Albert Camus: Suicide and the Meaning of Life

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“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards. These are games.” – Albert Camus

Before we begin to look into Camus’ answer to this “serious philosophical problem,” we at Bedlamite would like to warn that much of the philosophy discussed within this article goes against many traditional religions. If you hold strong convictions to one of these religions, we respect your beliefs and are in no way trying to talk down upon your way of life.

The simple purpose of this article is to discuss Albert Camus’ ideas on the meaning of life and relate them back to mental health.

Who Was Albert Camus?

Albert Camus was a Nobel prize-winning novelist, philosopher, playwright, and journalist. He is associated with other existentialist writers such as Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard, though he didn’t identify himself as one.

During his lifetime, he was a very celebrated man. Both for his deep and thoughtful contributions to the literary world and his charismatic and good-looking character. He was just as much a celebrity as he was a philosopher, even landing himself on the cover of Vogue magazine.

He died tragically at the age of 46 in a car crash. He was riding passenger while his long-time friend and publisher, Michel Gallimard, was driving. Within Camus’ pocket, they found a ticket to a train he decided not to take at the last minute.

Within two of Camus’ book-length philosophical essays, The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel, he discusses one of his most famous ideas, the concept of the Absurd. Simply put, this is the idea that human consciousness is persistently seeking out a meaning to life in a meaningless and indifferent universe.

The Absurd is what we’ll be exploring within this article. The goal is to not only understand this concept but to come out with a better sense of what meaning there is to life.

The Absurd’s Connection to Mental Health

“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

Though this can’t be said of everyone, many who suffer from a mental health condition seek happiness. Though it’s important to take the traditional route of mental health treatment in order to better your mindset, philosophy such as Camus’ offers an insight many may find enlightening.

Especially when discussing a topic such as the meaning of life.

It’s a topic we’ve all stopped and questioned at one time or another. A topic which seems to follow us around in our subconscious on a daily basis. Yet, it’s also a topic the majority of people don’t know anything about.

Camus’ idea of life being Absurd – that we’re all seeking meaning within a meaningless life – only stems further into mental health.

The opening line in the philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus mentions how philosophy has yet to answer the fundamental questions of suicide. Why do people decide not to live in this world? Is it because they feel as though their life has no meaning? Or is it because life is meaningless?

What We Know About Suicide

When it comes to suicidal ideation, medical professionals understand a number of different warning signs, including:

  • Admitting to wanting to die or kill oneself
  • Anxious, agitative, and/or reckless behavior
  • Developing a dependence on drugs or alcohol
  • Discussing feelings of being a burden to others
  • Discussing feelings of being trapped or in an intolerable pain
  • Discussing hopeless feelings or having no reason to continue life
  • Display intense mood swings
  • Lack of sleep or too much sleep
  • Seeking out solitude and/or withdrawing from social situations
  • Seeking out ways to kill oneself
  • Showing anger and/or discussing ideas of revenge

All of the above signals of suicide are talked about heavily within the mental health community. People have become well aware of how to identify someone who is suicidal which is great for preventing the catastrophic event from ever taking place.

However, identifying suicide is only one step to a complicated puzzle. By collaborating on Camus’ philosophy, we’re seeking to understand why a person experiences the above warning signs. Furthermore, we seek to find an answer on how to reverse suicidal ideation and help those struggling with it.

What Camus Knew About Suicide

“But in the end, one needs more courage to live than to kill himself.” – Albert Camus

Within the philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus, suicide is the dominant subject. The idea Camus presents is due to the meaninglessness of life, many people would rather die.

In some retrospects, some people get the sense that Camus is discussing how people who want to die to feel indifferent to the fate set up by society – however, this discussion is up for debate.

What is certain is that Camus is not interested in exploring traditional reasons for suicide. These include:

  • Mental illness
  • Physical illness (often painful and debilitating)
  • Personal tragedy and/or scandal

Rather, Camus is interested in how suicide reflects upon the Absurd. He believes suicide is, to some extent, a natural response to the absurd. However, in order for one to make a genuine and daring response to the Absurd, one cannot think of suicide.

“All men have a sweetness in their life. That is what helps them go on. It is towards that they turn when they feel too worn out.” – Albert Camus

How to Retaliate Against a Meaningless Life

“The absurd, to be sure, resides neither in man nor in the world, if you consider each separately. But since man’s dominant characteristic is ‘being in the world,’ the absurd is, in the end, an inseparable part of the human condition.” – Albert Camus

Speaking in terms of Camus’ philosophy, life is meaningless and we’re all seeking meaning through it. When we can’t seem to find that meaning, suicide can become an alluring option. Yet, even those who consider suicide continue to try to live.

Why?

As Camus saw it, besides suicide, people will have two philosophical responses to the Absurd:

1. Religion and Faith

All traditional religions have found a natural solution to the Absurd. Each in their own right gives life meaning and ideas of solace. Camus considered this response “philosophical suicide” or annihilation of reason.

In fact, Camus goes as far as to claim that adopting a religion is just as fatal as physical suicide.

To better understand:

  • Physical suicide allows a person to literally remove himself from further confrontations with the Absurd.
  • Philosophical suicide (or adopting religion) allows a person to remove the world in which s/he’s offended by and replace it with something – as Camus notes – almost supernatural.

So, what did Camus believe was the solution to separating oneself from the Absurd?

2. To Embrace the Absurd

It must be remembered that through Camus’ philosophy, the Absurd is unavoidable. And if that’s the case, why not accept and embrace it?

Considering Camus went as far as to say the Absurd is an important factor of the human condition, there’s no need to go against it through suicide or adopting a religion.

In fact, Camus believes it’s courageous to live a meaningless life and be proud of it. In his own words, “life can be lived all the better if it has no meaning.”

Still, this doesn’t take away from the fact that many people, even with this knowledge, will continue to suffer. Knowing to embrace the Absurd doesn’t teach us how to embrace it.

Take a Lesson from Sisyphus

For those who don’t know, Sisyphus was a cruel king found within ancient Greek mythology.

As the story goes, due to acts of deceit, the Gods ordained him to roll a very large boulder up a hill. When Sisyphus reached the top, he simply had to watch it roll back down. This act was repeated for eternity.

Homer noted in The Odyssey, “And I saw Sisyphus in agonizing torment trying to roll a huge stone to the top of a hill. He would brace himself, and push it towards the summit with both hands, but just as he was about to heave it over the crest, its weight overcame him, and then down again to the plain came bounding that pitiless boulder. He would wrestle it again, and lever it back, while the sweat poured from his limbs, and the dust swirled round his head.”

Admittedly, the torment Sisyphus had to go through was not only unbearable but absolutely hopeless. A feeling many of us have certainly experienced at one point or another.

Though life can seem relentless, just as with Sisyphus, Camus imagined the tormented king wore a smile on his face as he pushed that boulder up the hill.

Why?

As Camus suggests, “the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill one’s heart.”

Your Questions

If you have any further questions on Albert Camus’ philosophy or suicide, feel free to ask them in the comments below. We also invite anyone with more information on these topics to leave a comment. We try to get back to everyone in a prompt and personal manner.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

If you or someone you love is facing suicidal ideation, help is available. Don’t hesitate to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to have an open discussion of what you’re feeling or experiencing at the number:

1-800-273-TALK (8255)

A trained crisis worker is available to speak with you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

If you or someone you love is in immediate danger, it’s vital to call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room as soon as possible. DO NOT leave the person in trouble alone.

Featured Art by Pat Perry (official website)

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