By Christopher Wink | Apr 17, 2007 | Existentialism
Albert Camus is no small figure in twentieth century philosophy. Born in Algeria to a working-class family, to many, Camus is a central figure who, despite his disapproving, has become the face of existentialism. Because of his importance, his assertion that suicide is the ultimate philosophical question is no small matter.
In the late 1930s Camus (1913-1960) began writing of reality’s absurdity, expounding on the subject in his legendary Myth of Sisyphus and continuing the theme in works like The Stranger and others. Camus’s paradox of the absurd took on the idea that, while we do much to convince ourselves otherwise, with the universe in mind, our lives are unquestionably insignificant.
Rational thought leads all of us to accept that death is an always encroaching reality, waiting to wipe away our work, our time, and our accomplishments. If we are all substantially unsubstantial and with every moment we are nearing a truly forgettable demise, the effort required for existence seems futile. In that way, to Camus, suicide is the ultimate question of philosophy because of its finality. If any sensible evaluation of a life determines that there is little to no reason to continue it, as our effects are so small, and the end is coming anyway, hastening it might seem the only sensible recourse.
That is, while unhappiness is defended because a return to acute pleasure is always nearing, in what way can anyone answer the reality that, understanding the infiniteness of the universe, our lives are, quite simply, meaningless? There is no way to rectify the paradox that arises when we remember that that meaninglessness refers directly to the same existence we regularly cite as important. My life has to be important to me or else there is no reason to put in any effort. My life has to be important, so I can recognize fulfilling employment, healthy relationships and even personal hygiene as worthwhile objectives. However, I also understand that history, set aside the broadness of the universe, will not remember me.
For some, the response to this is the hopelessness and purposelessness of nihilism, something Camus obstinately rejected. As he wrote in December of 1943 to a German friend, “there is something that still has a meaning.” Indeed the French philosopher was active in all the socially-constructed distractions that a nihilist might reject. He was friends with Parisian philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) before they divided over what Camus recognized as totalitarianism in the radical Marxism that Sartre espoused, despite once being a member of the French Community Party himself in the 1930s. Suicide is the ultimate question for Camus because understanding that our lives are essentially meaningless and temporal should be reason enough to give up, rejecting the effort required for daily life. However, that fatalism ignores the beauty of absurdity, the paradoxical magnificence and preciousness of our existence.
Camus died in a car accident at 46, a train ticket left in his pocket and a world of philosophy forever changed. From his beginnings in absurdism in the late 1930s to his ardent defense of humans rights in the 1950s and his continued writing to his death, Camus was a giant, death always a looming reality and suicide always the understandable question.
Prepared for a class on Existentialism by Temple University Professor Lewis Gordon.