TO BE OR NOT TO BE

I loved to cite rappers in my essays. This one is from 2003. A philosophy course. Enjoy.

PY 218: Existentialism Friday November 27, 2003

Gary Foster

010217140

To Be or not To Be

Life is a struggle. The infrequent visitation of joy in our lives compels us to ask whether life is worth living. Human beings all become philosophers at crucial points in life. In North America, we grow up being told that we have to get an education. Why? So we can get a well paying job. Why? So we are able to support ourselves our family and live a comfortable life. This blueprint for life, given to the majority of Western children, is initially accepted without any questioning. When we get our first glance at death, we become unsure of the merit this plan holds. This is when it hits home that death will touch us all sooner or later. Suddenly we find ourselves questioning everything. If all we worked so hard for can be stripped away at any place and time, and without warning, why should we bother to build a life? At this juncture in philosophical thought, the fragility of our lives is appreciated and we find ourselves searching high and low for a definite meaning. Many seek refuge in religion, which offers a set of beliefs and guidelines for how to live. However, the constantly increasing controversy surrounding the world’s established religions – taking the form of everything from holy wars to sexual misconduct – cause them to loose their appeal. Those who manage to blanket their fear, uncertainty, and instability with faith realize sooner or later that the blanket is filled with holes (Holy blanket). The lamentations of the mind drive us toward one question: is life worth living or not? Due to the fact that we are all driven to answer this question Albert Camus believes suicide is the one and only “serious philosophical problem” (Camus 11).

“I wake up in the morning and I ask myself, is life worth living or should I blast myself.” Words from the late great rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur taken from a song entitle “Changes” in which he contemplates the worth of his people’s struggle for equality. He often felt that it was futile and pointless to try and change the world. Nevertheless he continued fighting through his provocative lyrics, and settled with the thought that even if he could not change the world, he could spark the minds that would.

In Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus “An Absurd Meaning”, Camus looks at life and tries to make sense of it for us. In the end he, like Tupac, provides an alternative to suicide and a compromise that makes life worth the absurdity. This essay aims to discover if life really is absurd as Camus suggests or if we can make some sense of it and live life meaningfully. If it is possible to attribute meaning to life, we will try to figure out whether such meaning will always involve illusion and self-deception.

First let us decide whether life is absurd or worth living. Sticking with the theme of quoting musical artists, consider a line from a Sam Roberts song entitled “Hard Road” in which he sings: “I’ve been dying since the day I was born, ‘cause there’s no road, that ain’t a hard road to travel on”. To our dismay, we are reminded that we were born to die when listening to this song. In addition to this reminder, Sam ensures us that no matter what comfort we accumulate and surround ourselves with, life will still be difficult. This is the realization of the absurd and it is as common in people as blood is. Life seen through the eyes of someone thinking along these lines can seem quite inane and often the idea of suicide, and its promise of release, becomes ever so tantalizing. If an individual does in fact opt for death over life, Camus believes that that individual has:

“Recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation and the uselessness of suffering” (Camus 13).

Here, Camus implies that it could be viewed as insane to continue to deal with the stresses of everyday life if they serve no clear purpose. Thus the sane thing to do would be to stop dealing with life. All we desire is to know why we exist. Due to the fact that we are vehemently denied this knowledge, life’s little grievances weigh down on us sometimes unbearably. Our struggle to determine true purpose is a battle fought within the heart of the individual, and it has the power to either make or break us. With our very lives hanging in the balance, we delve deep within ourselves to somehow rationally define existence. Ultimately, all we find at the core of infinite intertwining questions, is the “unreasonable silence of the universe” (32), which is properly the feeling of absurdity.

Looking elsewhere, toward religion for instance, is a way of running from life’s true challenge; that is, to discover meaning separate from set guidelines. Seeking meaning for oneself is the only way meaning can truly be found because people understand things differently. When Camus says in his article “a world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world” (13) he is implying that our current reasons are bad ones. Following this implication he notes that once an individual comes to this inevitable conclusion he feels the absurd and is exiled by it. The reasons which he once utilized to make sense of his existence, now exposed as fraudulent and illusionary, strip him of the security promised and reinforced by those reasons. His existence now appears as a show in which he acts out a role; once again, this is the feeling of absurdity. Although its unclearness is what makes it absurd, it is clear that life is absurd

Now that we can say life is absurd, we must figure out whether suicide is the solution to dealing with this absurdity or if we can somehow find clarity and live life with a purpose. Obviously not intending to drive masses of people to their deaths, Camus provides an option for those desperately seeking harmony with their selves. He says we must be lucid in our approach to life. We must see the world and our condition clearly, and be conscious of it at all times. Our condition being that “the soul knows nothing” (17) and therefore looking for answers within the deepest and darkest places in the soul is utterly pointless. We must accept our innocence and ignorance and be content with them both. You see Camus, unlike Kierkegaard or Heidegger, sees human beings as innocent rather than guilty. With regard to meaning and morality, our basic condition is ignorance. Sure we are given a system of moralities to live by, which are dictated to us by society and popular thought, but these laws – whether they are from the church or the judiciary – are outside of us. These laws are in place so that we won’t run wild and start raping, robbing, and killing each other – assuming that is what we would do without them to guide us. They are one of many forms of control. Now, striving to be lucid in our approach to our situation, we must conclude at this point in our discussion that control is an illusion. Observably, the basic rules holding us in check control us to a certain extent, but not in the sense where we are taking this dialogue. Control over our lives, when we die, what happens to us in the moment immediately following the present moment, is impossible to attain. Throughout history, man on his never-ending quest for solidity of self, has sought knowledge of his surroundings, in the hope of being able to predict its affect on him. This is at least true with the arguably feeble minds of Western thinkers. In our search for knowledge we vainly and egotistically assume that we are capable of finding all the reasons, answers, and explanations. Perhaps an aboriginal mind-state, one that embraces the unknowable and tries to understand it spiritually, though not attempting to go any further than that because going further is futile, is the ideal mind-state. Whether we should all convert to native spirituality or not, one thing is for sure: we must conclude in our own minds “that all true knowledge is impossible” (18). This awareness is what Camus believes is essential to the man on the brink of taking his own life to ease the suffocating grip of life’s absurdity.

Thus far we have concluded that life is absurd, that suicide is not the answer to this absurd feeling, and that in order to survive our own suicidal hand we must accept life and its inherent mysteries. Seeing clearly leads to what Camus calls the revolt; or it must lead there in order for the individual contemplating suicide to live on.

“It was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have meaning to be lived. It now becomes clear on the contrary that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning. Living an experience, a particular fate, is accepting it fully…Living is keeping the absurd alive. Keeping it alive is above all contemplating it” (Camus 53).

Camus gives us a lot to think about in this quote. He insists here that life would be better for us if we stripped it of the necessity to have meaning. Living in this manner would entail us being constantly aware of the absurdity of life, yet embracing it as the only truth we can be sure of. This seems like a very solid solution, but it does involve self-deception. It is crucial for the mind not to relapse back into its former self at this stage after the revolt. One could easily get wrapped up once again by the trivialities of life, and delegate importance to things that the absurd has already denounced as anything but. Camus tells us that we must defy this relapse and live our lives intensely in the tension that the absurd creates, even if they have no clear and essential meaning.

Camus’ final words to us in “An Absurd Reasoning” are: “the point is to live” (63). He is not a conceited man. He is not telling us that his explanation of life is the correct one, but simply that it is one way of thinking. He challenges us to seek contradiction and continue being conscious of our situation, while not assuming that if we had a definite meaning for life we would be better off. To end this discussion, a quote from Hip Hop legend Nasir Jones comes to mind. “Life’s a bitch and then you die, that’s why we smoke laah, ‘cause you never know when you’re gonna go.” What Nas is saying here is that we should enjoy life while we can because two truths are definite: life is hard, and you will die, but again, the point is to live.

Works Cited

Camus, Albert, “An Absurd Reasoning” from The Myth of Sisyphus, Justin O’Brien, translated, Pp. 11-32, 51-63, Penguin.

Shakur, Tupac, “Changes” lyrics taken from http://www.ohhla.com/YFA_2pac.html

Jones, Nasir, “Life’s a bitch” lyrics taken from http://www.ohhla.com/anonymous/nas/illmatic/bitch.nas.txt

Roberts, Sam, “Hard Road” lyrics taken from http://www.leoslyrics.com

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