“One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy”

Albert Camus attempted to “transcend the nihilism” through literature, which he believed could more powerfully depict and analyze existence than any philosophical treatise. He had lived through the travesty of two Great Wars and, like many of the time, felt that such bloodshed was absurd and meaningless. The silence of God—which was a constant theme throughout his writings—was deafening. Indeed, it was only five years after his tragic death that Time magazine, on 22 October 1965, highlighted a small group of theologians who all agreed that “God is dead.” This “death of God theology” is essential background for understanding Camus’ Plague.

Is God Dead?: TIME's Iconic Cover at 50

In the late nineteenth century Friedrich Nietzsche had already proclaimed that God was dead. Camus had in fact clarified that Nietzsche had not tried to “kill God,” but rather that he had “found him dead in the soul of his contemporaries.” By the turn of the century, God had simply fell out of fashion. As Nietzsche observed:

“What is now decisive against Christianity is our taste, no longer our reasons.”

Nietzsche recognized the simple fact that God had gradually been eliminated from modern Western culture. But what are the implications? In his Joyful Science (1882), where he first declared that God is dead, Nietzsche argued that humankind must learn to live without him. This meant the reevaluation of all values, particularly those association with the Christian religion. He writes:

“When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth—it stands and falls with faith in God.”

In place of Christianity, Nietzsche proclaimed the “superman” (Übermensch), someone without fear of others, self, or death. This Übermensch was compatible with scientific naturalism, but for Nietzsche he also transcended science, for life has no meaning other than what individuals give it. If one is ever to rise above meaningless existence, they must choose a way of life that has dignity for them, though it might bring suffering to themselves and others.

This revolt against God was also aptly described in the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky, particularly in his The Brothers Karamazov (1880). Dostoevsky observed the Russian bourgeois liberals and their revolutionary optimism and argued that it could open the door to unprecedented brutality and oppression, precisely because it removes any divine limitation to human actions. Whereas Nietzsche claims scientific justification for his views, Dostoevsky attacked the pretensions of scientific humanism and urged the necessity of God as the basis of human freedom. He rejected the idea that humans were bound by scientific laws and thus totally determined by physical factors. He also rejected the idea that everything is governed by reason.

The rise of the naturalistic worldview and its consequent nihilism, in short, led many to become increasingly concerned with problems of human life in modern, secular mass societies. Many were beginning to question accepted values and philosophies and noted the absurdity of life and the quest for meaning in death. These questions are central to philosophical existentialism at the beginning of the twentieth century.

It should be noted that most scholars trace the origins of existentialism to Christian thinker Søren Kierkegaard, who responded to what he perceived as the dead orthodoxy of Danish Lutheranism. Kierkegaard presented faith as a purely personal endeavor, and that institutionalized Christianity had become confused and irrelevant. Underlying all his writings is the conviction that God exists, and that God had become incarnate in Christ. Yet for Kierkegaard God remained wholly other, and could never be identified with anything finite. Even in revelation God remains hidden. When people saw Jesus on earth, they saw only a man. The infinite cannot be changed into something finite. In the incarnation, God remained incognito. Only from faith can one get a true view of God. But this requires the commitment of one’s whole being to discipleship, for the truth of existence is grasped only in total faith, according to Kierkegaard.

By Camus’ day, belief in God seemed to many intellectuals simply impossible. This is somewhat surprisingly confirmed also in the writings of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, writing to a friend from his prison cell in 1944, that humanity is now accustomed to living with God. Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the ‘working hypothesis’ called ‘God.’ In questions of science, art, and ethics this has become an understood thing on which one now hardly dares touch. But for the last hundred years or so it has also become incresingly true of religious questions; it is becoming evident that everything also gets along without ‘God’—and, in fact, just as well as before. As in the scientific field, so in human affairs generally, ‘God’ is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.”

Whatever our views of naturalism and modern science, to Camus and many others science had eliminated God. As an older contemporary of Camus puts it, historian Carl Becker,

“Edit and interpret the conclusions of modern science as tenderly as we like, it is still quite impossible for us to regard man as the child of God for whom the earth was created as a temporary habitation. Rather must we regard him as little more than a chance deposit on the surface of the world, carelessly thrown up between two ice ages by the same forces that rust iron and ripen corn, a sentient organism endowed by some happy or unhappy accident with intelligence indeed, but with an intelligence conditioned by the very forces that it seeks to understand and to control.”

Happy Sisyphus

So the only question that remains is what to do about it. Since naturalism leads to nihilism and the absurdity of life, how then should we live? Atheistic existentialism accepted most of the conclusions of philosophical naturalism. Matter exists and God does not. Death is extinction. History is linear, linked by cause and effect, but without an overarching purpose. Though human reason can understand the cosmos, what does that matter? This highly organized world stands over against humanity and appears absurd. The ultimate absurdity is death. But according to Camus, we must live in the face of the absurd. This is how existentialism goes beyond nihilism—how it attempts to transcend the absurdity of death. We must create value in a world where there is no objective value. According to Camus, the “authentic life” is the one recognizes fully the absurdity of the cosmos and yet rebels against it and creates her own meaning. That is, for Camus the most authentic person must revolt against the absurdity of death and create his own values.

Painting of Sisyphus by Titian

Sisyphus (1548–49) by TitianPrado MuseumMadridSpain

In his Myth of Sisyphus (1942), for instance, Camus used the story of Sisyphus, the mythical king of Corinth, as a metaphor for the absurdity of human existence. Having insulted the gods, Sisyphus was condemned by them to spend eternity in the underworld repeatedly rolling a rock to the topic of a mountain, at which point the stone would roll back down and Sisyphus was then obliged to begin the endless and pointless cycle all over again.

But for Camus, Sisyphus was a hero—he was the hero in our absurd reality. Condemned by the contingencies of history to a futile and meaningless existence, he sets out to make the best of it. His situation cannot be changed. He must accept his lot. There is no ed in sight, no respite from the absurdity of existence. This is the metaphor Camus chooses to illuminate the human condition. When naturalism eliminated the notion of God, we are left with this meaningless struggle. Moreover, death is the ultimate absurdity. For Camus, any philosophy that believes it is possible to make sense of things is deluded, whether in the form of religion (vertical) or Marxism (horizontal). Indeed, in his The Rebel (1951), Camus completely rejects what he calls the “horizontal religions of our time.” Political systems such as Marxism, a sort of messianic utopianism, elevates humanity to the position of a deity, according to Camus.

“I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I cannot know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms . . . I do not want to found anything on the incomprehensible. I want to know whether I can live with what I know and with that alone.”

There is no God to give meaning to events. The only way to be happy is by acknowledging the absurdity of the situation. As Camus observes:

“You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.”

At the conclusion of Myth of Sisyphus, Camus leaves the reader with these final thoughts:

“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile, nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. Sisyphus is happy. I feel alive. I breathe in and out and I am happy.”

Camus and the Silence of God

Before WWII, Camus viewed Christianity as “absurd.” Belief in God amounted to a betrayal of reason, and Christians in particular are people who commit “philosophical suicide.” Camus does not know that God does not exist; he chooses to believe it. How could there be a God? If there is a God, he is silent, offering no justification of himself. For Camus, the idea of the death of God is best expressed in terms of his silence rather than his absence.

At the same time, those who have read Camus have often been struck by the essential role which Christianity plays in his novels and other writings. At some point elements of the Christian faith emerges. In fact, it readily becomes apparent that in all his literary pieces Camus is centrally concerned with religious-moral themes and that these constitute much of the force and attractiveness of his works. In this sense, Camus was a “religious thinker” who took a unique position in the battle of ideologies during his lifetime. As I will outline in another post, Camus’ most intense treatment of religion—and Christianity in particular—occurs in The Plague. Indeed, some commentators have even argued that Camus became more open to Christianity near the end of his life, and this transformation is apparent in this novel.

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