An Animated Introduction to Albert Camus’ Existentialism, a Philosophy Making a Comeback in Our Dysfunctional Times

When next you meet an exis­ten­tial­ist, ask him what kind of exis­ten­tial­ist s/he is. There are at least as many vari­eties of exis­ten­tial­ism as there have been high-pro­file thinkers pro­pound­ing it. Sev­er­al major strains ran through post­war France alone, most famous­ly those cham­pi­oned by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beau­voir, and Albert Camus — who explic­it­ly reject­ed exis­ten­tial­ism, in part due to a philo­soph­i­cal split with Sartre, but who nev­er­the­less gets cat­e­go­rized among the exis­ten­tial­ists today. We could, per­haps, more accu­rate­ly describe Camus as an absur­dist, a thinker who starts with the inher­ent mean­ing­less and futil­i­ty of life and pro­ceeds, not nec­es­sar­i­ly in an obvi­ous direc­tion, from there.

The ani­mat­ed TED-Ed les­son above sheds light on the his­tor­i­cal events and per­son­al expe­ri­ences that brought Camus to this world­view. Begin­ning in the trou­bled colo­nial Alge­ria of the ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry in which he was born and raised, edu­ca­tor Nina Med­vin­skaya goes on to tell of his peri­ods as a resis­tance jour­nal­ist in France and as a nov­el­ist, in which capac­i­ty he would write such endur­ing works as The Stranger and The Plague. Med­vin­skaya illu­mi­nates Camus’ cen­tral insight with a well-known image from his ear­li­er essay “The Myth of Sisy­phus,” on the Greek king con­demned by the gods to roll a boul­der up a hill for all eter­ni­ty.

“Camus argues that all of human­i­ty is in the same posi­tion,” says Med­vin­skaya, “and only when we accept the mean­ing­less­ness of our lives can we face the absurd with our heads held high.” But “Camus’ con­tem­po­raries weren’t so accept­ing of futil­i­ty.” (Here the Quentin Blake-style illus­tra­tions por­tray a cou­ple of fig­ures bear­ing a strong resem­blance to Sartre and de Beau­voir.) Many exis­ten­tial­ists “advo­cat­ed for vio­lent rev­o­lu­tion to upend sys­tems they believed were depriv­ing peo­ple of agency and pur­pose.” Such calls haven’t gone silent in 2020, just as The Plague — one of Camus’ writ­ings in response to rev­o­lu­tion­ary exis­ten­tial­ism — has only gained rel­e­vance in a time of glob­al pan­dem­ic.

Last month the Boston Review’s Car­men Lea Dege con­sid­ered the recent come­back of the thought, exem­pli­fied in dif­fer­ent ways by Camus, Sartre, and oth­ers, that “reject­ed reli­gious and polit­i­cal dog­ma, expressed scorn for aca­d­e­m­ic abstrac­tion, and focused on the fini­tude and absur­di­ty of human exis­tence.” This resur­gence of inter­est “is not entire­ly sur­pris­ing. The body of work we now think of as exis­ten­tial­ist emerged dur­ing the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry in con­flict-rid­den Ger­many and France, where uncer­tain­ty per­me­at­ed every dimen­sion of soci­ety.” As much as our soci­eties have changed since then, uncer­tain­ty has a way of return­ing.

Today “we define our­selves and oth­ers on the basis of class, reli­gion, race, and nation­al­i­ty, or even child­hood influ­ences and sub­con­scious dri­ves, to gain con­trol over the con­tin­gen­cies of the world and insert our­selves in the myr­i­ad ways peo­ple have failed and suc­ceed­ed in human his­to­ry.” But the exis­ten­tial­ists argued that “this con­trol is illu­so­ry and decep­tive,” an “allur­ing dis­trac­tion from our own fragili­ty” that ulti­mate­ly “cor­rodes our abil­i­ty to live well.” For the exis­ten­tial­ists, pur­suit of good life first demands an accep­tance of not just fragili­ty but futil­i­ty, mean­ing­less­ness, absur­di­ty, and ambi­gu­i­ty, among oth­er con­di­tions that strike us as deeply unac­cept­able. As Camus put it, we must imag­ine Sisy­phus hap­py. But can we?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

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

Why You Should Read The Plague, the Albert Camus Nov­el the Coro­n­avirus Has Made a Best­seller Again

Albert Camus: The Mad­ness of Sin­cer­i­ty — 1997 Doc­u­men­tary Revis­its the Philosopher’s Life & Work

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Exis­ten­tial­ist Phi­los­o­phy of Jean-Paul Sartre… and How It Can Open Our Eyes to Life’s Pos­si­bil­i­ties

The Mean­ing of Life Accord­ing to Simone de Beau­voir

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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Comments (8)
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  • Mbaye Lo says:

    Jean Paul Sartre is thé father of Exis­tial­ism as an human­ism , not Camus.Sartre,a free Mar­tin Hed­de­hger have pro­fess this subjet.Camus is an lit­téraire is thé autour of “l’ homme absurd” and thé com­plex of eadip”.

  • Mbaye Lo says:

    Camus Also have a book ” thé myth of sysiph.

  • Benadla djamel says:

    I m very fas­ci­nat­ed by Albert Camus’ philo­soph­i­cal con­cept of absurd. I wish you could sup­ply us with more oth­er inter­est­ing vidoes

  • Muhammad Haziq Shah says:

    I think the absur­di­ty of life is par­al­lel with the ‘absur­di­ty’ of God. Since He is unique and unknow­able, it goes with­out say­ing that the absur­di­ty that we see is just some­thing we fail to com­pre­hend as human beings, where in actu­al­i­ty every­thing in life is per­fect­ly set up in order the way it is. I believe we are all Sisy­phus, and if you can imag­ine him being hap­py, then you too can imag­ine your­self being hap­py in this para­dox­i­cal world.

  • Sara Seelig says:

    But when you’re young it’s so much fun watch­ing the huge stone roll down the hill. You sit at the top and gig­gle. When you’re old you sit at the top to catch your breath. And then maybe a lit­tle gig­gle!!

  • Daniel says:

    Nice arti­cle, AWFUL BAIT TITLE. I know you cor­rect it in the first para­graph but that is just mis­lead­ing and wrong. Absur­dism IS NOT a type of exis­ten­tial­ism and intro­duc­ing it to peo­ple in this fash­ion is as deceit­ful as the rest of the con­tent mar­ket­ing we see every­where.

  • Sophia Ballantyne says:

    Well put.

  • Devinder Kaul says:

    His first book I read was Out­sider. Last month I fin­ished read­ing The Plague. He is very objec­tive in his writ­ings
    Some of the lines in The Plague are very beau­ti­ful which are very much rel­e­vant to pan­dem­ic time. Some those lines I write below.
    Our life has reduced to same dull rounds inside our own town. We are in exile in our own home. We are drift­ing through life rather than liv­ing. Love­less world is a dead world and there comes a time when we crave for warm and won­der of a lov­ing heart. His quote I like most-
    Being hap­py doesn’t mean every­thing is per­fect but it means you have start­ed look­ing beyond imper­fec­tions

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