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Albert Camus: Philosophical Suicide, Physical Suicide, and the Absurd

Part II of a III part series

Written by Jeffrey Miiller

Photo by Ken Treloar on Unsplash

read part I

If we follow Camus in thinking that there is “one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide”, then we are committed to the notion that to decide whether life is worth living or not is the fundamental question of philosophy.¹

If we choose to continue our lives and abstain from suicide, then we have ultimately decided that life is worth living, regardless of how much we may gripe about life.

It is only through completing the act of suicide that we answer that life is not worth living — to commit the act of suicide is to say that life is not worth the trouble of living. In choosing to continue or end our lives, we are implicitly answering the question of whether life is worth living or not.

To continue to breathe is to assign a positive value to life.

If we suppose that Camus’ notion of the absurd exists and life is defined by this particular conception of absurdity, then we can ask the following questions: Is such an absurd life worth living? Should we abstain from suicide? Is there any way to escape the absurd? This article will consider Camus’ thoughts on whether we can escape the absurd and, if possible, should we escape the absurd.

The absurd is a discomforting situation. It consists of a fundamental disconnect between the desire of the human being for ultimate meaning — the ultimate meaning premise — and a universe that constantly frustrates this desire with its unintelligibility, its indifference, and its impersonal nature — the impossibility premise. It seems natural that we would seek to leave this state of affairs. If we yearn for an ultimate meaning to life, a set of principles that can guide our thoughts and actions, then we are certainly going to attempt to overcome or escape from a universe that denies us that meaning. We can now ask the question of how this overcoming or escape from the absurd can be achieved.

Becoming a little more familiar with some details concerning the absurd provide insight into how this escape might be achieved. As I mentioned in my last article:

“the absurd is fundamentally relational, rather than a property of the universe or human being as individual entities: it is a relationship that occurs between a being that seeks ultimate meaning and yet will always be frustrated in achieving a certain answer.”

The absurd can only exist if both sides of the relationship are present. Therefore, refuting one or both of the premises — the ultimate meaning and impossibility premises — that are required for the existence of the absurd allows us to escape the absurd. We can then live a life that isn’t defined by the absurd and this particular conception of absurdity. Camus identifies two possible methods of escape: physical suicide and philosophical suicide.

Let us begin by explaining how physical suicide allows us to escape the absurd. It is rather simple: to end one’s life is equivalent to removing the being that is constantly seeking ultimate meaning. Without a being that is seeking ultimate meaning, the first premise required for the existence of the absurd — the ultimate meaning premise — is lost.

In other words, without a being that is seeking ultimate meaning, there are no desires that can be frustrated by the indifferent, unintelligible universe.

The absurd is unable to exist because the absurd is fundamentally this experience of the human being struggling against the universe for ultimate meaning. Without the being, there can be no such experience. In ending our own life, we necessarily make it impossible for that frustration of the desire for ultimate meaning to occur.

That is to say — “there can be no absurd outside the human mind.” We can also look at it from the following manner. If we lose one entity in a relation that is composed of two entities, the relation necessarily ceases to exist, since a relation requires at least one other entity for the first one to relate to. Therefore, we see that “the absurd ends with death.”²

We can now consider how philosophical suicide allows us to escape the absurd. First, we must define the notion of philosophical suicide. We commit philosophical suicide when we perform a leap of faith. To perform a leap of faith is to suspend rationality, it is to claim knowledge or believe things that go beyond the limits of rationality, it is to believe things on faith.

Camus’ recognition of the limits of rationality led to the birth of the impossibility principle — the notion that it is impossible to arrive at certain truth concerning the ultimate meaning of life and existence. Camus recognized that rationality could not conclude that the world is necessarily rational and, thus, any ultimate meaning to life that is derived via rationality may be subject to doubt.

Through performing a leap of faith, we transcend the limits of rationality and believe in some fact by virtue of faith and despite the protests of rationality. In doing so, we transcend the impossibility principle, since the leap of faith seems to have allowed us to arrive at certain truth concerning the ultimate meaning of life and existence.

Once again, the absurd dissolves, as we remove one of its fundamental premises. The relation breaks down, the desire for ultimate meaning of the human being is no longer being frustrated, as the absurd requires, but is being fulfilled now through a constantly renewed leap of faith.

The concept of a leap of faith has particularly religious connotations, but it is important that it is not necessarily tied to Christianity, Buddhism, or any other particular religious system. The only salient point is that reason is suspended and replaced by faith.

To believe in the infallibility of reason is to perform a leap of faith. Even the belief of the scientist in empiricism is a leap of faith. This is not to say that it might be pragmatic to accept rationalism or empiricism. In calling these examples leaps of faith, we are simply saying that neither belief can be demonstrated beyond doubt through reason.

We cannot rationally conclude beyond doubt that rationality is infallible, nor can we conclude beyond doubt that empiricism is infallible.

Now the question arises of whether we should attempt to escape the absurd through either of the described mechanisms. Camus categorically rejects not only both of these described mechanisms for eluding the absurd but all mechanisms that attempt to elude the absurd.

This rejection is based on a stubborn commitment to staying rational and conscious of the absurd — remaining true to the truth — until the very end of life. We find this view when Camus states that “if I judge that a thing is true, I must preserve it” (Ibid). And, furthermore, Camus suggests that it isn’t possible for the honest individual to turn away from the absurd. This is because “a man is always prey to his truths. Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them.”³

Thus, Camus counsels us to abstain from the philosophical suicide and its corresponding leaps of faith such that we can stay rational until the very end of life. And Camus further exhorts us to deny physical suicide, since such an act would end our ability to hold the absurd in consciousness.

On the contrary, Camus argues that we should “revolt” against the absurd, which requires us to remain fully conscious of the absurd at all times, to be fully aware of our inevitable mortality, and to accept that there may be no life beyond this current one.

Furthermore, revolt requires us to refuse to engage in the any leap of faith, which is equivalent to extinguishing any hope of an ultimate meaning to life. As such, life must be lived without appeal to any objective, ultimate values or meaning.

Upon first glance, one might be inclined to think that Camus has painted a very bleak picture here. However, Camus goes on to argue that it is only through engaging in this revolt against the absurd that we can live the best life.

  1. See the Myth of Sisyphus, p. 11
  2. p. 34
  3. p. 35

read part I

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The Editor

In order to combat fake news, the writers at Strawm*n take on their own ideologies in an ongoing conversation with thought leaders. It’s news, in theory.