Manual Albert Camus Critique of Modernity

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A man, Meursault, lets himself get involved in a sordid affair at the end of which he becomes a murderer. He is brought to trial.


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At that moment, everything he has or has not done before the murder becomes a charge against him. He has let his mother die in a home for the aged; during the wake, he not only did not show any grief, but even smoked a cigarette; after the funeral he went to the movies and spent the night with a girl; he freely consented to become the accomplice of a pimp. During the questioning he expresses no regret; at the trial he remains completely impassive.

His callousness, as the prosecutor remarks, is even more revolting than his crime. He is condemned to death. It is the hero himself who tells the story. His is a peculiar kind of confession, meant for nobody in particular, just for the record. The objectivity, and even the anonymity, of the tone could not be greater.

This man makes a point of stating only what is relevant to his case. In fact, in a world that condemns him on the basis of his objective behavior, he is the only objective person. In the routine attempt to save him, the defense substitutes for him a meaningless fiction.

Albert Camus' Critique of Modernity by Ronald D. Srigley, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble®

In order to have him condemned, the prosecutor retorts by a fiction in the opposite direction. All this is irrelevant. If somebody could say something relevant, explain what has happened, that would be important. But nobody seems to know, and everybody acts as if he knew why things happen to men. As for himself, he does not know either, and that is why he does not defend himself. His only advantage, if any, is that he knows that he does not know anything except the succession of events that was his life.

Albert Camus

This certainty he cannot betray. That is why he revolts so violently against the priest who comes to console him. Consolation would mean substituting something else for the bare truth. Actually, I was sure of myself, far surer than he; sure of my own life and of the death that was coming. That, no doubt, was all I had; but at least that certainty was something I could get my teeth into—just as it had got its teeth into me. Who is Meursault? The only difference is that a certain series of events befell him, instead of a certain other. His lot could have been different, but not the final meaning of it.

He was caught in a peculiar kind of trap. But this is precisely what describes the situation of the individual in everyday life. Since there is nothing else, there is no difference in meaning, either, "One life is as good as another. Meursault is Everyman, with a vengeance. For his actions he has only one explanation, which is very tentative: "Though I mightn't be so sure about what interested me, I was absolutely sure about what didn't interest me. Except that Meursault acknowledges it. Because what is right is not clear to him, he can do wrong; but to lie would be to confuse the issue.

He cannot do it. Only if we accept that Nietzsche is right, that God is dead and there is only nothingness after we die, will we then fully experience—feel, taste, touch, see, and smell—the joys of our bodies and the physical world.

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Thus the sensuous and lyrical side of these essays, their evocative character, is central to the argument. Or rather, because Camus is promoting intense, joyous, physical experience as opposed to a self-abnegating religious life, rather than developing an argument he asserts that these experiences are the right response. But they suggest what philosophy is for Camus and how he conceives its relationship to literary expression. The intense and glistening present tells us that we can fully experience and appreciate life only on the condition that we no longer try to avoid our ultimate and absolute death.

After completing Nuptials , Camus began to work on a planned triptych on the Absurd: a novel, which became The Stranger , a philosophical essay, eventually titled The Myth of Sisyphus , and a play, Caligula. These were completed and sent off from Algeria to the Paris publisher in September Although Camus would have preferred to see them appear together, even in a single volume, the publisher for both commercial reasons and because of the paper shortage caused by war and occupation, released The Stranger in June and The Myth of Sisyphus in October.

Camus kept working on the play, which finally appeared in book form two years later Lottman, — Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. For him, it seems clear that the primary result of philosophy is action, not comprehension. Camus sees this question of suicide as a natural response to an underlying premise, namely that life is absurd in a variety of ways. As we have seen, both the presence and absence of life i. But Camus also thinks it absurd to try to know, understand, or explain the world, for he sees the attempt to gain rational knowledge as futile.

Accepting absurdity as the mood of the times, he asks above all whether and how to live in the face of it. But he does not argue this question either, and rather chooses to demonstrate the attitude towards life that would deter suicide. In other words, the main concern of the book is to sketch ways of living our lives so as to make them worth living despite their being meaningless.

But if this temptation precedes what is usually considered philosophical reasoning, how to answer it? In order to get to the bottom of things while avoiding arguing for the truth of his statements, he depicts, enumerates, and illustrates. Appealing to common experience, he tries to render the flavor of the absurd with images, metaphors, and anecdotes that capture the experiential level he regards as lying prior to philosophy.


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  • As this continues, one slowly becomes fully conscious and senses the absurd. Camus goes on to sketch other experiences of absurdity, until he arrives at death. Our efforts to understand them lead nowhere. Avi Sagi suggests that in claiming this Camus is not speaking as an irrationalist—which is, after all, how he regards the existentialists—but as someone trying to rationally understand the limits of reason Sagi , 59— For Camus the problem is that by demanding meaning, order, and unity, we seek to go beyond those limits and pursue the impossible.

    We will never understand, and we will die despite all our efforts. There are two obvious responses to our frustrations: suicide and hope. By hope Camus means just what he described in Nuptials , the religion-inspired effort to imagine and live for a life beyond this life. What is the Camusean alternative to suicide or hope?

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    In short, he recommends a life without consolation, but instead one characterized by lucidity and by acute consciousness of and rebellion against its mortality and its limits. At the same time Camus argues against the specific philosophical current with which Nietzsche is often linked as a precursor, and to which he himself is closest—existentialism.

    The Myth of Sisyphus is explicitly written against existentialists such as Shestov, Kierkegaard, Jaspers, and Heidegger, as well as against the phenomenology of Husserl. Camus shares their starting point, which he regards as the fact that they all somehow testify to the absurdity of the human condition. In the process, the absurdity of Nausea becomes the contingency of Being and Nothingness , the fact that humans and things are simply there with no explanation or reason. Having rooted human existence in such contingency, Sartre goes on to describe other fundamental structures of existence, core human projects, and characteristic patterns of behavior, including freedom and bad faith, all of which arise on this basis.

    For Sartre absurdity is obviously a fundamental ontological property of existence itself, frustrating us but not restricting our understanding.

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    For Camus, on the other hand, absurdity is not a property of existence as such, but is an essential feature of our relationship with the world. Camus, on the contrary, builds an entire worldview on his central assumption that absurdity is an unsurpassable relationship between humans and their world Aronson As discussed above, Camus views the world as irrational, which means that it is not understandable through reason.

    According to Camus, each existentialist writer betrayed his initial insight by seeking to appeal to something beyond the limits of the human condition, by turning to the transcendent. And yet even if we avoid what Camus describes as such escapist efforts and continue to live without irrational appeals, the desire to do so is built into our consciousness and thus our humanity.

    But it is urgent to not succumb to these impulses and to instead accept absurdity. These philosophers, he insists, refuse to accept the conclusions that follow from their own premises.

    Kierkegaard, for example, strongly senses the absurd. But rather than respecting it as the inevitable human ailment, he seeks to be cured of it by making it an attribute of a God who he then embraces. Along with Sartre, Camus praises the early Husserlian notion of intentionality. The Myth of Sisyphus finds the answer by abandoning the terrain of philosophy altogether.


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    • After the dense and highly self-conscious earlier chapters, these pages condense the entire line of thought into a vivid image. For Camus, Sisyphus reminds us that we cannot help seeking to understand the reality that transcends our intelligence, striving to grasp more than our limited and practical scientific understanding allows, and wishing to live without dying. Like Sisyphus, we are our fate, and our frustration is our very life: we can never escape it. But there is more. After the rock comes tumbling down, confirming the ultimate futility of his project, Sisyphus trudges after it once again.

      At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks towards the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. This is how a life without ultimate meaning can be made worth living. Sisyphus accepts and embraces living with death without the possibility of appealing to God. His fate belongs to him. He has lived his existence from one moment to the next and without much awareness, but at his trial and while awaiting execution he becomes like Sisyphus, fully conscious of himself and his terrible fate.

      He will die triumphant as the absurd man. The Myth of Sisyphus is far from having a skeptical conclusion. In response to the lure of suicide, Camus counsels an intensely conscious and active non-resolution. Rejecting any hope of resolving the strain is also to reject despair.

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      Indeed, it is possible, within and against these limits, to speak of happiness. It is not that discovering the absurd leads necessarily to happiness, but rather that acknowledging the absurd means also accepting human frailty, an awareness of our limitations, and the fact that we cannot help wishing to go beyond what is possible. These are all tokens of being fully alive. First of all, like Pyrrho, Camus has solved his pressing existential issue, namely, avoiding despair, by a kind of resolution entailed in accepting our mortality and ultimate ignorance. But there are two critical differences with Pyrrho: for Camus we never can abandon the desire to know, and realizing this leads to a quickening of our life-impulses.

      This last point was already contained in Nuptials , but here is expanded to link consciousness with happiness. But how is it possible that, by the end of The Myth of Sisyphus , Camus has moved from skepticism about finding the truth and nihilism about whether life has meaning to advocating an approach to life that is clearly judged to be better than others? How does he justify embracing a normative stance, affirming specific values?