Absurdity and Attitude Towards to Absurdity – Review of The Myth of Sisyphus Written by Camus
Living in the world, we may always find absurdity, and Camus purposed his opinion to explain the generation of the absurdity and the attitude towards the absurdity. Camus says that the absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world and he thinks that when facing to the absurdity, one should persist awareness of the absurd and revolt the absurdity. I will argue that when the absurdity actually comes from the lack of information, and when facing to the absurdity, one should review himself and ignore the unrealistic absurdity.
Camus believes that the mismatch between human beings and the world leads to the absurdity. At the beginning of Myth of Sisyphus, Camus points out that: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest…comes afterwards…the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.” Camus thinks that “suicide”, no matter philosophical suicide or physical suicide, represents that the life is meaningless. Then he starts to talk about the absurd using some specific examples. He also points out the act of a man who armed only with a sword attack a group of machine guns is absurd, and get to the conclusion: “… But it is so solely by virtue of the disproportion between his intention and the reality he will encounter, of the contradiction I notice between his true strength and the aim he has in view.”
The example is not convincing enough to prove that the absurdity comes from “not in man (if such a metaphor could have a meaning) nor in the world, but in their presence together.” The definition of absurdity provided by Camus is a little bit wrong. When people talking about the absurdity, they are always talking about the absurd actions or the absurd things happening on the others, not themselves. Therefore, the object we always focusing on is the outside world, not the subjective individual themselves. Obviously, Camus mistook the object he wanted to talk about. When a person tries to judge the action of another person is absurd or not, he stands only on his position, which may be affected by lots of limitation. Therefore, in fact, the absurdity doesn’t come from the mismatching of the world and man himself; it comes from the asymmetry or lack of the information.
Let’s consider a specific situation. During the World War II, Polish army rode on the horses and used their swords to fight against Nazi with tanks and advanced weapons. According to Camus’s description, this is an absurd fighting. However, we all know that the battle was not absurd at all – it was a fierce but glorious defense battle. Here comes the question: why will the bystander make wrong judgement after reading Camus’s description? This is because Camus didn’t introduce the complete background knowledge, so the reader will consider the battle in a different way. No one will fight with a stronger enemy without reason, so it’s important to understand the reason or background behind the absurdity. It’s because the lack of information, the bystander will make wrong judgements. Therefore, mostly, absurd is neither comes from the absurdity itself, nor the confrontation between the man and the world. Absurdity always comes from the ignorant of the complete events and the lack of information.
Nagel criticized Camus viewpoints. He thinks that the absurdity arises because of the clash between two human attitudes: “unavoidability of seriousness” and “inescapability of doubt”. He claims that the seriousness is unavoidable because people care about how their lives go and have certain aspirations and projects that matter to them, and the doubt is inescapable because as reflective creatures, human beings have the ability to “step back” and look at their lives from a detached, critical position. Human can adopt this perspective toward any set of goals or values, and nothing is immune from our ability to put it into question. Nagel’s views are more convincing because the absurdity has nothing to do with the world, it’s only about the person himself. It’s human being himself feels absurd, therefore, the focusing object should also be the human being. However, we will find that the seriousness is not always “unavoidable”, and the reflective doubt is not always “inescapable”. The absurd doesn’t come from the confliction of the, it comes from the weakness and limitation of human being.
Take an example of an excellent jumper. A jumper wants to jump 100 meters high, and he works hard for his goal. He trains every day but he still cannot reach the goal. According to Nagel, the jumper has “unavoidable seriousness” and “inescapable doubt”. Now the jumper may think that the world is absurd because his effort doesn’t pay off. If the jumper sets his goal to 2 meters high, we will find that his effort pays off. He may achieve his goal easily. However, if he sets an extremely high goal which is far beyond his power, of course he will find that he cannot make it. In this case, both the seriousness and the doubt can be eliminated by changing a reasonable goal.
Human beings have their limitations. They cannot run as fast as jaguars, and they cannot lift as heavy as elephants. There are differences between individuals, so people all have their own limitation. It will be a disaster if asking Michael Jackson to learn boxing, so if asking Muhammad Ali to learn singing. Usually, the absurdity generates from the excessive demands on oneself and the limitation of one’s ability. In a word, it’s because the lack of understanding of oneself leading to the absurdity. Therefore, the ultimate cause of absurdity is the lack of information towards to a whole event or a specific person.
After knowing the cause of the absurdity, it’s kind of easy to find out the attitude we should have when facing towards the absurdity.
In Myth of Sisyphus, Camus used the example of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is a clever man who tricked Hades into being handcuffed until Ares released Hades and sentenced Sisyphus. Sisyphus was condemned to perpetual stone rolling. Camus thinks that Sisyphus is an “absurd hero” because he is aware of his situation and has inner revolt against the gods. Camus thinks that the best attitude towards absurd is revolting against the absurdity, which is not helpful or practical. The best attitude towards absurd should be ignoring it.
When Camus talks about Sisyphus, he explains the motivation of the rolling stone as “revolt”. Actually, there was nothing happens during the revolt. Sisyphus kept repeating the stone every day, he cannot escape or stop rolling the stone. Nobody can say that Sisyphus’s life is meaningful when rolling the stone, only Sisyphus can tell his true feeling. The fact is that, although he is fighting against the fate, as Camus says, still, nothing has changed. Obviously, Sisyphus will not want to keep rolling the stone, and the world doesn’t give him any response, and that leads to absurdity again. If we think in Camus logic, then the whole thing seems to run into an infinite circle. Therefore, trying to revolt against the fate is not the best method when facing the absurdity.
Sisyphus’s story is interesting because he is sentenced by gods. The gods’ sentences are absolute and irresistible, which make any revolt useless and absurd. Human being’s life is just like the sentence of Sisyphus. We cannot change the fate, sometimes we may think the fate is unfair, and sometimes we are effortless. The absurdity comes from the lack of information, the information contains two parts: the others’ and ourselves’. Learning the information of others’, we are doing our best to achieve our goal; learning the information of ourselves, we are learning the ability and the limitation of ourselves and trying to accept the cans and cannots in our life.
Come back to Sisyphus’s story, we will find a new perspective to explain the story. Sisyphus is so clever that he knows he cannot escape the punishments from the god. Therefore, he didn’t try to fight against the gods because it’s not a wise decision. He repeated the boring and tiring job again and again, although he didn’t want to do. The life seems meaningless when doing the useless work. According to Richard Taylor, his life can be meaningful in two scenarios: Sisyphus’s labor accomplishes some goal, or the gods implant in Sisyphus a desire to roll stones. Taylor argues that meaning can achieved through having some purpose or goal, meaning can also achieved through having a desire to do what he is doing. However, after going through the background of the myth, we will find that both opinions cannot explain the story. The gods want to punish Sisyphus, so it’s clearly that they don’t want Sisyphus working happily. Sisyphus keeps rolling the stone without any desire or goals, just repeating the same motion every day.
As clever as Sisyphus, he must have already considered the meaning of his life, and the absurdity of his situation. Finally, he chose to ignore the absurdity and the meaningless question. Rolling the stone is meaningless, but Sisyphus’s life is meaningful.
During rolling the stone, Sisyphus trains his muscles and becomes stronger and stronger; during rolling the stone, he may look at the sun rise at the mountain which he never pays attention to when he is busy with his kingdom; during rolling the tree, he may have lots of time communicating with his hearts and souls and have lots of time to keep peaceful and steady. Although he doesn’t have the ability to reject the sentence of the gods, he can find something more meaningful than asking himself “is my life meaningful” again and again.
Ignoring the absurdity doesn’t mean that he is cheating or deceiving himself. On the contrary, Sisyphus is soberer than anyone. He knows that human beings have limitation so he should not enrage the gods by refusing rolling the rock, instead, he keeps doing the rolling although he despises the punishment. He ignores the absurdity in his situation, but he pays his attention to things he can control: during the punishment, he learns a lot, and gains a lot. Ignoring the absurdity is the best way to express his despise, and he will find more meaningful things during the process.
Trying to change or control the things exceeding our ability is effortless and meaningless. Absurdity always comes from the lack of understanding of the outer world and inner ourselves. When facing towards the absurdity, we should accept our weakness and adjust our goals or expectations. Ignoring the absurdity and the meaningless problems, focus more on the meaningful questions, the absurdity will be eliminated naturally.
Camus, A. (1955), The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. O’Brien. Penguin.
Belshaw, C. & Kemp, G., 12 Modern Philosophers, Blackwell Publishing Ltd.