On Suicide: Was Camus Right?
The question of whether or not we should kill ourselves when faced with the perceived meaninglessness of our existence is the central question of “The Myth of Sisyphus” (1942). Written by the French Algerian journalist Albert Camus, the essay concludes that suicide is an inadequate solution to our existential dilemma and that, instead, we should rebel through a lucid embrace of our perceived futile condition. This argument is established through an intricate exploration of the apparent meaninglessness of the universe in which we inhabit, our confrontation with this meaninglessness, the potential solutions to this intolerable condition (including suicide), and finally the use of the Greek figure of Sisyphus to conclude that existential rebellion is the correct decision.
Initially Camus establishes that, within the limits of human observation, life appears devoid of any objective meaning. The human condition, unfortunately, is predisposed to search for purpose. Therefore, the tragedy of the human condition is formed through our inherent search for meaning within a universe seemingly vacant of such a concept. This encounter, when the individual, restless in their pursuit of a universal purpose, is greeted by a universal silence, is categorized as “The Absurd”. In following, life is absurd at the exact moment in which the individual becomes conscious of its absurdity.
At this point of lucidity, the existence of The Absurd can neither be ignored nor rejected. An embrace of religion (or any elaborate abstract system that attributes objective meaning to the universe) disregards this logic. This is the first ‘solution’ that Camus explores, one that he quickly rejects. To turn towards a theology, deity, or God is to perform a ‘leap’ that undermines the original position that establishes the existence of The Absurd. This is a basic betrayal of logic that Camus labels as ‘philosophical suicide’ (1.10).“Man is prey to his truths…” and “…once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them” (1.11). The truth, namely the existence of The Absurd, simply cannot be discounted with such ease.
Thus, the next seemingly rational choice available to the existentially despaired individual is that of suicide. This appears as a legitimate revolt in its attempt to settle The Absurd through engulfing it within one’s own demise. However, as Camus argues, The Absurd cannot be settled. The choice to continue your existence or to end it forms the same result. Camus illustrates The Absurd existing in the fleeting moments of the suicidal mind as the individual, in their dizzying fall, observes a shoelace a few yards away. The observed indifference of this object in the heat of this act carries that very same ‘weight’ of indifference that had led to this decision to kill oneself (1.19). Suicide fails to amount to any victory against The Absurd. Instead, for Camus, the act of suicide is a retreat and repudiation of The Absurd. There is no validity, in the view of Camus, that suicide is a legitimate solution in our confrontation with the indifference of the universe.
Camus considers only one solution as legitimate. Through an absolute embrace of one’s absurd condition one gains freedom and, moreover, a passion for existence (Camus.22). It is here that he introduces the Greek myth of Sisyphus. In short, the Gods have condemned Sisyphus to push a stone up a hill for eternity. Each time Sisyphus reaches the top of the hill the boulder rolls back down ad infinitum. Thus, Sisyphus must forever carry out a task despite its inherent and overt lack of purpose. This myth parallels the plight of the modern individual. For one to exist within contemporary society, one must go about fulfilling tasks, whether career-based, familial, or romantic. When one is confronted by the perceived meaninglessness of the universe, these tasks are rendered equally purposeless.
It is within the moment in which Sisyphus watches the boulder roll back downwards where Camus sees a point of valid comparison between the modern worker and the condition of Sisyphus. Here, in both the case of the worker, confronted by the absurdity of their life, as well as Sisyphus, confronted by the futility of his condemnation, Camus deems this condition a tragedy. “If the myth is tragic, it is because the hero is conscious” (1.23). However, the absence of hope, an absence that, for the modern worker, appears in fleeting moments of rumination, is fully and perpetually felt by Sisyphus.
For Camus, such constant lucidity can only be met with constant revolt. And this revolt must, paradoxically, be found through the absolute embrace of one’s fate. Sisyphus, undeniably aware of his hopeless condition, can claim it through this embrace. Despite the limited universe of Sisyphus (or the worker, or any living mortal), his fate belongs to him. Even in absolute condemnation, this embrace of the perceived futility of one’s condition allows for freedom and, through this, a lucid passion for existence. Camus concludes his essay with dramatic flare: “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. We must imagine Sisyphus happy” (1.24).
In order to determine any flaws within Camus’ argument, one ought to initially agree to the same presuppositions that Camus has established. Firstly, human’s exist in a physical form. Secondly, there is a distinction between life and death. Thirdly, free will is real (although restricted). Fourthly, there is no perceived objective meaning in the universe (such as God). With these points considered, we must understand the significance of the final assertion. Camus does not necessarily state that there is no God or purpose behind our existence. Instead, he argues that, within the scope of human observance, there is no perceivable God or purpose. Here, he recognizes the limitations of human nature. For him, it is this limitation that produces The Absurd.
He rejects suicide as a treatment for the intolerable Absurd. The dismissal of this act is lacking. Surely, with his concept of ‘philosophical suicide’, learned truths cannot be simply ignored so as to alleviate one from an intolerable awareness. Even in hedonism (or any form of escapism through a process of ‘numbing’), lucid flashes of The Absurd will haunt the individual unto death. However, similarly, Camus uses the indifference of a shoelace to highlight the ever presence of The Absurd even as one is moments from killing themselves. We must now ask: does the indifference of the shoelace (or The Absurd for that matter) continue to exist after one has completed self- annihilation? Camus repeatedly asserts that The Absurd requires the silence of the universe and the inherent human need for purpose. When one participant has opted out, the entire operation falls apart. The shoelace, it follows, is only indifferent in so long as it has someone to be indifferent to.
If we consider The Absurd to be an entirely human event and death to be distinct from life, it then follows that the death of the individual should mark the finality of The Absurd. Suicide not only provides escape from this wretched awareness but happens to, additionally, eradicate its oppressor. Is this not the perfect revolt? For the hopelessly depressed individual, it is the spontaneous alleviation from and destruction of The Absurd that gives the act, contrary to Camus, validity in considering it a revolt. Furthermore, in keeping with Camus, suicide, as a revolt, must be enacted with complete lucidity. The individual must partake in the act with no apparitions that the world will have been altered after their death. Instead they must understand and embrace that the universe will greet their death in the same manner as their existence: with silent indifference.
Suicide, when executed under a genuine confrontation with The Absurd, appears to comply with Camus’ definition of an adequate revolt. If suicide is justified within the premises that Camus sets forth, his argument falls flat. His own method of treating The Absurd now appears far too romantic and optimistic. To choose continued suffering is simply illogical.
Alleviation from such suffering, on a human level, appears justified. It can be established that a rational chain of thinking can lead to the idea that suicide is equally, if not more, of a revolt against The Absurd than the embrace of fatalism exhibited by Sisyphus. Suicide appears to be an adequate solution.
However, this rationalization is inconsiderate of the human condition. The act of suicide fails to fulfill the one component of our being that has brought The Absurd to our attention: our inherent need to find meaning. It has been established that suicide can destroy The Absurd through the erasure of the lucid individual. And yet, in the precise moment where suicide encloses the individual within eternal nothingness, so to does it render the act meaningless. How can any meaning be found within an act that erases it in the process? We have already established that alleviation from pain (in this case, existential pain) is a component of the human condition. Yes, suicide succeeds in fulfilling this aspect. However, the far more integral component to the human condition, the need for meaning, the same element that has beckoned forth this need for alleviation, is still found unsatisfied through suicide.
The cold rationalist may find this requirement to fulfill our need for meaning to be illogical. Perhaps, in the objective view of the universe, this position is correct. However, Camus is speaking directly from the situation of the human condition. Simply put, suicide may be an objectively rational solution but it fails to be a human solution. Humans are able to explore a great degree of self awareness. This, in following, has resulted in our tendency to intentionally kill ourselves. The intentionality of this act, in consideration of Camus’ view, depends upon absolute lucidity. However, there appears to be a large number of cases in which the decisions to kill oneself is affected by an unstable or non-lucid state of awareness. Reports carried out by the C.D.C. indicate a high correlation between substance abuse and low mental health with suicide (2). In 2009, according to Dr. Philip. A. May, a professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico, alcohol has played a role in over 40% of suicide cases in New Mexico (3). Inebriation in these instances appears to reject the idea that the suicidal individual has the ability to remain lucid and that, instead, there requires a certain ‘numbing’ or paralyzing of the senses in the process.
Why do we numb ourselves when carrying out a seemingly intentional act? Committing suicide without lucidity is incoherent with the notion that suicide is a proper revolt. We must disregard these non-lucid cases. However, can one kill oneself with full lucidity? A report, based upon interviews with seven survivors who had attempted suicide by jumping off of bridges, draws certain conclusions that suggest the unnatural essence of suicide (4). A majority of the survivors were sober at the time of the jump. Interestingly, many speak of “the will to live” striking them slightly before impact. We must consider this “will to live”. This suggests that, despite our ‘rational’ self-awareness, there exists an underlying biological condition that disallows planned self-destruction.
Suicide fails to fit biological rationality. Thus, individuals sometimes require inebriation to partake in suicide. Additionally, the survivors in this study all adopted religious beliefs after surviving even if they were previously atheist or agnostic. When the individual is seemingly lucid and rational, it is of great interest to observe that this complete act of apparent revolt at the meaninglessness of the universe, when incomplete, results in the survivor adopting an intricate value system: religion. In concert, these two elements suggest that to be human is to desire a sense of purpose and thus suicide fails to address this desire. Suicide does not coincide with human nature.
Suicide is a denial of the human condition. It fails to satisfy the human desire for purpose, rejecting the notion that it can be achieved with lucidity. This desire is as undeniable as The Absurd and simply cannot be ignored. Through this, suicide cannot be achieved in a human fashion but, instead, requires inebriation. This is due to its inability to override the will to live. If this inebriation is absent, the will to live arises in one’s final moments. Camus’ suggestion that we embrace this will to live despite the absence of hope gives us a human solution to The Absurd. Instead of creating purpose through destruction, a concept logically incoherent, the rebellion of Sisyphus propels the individual to the greatest triumph achievable within the human condition. It simultaneously considers our limitations,the absence of hope, and our undeniable need for purpose, and allows us to captain our fate. This is concurrent with the human condition. Suicide is not. To be human is to continue living.
1. Camus, Albert. 1965. The Myth of Sisyphus, and other essays. London: H. Hamilton
2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Mental Health Findings, NSDUH Series H-49, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14–4887. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014.
3. Rabin, Roni Caryn. “Alcohol A Common Factor In Suicides.” The New York Times: June
4. Rosen, David H. “Suicide Survivors: A Follow-up Study of Persons Who Survived
Jumping from the Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridges.” The Western Journal of Medicine 122: 289–294, April 1975