‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest— whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards.’ – Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942
This statement, one of the most famous philosophical quotes of all time and the first words of Camus’ essay, has the poignancy of moving aside all intellectual and philosophical maundering, and getting to the real, deepest and most fundamental question of human existence – the question of life’s worth. Written during humanity’s collective self-slaughtering, in World War Two, there was indeed reason write on the matter – human nihilism, in Camus conception of it, being at the essence of the 20thCentury’s catastrophes (Nobel Prize speech, Stockholm, 1957). The world’s present ecological and climatic crisis and humanity’s inaction in face of it is of the same breed. In my view, it is but a collective suicide enacted both fatalistically and, in some ways, voluntarily. This deeply unconscious impulse towards death, though of course counter-balanced by courageous life-affirming initiatives or environmental activism, is slowly but surely driving us to a very saddening end - if we stay on its track. Political, of course, and social, in many aspects, climate change and environmental destruction is especially revealing a deeper psychological, existential and philosophical confusion and wound to which policies in Carbon emissions will only resolve the surface symptoms. The matter is spiritual, and to escape the world’s artificial and growingly sickening surface, we might want to divert from escaping love, absurdity and the depths of our human condition.
For Camus, existence is ultimately “absurd”, in the sense that it has no particular purpose. We are faced with the immense absurdity of the universe’s silence, which provides no answer as to the purpose of it all. In face of this, man attempts a desperate escape – through the form of hope – by building himself meaning where there is none and creating an illusory world and life for himself to prevent his confrontation with absurdity. The other alternative is suicide. In a way, our present civilization, in its European, enlightenment-dating model of progress, can be equated to a collective escape from our essential living condition. Beyond serving our needs, present civilization holds the premise of bettering our lives, offering us an increasingly abundant array of pleasures, and rising humanity to a higher level of fulfilment. This project might as well be a trivial escape, an illusory tentative to create our own garden of Eden, here on Earth. In this light, the planet’s degradation could be seen as an existential escape of nature and life through science and technology to reach something better, “progress”, a sort of existential futility that gradually has led us to Camus’s second form of escape, collective suicide, and this in the form of negligence, disrespect and animosity towards nature – towards ourselves. We came from escaping absurdity through the hope of modern civilizational progress, assuming that it would comfortably protect us from our condition, to a generalized nihilism in a desperate abandonment of our human responsibility.
Crisis of civilization, certainly, but more deeply a crisis of love. Because absurdity and love are one and the same. To realize life’s absurdity is to reconnect to an existential root that is of the most basic, essential and inevitable – absurd love. Instead of trying to add an unnecessary supplement to life’s absurdity, we might as well recognize that, crudely, all there is and can really be is love. Contemplation, acceptance and celebration, a purposeless philosophical dance and celebration of universal energy and beauty. This is where we can join Camus’ Sisyphus with contemporary author Charles Eisenstein’s last book, Climate - A New Story(2018). As the latter puts it, ‘when we restore the internal ecosystem, the fulness of our capacity to feel and love, only then will there be hope of restoring the outer’ civilizational collapse. Instead of isolating climate change as a specific issue, the author interconnects all of our different dreads as one interdependent issue. He beautifully states that ‘while quantitative arguments can never demonstrate it, in our poetic hearts we know that the atmospheric climate somehow mirrors the political climate, social climate, and spiritual climate, and vice versa’. More than the reduction of fossil fuels emissions, the ecological crisis is thus yearning for a ‘revolution of love’. Nature, which we are, is but a manifestation of this absurd but essential, existential, all-encompassing love – we might as well learn to respect it and see it for what it is: pure beauty.
‘Does [existence’s] absurdity require one to escape it through hope or suicide—this is what must be clarified, hunted down, and elucidated while brushing aside all the rest’ – Camus.
Quite obviously, the West’s contemporary ideology is still in strong counter-current to that other part of our minds – the emotional and the irrational – and prevents us from realizing this deep philosophical revolution. The pragmatic has killed the affective, fake comfort authentic experience. In Eisenstein’s words, we ‘live in a system, an ideology, and probably a wounded psychology that allow full feeling only sporadically’. This in turn has for effect to maintain a ‘wall of separation that keeps spirituality and politics in separate realms’ which prevents policies and actions to derive from existential sanity. ‘If we want to enact reasonable commitment to the healing of the earth, we need to make our relationship with it into an affair of the heart’: only a spontaneous and revolted collective come-back to the universe’s permeating love can save us from our flagrant collective suicide. Camus understood it before the environmental actuality – ‘if I were a tree among trees, a cat among animals, this life would have a meaning, or rather this problem would not arise, for I should belong to this world. I should be this world to which I am now opposed by my whole consciousness and my whole insistence upon familiarity’. The civilizational desire for the cultural domination of a supposedly separate nature is the essence of the issue to which only understanding and respect will prove antidotes.
In the end of Camus’ essay, Sisyphus has been condemned by the gods to ceaselessly roll a rock to the top of the mountain, to let it roll back, again and again. Yet, after a while, he ‘concludes that all is well’, that ‘this universe without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile’. Indeed, ‘the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart’ – in Camus’ depiction of the myth, one must ‘imagine Sisyphus happy’. Escaping society’s collapsing surface, regenerating our environment, ourselves and coming back to a natural authenticity implies a regeneration of our human depths – through an urge to absurd love.