Literary Review: Camus vs. Nagel on Absurdity

Making the most of a "meaningless" life

“It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm—this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything beings in that weariness tinged with amazement.” — Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus


Up until this point, which they refer to as “consciousness,” philosophers Albert Camus and Thomas Nagel attribute life to little more than a collection of errands, receipts and dirty dishes — a subconscious strive to assign meaning to life. It is only upon consciousness – that “odd state of the soul in which the void becomes eloquent” – when the chain of daily gestures is broken, and one begins to question where, if anywhere, meaning lies. At this point it is impossible, according to Camus, not to wager whether or not life is worth living. Here, Camus and Nagel establish a difference between the question ‘is life meaningful?’ and ‘is life worthwhile?’ — concluding that while life does not have an intrinsic meaning it is indeed worth living. Though they both characterize this contradiction by the term ‘absurdity,’ their notion of the word and its practical implications are what separate their existential positions.

Camus and Nagel approach the ‘the absurd’ from two different directions. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus states, “The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” By this, Camus suggests that the arrival of self-awareness results in an agonizing longing for meaning, harmony and unity. Unable to find answers within itself, humanity subconsciously projects meaning onto the world in the form of its own needs, wants and desires. This vain-filled search is a futile one, and the world responds with all that it is capable of — a dreadful silence.

Camus’ notion of absurdity rests on the confrontation between humanity’s need for meaning and the irrationality of the world as it is perceived. “…The world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said,” Camus writes. “But what is absurd is the confrontation of the irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.” Therefore, should either the world be reasonable or our expectations diminish, so would absurdity.

To this point, Nagel disagrees. “There does not appear to be any conceivable world (containing us) about which unsettlable doubts could not arise,” he writes in his paper The Absurd. “Consequently the absurdity of our situation derives not from a collision between our expectation and the world, but from a collision within ourselves.” By saying this, Nagel diminishes Camus’ ‘absurdity’ to nothing more than an internal battle among humans — a battle, he explains, between the unavoidability of seriousness and the inescapability of doubt.

Nagel writes, “Human life is full of effort, plans, calculation, success and failure: we pursue our lives with various degrees of sloth and energy.” Here, Nagel insists that humans cannot live without making choices and (perhaps subconsciously) ascribing some to be more important than others—i.e. the unavoidability of seriousness. On a temporal scale, these actions may be justified — Nagel uses the example of taking an aspirin to cure a headache. Yet when faced with the question ‘why does one pursue comfort?’ there is no ultimate justification — i.e. the inescapability of doubt. Therein lies the difference between ordinary and philosophical absurdity. As opposed to ‘a man’s pants falling down while he is being knighted’–as absurd as it may be–humanity’s constant pursuit (a mundane occupation, a romantic relationship, social utility) without ultimate reason is universally absurd. There is a disconnect between what is taken seriously and why, which depends solely on the nature of humanity rather than our relation to the world. Nagel summarizes this inconsistency when he says:

“We step back to find that the whole system of justification and criticism, which controls our choices and supports our claims to rationality, rests on responses and habits that we never question, that we should not know how to defend without circularity, and to which we shall continue to adhere even after they are called into question.”

Regardless of their differing definitions, both Camus and Nagel view the realization of the absurd as the source of human anxiety.  “From the moment absurdity is recognized, it becomes a passion, the most harrowing of all,” says Camus. “But whether or not one can live with one’s passions, whether or not one can accept their law, which is to burn the heart they simultaneously exalt—that is the whole questions.” How to live with such passion is where divergent methods of conceptualizing absurdity naturally evokes different suggestions.

Camus proposes that one can live with this passion by understanding that life is simultaneously without meaning but worthwhile. Insisting on both of these, Camus condemns faith or hope for attempting to assign a meaning to life and suicide for concluding that life is not worth living.  

“At that last crossroad where thought hesitates, many men have arrived and even some of the humblest. They then abdicated what was most precious to them, their life. Others, princes of the mind, abdicated likewise, but they initiated the suicide of their thought in its purest revolt.”

Camus denotes both of these acts to methods of escape and says, “The real effort is to stay there, rather in so far as that is possible.” Resembling Nietzsche’s courageous endurance in some fashion, he asserts that the only way to confront absurdity is with heroic rebellion.

Nagel disagrees, saying that Camus “shaking a fist at the world which is deaf to our pleas and continuing to live in spite of it” is all too romantic, and that the absurd “warrants neither that much distress nor that much defiance.” Instead, he advocates, “If there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.” Nagel claims that the absurd is “like skepticism in epistemology” and involves little more than “the capacity to transcend ourselves in thought.”   Ultimately, Nagel argues that the feeling of absurdity is not necessarily a problem to be solved, rather, our recognition of absurdity is a manifestation of humanity’s most advanced and interesting characteristics. The fact that life is taken so seriously when nothing is serious at all is ironic, and that realization adds a distinct flavor to life. 

Camus uses the Greek myth of Sisyphus – who was punished for all eternity to the cycle of rolling a stone up a mountain and watching gravity pull it back down again–as representative of the human condition. Like humanity, Sisyphus struggles indefinitely without hope of success — but (Camus suggests) so long as he is able to accept that there is nothing more to life, he can find happiness. In a way, Camus could be understood as suggesting that humanity should defy the absurd by insisting that what is done matters by making it matter and thus, little by little, creating a different universe that does care in part. Contrarily, Nagel suggests that there is no reason for mattering because the notion of meaning – the desire for it – is a human-made phenomenon that exists within the constraints of our limited minds. Knowing this absurdity, the only viable reaction is to approach life with an ironic smile and nod. In short, Camus prompts humanity to care more, as opposed to Nagel who prompts humanity to care less.

Nagel has stopped short of many philosophical questions — Camus might claim than Nagel’s theories are subject to represent a certain numbness and are themselves a sort of intellectual suicide. (However, Camus’ heroic rebellion seems a bit wishful as well.) While Nagel does indeed seem to caricaturize Camus’ philosophy, watering it down to a simple “nothing matters,” one can appreciate his reasoning. Everything we know (or think we know) can be questioned — it is subject to the human mind which could very well be limited. This can be applied to Camus’ idea of an irrational world, but as Nagel seems to suggest, we will simply never know whether it is or isn’t sensible, and therefore it is not a vital element in absurdity. Camus introduces a lot of important themes, but Nagel poses a valid opposition, or rather even an “addition” to his thoughts.