The Myth of Sisyphus
The Absurd Man: Conquest
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."
Not coincidentally, Camus says the importance of the rebel's struggle is not that he overcomes others but that he overcomes himself. Ultimately, victory is as futile to the conqueror as posthumous fame is to the actor. For both, the only kind of achievement that would matter to them would be some sort of transcendental achievement, something that would give their life and their work some kind of meaning according to some set standard. However, both recognize the absurdity of their position, and recognize that there is no meaning or transcendence to be found in this life. Any lesser success will make no difference in the grand scheme of things. The rebel with an absurd awareness knows that a victory against his oppressors will not give life meaning, and so the success or failure of his struggle is ultimately unimportant beyond the present. Nonetheless, the struggle itself focuses his energies in such a way that he becomes more creative and more engaged with the world around him. Though his struggle may not overcome the political forces he opposes, it will teach him to overcome himself, so to speak, and to face the absurdity and the intensity of life head on.
While Camus's own life can be read into the examples of seducer and actor, his discussion of the conqueror is markedly autobiographical. He wrote The Myth of Sisyphus while working for the French Resistance during the Second World War. We see in his discussion of the conqueror the portrait of a man who does not so much choose to engage in political struggle as one who has the struggle thrown upon him. There is no sense of moral outrage at his oppressors, just a sense that their oppression has made rebellion the only satisfactory mode of life. Under the Nazi occupation, which severely limited the freedoms of the French people—freedom of expression in particular—resistance became the only possible outlet for self-expression and self-realization.
In closing, let us quickly link the conqueror with Camus's three characteristics of the absurd man: revolt, freedom, and passion. The conqueror is in a state of revolt in a very obvious and literal sense. But not only does he object to the political forces he struggles against; he also revolts against the fact (which he cannot deny) that his struggle will make no difference in the grand scheme of things. His freedom is linked on a very literal level to his political struggle. In rebelling, he is refusing to accept the laws and orders imposed on him by others, and fights for his freedom to act and think as he chooses. As Camus remarks, the absurd man's struggle focuses his energies on the present moment, on himself, and on the people around him. This sense of immediacy is precisely what Camus means when he talks about passion.
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