“I have never wished to cater to the crowd; for what I know they do not approve, and what they approve I do not know.” -Epicurus
There are two broad camps of thought; one camp states human beings live in order to acquire meaning, while the other camp claims there is no meaning to life and human beings must learn to live happily and content within the stated framework. More specifically two schools in the latter camp are the philosophical school of absurdity as defined by Albert Camus and nihilism as defined by Friedrich Nietzsche. At the core these schools entertain vital discussion, debates, and thought in order to uncover and arrive closer to the truth of whether or not all of living is pointless or not.
In his 1942 essay titled the Myth of Sisyphus Albert Camus writes a comparative analysis of the absurd and sometimes tragic hero, Sisyphus, to contemporary individuals’ attempts at living. In short, Sisyphus is sentenced by the Greek gods to push a boulder to the top of a summit and to pursue it after it immediately descends in order to repeat the task indefinitely. The task is absurd in that its achievement of arriving at the summit after much arduous physical labor is disintegrated by the boulder’s immediate downfall for ad infinitum. Now, the comparison to contemporary individuals enters by holding real lives, not myths, under microscopes. The characterization of Sisyphus’ plight of repeated and mechanical behavior and action resembles contemporary lives in how they mechanically behave and act within a system created long before they were born. Human beings will rest, wake up, eat, work, eat again, work a little more, eat, rest, and repeat day in after day out. An example of what is meant is demonstrated in Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film called, Ikiru (To Live), the protagonist is a public servant official who never missed a day of work in over 30 years, and all he recalls towards the end of his life is always being so busy, and yet his department of Public Affairs has nothing to show for it. With the advent of technology and progress not seen yet by Camus’ lifetime, human beings are more busy, more fast tracked, less still, and less reflective. As Camus argues the fates of both Sisyphus and contemporaries are alike in absurdity. Camus continues to explain in his essay that the tragedy is only made real, when both Sisyphus in his descent to the fallen boulder and contemporaries realize the inevitable absurdity of invisible forces and mechanisms at work, whether by the mythological Greek gods in Sisyphus’ case or the societal machine for contemporary life. However, a silver lining exists in that Camus argues that the persistence of happiness emerges in both scenarios inevitably. Despite all absurdity, chaos, or woes one can triumph in the tumultuous waters by consciously recognizing and contemplating reality and choosing happiness in spite of much of it. Therefore, by using Sisyphus as a metaphor Camus concludes human beings can overcome their internal and external struggles through acknowledgement just as Sisyphus does in the time it takes him to climb down the summit, while knowing he must push the boulder once more.
Nietzsche, on the other hand, had a different interpretation. Both the philosopher and the philosophy are difficult to understand, so what follows is an effort to engage the material for consideration and discussion. Nihilism can be understood as an attitude of indifference to all of existence which includes questions of metaphysics, epistemology, and ideas of purposelessness, though debate exists that the contrary is true and the philosophy was not for championing pessimism. In a poor global overview of the philosophy for sake of space, nihilism denounces life as meaningless and intrinsically baseless both morally and ethically. Therefore, all sufferings, feelings, and actions are without consequence; they are empty and forgotten into the great abyss of human history. The scope used is the vastness of time. Our time alive is tiny compared to the elapsed time before us and time’s uninterrupted continuation after us.
How then do we seek purpose? What is at the deepest root of living? Arguably, absurdity and nihilism can exist simultaneously beside living whole-heartedly with a sense of purpose and with intellectual and emotional stimulation. In other words, one can accept the notion of life as meaningless, given our infinitesimal existence, and yet still create meaning for the time one is allotted to live. We can find absurdity in both achieving the outcome or not, and still live happily and fulfilled. Living can still take place with awe and surprise. In the end, choice still reigns.