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The Myth of Sisyphus

Albert Camus

The Absurd Man: Conquest

The Absurd Man: Drama

The Absurd Man: Conquest, page 2

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Camus distinguishes sharply between living in the present and pursuing a life of contemplation that aspires to eternal ideals. The latter type includes, but is not limited to, the religious type, which is less concerned with the events of the world and more concerned with putting people in touch with eternity and with God. The conqueror is of the former type, choosing to live exclusively for the world he inhabits. Political concerns are of paramount concern to him, and he engages enthusiastically in political struggle. Paradoxically, he must recognize the futility of his struggle and does not expect to be able to change the world or human nature. The only victory that would ultimately satisfy him would be an eternal victory, one that would change the world forever, and he knows that this kind of transcendence is impossible.

The absurd man is drawn to rebellion and conquest because they bring out humanity's fullest potential. People engaged in political revolt are exclusively focused on the needs and dignity of human life and on the relationships that exist between people. They have clearly defined purposes and goals, and this makes them fully aware of themselves and of their capabilities. In rebellion, people cease to be complacent and ineffectual. They become aware of the enormous impact that they can make on the world. In that sense, the rebel, or conqueror, is attractive not because he overcomes any external opponent but because, in a sense, he overcomes himself in realizing his full potential. Naturally, Camus claims, the church has always opposed such conquerors, because they place earthly concerns ahead of eternal ones.

Camus concludes this part of the book by remarking that the seducer, the actor, and the conqueror are only three examples of the absurd man, and that they are rather extreme examples. Absurdity does not entail a certain style of life, but a certain frame of mind. An office clerk or a politician can also live an absurd life so long as they maintain an awareness of the futility and meaninglessness of all their struggles and remain determined to live consistently and with integrity in the present moment.


Though the title of this chapter is "conquest" and Camus refers to this character as a "conqueror," it would seem that he is speaking largely from his own experience as a member of the French Resistance during the Second World War. He seems more concerned with rebellion and resistance than with world conquest. To the absurd man, all struggle is futile and no victory is eternal, but the struggle without hope is what defines his life. Naturally, Camus prefers the lost cause and the struggle of the underdog, where the struggle is more intense.

Though Camus is often classified as an existentialist or discussed alongside other existentialists, he never claimed the title for himself, and he distances himself (as we have seen) from many of the conclusions of existentialism. Even his preoccupations and interests differ significantly from existentialist thought. As we mentioned briefly in the section on Don Juanism, Camus's primary influence is unmistakably Nietzsche. In this chapter, that influence can easily be seen. Camus even borrows some terminology from Nietzsche. The concept of "self-overcoming" is very important to Nietzsche, and a brief overview of how Nietzsche uses it may clarify where Camus is coming from here.

Nietzsche sees within every human being the potential either to serve or to be served, to rule or to obey. People are at once (to use Nietzsche's language) creatures and creators. Nietzsche asserts that the primary force that drives us is what he calls a "will to power"—that is, a will to assert our own independence and to impose our will upon others. On a superficial level, this will to power manifests itself as a brutish desire to subjugate and dominate others. Such a brute person would want only to rule and be served. A more subtle and refined person might direct his will to power toward himself, so that he tries to master himself rather than other people. He learns to overcome his animal instincts and to act and think independently. In such a case he is both ruler and ruled, creator and creature. Nietzsche calls this process of deepening and enriching one's inner life "self-overcoming."

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