Ever since studying French in college some 45 or more years ago I have loved the works of Albert Camus and, in particular, his 1942 novel L’Etranger (The Stranger/The Outsider).
There is a philosophical tension in Camus’ philosophy of life. On the one hand, life is absurd, irrational, futile, and manifestly unjust, but on the other hand we are rational beings—at least in potentiality—and therefore not absurd. Additionally, it is possible for us to be happy even in a world of tragedy, irrationality, manifest injustice, and suffering.
There is also a creative tension, both in Camus’ works and in life itself, between oppression, bondage and oblivion on the one hand and freedom and joy on the other. Each of us will die, and death is a process which begins the very moment that we are born. Still, we are ultimately free, and ever the more so if, paradoxically, we learn to live without hope. Yes, we must abandon hope but yet not despair.
The ‘hero’ of the book, Meursault, is condemned to death. He eventually comes to terms with his impending and inevitable death by realizing that life, indeed the entire universe, is benignly indifferent to our fate. Toward the end of the novel, just a short time before he is due to be executed, and after he has put that pesky priest in his place, Meursault soberly reflects upon his life, a life which very soon is going to be terminated by the State:
‘I’d passed my life in a certain way, and I might have passed it in a different way, if I’d felt like it. I’d acted thus, and I hadn’t acted otherwise; I hadn’t done x, whereas I had done y or z. And what did that mean? That, all the time, I’d been waiting for this present moment, for that dawn, tomorrow’s or another day’s, which was to justify me. Nothing, nothing had the least importance and I knew quite well why.’ (The Stranger, Vintage Books edition, translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert, pp 74-75.)
Most of us have regrets about the past, perhaps about certain acts or omissions on our part? Well, let the past stay in the past. So, we could have lived that way, or this way, but what does it matter? We are here now … and that’s all that truly matters.
We have hopes and expectations for the future. What if those hopes and expectations are dashed and never fulfilled, which could well happen? Face it. We are here now … and that’s all that truly matters. Got that? We are … here … now. Now is the only moment we truly have. Now is the portal through which we experience the present moment, indeed every moment … but only one moment at a time.
Do we have free will, or is everything a matter of fate and destiny? Or are both ideas true? Having studied philosophy deeply for many decades, I say this---we really don’t know. Those who think it is one or the other or both are really making what is only an assumption. The truth is, none of us knows for sure whether determinism is true or free will is true. But one thing we do know is this---life is short and death is inevitable and invincible. In the words of Omar Khayyam:
‘Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain — This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.’
(Quatrain LXIII, as translated in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 5th edition (1889) by Edward FitzGerald.)
In other words, everything passes, withers, and dies. And that includes us. Despite what some would have you believe, we cannot change that destiny, but we can, I assert, still choose how we will spend the present moment, and each and every one of the present moments between now and death. Yes, it is in the present moment that you are 'justified'.
Recently I have read for the very first time Noces (Nuptials) which first appeared in Algeria in 1938. Of all Camus’ writings, it is perhaps this volume of essays and sketches that most succinctly and coherently sets out the author’s philosophical thinking including his understanding of the absurd, his rejection of supernaturalism, the notion of the immortality of the soul, and all conventional religion, and his assertion that although life has no intrinsic meaning or purpose nevertheless it is still possible for us to live meaningfully even in the face of certain death. For Camus ‘there is no superhuman happiness, no eternity outside of the curve of the days … I can see no point in the happiness of angels’ (‘Nuptials at Tipasa’, in Lyrical and Critical Essays, 1968, p 90). However, there is at least one self-evident truth, a truth which we know and immediately recognize by moral intuition (unless our minds have been overly dulled, and our senses numbed, by the deadening effect of religious conditioning). It is this---the moment-to-moment intense sensory experience of life.
So important is this to Camus that we could say that he sees it as being a foundational belief---something many contemporary philosophers refer to as a ‘properly basic belief.’ This is a belief or truth that is not arrived at by logical reasoning and inference. No, it is a matter of self-evidence, and Camus invests the moment-to-moment intense sensory experience of life with a supreme moral significance and value. Our moral senses allow us to recognize that, despite the inevitable prospect of personal annihilation, there is supreme value and worth in the intensity of physical and sensual experience of life. Take, for example, this highly descriptive and lyrical passage in which Camus writes of the ecstasy and glory of the full enjoyment of the present moment:
‘In a moment, when I throw myself down among the absinthe plants to bring their scent into my body, I shall know, appearances to the contrary, that I am fulfilling a truth which is the sun's and which will also be my death's. In a sense, it is indeed my life that I am staking here, a life that tastes of warm stone, that is full of the signs of the sea and the rising song of the crickets. The breeze is cool and the sky blue. I love this life with abandon and wish to speak of it boldly: it makes me proud of my human condition. Yet people have often told me: there's nothing to be proud of. Yes, there is: this sun, this sea, my heart leaping with youth, the salt taste of my body and this vast landscape in which tenderness and glory merge in blue and yellow. It is to conquer this that I need my strength and my resources. Everything here leaves me intact, I surrender nothing of myself, and don no mask: learning patiently and arduously how to live is enough for me, well worth all their arts of living.’ (‘Nuptials at Tipasa’, in Lyrical and Critical Essays, 1968, p 69).
So, here we are … right here … in this present moment of the eternal now. Why not live mindfully---that is, in and with full and choiceless awareness and appreciation of the present moment … and for the present moment ... and the one after that … and the one after that … and the one after that ... until we come to that day when all moments cease and we are engulfed by the fulness of the enormity of eternity … and nothingness.
Note. Some of the material contained in this article first appeared on the author’s own blog on November 14, 2014.