How Reading Albert Camus Can Cure an Existential Crisis - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

How Reading Albert Camus Can Cure an Existential Crisis

If you have read anything by Albert Camus, it is probably The Stranger. It remains his best-known and most-read work, followed closely by The Myth of Sisyphus. Between The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, both originally published in French in 1942, you may have been introduced to a Camus whose philosophy leads him to the conclusion that the world is absurd, our choices are ultimately morally indifferent, even up to and including murder, and that nothing has any ultimate meaning. In other words, Camus provides fertile ground for pessimism and angst when you first encounter his works.  

Or at least that’s how it would appear at first glance. However, after reading through much of Camus’s philosophical fiction and nonfiction, I think that the best cure for angst in a teen fascinated by Camus’s literature would be to read even more Camus. If you stop with The Stranger or The Myth of Sisyphus, you are left only with ideas that Camus himself did not believe were sustainable in the long term. Camus wrote in cycles, progressively raising new questions and attempting to answer them. By following along Camus’s Q&A process past his initial despair and into his cautious hope, you sympathize with the discouraging outlook portrayed in his early works. In other words, you take Camus’s journey with him. Let me show you some key areas where Camus’s philosophy developed through his writings, and the encounter with Simone Weil’s applied Christianity, which proved to be at least one important influence that led to these developments.

The Early Absurd

In The Stranger, Camus tells the story of a man, Meursault, who not only feels no grief over his mother’s death but feels no guilt after committing a murder for no real reason. In the world of The Stranger, no act is better or worse than any other, no choice “right” or “wrong.” Meursault considers the world itself to be indifferent. Life demands nothing of you other than simply to exist and make choices.

This presents a problem. On the one hand, Meursault can claim that the world is indifferent and that there is no ultimate meaning. On the other hand, it is clear that human beings desire a meaningful life and seek it out through art, religion, pleasure, and more. This tension between the felt needs of human beings and the apparent lack of fulfilment of those needs gives rise to what Camus calls the feeling of the absurd. We continue living to discover meaning, but we find none, so our very existence seems irrational, absurd.

If our entire existence is absurd and there is no ultimate meaning, what is to stop me from choosing to end my life prematurely? This question is at the heart of The Myth of Sisyphus, which gives us the iconic opening line, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” In short, Camus concludes the book by claiming that we must persist in existing by simply choosing to choose life in the face of absurdity.

This is the sum of what you would glean from Camus if you read only his two most popular works. What I do and how I live are inconsequential, as long as I keep on living, because everything is ultimately absurd regardless. I find this unpersuasive, and ultimately so did Camus. If you stop here, you won’t see that Camus himself was unwilling to commit fully to this position because of its inherent problems, and you’ll miss learning from the ways Camus persuaded himself that he was wrong.  

In an interview shortly before his death, Camus expounded on his thoughts on “the absurd,” saying,

This word “Absurd” has had an unhappy history, and I confess that now it rather annoys me. When I analyzed the feeling of the Absurd in The Myth of Sisyphus, I was looking for a method and not a doctrine. I was practicing methodical doubt.… If we assume nothing has any meaning, then we must conclude that the world is absurd. But does nothing have a meaning? I have never believed that we could remain at this point.

If Camus could not remain at this point, why should we, his readers? In fact, we cannot remain at this point because of a fundamental contradiction that Camus would come to admit later, in his book The Rebel. In The Stranger, Camus suggests that the world is so thoroughly indifferent to human beings and our choices that even murder is an inconsequential matter. In The Myth of Sisyphus, he attempts to argue against suicide. But by the time he came to finish his book-length essay The Rebel, nine years after the publication of The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus was forced to admit, “In terms of the encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe, murder and suicide are one and the same thing, and must be accepted or rejected together.” If the world is truly indifferent to Meursault’s act of murder, it must also be indifferent to whether or not I kill myself. Camus finds himself unable to accept the latter proposition, and so has to reject the former. If we hope to follow in his footsteps, we should also reject this contradiction and explore how he moved beyond it in his later writings.

Music and Meaning

In searching for meaning, Camus turns to beauty and art, wondering if we can find meaning in beautiful things we create. In an early “Essay on Music,” published in 1932, when Camus was a mere nineteen years old, Camus denies that there is anything beautiful in nature. In part, this is due to fear. He refers to Nietzsche, who claimed in his Will to Power that to express approval of any part of the world or to call it beautiful was to approve of and endorse every part of the world, including the worst evils and injustices you can imagine.

In his book In Tune with the World, Christian philosopher Josef Pieper explains Nietzsche’s concern, saying,

Whenever we happen to feel heartfelt assent, to find that something specific is good, wonderful, glorious, rapturous—a drink of fresh water, the precise functioning of a tool, the colors of a landscape, the charm of a loving gesture, a poem—our praise always reaches beyond the given object, if matters take their natural course. Our tribute always contains at least a smattering of affirmation of the world, as a whole.

If affirming one part of the world as beautiful means affirming the world as holistically beautiful, Camus is initially hesitant, particularly because of the repulsive things he has seen in his lifetime. In an address to Christian monks in 1948, Camus once remarked, “I share with you [Christians] the same revulsion from evil. But I do not share your hope, and I continue to struggle against this universe in which children suffer and die.”

However, by the time of the publication of The Rebel in 1951, Camus has a different take. In describing the work of the artist in a world full of ugly things, Camus suggests that the artist “rejects the world on account of what it lacks and in the name of what it sometimes is.” Camus says that if you create art, you “cannot affirm the total hideousness of the world” but must recognize something about the world that is beautiful. This beauty is precisely what inspires the artist’s outrage against ugliness, evil, and injustice.

Camus came to see that affirming beauty did not necessitate giving a free pass to evil. I believe this change was partially owing to his encounter with a fervent, passionate Christian who showed Camus by example that one can affirm beauty and fight against evil simultaneously. Her name was Simone Weil.

Encountering Simone Weil

Weil was a French activist and thinker who died young in 1943. She worked fervently for what we might now call social justice. She aided refugees fleeing communism, and by some accounts starved herself to death in solidarity with those languishing under oppressive regimes. Rather than fulfilling a stereotype of a Christian passively accepting oppression and the existence of evil, Weil’s life gave Camus a real example of how a Christian might be inspired by her faith to fight against ugliness in the world.

Camus first mentions Weil in his later notebooks, in 1948, around the time he began work on the book that would become The Rebel. He cites her multiple times between 1948 and the 1951 publication of The Rebel. Weil was at the forefront of Camus’s mind during these critical years, evidenced by his hand in bringing Weil’s best-known book, The Need for Roots, to publication in 1949. Camus even wrote an introduction for Weil’s book, though it was never published.

Camus’s frequent references to Weil show her importance in his thought. Weil was ultimately a living resolution to one of Camus’s abiding problems. She demonstrates that one can be a passionate believer in a good God, a ferocious advocate for the oppressed, and a believer in natural, transcendent beauty all at once. In a sense, then, Weil was a living embodiment of the honorable rebel that Camus would later praise, fighting for beauty against a world that is sometimes but not always unjust and ugly.  

Weil’s influence on Camus’s thought is also explored in the book Albert Camus and the Minister by Howard Mumma. Mumma was an American minister at the American Church in Paris during Camus’s productive years and claims to have developed a close relationship with Camus in the years before his untimely death. If you read Mumma’s book, you will find a Camus haunted and tempted by the redemption Christianity offers. Mumma also claims that Camus and Weil actually met in 1939, which inspired Camus’s later fascination with her writings and Christianity broadly. Mumma’s testimony and Camus’s own words show that if you are interested in Camus as a writer and a thinker, you should also look to Simone Weil to find what Camus himself considered so important about her life and works.

Perhaps the best single example of Camus’s moral and philosophical development comes from the plot of his 1956 novel The Fall. The narrator, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, once saw a woman about to jump off a bridge to her death and heard her hit the water. He tells us that he could have attempted to save her but chose instead to walk on, forgetting about the incident for many years. However, once he remembers, he is haunted by it, and his life spirals into madness.

From Absurdity to Hope

You can see a tremendous contrast between The Stranger and The Fall, between Camus’s first published novel and the last of his books published in his lifetime. In the former, a man feels no guilt at committing a senseless murder even as he faces execution. In the latter, a man suffers overwhelming, unquenchable guilt for failing to save someone from suicide. The moral world of Clamence is far more complex than the indifferent, absurd world occupied by Meursault.

Camus admits that he failed to accomplish his philosophical goal in his first two major works, so it would be foolish for us to stop reading at his greatest failure. The angst The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus inspires in young readers proves that the two books are insufficient guides for living. But by the time of his death, with the help of Simone Weil’s example, Camus has persuaded himself that there is beauty in the world. Our choices do matter and can have meaningful moral consequences. If you are struggling to convince yourself of the same, taking Camus’s journey with him through his life, works, and influences could perhaps help you find resolution and answers yourself.  

Philip is a graduate of Patrick Henry College and a 2016 Intercollegiate Studies Institute Honors Scholar. He is currently a Ph.D. student in political theory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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