I don’t think I’m giving you any news by saying that we live in a very strange world. Us, as human beings, came into existence with no apparent goals but reproducing ourselves and keeping the species going, if we consider our biological engineering, or anything to achieve. Added on top of that, the way our current society works, including the objectification of human life through the means of capital, the pandemic that we currently are going through, and a lot of other aspects make for an overwhelming experience and it’s extremely easy to feel lost by everything that’s going on around us.
These problems and the questions raised from them have been extensively thought about by great minds for a long time, way before the pandemic even started. This school of thought, the exploration of the problem of human existence and our place in the universe, is called existentialism. It’s a concept that many philosophers and thinkers have been mentioning in the past without it being called this way, but it was coined in the mid-1940s by French philosopher Gabriel Marcel. I will probably come back to this since existentialism is an especially interesting topic, but with this definition in mind, I wanted to write about a French philosopher who was one of the pioneers of this school of thought, Albert Camus.
Albert Camus was a French-Algerian philosopher and novelist, mostly known for The Stranger, a 1942 novel that distills a lot of his thinking, which I will use to introduce you to him and his ideas. It’s a very good read in my opinion, short (123 pages) and not too hard to understand. It was the book that got me into philosophy and made me want to start this blog. The Stranger follows the life of Meursault, a young man living in French Algeria, in Alger. The entire character could be summed up by the book’s incipit:
Today, Mother died. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t remember. I received a telegram from the old people’s home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Very sincerely yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. It might have been yesterday.
From what we can read here, we learn that Meursault is an apathetic figure, who is emotionally indifferent to others. I won’t get into too many details, mainly because I think you should really read The Stranger yourself, and summing it up completely would defeat the purpose, but the entire story is about this apathetic main character, who is marginalized due to his complete apparent lack of empathy. The book is divided in two parts; the beginning of the story, where Meursault meets a girl called Marie, an old friend of his whom he ends up having an affair with, and his neighbour, Raymond Sintès, a man in conflict with his mistress. After some events, Meursault ends up shooting a man dead, and the second part of the book is his trial after committing the crime. One thing that makes this novel so highly enjoyable is the fact that the entire story is narrated through Meursault’s eyes: we get to read all his cold and apathetic thoughts, his detached attitude through life. He does not care that his mother died, he does not mind if Marie loves her or not. He is also extremely honest: the lack of apparent sadness he showed when he was in front of his mother’s deceased body tells a lot about it.
Although we could think Meursault is a bad character because of his completely indifference to human emotions, he is neither a moral nor immoral person, he is simply amoral. He does not make the distinction between good and evil in his own mind, which also explains why he killed a man for no apparent reason.
The interesting part about his trial was the fact that it wasn’t even his crime that people remembered the most, but his completely detached and indifferent attitude throughout the process was what led the witnesses and the judge to think he was a complete monster. After the trial, Meursault is sentenced to death by guillotine. What Meursault encountered throughout his life was what Albert Camus called “the absurd”: it is the futility of a search for meaning in an incomprehensible universe, devoid of God. One point that is extremely important to understand to dive deeper into Camus’ philosophy, is the fact that Meursault wasn’t unhappy, he was actually quite content with his life. We can read here one of his last thoughts before the execution:
“I was assailed by memories of a life that wasn’t mine anymore, but one in which I’d found the simplest and most lasting joys: the smells of summer, the part of town I loved, a certain evening sky, Marie’s dresses and the way she laughed.”
And this is exactly where Albert Camus’ philosophy really starts to make sense. Throughout this novel, Albert Camus is depicting a character thoroughly exposed to the absurd, as he was picturing it: Meursault only decided that his answer for the absurd would be to give up on trying to understand the universe. It is shown in a very distinct way that he did, in fact stop caring about all of what wasn’t his personal perception when he shot the man, which he depicted as “not bothering him one way or another”, and that the sun was shining in his eyes as he was aiming at the man.
Albert Camus is in fact, with this book and his other works, advocating for the lack of inherent meaning in the universe we experience and live in. He rejects any man-given purpose to life altogether, ditching religion or any attempt at finding a common purpose. From his perspective, the world we live in is completely devoid of any meaning or objective, the only purpose being the one that humans give to themselves. There is no gods, there is no inherent purpose to life, and that should be liberating to us.
“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” — Albert Camus
After all, why would we care if no one is expecting anything from us in this universe? It is, ultimately, a very comfortable feeling. Relax, nothing is under control.