Essay: Morality, Nihilism, and Absurdism in Camus
Albert Camus’ novels, The Stranger and The Fall, compare the philosophical theories of nihilism and absurdism, claiming that even though life may lack meaning, morality is still important and everyone, regardless of their philosophical believes, should value it. In this paper, morality is the code of conduct accepted by an individual for his own behaviour. Nihilists believe that life is entirely meaningless, but absurdists believe that even though life is meaningless, a person will spend his entire life searching for meaning. Camus’ novels suggest that nihilism and absurdism are interconnected ideas with similar effects on an individual’s morality. In The Stranger, Meursault is a nihilist who does not think it is important to be moral or behave in a way that benefits others. Conversely, Clamence is an absurdist, who tries to find meaning through other’s judgements of him. He manipulates people in order to achieve his goals; however, this manipulation proves that he does not value personal morality. A comparison of the novels The Stranger, which explores nihilism, and The Fall, which focuses on absurdism, suggests that morality is the most important aspect of life, even if life has no intrinsic meaning.
In The Stranger, the main character Meursault is a nihilist who believes that life has no meaning. Instead of searching for meaning, Meursault lives detached from the people around him and does not care about his life, family, or friends. Meursault’s relationship with Marie proves that Meursault does not care about other people or value what happens in his life. For example, when Marie asks Meursault if he loves her, he replies “that sort of question [has] no meaning, really; but I suppose I didn’t” (“The Stranger,” 38). This causes Marie to look upset, but Meursault feels neither empathetic, nor guilty for what he said so callously. Later in the novel, Marie asks if Meursault would marry her, to which he responds that does not care whether he marries Marie or any other woman (“The Stranger,” 45). Meursault’s nonchalance about marriage comes from his belief that there is no meaning to life, and therefore no reason to value anything that happens in it. When Marie claims that marriage is a serious commitment, Meursault simply says “no” (“The Stranger,” 46). Thus, Meursault’s relationship with Marie proves that he is a nihilist, as he puts no value into his relationship and does not care whether she is in his life or not. After all, without Marie’s actions, Meursault would not have pursued her, being that life is meaningless and all effort put into it would be wasted. Meursault is a nihilist because he places no value in his life or the lives of others, and lives emotionally detached from the world.
Meursault’s relationship with Marie proves that he has no empathy for other people, but his behaviour during the murder and his trial shows that he also lacks morality. Meursault’s amorality stems from the lack of value he places on his own life — and by consequence, the lives of those around him. Although Meursault admits that “each successive shot [at the Arab] was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing,” he does not regret murdering the Arab. Instead, he is upset because the gunshots interrupted the serenity of the beach (“The Stranger,” 64). This shows that Meursault does not acknowledge right from wrong, as he recognizes that the beach is disturbed but does not regret the Arab’s death. The scene describes the Arab’s death as unintentional, caused by the sweat in Meursault’s eyes and the heat of the beach, and it would be natural for a person to regret killing a man by accident (“The Stranger,” 63). However, Meursault is not upset as he does not distinguish between morally right or wrong actions — proving that he does not adhere to moral standards. His amorality stems from his nihilism, as morality is unimportant when life is entirely meaningless. When faced with his own death, Meursault tells himself that “it’s common knowledge that life isn’t worth living, anyhow” (“The Stranger,” 121). His belief that life is meaningless allows him behave immorally and to accept his death without feeling any remorse. Right before Meursault dies, he says, “I opened myself for the first time to the tender indifference of the world” (“The Stranger,” 129) a poetic line that reinforces the idea that Meursault’s nihilism causes his amorality and disregard for his own life by reminding himself that life does not care about people either.
Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the main character of The Fall, is a philosophical absurdist who believes he has found the goal or meaning of life; however, he accepts that this goal is ultimately worthless because life has no intrinsic value. He recognizes that life is a game and meaningless, but also acknowledges that the existence of the game means he will either win or lose. Clamence believes that being widely liked and respected, especially for his moral actions, is how you can live life. To do this, he creates a morally just public image of himself, claiming that he behaved as though he was from Eden, an angel or Adam before he ate from the tree of knowledge (“The Fall,” 27). However, after witnessing a preventable suicide, Clamence realizes he will never be able to reach his goals of being the best person on earth, a revelation that nearly destroys him (“The Fall,” 53). Clamence confines himself to Amsterdam, which he describes as his own personal hell, and refocuses his efforts from being moral to being less immoral than others are. He spends his time at the bar called New Mexico convincing others that they are immoral and, even though he is not entirely moral, he is better than they are. This allows Clamence can reach his goal of being the most morally just person, but does not need to be truly moral. Thus, Clamence believes that the meaning of life is to be widely respected as a morally just and virtuous person.
While Meursault does not want to be a virtuous person, and this is what eventually kills him, Clamence wants to be a good person but believes it is only possible through immoral actions. In order to reach his goals, Clamence pretends to be moral in order to convince others he is virtuous, however, this is only a façade and does not represent his true self. He cannot accomplish his goal because he refuses to be truly moral; instead, he believes that he is more likely to succeed if he is amoral. This is not true, since Clamence would have succeeded if he knew that he tried his hardest to be moral. The reason he fails is that he knows he has not tried his hardest — he did not save the suicidal woman, and his entire life has been a scam to convince others to think he is something he is not. Therefore, both Meursault and Clamence follow philosophical schools of thought that deny the existence of meaning, and both of them behave amorally. Although these texts to not conclusively prove that nihilism and absurdism lead to amorality, it is reasonable to conclude that morality is important, regardless of a person’s school of thought. If Meursault had behaved morally, he would not have been sent to the guillotine for murder. If Clamence had behaved morally, he would have been able to stay in Paris and continue trying to win the good judgement of those around him. However, both characters give up morality when they give up the notion of a meaning to life.
It is not the lack of meaning in life that causes Meursault and Clamence to suffer; it is the lack of morality. Since both characters lack morality, they both behave in a way that society rejects, which ultimately has negative effects on their lives, as Meursault dies because of his amorality and Clamence outcasts himself because of his immoral actions. An analysis of the seminaries and differences between The Stranger and The Fall suggests that morality is one of the most important things we have as human beings and that even if there is no meaning to life, there is still a reason to be moral. Morals make a person fit in with society and to increase his self-esteem by allowing him to be proud of himself and his actions. While being proud of yourself does not mean “winning the game” like Clamence believes, the novels suggest that morality would have helped Meursault and Clamence be more successful. Morality simply means doing what we think is morally virtuous, and although it may not always align with the rest of society, the books suggest that morality is still important — even if you believe in extreme philosophical theories, such as nihilism or absurdism. The Stranger and The Fall depict nihilism and absurdity in a way that argues that morality is the most important aspect of life, and because Meursault and Clamence lack morality, they lead unfulfilling lives.
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