By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

39. The Modern Tradition, edited by Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson Jr., pp. 844-867

Existence: Value in Existence (Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Jaspers)

Albert Camus: Absurd Freedom 

Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) took the story of the king condemned by the gods to roll a stone to the top of a hill and then watch it roll back down again, and to repeat the action for eternity, and made it a central existentialist fable about humankind's confrontation with the absurd. 

What sets humanity apart from the rest of living beings is reason, which compels us to desire order, unity, meaning, solutions, "clarity and cohesion." But since we can "understand only in human terms," much of the universe remains alien to us. "This ridiculous reason is what sets me in opposition to all creation. I cannot cross it out with a stroke of the pen. What I believe to be true I must therefore preserve." Religions and systems tempt us to leap toward their solutions, but "the absurd man" must "reply ... that he doesn't fully understand, that it is not obvious. Indeed, he does not want to do anything but what he fully understands." 
Hence, what he demands of himself is to live solely with what he knows, to accommodate himself to what is, and to bring in nothing that is not certain. He is told that nothing is. But this at least is a certainty. And it is with this that he is concerned: he wants to find out if it is possible to live without appeal.
This rejection of a "higher authority," of unquestionable revelation, carries with it the temptation of suicide. But if one rejects the notion that life must have meaning if it is to be worth living, then it "becomes clear ... that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning." Life "is a constant confrontation between man and his own obscurity." Suicide, like the accepting some religious or systematized authoritarian creed, "is acceptance at its extreme. Everything is over and man returns to his essential history.... In its way, suicide settles the absurd. It engulfs the absurd in the same death. But I know that in order to keep alive, the absurd cannot be settled. It escapes suicide to the extent that it is simultaneously acceptance and rejection of death." We know we are going to die, but we reject the offer to get on with as soon as possible. "It is essential to die unreconciled and not of one's own free will. Suicide is a repudiation."

Recognition of the absurd also eliminates the paradoxes of free will. "Knowing whether or not man is free doesn't interest me. I can experience only my own freedom." A belief in God traps one in paradox: "either we are not free and God the all-powerful is responsible for evil. Or we are free and responsible but God is not all-powerful. All the scholastic subtleties have neither added anything to nor subtracted anything from the acuteness of this paradox." 
I cannot understand what kind of freedom would be given me by a higher being. I have lost the sense of hierarchy. The only conception of freedom I can have is that of the prisoner or the individual in the midst of the State. The only one I know is freedom of thought and action. Now if the absurd cancels all my changes of eternal freedom, it restores and magnifies, on the other hand, my freedom of action. That privation of hope and future means an increase in man's availability.
A belief in the eternity of the soul limits one's freedom: "To the extent to which [a man] imagined a purpose to his life, he adapted himself to the demands of a purpose to be achieved and became the slave of his liberty." If the temporal existence is only a prelude to an eternal one to be achieved by following certain precepts, then one is not free. "The absurd enlightens me on this point: there is no future. Henceforth this is the reason for my inner freedom."
The absurd man ... catches sight of a burning and frigid, transparent and limited universe in which nothing is possible but everything is given, and beyond which all is collapse and nothingness. He can then decide to accept such a universe and draw from it his strength, his refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation. But what does life mean in such a universe? Nothing else for the moment but indifference to the future and a desire to use up everything that is given.
One lives in the "perpetual opposition between my conscious revolt and the darkness in which it struggles." And accepting that this finite life is what one is given means that "what counts is not the best living but the most living" -- quantity of life rather than quality. "A man's rule of conduct and his scale of values have no meaning except through the quantity and variety of experiences he has been in a position to accumulate." The Greeks were mistaken to assert "that those who died young were beloved of the gods." Those who do so lose "the purest of joys, which is feeling, and feeling on this earth." 
Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death -- and I refuse suicide.
In their condemnation of Sisyphus, the gods "thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor." But Sisyphus triumphs over his punishment with his "scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life" even though his "whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing." When the rock rolls back downhill, the period in which he returns to start his labor again is "the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lair of the gods, he is superior to his fate."
If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.... The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.
Sisyphus's task, then, is much like that of Marx's alienated laborer. But rather than making this alienation a particular function of the class struggle, Camus turns it into a universal statement about the nature of consciousness. The alienation is not resolved by seizing the means of production but by acknowledging it and scorning it. 

And in the end, this is the only path to happiness. "Happiness and the absurd ... are inseparable." Sisyphus's "fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up." By scorning the gods, Sisyphus negates them. "The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." 

Jean-Paul Sartre: Commitment 

Camus speaks of the refusal to hope, and so does Sartre in this excerpt from Existentialism and Humanism (1946). "Beyond the point at which the possibilities under consideration cease to affect my action, I ought to disinterest myself. For there is no God and no prevenient design, which can adapt the world an all its possibilities to my will. When Descartes said, 'Conquer yourself rather than the world,' what he meant was, at bottom, the same -- that we should act without hope." 

We should confine ourselves to that which we can experience, not basing our actions on a trust in "human goodness or upon man's interest in the good of society" or any concept of "human nature." What matters is one's own commitment. If one wishes to achieve a social change, one should do whatever one can to bring it about, but count on nothing outside of one's own endeavor: "there is no reality except in action." Similarly, "there is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving; there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art." In short, "a man is no other than a series of undertakings." 

We are not by nature either cowards or heroes: "the coward makes himself cowardly, the heron makes himself heroic; and ... there is always a possibility for the coward to give up cowardice and for the hero to stop being a hero. What counts is the total commitment, and it is not by a particular case or particular action that you are committed altogether."

Søren Kierkegaard: Faith by Virtue of the Absurd

In Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1844) Kierkegaard outlines ideas that he embodies in Fear and Trembling through his equivalent of the myth of Sisyphus, the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac. And like Sartre, he begins with the recognition that one's own reality, not that of others, is the starting point: "the only question of reality that is ethically pertinent, is the question of one's own reality." 

But unlike Camus or Sartre, Kierkegaard makes room for faith: "To ask with infinite interest about a reality which is not one's own, is faith" and "the believer [is] infinitely interested in the reality of another (in the fact, for example, that God has existed in time)" -- i.e., through the incarnation  of Christ. Because of this, Christianity is not a subject of intellectual analysis: "If Christianity were a doctrine, the relationship to it would not be one of faith, for only an intellectual type of relationship can correspond to a doctrine. Christianity is therefore not a doctrine, but the fact that God has existed." 

Thus Kierkegaard finds faith to be the way of confronting the absurd. Faced with a choice of actions, reason tells you, "you can just as well do the one thing as the other, that is to say where my reason and reflection say, you cannot act -- and yet here is where I have to act." The situation is absurd. In this case, the leap of faith comes into the process: "I must act, but reflection has closed the road, so I take one of the possibilities and turn to God saying: This is what I do, bless my actions, I cannot do otherwise because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of reflection." 

Through faith, one calls on the eternal to help in the temporal. "Despair makes everything easier because it is an undisturbed agreement with oneself that the suffering is unbearable. The further effort which the idea of God demands of us it to have to understand that suffering must not only be borne but that it is a good, a gift of the God of love." One endures the suffering because of the belief that it is part of an inscrutable plan. "God wishes to be believed, unconditionally; but one who is infinite cannot but put the price of faith infinitely high. Oh, but it is blessed to believe, and the higher the price the greater the happiness; the dearer you buy, the happier you will be." Like Camus, Kierkegaard sees happiness and suffering as inextricable. 

Abraham took on faith God's promise "that in his seed all races of the world would be blessed." But the promise was a long time in fulfillment: Sarah remained barren. "Time passed, the possibility was there. Abraham believed; time passed, it became unreasonable, Abraham believed." God continued to try Abraham's faith. 
Yet Abraham believed, and believed for this life. Yea, if his faith had been only for a future life, he surely would have cast everything away in order to hasten out of this world to which he did not belong. But Abraham's faith was not of this sort, if there be such a faith; for really this is not faith but the furthest possibility of faith which has a presentiment of its object at the extremest limit of the horizon, yet is separated from it by a yawning abyss within which despair carries on its game.
And in time the faith was rewarded with a son, Isaac. And then God tested Abraham further by commanding him to sacrifice that son. Abraham persisted in his faith and was rewarded for it. He knew "that highest passion, the holy, pure and humble expression of the divine madness which the pagans admired." 

Karl Jaspers: The Will to Communicate 

Karl Jaspers, date unknown
These excerpts from Reason and Existenz (1935), The Perennial Scope of Philosophy (1948) and "On My Philosophy"  (1941) center on Jaspers's brand of existentialism -- he dissociated himself from Sartrean existentialism -- that he called "Existenz-philosophy," retaining the German word even in translation. Where Sartre and Camus stress the aloneness of the individual, and the necessity of acting as if one's actions were definitive for all humankind, Jaspers stresses community and communication. He cites Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as his forerunners. 

Doubt is for Jaspers an "imperative," but only in so far as doubt is necessary as a means "to gain pure truth." 
The understanding, as unanchored thought, is nihilistic; reason, as grounded in existence, is salvation from nihilism, because it preserves the confidence that through its movement in conjunction with the understanding, it will, amid the conflicts, divisions, and abysses of the concrete world, regain in the end its certitude of transcendence.
But this certitude is only potential, and not guaranteed. It requires a leap of faith, and the only way to approach it is through communication. "Reason demands boundless communication, it is itself the total will to communicate." For "existence can come into its own only with other existence," and "communication is the form in which truth is revealed in time." 

Thus Jaspers posits a "philosophical faith, which may also be called faith in communication. For it upholds these two propositions: Truth is what joins us together; and, truth has its origin in communication." Science is limited because it "does not unite us completely as real human beings, but only as intellectual beings. It unites us in the object that is understood, in the particular, but not in the totality." It omits "feeling, subjectivity, instinct" and "causes man to oscillate between the dogmatism of the intellect that transcends its limits and, as it were, as it were, the rapture of the vital, the chance of the moment, life." Communication provides the vital link between the intellect and the other aspects of life. "Thus the intellect finds clarity only in discussion." 

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