Two of the most influential philosophers of the mid-twentieth century are French writers Jean-Paul Sartre (No Exit) and Albert Camus (The Stranger). The two started as friends, sharing many interests, and both were considered Existentialists during most of their careers, but when they began to disagree on Free Will, as well as on the responsibility of artists in political situations, their friendship disintegrated. When Sartre attacked Camus in print, their relationship ruptured.
Sartre believed himself the better philosopher, but envied Camus’ superior talent as a novelist & storyteller. Each had a major impact on the advancement of Existentialism as a philosophy, but, to Sartre’s dismay, the Existentialism of Camus — often revealed in his novels rather than in essays or in philosophy books — became the more attractive and enduring version of the philosophy during Sartre’s lifetime (Camus died young in a car accident) and subsequently.
Existentialism had been discussed and modified for quite a while before Sartre and Camus became intellectually engaged with it, and Existentialism was often associated with Nihilism, which purports that life has no meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value whatsoever: therefore, anything man does is pointless. Existentialism sans Nihilism took hold most strongly in Europe during World War II and immediately after. Sartre’s views on Existentialism are best stated in his massive philosophical tome Being and Nothingness, while Camus’ are revealed in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.”
Existentialism in One Sentence
Stated most simply, Existentialism is the belief that “to exist is better than to not exist,” and that “life has no meaning except what each individual gives it.”
Existentialism and Angst
Both Sartre and Camus believed, as do other Existentialists, that the human condition begins with angst — German for anguish, despair, anxiety. Virtually all teenagers suffer periods of angst, though they may not label it with that term, and most people experience it at some other times in their life as well. After the death of loved ones, for instance, during wars, after being a victim of a crime, or when faced with serious personal crises, whether financial, health, marital, or legal.
Angst causes one to question the meaning of life, one’s purpose on earth, and the extent of one’s Free Will since, during events which cause periods of angst, it may seem as if an individual does not have Free Will. During these times, an individual becomes acutely aware that he is not in control of events or other persons in his life. This alone can cause despair. In reality, however, everyone always has the ability to choose his actions as well as his interpretation of events. Even a choice between two evils — a greater and a lesser — is still a choice, and thus an exercise of Free Will.
Awareness is the first condition of Existentialism because without awareness, one cannot make choices.
It is also important to note that in Existentialist philosophy, suicide is never an option since it negates the very premise of Existentialism, which is to exist.
The title of Sartre’s most influential philosophical work, Being and Nothingness, displays, in itself, his view of man’s life. It is either “being” or “nothingness.” Sartre’s Existentialism is bleak. Though he strongly believed in Free Will, he states that man’s freedom to choose is an “awful responsibility.” It is a “burden” to be unable to rely on established organizations, such as religion or socialism, and have to make each choice oneself, independently. This awareness, in Sartre’s view, increases the angst of Existentialism.
Traditionally — though there are people who claim to be “Christian” or “Jewish” Existentialists, insisting that choosing to believe in Jesus or in God gives meaning to man’s life — Existentialists do not believe in God. They postulate that man is alone in the Universe, and so, for Sartre and those who are drawn to his version of Existentialism, Free Will and the choice to make one’s own meaning in life becomes a burden, an awful responsibility, rather than an opportunity for joy or creativity. For Sartre, “everything has been figured out except how to live,” and “freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”
Camus saw things differently.
Existentialism vs Absurdism
Camus’ essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” best explains his view of Existentialism, which Sartre insulted as “Absurd,” meaning it belonged to the philosophy of “Absurdism,” best represented by Samuel Beckett’s tragi-comedy Waiting for Godot, where two characters endlessly await the arrival of a God-like being, Godot, without knowing exactly why they are supposed to meet him, or where, or when, but do nothing with their lives while they are waiting. Of course, Godot never arrives, so the protagonists’ lives are ultimately meaningless and “Absurd” because nothing in the Universe itself makes sense, and there is nothing man can do about it. Though some of Camus’ novels might examine Absurdism (The Stranger) or Determinism (The Plague) or other philosophies, his view of Existentialism is not necessarily “Absurd” in this sense.
Camus vs Sartre on Free Will & Choice
Camus’ vision of Free Will and man’s choice was diametrically opposite to that of Sartre. Whereas Sartre believed Free Will, Choice, and Freedom were an “awful responsibility,” reinforcing his bleak view of life and its meaning by placing a “burden” on each individual to give his own life meaning, Camus celebrated Free Will because each individual, thanks to freedom of Choice, could, in fact, choose to be content. “The Myth of Sisyphus” is where Camus most clearly explains his Existentialist philosophy, though he does not label it as such, and shows the difference between his and Sartre’s views of Free Will.
Sisyphus in Greek Mythology
Briefly, the story of Sisyphus is this: Sisyphus was King of (modern day) Corinth, known for his excessive deceit and hubris — overweening pride — the latter of which caused the downfall of many Greek protagonists. Sisyphus’ hubris involved his belief that he was more clever than Zeus himself — the Father of Gods and men, as well as the Head of the gods on Mount Olympus. Because Sisyphus created “havoc in the world” and committed “crimes against the gods,” he was relegated to the Fields of Punishment in Tartarus.
Tartarus and The Fields of Punishment
The shadowy world of Tartarus was unlike Hades, where the Shades of the dead simply were retained for eternity, without any punishment. Those confined to Tartarus were sentenced to an excruciating, endless, torturous punishments. Atlas, for example, was forced to hold the weight of the celestial spheres (not the world) on his shoulders and back. Tantalus, who betrayed the trust of the gods, suffered perpetual hunger and thirst while tormented with food and drink which were forever just out of his reach. Tityus, who raped Leto — mother of twins by Zeus — was staked to the ground while vultures ate out his liver, which regenerated so it could be plucked out again.
In Tartarus, the treacherous, deceitful, and boastful Sisyphus was forced to push a great bolder up a steep hill. Each time he reached the top, the boulder rolled back down, and Sisyphus had to repeat his dreadful task.
Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus”
Though Camus claims, in his essay, that Sisyphus”personifies the absurdity of human life,” Camus concludes “one must imagine Sisyphus happy” (also translated as “content”) as “the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” These statements are directly contrary to Absurdism, which posits that life has no meaning whatsoever. Existentialism, however, asserts that life has no meaning except what each individual gives it and that individuals have choice and Free Will.
Why then “must one imagine Sisyphus happy” or “content”?
Camus does not say, but I can think of plenty of reasons to imagine Sisyphus “content.”
• Each time he rolls the great boulder up the hill, he has a purpose (though it was originally meant as a punishment), and having a purpose in life gives it meaning.
• By viewing his punishment as giving his “life” purpose, Sisyphus could be seen as “defeating” the gods, and he probably would have liked that, proud king that he was.
• Once Sisyphus reaches the top of the hill, he has accomplished a Herculean task, which could be viewed as satisfying, which is a good thing and which might make him “happy” or, at least, content.
• Most important of all, however, is the fact that, as Sisyphus walks back down the hill to the fallen boulder, he is completely free of his burden. This freedom alone could make Sisyphus content.
There are other Existential choices that Sisyphus could make as he walks back down the hill.
• There is nothing in the Greek stories that indicates he must run down the hill after the boulder, so he could choose to stroll down before resuming his burden. Strolling after a strenuous task would be pleasant.
• Sisyphus could also choose to be aware of the air cooling his sweaty skin, which would also be pleasing.
• He could choose to look at his surroundings — even if it is only the sky and the hill itself — which, after pushing that tremendous boulder up the steep hill, when he would probably see nothing but the boulder itself, could bring him contentment. At the very least, it would bring him a change in scenery, which could be considered desirable and enjoyable.
In short, Sisyphus has the Free Will to choose to find contentment in his punishment, rather than seeing it as a burden, which would further add to his physical and mental suffering.
This is Camus’ most significant contribution to the philosophy of Existentialism. Yes, man has Free Will. Yes, man has choice. And man can choose to be content.
Camus’ Version of Existentialism
There are many reasons given for the disintegration and rupture of the friendship between Sartre and Camus, including their differences of opinion on Communism and Colonialism. I’ve long suspected, however, that it may have been partly due to Camus’ more sophisticated and expansive interpretation of Existentialism, wherein an individual can not only choose to give meaning to his life, but he can also choose to be content. Not so in Sartre’s worldview, where Free Will is an awful responsibility and a burden. I suspect more readers have been influenced by Camus’ works than by Sartre’s.
Camus’ Existentialism in Everyday Life
Every day, each of us does, in fact, use his Free Will to make choices to be “content” or, at least, “more content.” We may drink our coffee or tea from a favorite mug, and that pleases us. We may change from shoes that pinch to a more comfortable pair: being comfortable makes us more content than being uncomfortable does. We could adjust our position in the chair at school or work so that it is less uncomfortable, and that in itself could lead to more contentment. We may garden, take a walk in a park, give and receive affection to pets, clean out the car, put away the laundry, wear a soft sweater that warms us when we’re chilly, straighten the garage, trim the branches of a tree that is blocking the scenic view at the window, eat a piece of our favorite pie for dessert, notice the softness of the pillow when we go to bed at night, become aware of the warmth under the blankets as we settle down to sleep.
Even awareness of the contentment that our choices bring us can make us more content.
Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien
Burden or freedom? Sartre or Camus? In the past, I’ve chosen to go with “freedom” and Camus. I’ve chosen to become aware of contentment, to make choices that give more meaning to my life along with increased contentment, and to make more of those choices during times of distress (such as after the death of a belovèd pet or a personal injury). I think I’ll continue to do that.
It feels so much better than thinking of Free Will and choice as burdens.
That way, when I die, I won’t have any regrets (at least, I hope not). Like Edith Piaf, I’d rather be singing “Non, je ne regrette rien” (No, I regret nothing) on my deathbed.