The human mind has an interesting weak spot: It is able to ask questions to which it knows that no satisfactory answer can exist. No other form consciousness (of which we know of) shows this behavior—or is even remotely capable of doing so. A cat doesn’t ponder what the meaning of life is. No octopus contemplates the value of its existence. Chimpanzees don’t question their higher purpose. For animals, despite many of them undoubtedly being conscious in ways not dissimilar to ours, a state of mere being is enough. Existence for its own sake, however, does not nearly satisfy homo sapiens sapiens. We strive to know. But at the same time we are also aware that this longing for an answer, particularly to the fundamental question of meaning, is futile. Albert Camus put it best when he termed this predicament the encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe. 1
Thus, over the course of the millennia, we’ve assembled a sizable pantheon of gods, demons, and deities to help explain what was otherwise enigmatic to our limited understanding of the world, and more importantly to supply a reason for our existence. The more these superstitions, mysticisms, cults and beliefs crystallized into organized religions, the simpler their answers became: You exist, says the Old Testament, because God created Man in His image. This life is short, hard, and full of suffering, but the point of your struggles, according to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism alike, is to please God so you’ll be rewarded in the next one. Therefore, you have to follow these ten rules. Don’t eat that type of animal. Do cut your beard in this way. Give that much to the poor. Perform those rites every Sunday. Or Friday. Or Saturday. Don’t covet your neighbors house. Or goat. Or wife. Eradicate the infidels. And so on.
You get the point: Humankind’s collective yearning for meaning had—for the most part—been pacified with simplistic, straightforward answers which were conveniently supplemented with exact prescriptions for how to live one’s life. And not only were those no longer up for discussion. They were both literally and figuratively written in stone. And all was well. Or was it?
As the enlightenment rolled around, the scientific revolution that came in its wake slowly but steadily chipped away at the foundation of these ancient worldviews, which had seen little revision since the Iron Age. Now, men and women in lab coats began to prove beyond doubt that the universe had, in fact, not been handcrafted by a bearded guy in seven days. Neither was it likely that Eve did origin from Adam’s rib or all of humankind from their offspring, nor was there ever a talking serpent, a prophet riding on a flying horse, or a carpenter walking on water. These, and countless other equally untenable propositions however had for centuries made up the dungeon into which the fundamental question had successfully been confined. What could possibly happen next, now that it had broken free and was about to haunt our collective consciousness?
This question, in a nutshell, is what German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche foresaw with incredible lucidity when he wrote that “God is dead”. But, and on this point he is sometimes profoundly misunderstood, Nietzsche didn’t rejoice in that revelation. Much to the contrary, he was shook to the bone by the repercussions that this watershed would have on humanity as a whole.
Without God, Nietzsche realized, humankind would be stripped of those neat little explanations it had clothed itself with in face of the monstrosity of he existential question. No longer would it do to patch together a few folktales to cover up the rawness and the absurdity of the human condition. He thus prophesied that a century of profound and collective existential crisis would ensue. And as it turns out, he was unfortunately spot on. The erosion of religion, the opium which had subdued the masses for centuries, gave way to a kaleidoscope of secular ideologies: Nationalism, communism, fascism, socialism, and, last but not least, radical financial capitalism. The momentum of these unfolding -isms, and their inevitable clashes, exterminated millions and millions of lives. And while it is undeniable that violent conflict had also been prevalent while God had still been around, and often He being cited as the justification for it, now two things were profoundly different: First, the industrial scale on which it had become possible for men to extinguish each other—and potentially all of humankind—was unprecedented. On this point Nietzsche would probably argue that while a co-existence of gas chambers, atomic bombs, gulags, or killer robots in the same universe with God could also not be ruled out completely, it would, at the very least, be a lot less likely that their destructive potential would be unleashed to the devastating degree that we had witnessed in the 20th century.
But secondly, and on some level even more profoundly, God’s demise not only affected societies on a collective level. It also brought down the full weight of the fundamental question onto each and every individual. Now, every thinking man and women would have to ponder for themselves what exactly the meaning of their existence was. Without the guardrails of religion, the onus of answering the unanswerable question suddenly was on us.
The French author and philosopher Albert Camus thought this through very thoroughly and reached a simple, yet devastating conclusion: Our existence is, per definition, meaningless. The human condition in general, and the particularity that we can inquire about a reason which we will never be able to comprehend, should there even be one, is nothing less than absurd. What interests Camus about this already dire state of affairs however looks even bleaker—at least on the outset.
If we follow through with Camus premises, and accept the inherent lack of meaning in life as a given, two pathways present themselves: The first one is hope. Hope, as organized religions have handed out for centuries, in the irrational belief that a more meaningful existence devoid of pain and suffering will follow after this one. Hope, in some kind of positive impact that our immediate actions might have on the people we encounter. Hope, as the countless -isms of the 20th century have proclaimed, in an idea, an ideology, or a political concept of such transcendental magnitude that our mere contributions to it will be suffice to infuse life with meaning. Hope, in short, that there is something we can do that will turn the fact that we exist into something more than just a cosmic fluke.
But should we fail to accept this possibility, as the rational observer would likely be forced to do, then, according to Camus, the remaining path would inevitably lead to suicide.
It is important to pause here for a moment to acknowledge Camus’ reasoning. He did not simply ask “Why do people kill themselves?”. It was also far from the philosophers’ mind to promote the virtues of self-destruction. Instead, he systematically thought about why not, in fact, a lot more people committed suicide. Hope in salvation, either through piety or ideology, is futile as we have seen. There is no inherent meaning to any of this. The human condition is one of pure absurdity. Logically, Camus thus arrives at the question “Does the Absurd dictate death?"
So far, Camus’ argument would have lent itself to one conclusion, and one conclusion only: Yes, we would have to admit, except for our bodies’ purely biological bias towards sustenance and procreation no reasonable basis for our attachment to the absurdity that is this life can be discerned. Existing comes with exactly as much meaning as not existing. One is as good as the other.
Here, on the lowest bottom of the valley of despair, is where our philosophical guide asks for our complete and undivided attention. Camus at this point introduces one of the oldest and most prominent Greek myths, namely that of ancient Sisyphus. He, who was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill, only to watch it come down again, for all eternity to come, is the penultimate example for an absurd existence. Moreover, the fact that Sisyphus was conscious of his punishment, was completely aware of the futility of his actions, and understood perfectly the meaninglessness of his labour mirrors exactly the disparity faced by the enlightened human mind in the 21st century.
Sisyphus is stripped of all hope. There’s no chance for relief, no clinging to an afterlife, nothing that will ever save him. But, urges us Camus, we have to examine him closely. Consider what happens when the rock is already on its descend—for the thousands time—and the condemned man slowly follows. Does he despair? Does he cry out in anguish? Does he break down? No. Sisyphus bears his burden in silence, and with a virtuous, Stoic dignity. But he does so not despite the absurdity of it all, but because of it. This lack of an externally visible meaning is what liberates him to live truly in the moment. It is what enables him to draw satisfaction from the most miniscule sensations which would otherwise go unnoticed. The cool touch of the rock. The warm breeze of the wind in his hair. The crunching sound of footsteps on gravel. The feeling of muscles straining and relaxing. The slow thumping of a heartbeat. The pleasure hidden in strenuous toil.
“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” writes Camus. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”