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Too Fast To Live…

by Rick Lewis

Albert Camus was the James Dean of philosophy. Both of them were good looking, talented, cool. James Dean’s best known film is Rebel Without a Cause; Albert Camus wrote a book called The Rebel, which examines the causes of rebellion. Both men died much too young, in high speed car crashes (Dean in 1955, Camus five years later).

Camus was a novelist, essayist, philosopher, and Nobel Prize winner killed at the height of his career. He was one of the best known intellectuals in France, a country which reveres intellectuals, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that, like James Dean, Camus inspired something of a posthumous cult. Dean died at only 24 and Camus at 46, but that’s still quite young for a philosopher: Willard Quine lived to be 92, Bertrand Russell to be 98, Hans-Georg Gadamer was still teaching aged 102. If Albert Camus hadn’t been in that crash, he might even still be with us today, celebrating his 100th birthday this year, a sprightly old guy doing the rounds of the literary chat shows. That he was robbed of the years between, and we were robbed of the further books he would undoubtedly have written, is down to the most arbitrary chance, probably to a seized wheel bearing or a burst tire.

What is a little ridiculous is the contrast between on the one hand the great seriousness and planning and thought which we must all put into our lives and concerns, and on the other hand the casual indifference of the Cosmos, the manner in which our future trajectories can be instantly re-routed or even ended by something as apparently trivial as a rusty old screw lying on the autoroute. This contrast is exactly what Camus found absurd, and this absurdity was something he thought and wrote about a great deal.

If you have heard of Camus but don’t yet know much about his life and his philosophy, then this issue will provide a couple of bright rays to pierce the darkness, namely Ray Cavanaugh and Ray Boisvert, whose two articles together provide a good introduction to Camus’ life and ideas particularly with regard to absurdity.

Camus (despite his own occasional denials) is widely seen as an existentialist writer par excellence. Van Harvey in his article salutes another aspect of Camus’ stance towards the universe – his willingness to embrace existence without transcendence, or, to put it another way, his willingness to live without a belief in either a God or any purpose to our lives coming from beyond or outside our lives themselves. A problem not only for Camus but for many 20th century existentialists is that refusing to admit the existence of any higher power or any authority beyond human beings living in the world not only deprives us of a sense of external, objective purpose to our lives but also of any objective foundation for morality too. But Camus had a pragmatic and down-to-earth approach to ethics. In his youth he had been a keen footballer, and was goalkeeper for the Racing Universitaire Algerios junior team (RUA). Years later he wrote for an alumni magazine that “what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport and learned it in the RUA.” (Many thanks to the Albert Camus Society for the exact wording!). He didn’t spell out there exactly how this worked, but the suggestion is clear: we don’t need a divine origin for the ethics of football; we just need a sense of fellowship and fair play, and this will generally be enough to resolve differences to the benefit of all those involved.

Tim Madigan in a sense deals with the opposite problem; not of there being no God but of there being too many gods, in this case the Greek gods of ancient Olympus. According to legend they decreed that Sisyphus, King of Corinth, be punished by having to push a giant boulder up to the top of a mountain, only for it to roll back to the bottom again, and then push it back to the top, over and over again for eternity. Camus (and other philosophers such as Richard Taylor) found in this myth a vivid example of a meaningless life; by considering how meaning could be brought back to Sisyphus’ life they try to establish what meaningless is, and what is meaning.

Camus opened his essay on Sisyphus with the words: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” He said this because it takes us straight to the heart of these questions about the meaning of life. Is my life meaningful enough to me that I want to continue it? What makes it meaningful? Could it be more meaningful than it is?

Nonetheless, Camus’ philosophical preoccupations might strike some as being a trifle on the gloomy side. Suicide? The plague? The plight of human beings alone in a universe that doesn’t care about us? The finitude of our lives and the inexorable approach of death? These are topics whose contemplation provokes anxiety (angst) or feelings that life is absurd. Many prefer not to dwell on these matters at all, but to fix their attention on more cheerful considerations (bad faith), or to deny the available evidence and cling to faith in a benevolent deity and an afterlife. Camus spurned all of these sources of comfort, but he didn’t kill himself. Instead he would stare moodily into the awful abyss of meaninglessness for a bit and then saunter off to some café for a cigarette and a chat with one of his many friends. Cheerfulness would break through again and having looked into the bleakest parts of the human soul, he reflected: “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

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