Albert Camus Biography

Biographical History of Existentialism

Albert Camus was a French-Algerian journalist and novelist whose literary work is regarded as a primary source of modern existentialist thought. A principle theme in Camus’ novels is the idea that human life is, objectively speaking, meaningless. This results in “absurdity” which can only be overcome by a commitment to moral integrity and social solidarity. Although perhaps not a philosopher in the strictest sense, his philosophy is widely expressed in his novels and he is generally regarded as an existentialist philosopher.

Returning the the dominant themes of Camus’ writings, the most frequently mentioned feature would have to be the notion of the “absurd.” According to Camus the absurd is produced via conflict — a conflict between our expectation of a rational, just universe and the actual universe that it is quite indifferent to all of our expectations.

This theme of conflict between our desire for rationality with our experience of irrationality plays an important role in many existentialists’ writings. In Kierkegaard, for example, this produced a crisis which a person needed to overcome by a leap of faith — a conscious renunciation of any requirement for rational standards and an open acceptance of the irrationality of our fundamental choices.

Camus illustrated the problem of absurdity through the story of Sysiphus, a tale he adapted for a book-length essay The Myth of Sysiphus. Condemned by the gods, Sysiphus continually rolled a rock up hill only to watch it roll back down again — every time.

This struggle seems hopeless and absurd because nothing will ever be achieved, but Sysiphus struggled anyway.

Camus also addressed this in his other famous book, The Stranger, in which a man accepts the irrationality of life and lack of objective meaning by refraining from making any judgments, by accepting even the worst sorts of people as friends, and not even getting upset when his mother dies or when he kills someone.

Both of these figures represent a stoic acceptance of the worst life has to offer, but Camus’ philosophy is not that of Stoicisim, it’s existentialism. Sysiphus scorns the gods and defies their effort to break his will — he’s a rebel and refuses to back down. Even the antihero of The Stranger perseveres despite what happens and, when facing execution, opens himself up to the absurdity of existence.

It is in fact the process of creating value through rebellion that Camus believed we could create value for all humans, overcoming the absurdity of the universe. Creating value, however, is achieved through our commitment to values, both personal and social. Traditionally many have believed that value must be found in the context of religion, but Albert Camus rejected religion as an act of cowardice and “philosophical suicide.”

An important reason why Camus rejected religion is because it is used to provide pseudo-solutions to the absurd nature of reality — the fact that human reasoning fits so poorly with reality as we find it. Indeed, Camus rejected all attempts to overcome the absurd — even existentialist solutions, like the “leap of faith” advocated by Kierkegaard. For that reason, categorizing Camus as an existentialist has always been at least a little bit tricky.

In The Myth of Sysiphus, Camus separated existentialist from absurdist writers — and he regarded the latter more highly than the former.