Albert Camus and a girl is reading a book

The Absurdity of Living: The Philosophy of Albert Camus

Reading Time: 3 minutes

No doubt that the whole Covid-19 process caused drastic changes in each of our lives. Certainly, a thrilling granted story to be told later to our grandkids, don’t you think?

This wasn’t the first time that the world faced such an outbreak. And probably, one of the reasons why people immersed themselves in the history of plagues and epidemics at this particular time. The book ‘La Peste’ which translates as ‘The Plague’, written by Albert Camus gained its popularity for some obvious reasons instantaneously during the outbreak. I decided to re-read the book hoping to find some answers which pertained to the despairing moments of my quarantine.

A girl looking through the window

La Peste, pretty much describes the situation we are facing now. The book is set in a slightly fictionalized town of Oran on the Algerian coast, where a contagious disease causes a catastrophic outbreak and spreads terror throughout the town. There are an increasing number of deaths; everyone is worried about getting infected; if this happens, that person is isolated. Nobody can leave the town, and if they do they could be shot.

We lead busy money-centered and status-obsessed lives in the same way that Oran’s inhabitants did before the plague, assuming we have been granted immortality. The people of Oran associated this plague with something awkward that belonged to a different time period. They are modern people. There is no way they will die like the other poor creatures! “Yeah, everyone knows that, except the dead.” Camus implies sarcastically in the book.

the plague

At the height of the plague, when countless people die in a week, one of Camus’s particular enemies appears. A priest named Peneloux.

Peneloux describes the plague as god’s punishment for immorality while addressing the crowd at the cathedral in Oran’s main square.  Camus points out an aspect of our human nature: The tendency to seek meaning. Despite the fact that we are creatures in desperate need of meaning, we are abandoned in a world filled with meaninglessness.

lost in space

Call it plague, COVID-19…Whatever you like. All are dramatic instances of a perpetual rule: We are vulnerable towards the ruthlessness of the universe. Our lives literally hang by a thread and we are all fundamentally living on the edge of what Albert Camus called “the absurd.”

Albert Camus is often associated with the idea of existentialism though he did not prefer the term and was rather focused on something he referred to as the absurd or absurdism.

Humans find meaning in a seemingly meaningless universe… It’s the conflict that arises between the need for rationality and the fundamentally chaotic nature of the universe. Sometimes I imagine the universe saying: “Ah, you wish for meaning? Sprinkle sprinkle and, voila: plague, pandemic…” It seems like our need for meaning the universe is totally indifferent towards it.

Indeed the whole situation is absurd, and according to Camus, the absurd cannot be negated. This means that we can react to it in two ways: “We can live it or we can escape from it.”

thinking man

Albert Camus points to the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus. Sisyphus was the founder and King of Ephyra and was also a quite deceitful person.

He was later punished for pushing a rock uphill which rolls down every time Sisyphus nears it to the top. This process repeats for eternity. Sisyphus existence is so meaningless and hopeless that trying to give to his repetitive action any meaning is totally absurd.

Sisyphus becomes conscious of the absurd predicament of life, but yet he keeps pushing the rock at his best. Despite this hopeless fate faced by Sisyphus, Camus tells us that we should imagine Sisyphus happy so we ourselves can face the absurdity of life:

“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”- Albert Camus

According to Camus, this is the time we are capable of living fully once we accept the fact we live in an absurd world. And yet at this moment of self-consciousness and confrontation, we are the happiest.
So maybe the salvation is to not just embrace the absurd, but also revolt against it. Embracing that rock of Sisyphus, and refusing to bow for the pain that life has tossed at us, and still push it at our greatest. 

“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”- Albert Camus


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