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The PLEA: Camus and The Plague

The PLEA: Camus and The Plague

Camus and the Meaning of Life

In Part One of The Plague, a character attempts suicide. It is significant that suicide appears so early in the book.

The idea of suicide was central to Camus’ philosophy of life. He opened his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus with this statement:

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.

In other words, he was asking what is the point of life? Why should we live?

Camus asked this question in The Myth of Sisyphus at a time when organised religion was in steep decline. Because religion provides society with a metanarrative—an overarching explanation or truth that can give meaning to life—its decline led to new questions about life’s purpose.

Camus thought that purpose could be found if we considered our lives like the life of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was a Greek mythological character. His most clever accomplishment was cheating death. As punishment for dodging fate, Zeus sent Sisyphus to Hades for eternity. There, he had to roll a boulder up a hill. Every time Sisyphus would get the boulder to the top, it would roll back down. The punishment made Sisyphus’s life an absurd task.

If our lives are like Sisyphus’s—seemingly absurd and meaningless—then what is the point of living?

Camus’ answer was that we can accept that life is absurd, without having to give up on life itself. In fact, life’s absurdities can give it meaning.

Think of it this way. The search for meaning is complex. We will make many discoveries. We will become aware of many contradictions. And we will also find ourselves in many dead-ends. But above all, the more we search for truth and meaning, the more we will realise that it may be impossible to find a single, all-encompassing Truth. As Camus said,

it is bad to stop, hard to be satisfied with a single way of seeing, to go without contradiction, perhaps the most subtle of all spiritual forces. The preceding merely defines a way of thinking. But the point is to live.

If we choose to live, we have the opportunity to explore many of life’s ideas and truths.

If we accept Camus’ point of view, this means that our search for meaning will be like Sisyphus’ struggle with the boulder: We can never fully complete the task. We will find one truth, and then perhaps another, and yet another...

This is why Camus said that “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” If the search for truth drives our existence, we should choose to make it a happy struggle.

Discuss

Do you agree with Camus? Is it difficult if not impossible to find a single Truth about life? If so, how can we find happy fulfilment in our search for meaning?

Albert Camus' The Plague: The Learning Resource