The Absurd Philosophy of Albert Camus Presented in a Short Animated Film by Alain De Botton

What is the mean­ing of life? This may sound sim­plis­tic or naïve, espe­cial­ly in rela­tion to much con­tem­po­rary phi­los­o­phy, which assumes the ques­tion is inco­her­ent and reserves its focus for small­er and small­er slices of expe­ri­ence. And, of course, pri­or to the rise of sec­u­lar moder­ni­ty, the ques­tion was answered for us—and still is for a great many people—by reli­gion. One either believed the answer, through coer­cion or oth­er­wise, or kept qui­et about it. But at least since Søren Kierkegaard, philoso­phers in the West have tak­en the ques­tion very seri­ous­ly, and found all of the answers want­i­ng. By the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, there seemed to thinkers like Albert Camus to be no answer. Life has no mean­ing. It is inher­ent­ly absurd and pur­pose­less.

This Camus con­clud­ed in chal­leng­ing essays like “The Myth of Sisy­phus” and nov­els like L’Etranger, a book most of us know as The Stranger but which Alain de Bot­ton, in his School of Life video above on Camus’ phi­los­o­phy, trans­lates as The Out­sider. Read­ing this book, de Bot­ton observes, “has long been an ado­les­cent rite of pas­sage” since many of its themes “are first tack­led at sev­en­teen or so.” Its pro­tag­o­nist, Meur­sault, an old­er, more nihilis­tic ver­sion of Hold­en Caulfield, illus­trates Camus’ the­sis through his stead­fast refusal to iden­ti­fy with any mean­ing-mak­ing insti­tu­tions or emo­tions, and through a casu­al, sense­less mur­der. But while Meur­sault may see through the pre­ten­sions of his soci­ety, he has failed to see the world as it is.

Col­in Wil­son, anoth­er author many peo­ple read dur­ing intel­lec­tu­al­ly for­ma­tive years—who wrote an exis­ten­tial­ist study also called The Out­sider—describes Meursault’s indif­fer­ence to life as a prod­uct of “his sense of unre­al­i­ty.” Only the loom­ing prospect of death awak­ens him from what Meur­sault calls “a heavy grime of unre­al­i­ty.” Instead of despair­ing at life’s empti­ness, Camus deter­mined that true free­dom required engag­ing ful­ly with life, in the face of futility—with the ulti­mate prospect of death and the option of sui­cide always in view. Camus, says de Bot­ton, “writes with excep­tion­al inten­si­ty… as a guide for the rea­sons to live.” De Bot­ton some­what super­fi­cial­ly prais­es Camus’ sex­u­al prowess, fash­ion sense, and good looks as more than just “styl­is­tic quirks,” but as mark­ers of his psy­cho­log­i­cal health.

But more than just a ladies man, Camus was a “great cham­pi­on of the ordi­nary,” as well as a cham­pi­on foot­baller and Nobel prize-win­ning lit­er­ary star. He was also a ful­ly com­mit­ted jour­nal­ist and polit­i­cal activist for much of his career, who stood by his indi­vid­ual prin­ci­ples even as oth­er left­ist intel­lec­tu­als got swept up in the allure of Sovi­et com­mu­nism under Stal­in. In the doc­u­men­tary above, we learn impor­tant details of many of these qual­i­ties, as well of Camus’ trou­bled ear­ly life. Giv­en his back­ground of impov­er­ish­ment and loss, it is indeed remark­able that Camus—much more so than oth­er, more priv­i­leged philosophers—lived such a rich, ful­ly engaged life.

In a rare tele­vi­sion inter­view above, Camus answers ques­tions about his the­atri­cal adap­ta­tion of Dostoevsky’s The Pos­sessed, anoth­er nov­el that con­fronts head on the ques­tion of life’s mean­ing. He speaks of the novel’s “nihilism,” now “the real­i­ty that we have to face.” Camus does not men­tion that Dos­toyevsky, like the exis­ten­tial­ist Kierkegaard, man­aged to sal­vage a kind of reli­gious faith in the face of empti­ness; the French philoso­pher and writer was con­vinced of the impos­si­bil­i­ty of such a thing. But whether one draws Dos­to­evsky or Camus’ con­clu­sions, both would sug­gest that to live authen­ti­cal­ly, one must seri­ous­ly grap­ple with the prob­lem of mean­ing­less­ness and the real­i­ty of death.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Albert Camus Deliv­er His Nobel Prize Accep­tance Speech (1957)

Albert Camus: Soc­cer Goalie

Exis­ten­tial Phi­los­o­phy of Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus Explained with 8‑Bit Video Games

Niet­zsche, Wittgen­stein & Sartre Explained with Mon­ty Python-Style Ani­ma­tions by The School of Life

Down­load 130 Free Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es: Tools for Think­ing About Life, Death & Every­thing Between

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • C. M. Albrecht says:

    A great film. And I’m real­ly grate­ful to see that the nar­ra­tor prop­er­ly trans­lates L’E­tranger as The Out­sider. I’ve always been irri­tat­ed by that pub­lished title, The Stranger.

  • cosmostheinlost says:

    I bet de Bot­ton is too shal­low to address this por­tion of the beliefs of Camus:

  • Paul Champagne says:

    Is this the be hap­py not enlight­ened want to be cult leader Allain de Bot­tom? What a poor under­stand­ing of Camus he has, I think he read a bunch of gib­ber­ish off the inter­net here, in order to con­vince us liv­ing life is the same thing as joy. i’m not going to spell it out for you, but in the inter­est of human­i­ty, even if de bot­tom gets a cou­ple more lit­tle grey cells fier­ing, all I’ll say is, stop bloody intur­pret­ing the out­sider as if you are a bloody charachter in the sto­ry already.

  • ricardo de la Cruz rodriguez says:

    que pena que no ten­ga tra­duc­ción amo todo lo que ten­ga que ver con una de las mente s mas lúci­das de su epoca y de gran vigen­cia actu­al, esta­mos en FB en castel­lano si pub­li­can por favor que sea con tra­duc­ción

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