This Paper seeks to compare and contrast Albert Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus,” Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and Thomas Nagel’s “The Absurd.” The Paper starts with a discussion of Nagel’s essay, which seeks to explain Nagel’s argument that to say that life is absurd is quite absurd in itself and is actually internally inconsistent. Then, a discourse on how Camus and Plato through the Myth of Sisyphus and the Allegory of the Cave respectively, overcome such argument, follows. The last part conveys the writer’s own view on the human condition and how best one can find meaning in life.
Various philosophers have furthered the view that the human life is absurd. It is absurd because it is trapped in between two extreme possibilities. If the belief is furthered that there is a Supreme Cause for everything, including human life, it follows that the course and purpose of human life is predetermined, leaving no room for free will. On the other hand, if the belief is furthered that the human being has no vision of his/her future, he/she is just going through life awaiting extinction — death. It is with this latter view that Bertrand Russell says:
That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.
Both views are furthered by the a posteriori and empirical tendencies of the modern man. Human life is absurd because either way, it seems that there is no deeper meaning behind everything. Camus also summarizes man’s absurd situation as man’s futile search for meaning, unity and clarity in the face of an unintelligible world devoid of God and eternity. He tells us that this happens when man’s “appetite for the absolute and for unity” realizes “the impossibility of reducing this world into a rational and reasonable principle.” In short, life is absurd because of the human desire to find reason in an unreasonable world.
Nagel in his essay expresses the three claims for absurdity: (1) In a million years nothing we do now will matter; (2) In comparison to the size of the universe and the total length of history, we are tiny specks and our lives are mere instants; and (3) Our petty concerns with things such as money, family and career are pointless since it inevitably end in death, both our death and the death of everybody we know. Nagel at the same time points out the inconsistencies of these three claims. As to the first claim, if it were true that nothing we do now will matter in a million years, conversely, nothing that will happen in a million years will matter now. For anything to matter now or in a million years, it must matter in and by itself. As to the second claim, if on the other hand, man were bigger than the universe that would even be more absurd. In the same manner, if man’s short life is absurd, all the more absurd is an infinite lifetime. As to the third claim, despite the seeming futility and purposelessness of man’s lifelong journey, there appears to be self-contained justifications for most actions. As a finite chain of justifications justifies the infinite chain of justifications that man is unable to fathom, then no reason for anything at all should be supplied.
Camus, through the Myth of Sisyphus answers or dismisses the same argument of absurdity.
Sisyphus was a man who put Death in chains so that no human needed to die. When death was liberated and when the time came for Sisyphus to die, he concocted a plan which enabled him to escape the underworld. When Sisyphus was finally captured the Gods gave him eternal punishment. He would have to push a rock up a mountain. When he reaches the top, the rock rolls down again and Sisyphus would have to start over again.
Camus relates that the realization of absurdity either leads man to commit suicide, philosophical at the least or to turn to God for meaning. For him, both solutions are too radical and at the end of the day, no solution at all but mere excuses. For him, the solution is to embrace the absurd. Embracing the absurd consequently frees man because he is “no longer bound by a hope for a better future or eternity, without a need to pursue life’s purpose or to create meaning.” (Lane) Camus points out that Sisyphus is an example of one who is freed from the absurd human situation. Sisyphus attains happiness in the futility of his task and the certainty of his fate. The certainty of his plight frees him from the absurdity. According to Camus as cited by Lane, Sisyphus is the absurd hero “as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing.” (p.89)
Plato on the other hand, through the Allegory of the Cave resolves the question of the absurd by traversing one of the two options that Camus presented — turning to God, or for Plato’s case, turning to the Good.
In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato describes humanity as prisoners who have been chained since childhood deep inside a cave, with limbs immobilized by chains, heads chained in one direction such that their gaze is fixed on the wall. Behind them are a fire and a raised walkway where puppets are moved along. The prisoners think that the shadows cast by the puppets and the sounds they make are real or what is real. When a prisoner is freed, he realizes that the shadows are not what are real. He goes out of the cave and the sun blinds him. He would not want to return to the cave to free the other man but he is compelled to go back. (The Republic, Book VI and VII; trans. Shorey)
According to Plato, the journey of the bonded man or the prisoner symbolizes the journey of man in his quest for meaning in his life. What we perceive are really just shadows and sounds, which the puppeteer makes. However, as the prisoner is freed only to realize all of these things and as the prisoner ascends into the light of the sun, we too can move upward into the light of true reality. This ascent can help us further understand the form of the Good. Plato thus resolves the question of absurdity by pointing the certainty of an ultimate Good, to which all men aim to reach and realize.
This writer believes that the very realization of the absurdity of life, in the sense that its infinite reasons is unfathomable by man’s finite mind, is already a gift in and by itself. To realize this fact means that the person is indeed feeling, thinking and truly in touch with his/her own human situation. The next step is what is more crucial and is the most difficult of all — finding meaning and purpose in life despite the realization of absurdity of the human condition.
For this writer, the latter step is still a continuing process. This writer is caught in between philosophical suicide and religion. And frankly, most of the time this writer turns to his/her touchstone — religion, when reasons are no longer sufficient.
Indeed, the realization of absurdity is both a gift and a curse. It is a gift because rare are individuals who go through such uneasiness and uncertainties. It is a curse because at the end of the day, there is no one final and certain solution to the problem.
What is the status then of this writer’s struggle with the absurd? Let us just say that as Camus has pointed out, the realization of the absurdity and consequently its acceptance has three consequences — revolt, freedom and passion. This writer looks forward to these three.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. 1942.
Camus, Albert. The Plague, The Fall, Exile and the Kingdom, and Selected Essays. 2004.
Jowett, B. Plato’s The Republic. New York: The Modern Library, 1941.
Lane, Robert, Classics, Philosophy and Religious Studies. 7 January 2008 <http://www.mala.bc.ca/www/ip/ipp.htm.>
Nagel, Thomas. “The Absurd.” Journal of Philosophy. (1971): 716-727.
Reading About the World, Volume 1. Paul Brians, et al., Ed. Harcourt Brace Customs Publishing, n.d.
Shorey, P. The Republic. London: W. Heinemann, Ltd., 1930.