires in that by valuing something, I do not simply desire it, but I also somehow judge that that something ought to be desired. In saying that something ought to be desired, I am assuming that the world ought to be a certain way. Further, I only feel the world ought to be a certain way if it is not entirely that way already: if there was no such thing as murder it would not make sense for me to say that people should not commit murder. Thus, having values implies that we feel the world ought to be different from the way it is.
Our capacity to see the world both as it is and as it ought to be allows us to look at ourselves in two very different lights. Most frequently, we see others and ourselves as willing, free agents, people who can deliberate and make choices, who can decide what's best and pursue certain ends. Because we have values it only makes sense that we should also see ourselves as capable of embodying those values. There would be no point in valuing certain qualities if we were incapable of acting to realize those qualities.
While we generally take this outlook, there is also the outlook of the scientist, of trying to see the world quite simply as it is. Scientifically speaking, this is a world divested of values, made up simply of matter and energy, where mindless particles interact in predetermined ways. There is no reason to think that humans are any exception to the laws of science. Just as we observe the behavior of ants milling about, mindlessly following some sort of mechanical routine, we can imagine alien scientists might also observe us milling about, and conclude that our behavior is equally predictable and routine-oriented.
The feeling of absurdity is effectively the feeling we get when we come to see ourselves in the second of these two alternative perspectives. This is a strictly objective worldview that looks at things quite simply as they are. Values are irrelevant to this worldview, and without values there seems to be no meaning and no purpose to anything we do. Without values, life has no meaning and there is nothing to motivate us to do one thing rather than another.
Though we may never have tried to rationalize this feeling philosophically, the feeling of absurdity is one that we have all experienced at some point in our life. In moments of depression or uncertainty, we might shrug and ask, "what's the point of doing anything?" This question is essentially a recognition of absurdity, a recognition that, from at least one perspective, there is no point in doing anything.
Camus often refers metaphorically to the feeling of absurdity as a place of exile. Once we have acknowledged the validity of the perspective of a world without values, of a life without meaning, there is no turning back. We cannot simply forget or ignore this perspective. The absurd is a shadow cast over everything we do. And even if we choose to live as if life has a meaning, as if there are reasons for doing things, the absurd will linger in the back of our minds as a nagging doubt that perhaps there is no point.
It is generally supposed that this place of exile—the absurd—is uninhabitable. If there is no reason for doing anything, how can we ever do anything? The two main ways of escaping the feeling of absurdity are suicide and hope. Suicide concludes that if life is meaningless then it is not worth living. Hope denies that life is meaningless by means of blind faith.
Camus is interested in finding a third alternative. Can we acknowledge that life is meaningless without committing suicide? Do we have to at least hope that life has a meaning in order to live? Can we have values if we acknowledge that values are meaningless? Essentially, Camus is asking if the second of the two worldviews sketched above is livable.