The Desperate Man (1843–45) by Gustave Courbet
What is Absurdism?
Absurdism is defined as the belief that all efforts of humanity to find inherent meaning and rationality in the world are useless because it does not exist. However, it does argue that the pursuit of meaning, and thereby facing the absurdity of the universe, is meaningful. This belief is only held for humans, and instead believes it is possible that other forms of life may be able to find inherent purpose and rationality in the universe. While the term is often related to nihilism and existentialism for its similar themes, each is distinct from one another.
This philosophy is often attributed to Albert Camus and Soren Kierkegaard who popularized the notion of the absurdity of the universe. In general, it arose out of a common contradiction that people often search for meaning and are unable to grasp what it is. So, when left with no alternative, an absurdist will simply choose to go into the unknown and face the nonsensical world for its own sake.
Absurdism vs. Nihilism
Nihilism in general posits that there is no intrinsic or any meaning to life at all, particularly in passive nihilism. However, absurdism believes that meaning in life can still exist through the pursuit of meaning by facing the fact that the world is irrational and disjointed. Thus, the difference is that nihilism is much more passive in the face of meaninglessness while absurdism at its core is active regardless.
Absurdism vs. Existentialism
Absurdism believes that inherent meaning cannot be achieved while existentialism believes meaning in life can be created through living. The difference here is that an existentialist pursues living for the purpose of finding meaning while an absurdist lives in spite of limitations to get meaning out of life.
A Brief History of Absurdism
Absurdism is a philosophy created by Albert Camus. Camus was born in the French colony of Algeria in 1913 to a poor but hardworking family. He went on to study philosophy at the University of Algiers, but viewed himself as a writer and artist rather than a philosopher. His writings explored themes of alienation, disillusionment, and abandonment during a war-torn period. His works focus on finding the meaning of life in the face of death. This belief is seen in him saying “Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.”
His work was inspired by that of Søren Kierkegaard, but it also serves as a rejection of his conclusions. Kierkegaard believed that the self was limited but held limitless possibility due to the power of choice. This state, he thought, leads people to either be paralyzed by infinite possibility, and thus unable to act, or trapped in the finite world by mindlessly doing what is expected. Kierkegaard concludes that the only way out of this is to take a leap of faith and become Christian. Camus fundamentally rejected this due to believing faith and hope to be lies that result in philosophical suicide.
So, he argued that the answer is instead to accept that everyone is condemned to death and live your life embracing the absurdity of this knowledge. For this reason, Camus considers the character of Sisyphus from Greek mythology to be the ultimate Absurd Man. Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to endlessly roll a boulder up a hill only for it to inevitably roll down the other side, forcing him to push the boulder up the hill all over again. This represents a lifetime of pain and anguish only for one’s efforts to be futile in the end, which is precisely how Absurdists view the world. Ultimately, Camus concludes that “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Absurdism’s Effect on the World
Absurdism can be seen in many facets of culture worldwide whether that be through art, how people dress, the way people go about life or just the weird people that may come along your path. Common expressions around the craziness of the world often have shifted how people think the world is like. Even if you were to look at the news on television everything seems to be happening with no true reasoning or foundation behind it, leading many to say the world has gone mad. Sometimes the reasons behind people’s decisions are too complex to make sense of. Some turn to nihilism, some turn to existentialism, but there are always the rare few interesting folks who basically say “screw it” when faced with this and find meaning in the journey, not their overall lives.
Absurdism: Key Takeaways
The absurdist philosophy is something of an anomaly and often is not lived by fully as with most philosophies. Accepting that life is nonsensical and pursuing the journey of living anyway is inherently tough, especially when it believes there is no inherent meaning to life. Even so, there are a few takeaways that can be applied to anyone’s life:
Don’t Sweat the Details too Much: Life is really short and often we get lost in our own thoughts causing us to take more action in our minds than reality. So its best to focus on the big picture and what you want to do, regardless of the limitations presented to you. Life is a learning experience and it’s ok to fail, so don’t sweat the small stuff.
Not Everything has to Make Sense: Oftentimes we look for a reason why things happen to give us stability and clarity in our lives, how others feel, and how the world works. The fact is, we won’t completely know, nor is it your responsibility to know everything. Humans are limited beings so if you don’t know something it’s ok and if it's really not important, move on.
We Don’t Need Some World Peace Objective: It’s all well and good to feel high and mighty having a great big overarching goal to save humanity, but how feasible is that to maintain? Nigh impossible. That’s not to say it isn’t noble, but it definitely isn’t for everyone, and it can be too much weight to put on yourself. Finding purpose in smaller-scope goals that will make you fulfilled and those around you happy is often enough.