The Myth of Sisyphus
An Absurd Reasoning: Absurd Freedom
The absurd man demands certainty above all else, and recognizes that he can only be certain of the absurd. The only truth about himself that remains constant is his desire for unity, reason, and clarity, and the only truth about the world that seems certain is that it conforms to no obvious shape or pattern. There may be a meaning to life, but there is no sure way of knowing what this meaning is. The absurd man wants to live only with what he can be sure of.
The absurd is this conflict created between human reason and an unreasonable universe, and it exists only so long as one is consciously aware of it. In order to cling to the absurd, then, the absurd man must maintain conscious awareness of this conflict within him without trying to overcome it. Camus identifies three consequences of trying to live with the absurd: revolt, freedom, and passion.
Camus firmly counters the notion that a proper acceptance of the absurd entails suicide. On the contrary, he suggests, accepting the absurd is a matter of living life to its fullest, remaining aware that we are reasonable human beings condemned to live a short time in an unreasonable world and then to die. We remain aware of the conflict between our desire and reality, and so living the absurd is living in a constant state of conflict. It is a revolt against the meaninglessness of our life and the finality of the death that awaits us. Suicide, like hope, is just another way out of this conflict. Living the absurd is more akin to the predicament faced by the man condemned to death yet who, with every breath, revolts against the notion that he must die.
We generally live with the idea of freedom—that we are free to make our own decisions and to define ourselves by our actions. With this idea of freedom comes the idea that we can give our lives direction, and then aim toward certain goals. In doing so, however, we confine ourselves to living toward certain goals—to playing out a certain role. We might see ourselves as the good mother, the charming seducer, or the hard-working citizen, and our actions will be determined by this self-image we create. This idea of freedom is a metaphysical one: it claims that the universe and human nature are such that we can choose our own course. The absurd man is determined to reject everything he cannot know with certainty, and metaphysical freedom is no more certain than a meaning of life. The only freedom the absurd man can know is the freedom he experiences: the freedom to think and to act as he chooses. By abandoning the idea that he has some role to fulfill, the absurd man attains the freedom of taking each moment of life as it strikes him, free of preconceptions or prejudices.
In abandoning the idea of there being any meaning to life, the absurd man also abandons any notion of values. If there is no meaning or purpose to what we do, there is no reason for doing one thing rather than another. That being the case, we can apply no standard of quality to our experiences. Instead, we can apply only a standard of quantity: the more one experiences the better. By quantity of experience, Camus doesn't mean a long life so much as he means the passion of a full life. A person who is aware of each passing moment will experience more than someone who is otherwise preoccupied will. The absurd man is determined to live in the present.
Camus applies a kind of skepticism that has been prevalent in Western philosophy since Descartes, but he applies it in a very peculiar way. He follows Descartes's lead in doubting every proposition that he cannot know with certainty, but unlike Descartes, he does not follow up his skepticism with an attempt to re-establish metaphysical knowledge on more certain grounds. Instead, he observes that philosophers generally seem to be unable to agree on metaphysical questions, and takes that as a reason to doubt metaphysics generally. Following Descartes's lead, Camus does demand certainty, but he decides that there is no certainty to be found in metaphysics.
This position is profoundly un-philosophical. He is not interested in sorting out the correct intellectual position; he is interested in how to live. What matters to Camus is that there is no clean-cut answer to these questions, and he wants to know whether it is possible to live with certainty.
We might complain here that there is no clean-cut answer for Camus because he doesn't make the effort to find one. He doesn't seem to make any particular effort to justify his shunning of metaphysics. His claim that we cannot be certain about any rational order or meaning in the universe is not based on careful arguments that show this kind of certainty to be impossible. Rather, this claim comes from the awareness that the greatest minds of the past two thousand years haven't been able to agree on a correct answer, and therefore we are not likely to be able to discover certainty either. His is not a philosophical position so much as a practical consideration. Camus admits as much in this chapter: "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." The "just now" presumably suggests that perhaps this meaning is knowable, but not without a considerable and life-long intellectual effort that would prevent him from actually living. He wants to know if he can live with the certainty he has "just now" and with nothing more.
Camus identifies three consequences of living only with the certainty that there is no certainty: "my revolt, my freedom, and my passion." His "revolt" is living in the perpetual state of conflict characterized by the absurd. He must not cease to yearn for unity and order, but he must also remain aware that this unity and order is impossible. His revolt is without hope for resolution. This may seem a bit of an odd notion, for how can one be in a state of revolt—how can one struggle—if one has no hope of success? This concept of revolt without hope largely defines the absurd man, and characterizes the myth of Sisyphus, which Camus takes as the title of this work. (His attempt to characterize Sisyphus as his ideal absurd hero comes near the end of the essay.)
The concept of "freedom" that Camus employs is characteristically un- philosophical. Rather than concentrate on the human ability to be free from cosmic or metaphysical restraints (such as God or physical laws), he concentrates on freedom on an earthly level regardless of whether God or physics may or may not be operating as well. Camus asks, to what extent can we do and think what we want here on earth? The opposite of freedom, then, is not a person restrained by the laws of physics, but a person restrained by a repressive government or by his own timidity—earthly, alterable influences. The absurd man is free in this sense because he has abandoned the idea that his life has any value or any meaning, and so does not feel committed to living toward any particular goal. As a result, he faces every new moment free from the constraints of thought and actions that we normally conform to in society.
Philosophical debates on the nature of free will are far more complex than Camus makes them out to be. Most philosophers have abandoned the notion that freedom is necessarily defined against some kind of metaphysical determinism. Rather, they generally see it as linked to human rationality: I act freely if I act for a reason rather than due to blind impulse or desire. I am free if I make a choice to do something. In discussing absurd freedom, Camus ignores the greater part of philosophical discussions of freedom.
The "passion" that Camus refers to as the final consequence of living the absurd is a matter of living in the present. Because the absurd man is not concerned with the future and is not preoccupied with the past, the present moment seems that much more intense and alive to him.
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