Albert Camus takes as the starting point of this essay a familiar feeling of losing your bearings. At times the social, intellectual, philosophical, and religious constructs that we have which give the world meaning and coherence fall away and we are plunged into confusion. As Camus poetically describes it:
"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 begins in that weariness tinged with amazement."
We are faced with the real possibility that life is meaningless. If this sense of meaninglessness persists, we are forced to ask whether life is worth living at all. Camus says that this question of suicide is the most basic philosophical question. He opens his essay with this fundamental point:
"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer [the questions of suicide]."
Much of the beginning of the essay is spent framing up the existential condition which Camus calls the absurd. Man is caught in a paradox. On the one hand, all empirical evidence shows that the world is unpredictable and chaotic. Lives come into existence and pass. Ideas are proven to be true then determined to be false. One belief is held than another. Even our own moods are constantly shifting. On the other hand, man has a persistent nostalgia for unity, a need to make sense of the world. This is the human condition, Camus suggests, a constant attempt to derive meaning from meaninglessness. And it is absurd.
Given this situation Camus explores the possible responses. First he examines a religious answer proposed by people like Soren Kierkegaard. Camus argues that the religious leap of faith that Kierkegaard proposes is unnecessary. This leap is an escape from the fact of life's absurdity, a "philosophical suicide" as Camus puts it. Next he looks at the opening question of the essay, what about suicide as a response to the absurd? He concludes that this too is an unnecessary escape from the reality of life's absurdity. He points out that a life without meaning does not necessarily lead to the fact that life is not worth living:
"People have played on words and pretended to believe that refusing to grant a meaning to life necessarily leads to declaring that it is not worth living. In truth, there is no necessary common measure between these two judgments."
Camus's response to this condition of the absurd is to "live in revolt." By this he means that we accept the tension of searching for meaning in a totally chaotic world. We deny neither our hunger for unity nor the apparent disorder of the world. The last part of the book is dedicated to examples from history and literature of people who have lived this life of revolt to varying degrees.
The value of this book for me comes in Camus's description of the absurdity of life (and accompanying confusion) and in his exploration of the possible human responses to this situation. He brilliantly captures the sense of strangeness that can unexpectedly engulf the world and twist my stomach in knots:
"Men, too, secrete the inhuman. At certain moments of lucidity, the mechanical aspects of their gestures, their meaningless pantomime makes silly everything that surrounds them. A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible dumb show: you wonder why he is alive. This discomfort in the face of man's own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this "nausea," as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd. Likewise the stranger who at certain seconds comes to meet us in the mirror, the familiar and yet alarming brother we encounter in own photograph is also the absurd."
As Camus goes through the possible responses to this feeling of the absurd, it is clear that he has squarely faced this absurdity and has spent much of his life wrestling with it. He covers just about every existential thought I've had and many more. Only a man who has steeped himself in existential questioning can come up with such subtle and important philosophical points. For example he notes that philosophers like Chestov and Kierkegaard go to great lengths to show the limits of reason and man's helplessness in the face of life's absurdity. This, they say, is why man must take a leap of faith and turn to God. But if this leap of faith is in fact a solution to life's absurdity then the absurdity never existed in the first place which means the need they described for a leap of faith did not exist either. I doubt I could have ever come up with such an insight on my own.
In the end I was not completely compelled by Camus's conclusions. His assertion that a philosophical life is a constant struggle rang true, but I was unable to understand the historical and literary examples he used to illustrate this "life in revolt" (this is probably due to my unfamiliarity with the philosophers and literary characters he used as examples). I did not see the horror in the "philosophical suicide" that he attributes to religious philosophers. I have worn out plenty of philosophies on life and will probably continue to plow through many more. I have seen that an intuition or experience can solve an existential dilemma as well as, or even better than, the clearest thinking. Maybe I am not a true philosopher, but the reasons I could come up with for avoiding suicide would be centered around my relationships, certain moments of inspiration, and a very strong, clear sense from my body that I will protect it at all costs.