In Response to Senseless Tragedy, What Can Philosophy Say?

Albert Camus on life's absurdity.

Posted Feb 18, 2018

Usually, we seem to assume we can detect the meaning and intelligibility of life. We create lists of rules and weigh-in endlessly about the topic du jour. But some events are so tragic they render us speechless, and I wonder if philosophy can be of any help in such a situation. I wonder at the relevance of an increasingly less-known philosophy, that of Albert Camus. 

My students arrive at University unfamiliar with Camus's views or name. This works out fine for me, because getting to suggest that life is absurd—to people who will be pondering the idea for the first time—is especially rich. I think he might even find this "all at once" approach superior to some process of warming up to the idea.

In the past, my experience has been students first scoff at the proposal that "life is absurd" as they read the work at home. It would only be once I get to them to class that I can begin to explain that Camus was not offering arguments against the meaning they recognize in their lives. He was addressing people who had already experienced the unsettling feeling that most of what we tell ourselves is wishful and protective.

I would use a fellow professor at my school as an example. Since his family experienced the Holocaust, he could not see how any painter could create art that seemed comforting. He once put it to me this way, "Who can tell pretty stories and paint pretty pictures after the Holocaust? Who?" He helped to develop abstract expressionism, with Camus's philosophy in mind. 

This used to help. Students would imagine themselves in worse times and try to imagine their lives if they were starkly different. Yet I would always explain what Camus did: They too should recognize what he takes to be evidence of his claims. We experience the absurd even when things seem to be going very well. I would ask them if they felt anger that morning at a pedestrian, for example, that they had to wait for while driving. I would get told yes. We then turn to Camus's line: 

"A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible dumb show: you wonder why he is alive."

When we watch someone else talking on the phone, crossing the street thoughtlessly, or doing other mundane things that happen to annoy us, do we feel disgust and disdain? Do we wonder what the point of this person is—so inane in conversation, so inattentive in the street? I would get told yes.

Well, after we park on campus we become the annoyingly clueless pedestrian. Camus points out that we are no different than the people who annoy us. We are like them to others. We are like them to ourselves. Just have someone tape you as you go about your day: You'll do the things you despise watching. The disdain we feel is for ourselves. The uncongeniality we feel is to ourselves. We are no less absurd.

Of course, we might get no more than a quick taste of this. I used to point out that our life situation may not pit us against the more stark evidence that life has no meaning. We may escape the Holocaust. We may not get kidnapped by some dimwit, our loved ones may not die in a car accident when they could have safely taken the train. But some people are not so lucky. How do these people's experiences get integrated into the stories we tell ourselves? What would we think were we to experience the same?

Thinking of life as absurd, is it ever any kind of guide?

In response to views like Camus's, philosopher Joel Feinberg maps out the different notions of absurdity that we are usually not careful enough to distinguish. Most of them are more harmless than anything. Some absurdity is just incongruity: a dog dressed in human clothes. Some absurdity is just an unsettling of our typical expectations (Alanis Morissette's lyrics come to mind). Feinberg makes a very deft case against the idea that our lives as a whole are absurd merely because they don't serve someone coherent purpose. He explains that life can be fulfilling with the goals and activities we do have—even if we grant that from some cosmic perspective, our tasks might seem absurd.

But he cannot explain away everything Camus describes.

Feinberg includes in his essay a description of the last moments of some British soldiers' lives. They chose to obey orders to march to a certain death, in a battle unstrategic enough to give them no sense of playing a helpful role in a larger campaign. When faced, starkly, with the most resilient type of absurdity, they chose to use the kind of method Camus recommended. They sang the very bravest thing possible as they marched. It is not what we have been led to expect, but suits Camus's view better than any other. We're told they sang: "We're here because we're here because we're here because we're here..."

To Camus, recognition of futility is the essence of heroism. It is to live "without appeal," to not shirk but to face head on what we are brought, horrific as it is. To face this is all we can really do, if we are the one personally affected by the inexplicable, Camus explains. It is the most we can expect of ourselves in such situations, but it is a lot. 

Is such a perspective handy? Well, I no longer think my students are blissfully unaware of the potential that their lives might suffer tragedy for nonsensical reasons. For students hiding in a classroom in which a killer has shot through the computer right above their heads, the situation does not seem very different from the one soldiers marching to their deaths were in. I will no longer need to ask my students to imagine the past. 

Tragedies that are senseless do not add up. The deaths involve do not add up. They are not, after all, necessary, not even if they bring more awareness (of course we can imagine that happening without the loss of these particular lives.) In these cases, what resources do we have? We are so unprepared. And what comfort is there really? 

If something we would typically say to someone going through a rough time seems appropriate—something I've missed—then perhaps Camus is not so handy. But if he, at moments like these, gives us some way out and forward, some way to steel ourselves, then maybe he is. 


Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus,