Imagine, for a moment, that you’re on a date with someone new. You like this person. You want to get to know them, and they want to get to know you. They ask you a question that has haunted the minds of ancient philosophers and anxious millennials alike: What, do you think, is the meaning of life?
You’ve prepared a safe answer. “To be successful and happy, of course.”
The ghost of Albert Camus shakes his head in the distance.
Camus was a philosophical and literary genius. His works include The Stranger, The Plague, and my personal favorite The Myth of Sisyphus, among others. He was a Nobel Prize recipient. He was French. What more could you ask for?
One of his greatest achievements was that he revolutionized the way people thought about life and the purpose of human existence. He recognized the madness in humanity’s ceaseless search for meaning in a world that seemingly could not care less about the fact that there are humans residing within it and that they are terribly, horribly confused.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus writes: “This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction” (19). As philosophers before him have considered, there are few things that we humans can know for certain. One of them being that we exist. Cogito, ergo sum.
That means, therefore, that we cannot possible know the purpose of our existence, or if there even is a purpose. We may conclude that the universe is indifferent. Irrational. And yet we are constantly attempting to rationalize the universe, make sense of it, and attach meaning to our existence.
This is where the Absurd comes in. In Camus’ words: “The absurd is born out of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world” (28).
If you find this idea disheartening, consider for a moment that, perhaps, it is freeing. If you live your entire life thinking that the meaning of life is to be happy, for example, you will forever chase a concept that is increasingly difficult to obtain, especially for long periods of time. So what happens when you are unable to sustain happiness for as long as you would think sufficient? You would conclude that you have failed at life, which is a horrible notion to consider.
In this philosophy, you cannot fail at life. There is no prompt you must answer. There is no game you must win. No one else can tell you what you’re supposed to do with your life, not even the universe. (Because she’s indifferent, remember? But in a nice way.) Your existence belongs to you. You can decide how you want to live it. Want to dedicate your life to trying every single ice cream flavor that exists? Go for it. Want to move to New York and become a poet? Do it. Don’t worry if society frowns at you. The ghost of Camus is smiling.
Source: Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. Vintage Books, 1991.