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Lecture 16

PHIL 180 Lecture 16: Camus on Meaning of Life

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PHIL 180

Camus on Meaning of Life. Albert Camus (1913 1960) was a French author, philosopher, and journalist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. His most famous works were the novels La Peste (The Plague) and Ltranger (The Stranger) and the philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus. He died in a car accident in France. In The Myth of Sisyphus (1955) Camus claims that the only important philosophical question is suicideshould we continue to live or not? The rest is secondary, says Camus, because no one dies for scientific or philosophical arguments, usually abandoning them when their life is at risk. Yet people do take their own lives because they judge them meaningless or sacrifice them for meaningful causes. This suggests that questions of meaning supersede all other scientific or philosophical questions. As Camus puts it: I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.[i] What interests Camus is what leads to suicide. He argues that beginning to think is beginning to be undermined the worm is in mans heart.[ii] When we start to think we open up the possibility that all we valued previously, including our belief in lifes goodness, may be subverted. This rejection of life emanates from deep within, and this is where its source must be sought. For Camus killing yourself is admitting that all of the habits and effort needed for living are not worth the trouble. As long as we accept reasons for lifes meaning we continue, but as soon as we reject these reasons we become alienatedwe become strangers from the world. This feeling of separation from the world Camus terms absurdity, a sensation that may lead to suicide. Still most of us go on because we are attached to the world; we continue to live out of habit. But is suicide a solution to the absurdity of life? For those who believe in lifes absurdity it is a reasonable responseones conduct should follow from ones beliefs. Of course conduct does not always follow from belief. Individuals argue for suicide but continue to live; others profess that there is a meaning to life and choose suicide. Yet most persons are attached to this world by instinct, by a will to live that precedes philosophical reflection. Thus they evade questions of suicide and meaning by combining instinct with the hope that something gives life meaning. Yet the repetitiveness of life brings absurdity back to consciousness. In Camus words: Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or factory, meal, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday[iii] Living brings the question of suicide back, forcing a person to confront and answer this essential question. Yet of death we know nothing. 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.[iv] Furthermore I cannot know myself intimately anymore than I can know death. This very heart which is mine will forever remain indefinable to me. Between the certainty I have of my existence and the content I try to give to that assurance, the gap will never be filled. Forever I shall be a stranger to myself [v] We know that we feel, but our knowledge of ourselves ends there.
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