Is Life Absurd? Albert Camus vs. Saint Augustine

Albert Camus, the famed author of philosophical absurdism, was certainly not the first to propose that life is absurd. The author of Ecclesiastes beat him to it by several centuries. “Vanity of vanities, everything under the sun is vanity,” goes the famous repeated line.

I remember the shock I felt reading Ecclesiastes for the first time as a teenager. I did not know what to make of it. It seemed as if the Bible was not only admitting but proving that life was absurd. How could that be?

I would not come across Albert Camus’ classic text on absurdism, The Myth of Sisyphus, for another couple of decades. But when I finally did I began to realize just how reasonable philosophical absurdism is on the surface, and how reasonable—how necessary—it is to have a book like Ecclesiastes, an ancient quasi-treaty on absurdism, in the Biblical canon. I’ll explain why in a minute, but first, let me clear up what is meant by “absurdism.”

Absurdism in a nutshell

As Camus taught it, absurdism is a belief that “the world is neither rational nor irrational, it is simply unreasonable.” He said that the only way a man can understand the world is by reducing it to the human: “The cat’s universe is not the universe of the anthill.” The human experience is limited by a built-in and unavoidable human perspective. Having only this experience from which to judge, Camus found life thoroughly unreasonable. For him to deviate from this fact and claim that there were reasonable aspects of life was to become a liar, to lose both his “integrity” and his “innocence”.

Camus’ unique resolution

Camus resolved to not allow any “nostalgia” for a meaningful or spiritual life to push him from the “dizzying crest” of anxiety (an anxiety that inevitably comes from acquiring a deep awareness of absurdity); he would not settle the war within himself by a “leap of faith” or by acquiescing to any belief not verified by his experience. And his experience was simple: life was absurd. 

What I like about Camus is that he did not settle for a philosophical halfway house; he pushed his belief to its logical conclusion. And he recognized that his line of thinking led to suicide. If life is absurd why go on living? It is an arduous and painful journey, full of meaningless and vain repetitions. However, Camus arrived at a conclusion that averted despair; a conclusion that is at once as brilliant as it is ridiculous.

Simply put, he resolved to live a life of constant revolt against reasonableness. Best to quote him on this point at length:

“It was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have a meaning to be lived. It now becomes clear, on the contrary, that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning. Living an experience, a particular fate, is accepting it fully. Now, one will live this fate, knowing it to be absurd unless he does everything to keep before him that absurd brought to light by consciousness. Negating one of the terms of the opposition on which he lives amounts to escaping it. To abolish conscious revolt is to elude the problem. The theme of permanent revolution is thus carried into individual experience. Living is keeping the absurd alive… That revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life.”

Albert Camus in 1957

In other words, staying in a constant state of conscious revolt against the lie of reasonableness is the way to pack life with real—not nostalgic or wishful thinking—but real value. Suicide, like religion and philosophy, reasons Camus, is an attempt to settle the absurd on the cheap. Camus claims, to the reader’s surprise, that absurdism is actually the best guard against suicide. He explained that because absurdism rests on this conscious revolt against reasonableness, it follows that it has no desire to settle the absurd. Thus suicide is at best pointless, and at worst an act of cowardly ignorance.

Absurdism in the light of Ecclesiastes  

Camus admittingly makes this bold conclusion according to his own reduced human experience—an experience void of God and spirituality. “If I were a tree among trees, a cat among animals, this life would have a meaning, or rather this problem would not arise, for I should belong to this world.”

And that should’ve been Camus’ red flag—the realization that he did not belong to this world.

The religious believer already knows that we ultimately belong to another world, and it is this other world that makes this present world make sense.

Thus, the religious believer is left with the same question but from the other end: what am I to do with this absurd life if I have had an experience with God and spirituality? How is one to suspend one’s spiritual experience and claim absurdity without becoming a liar, without sacrificing one’s “integrity” and “innocence”?  

As mentioned, Ecclesiastes takes the reader by storm who is not expecting the Bible to roll out a thoroughgoing absurdist doctrine, especially not at the hands of an author who is called the wisest among men (i.e., Solomon). But the reader eventually discovers that the absurdist’s convictions must first be proven before preaching the life-giving gospel, which completely refutes it.

Who will deny what the “preacher” in Ecclesiastes says? “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity! What advantage does a man have in all his labor in which he toils under the sun?”

Each generation comes and goes, nothing they do holds remembrance. Those who do remember die themselves in an endless cycle of starts and stops of human existence. All their joys and sorrows, their loves and hates, their victories and losses amount to nothing under the sun. The waves of the ocean continue to lap onto the shore whether or not anyone is there to experience it; the sun continues to rise and fall with no regard for humankind whatsoever.

Pretty dark thoughts, but true. Anyone who denies them is either too dense to recognize it or too dishonest to face the facts. Read Job if you are a believer and let it be settled once and for all that your righteousness does not insulate you from tragedy. There is no cute, air-tight religious formula of punishments and rewards according to faith and sin committed under the sun—not in this life.

In the words of Ecclesiastes: “There is a vanity which takes place on the earth, that there are righteous people whose lot is as if their conduct were that of the ungodly, and there are ungodly people whose lot is as if their conduct were that of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity” (8:14).

This point must be driven deep within one’s consciousness before any real faith can emerge. The absurdist doctrine must be understood in its rightful context.

Augustine on Ecclesiastes

But again, what is one to do with experiences with God and spirituality?

Here I use St. Augustine to present the counterargument on Camus’ absurdism because he is a strong and accepted voice in Christendom whether one is of the Eastern or Western variety.

“The wisest of men,” Augustine begins, “devoted his entire book to describing this vanity as far as seemed sufficient, and his sole purpose, no doubt, was that we should desire the life which is not a life of vanity under the sun but rather a life of truth under the Creator of the sun.”

Here Augustine makes a clever point. Throughout Ecclesiastes Solomon emphasizes the vanity of life “under the sun,” which is true, but only insofar as there is no “Creator of the sun.” So long as there is a Creator then everything under the sun is given meaning and purpose.

Beginning the book with, “Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity,” he concludes with, “Fear God, and keep his commandments, for this is the whole man. For God shall bring every deed into judgment, whether good or evil, including everything that has been overlooked” (12:13, 14).

On this Augustine says, “What could possibly be said that is more succinct, more true, and more salutary than this?” If one is wanting to know what the Christian faith believes about the essence of humankind, what is the essence of human nature, it is this: to fear God and keep his commandments—this is the “whole man.” By not doing this the person is operating outside his or her actual human nature (which is largely why so many people are falling apart).

Again Augustine: “Anyone who is anything at all is this: a keeper of God’s commandments; for anyone who is not this is nothing at all, because he is not being reformed to the image of the truth but remains instead in the likeness of vanity.”

It’s like saying, “Feel free to attempt to live life without God and pretend that it is meaningful, but you will inevitably fail for all is vanity under the sun. But if you live for God—the sun Maker—then, in an ultimate cosmic switcheroo, everything you do under the sun is meaningful, even unto eternity.”

For the thoroughgoing absurdist, this is just another form of fakery and a lame attempt to escape existential anxiety. And it should seem that way to him. He is using his best faculties to understand the existence he was thrown into. It is not until he gains the faculty of spiritual awareness (a faculty he has had all along) that the absurdity of life will begin to make sense.

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