Why am I here?
What is the meaning of my life?
What should give my life purpose or value?
These are tough questions – ones you’ve likely confronted at one point or the other in the past. But don’t be mistaken; you’re not alone. Nearly every thinking person in history has faced the same philosophical quagmire. Questions about the meaning and purpose of life have caused people to go to great lengths to find answers. They have caused people to enroll in schools, lock themselves in libraries, temples, or monasteries, and listen to diverse speakers.
What does life mean to you? An opportunity to see and enjoy Earth and nature before dying? A chance to improve the world and make it more beautiful? A platform to fight against the social ills of our world? An opportunity to serve a supreme God who created us? Or something else?
Interestingly enough, a few people in history have refused to try to find meaning in life. Call them rebels or outcasts, but they will not be drawn into such debates. To them, the question: “what is the meaning of life?” is the wrong one, only because it’s redundant – akin to the question, “what is the weight of my thoughts” or “what is the color of my principles.” They believe that life has no intrinsic meaning. How can this be? Let’s see if we can glean some ideas by examining the works of two famous philosophers: Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. These two 20th-century thinkers are the leading proponents of absurdism and existentialism, respectively. Though both schools of thought believe life has no meaning, they differ in distinct ways.
We’ll begin with Sartrean existentialism, created by Satre, the French philosopher and playwright who lived between 1906 and 1980. Sartre and fellow existentialists believe that all hope is not lost though the world is meaningless. They claim that by one’s agency, one can ascribe purpose to life or a world that’s intrinsically devoid of any. To illustrate this idea, imagine that you gave a child a blank piece of paper without telling them what it meant, then observed them from across the room. After fiddling with that paper for a while, the child may decide to use it to create an origami art piece, a note, a hand towel, or a multitude of other things. Whichever choice the child makes, they would essentially be giving the “meaningless” piece of paper some purpose. That’s why the existentialists’ mantra is “existence precedes essence.” Man exists (is born) empty, but he makes of his life what he desires (essence). This implies that our choices and actions can propel us to whatever heights we choose to. But what if we didn’t want to pursue our freedom and meaning – akin to the child refusing to create anything with his blank paper? Sartre calls that living in bad faith. He explains that such a person is wilfully refusing to explore the overwhelming number of choices available to give one’s life meaning. Such a person is not truly “free.”
How about Camusean absurdism? As you understand, it is the brainchild of Albert Camus, the French philosopher and novelist from the mid-1900s. His 1942 essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” vividly captures his concept of absurdism. In his book, the character – Sisyphus – has been condemned by the gods to continually roll a rock up a mountain, only for it to come tumbling back down. He does that for eternity, illustrating the futility of his efforts. According to the Camus, we’re like Sisyphus – constantly striving for meaning in a world with nothing to offer us. Though we might expend much effort and resources to find true purpose, Camus vehemently maintains his depressing position: nothing can ever bring meaning to our lives.
Due to this fact, Camus describes the endless desire and search for order and purpose in a world that will never provide one as deeply absurd. What’s the end point of this absurdity? Camus declares that there are three possible responses.
- The first response is from people who give up on life altogether. They think, “if life is so meaningless and purposeless, what’s the point of living”? They are those who ultimately opt for suicide.
- The second category is those who deny the absurd. They wage war against the idea that life has no intrinsic meaning by expressing belief in a God who presumably gives their lives sense. But Camus has severe problems with this view. If God exists yet allows us to experience such pain and suffering, then such a God is too incompetent to give our lives meaning. He posits that this creates an even higher level of absurdity. However, if God does not exist, then the people are living a lie, and the true meaning of our lives remains elusive.
- Now, what’s Camus’ third category? They are people who roll up their sleeves and embrace the absurdity with a smile on their faces. In Camus’ essay, Sisyphus eventually comes to recognize the futility of his exercise, yet he braces himself and rolls the boulder up the mountain each time. Camus believes this is the best way to solve the absurdity problem.
Ultimately, both Sartre and Camus believe in the intrinsic meaninglessness of life. But how they go about finding closure is where they differ. While Sartrean existentialism encourages people to embrace freedom and create some meaning for their lives, Camusean absurdism thinks all that is a waste of time. Instead, he asks us to embrace the meaninglessness and keep moving. Do you agree that life is meaningless? If you do, to which philosophical school of thought does you subscribe?
Written by Laolu Ogundele