Part I 1. In Thomas Nagel’s “The Absurd” (1971), he begins by addressing the standard arguments for declaring life to be absurd. The first argument he points out is the idea that nothing humans doing in the present will matter in the distant future, or as Nagel says, “in a million years” (Nagel 716). People believe that what they do now won’t matter at all in a million years, and that they are just one person living in the now that will soon be gone and will therefore not matter and don’t matter. Humans see this not mattering as a reason why life is absurd, since if nothing matters then the point of life is questioned.
The second standard argument Nagel looks at is the idea that humans “are tiny specks in the infinite vastness of the universe” (Nagel 717). This idea focuses around space and time, and how individual humans only live for an extremely short amount of time in a tremendously vast universe. People see this as a reason why life is absurd, looking at their lives as such short increments of time, especially on the large scale of the universe. Since humans are so small and take up such little time with their lives, this is seen as a reason life is absurd.
The third argument Nagel looks at is about not being able to justifying all of life’s activities, since humans could die at any moment and will eventually. People go through sequences in life, one thing leading to the next, to accomplish something each step of the way, and therefore it is justified. However, eventually, life must end, and the chain of sequences will be cut off in the midst of one of the activities, and therefore will end without justification. “All of it is an elaborate journey leading to nowhere” (Nagel 717). These are the three standard arguments for explaining why life is absurd that Nagel discusses.
Nagel, however, disagrees with these arguments and finds each invalid for specific reasons. When looking at the idea that nothing humans do now will matter in a million years, Nagel objects this with the realization that it doesn’t matter now whether or not what we do now in a million years will matter or not. Whether what humans do now will matter in a million years or not is not important, because either way it wouldn’t change how people feel now.
“If their mattering now is not enough to accomplish that, how would it help if they mattered a million years from now? ” (Nagel 716). If now doesn’t matter in the future, than the future must not matter now, and therefore this explanation of why life is absurd is invalid. The second idea, focusing on life being absurd because of how small and short lived human’s lives are, is contradicted by Nagel’s idea that if humans were larger presents in the universe they’re lives would still be just as absurd and that if humans lived for longer, or forever, there lives would just be absurd for that much longer, or even infinitely absurd.
This thought of humans as living for such a short amount of time and being so tiny in the universe is clearly not what makes life absurd, even if life is absurd. These facts, if anything, would make humans’ lives more absurd, if they were larger presents in the universe or lived forever then the absurd would be even larger or last for eternity. Therefore, this is not a valid argument in saying that life is absurd.
Looking at the third argument, which focuses on death preventing the justification of human lives and its many sequences, Nagel shows that this idea is actually false as life does not consist of these sequences that all have purposes and continuous justification. “Chains of justification come repeatedly to an end within life, and whether the process as a whole can be justified has no bearing on the finality of these end-points” (Nagel 717). Many things we do in our daily lives are already reasonable and do not need further justification, such as taking aspirin for a headache, Nagel points out.
However, even if someone wanted to further justify any of life’s activities, this further justification would also have to end somewhere, as all things must. “If nothing can justify unless it is justified in terms of something outside itself, which is also justified, then an infinite regress results, and no chain of justification can be complete” (Nagel 717). All reasoning must end at some point and must be accepted as it is instead of looking at it as incomplete, because if it is looked at as incomplete then reasoning is impossible.
With Nagel’s profound contradictions to these three arguments, he shows that these are not valid reasons to say that life is absurd. 2. Though Nagel discards the standard arguments for stating that life is absurd, he nonetheless says that life can be seen as absurd, just for different reasons than the previous ones discussed. He states that life is absurd because of the clash between humans’ tendency to take their lives so seriously and the ability of humans to doubt these things which they take so seriously or view them as arbitrary.
Humans take their lives seriously, as seen through the idea that many things are necessities for living and that humans’ actions, such as making choices, are very important. However, humans also are capable of seeing things outside of their lives, which then creates doubt about the things that are taken so seriously. This idea that human’s cannot live their live without this seriousness, yet can have a point of view outside of their lives that makes this seriousness doubtful, is why life is absurd.
“It is absurd because we ignore the doubts that we know cannot be settled, continuing to live with nearing undiminished seriousness in spite of them” (Nagel 719). There is a clash between what people think is happening in life and what is truly happening, and because humans are able to have a point of view outside of their own life, they can see what is truly happening and therefore become doubtful of what they think is happening. However, they continue on with what they think is happening, or with this seriousness of life, even with the doubts from seeing what is truly happening.
These two viewpoints, one within our own lives and one outside our lives, are both unavoidable yet clash with one another, and this, according to Nagel, is why life is absurd. Nagel states that humans take their lives seriously whether they live in a serious manor or not, and regardless of what their primary concerns in life are. “Human life is full of effort, plans, calculation, success and failure: we pursue our lives, with varying degrees of sloth and energy” (Nagel 719).
Humans can reflect, make choices, question things, and decide what to peruse and what to avoid and who they want to be or become. This alone is signified, but when it clashes with humans’ ability to think outside themselves and survey this seriousness, it creates absurdity. “Yet humans have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves, and the lives to which they are committed, with that detached amazement which comes from watching an ant struggle up a head of sand” (Nagel 720).
This ability to step back creates these doubts and questions about this seriousness life is taken with, doubts and questions about things that seem so sure before stepping back. Nagel explains: We step back to find that the whole system of justification and criticism, which controls our choices and supports our claims to rationality, rests on response and habits that we never question, that we should not know how to defend without circularity, and to which we shall continue to adhere even after they are called into question” (Nagel 720).
According to Nagel, life is absurd not because humans are capable of this stepping back and reflecting on the seriousness of life, but because they then continue with their lives and taking them so serious even after doubts about the seriousness have been identified. 3. Nagel focuses on the idea that humans live absurd lives because of their self-consciousness, and therefore their ability to see themselves as humans and create this clash between seriousness and reality. With this, it can be said that God, all-knowing and self-aware, also lives an absurd life.
The mouse Nagel refers to cannot have an absurd life because he is not self-aware, so he does not know he is a mouse and does not have the ability to reflect on this and create doubts about it. God, however, knows he is God and therefore has the ability to step back and have doubts. Being self-aware means that you doubt, and that every justification is doubted. This means that God, self-aware, doubts justifications, just like humans, and has an absurd life with the clash between these. When Nagel describes how the mouse’s life would be if he was self-aware, he says, “…
he would have to return to his meagre yet frantic life, full of doubts that he was unable to answer, but also full of purposes that he was unable to abandon” (Nagel 725). This sentence is applicable to God’s life being absurd, as God has a life full of doubts without answers due to his self-consciousness, but also has great purposes that he is unable to abandon, since he is the higher power that humans rely on. Also, like humans, God cannot refuse this consciousness, because to refuse it would mean he is aware of it, and it therefore he would already be self-aware.
Since God cannot escape this self-consciousness, he is trapped, like humans, in this clash between his self-awareness and the seriousness that is taken with it and the doubt that comes with self-awareness where he reflects and doubts all justifications. This makes Gods life absurd, just like humans’ lives, as he too experiences the clash between self and reality. 4. Nagel stresses that absurdity is one of the most significant things that makes humans humans, and that it is essentially incurable. With this idea in mind, it can be seen that religion cannot cure the feeling of absurdity, and religious people live absurd lives just as all humans do.
Humans’ lives are absurd because they have life goals and strive for things, which is the aspect of taking life seriously, but they also can step back and reflect on things and this causes doubts, which happens regardless of religion. “What makes doubt inescapable with regard to the limited aims of individual life also makes it inescapable with regard to any larger purpose that encourages the sense that life is meaningful” (Nagel 721). Believing in something larger does not allow escaping to occur, as it can be doubted in the same way that individual life can be.
People use a higher being for comfort and to give their lives meaning and justification, however, as pointed out before, justifications end and humans no longer look any further. Moreover, religious people still have the humanistic qualities that all humans do that eventually lead to reflection and doubt. Another way of portraying religious people’s life as absurd just as nonreligious lives is to look at the idea of being self-conscious leading to absurdity and that this is a natural part of being human.
“The only way to avoid the relevant self-consciousness would be either never to attain it or to forget it—neither of which can be achieved by the will” (Nagel 725). Religion does not change this unavoidable self-consciousness, and therefore life it still absurd with religion. The idea of religion is to provide meaning to life, however, if all humans are prone to this inevitable doubt, than this meaning will be doubted in the same way that life without meaning is doubted, or may even be doubted even more and therefore this creates a more significant contradiction, and may mean that religion makes life even more absurd.
The gap between seriousness and reality is even larger in a life with religion because life is taken more serious, as there is this idea of more meaning, but still has the contradiction with reflection and doubt, hence a life with religion abets absurdity. Nagel’s main focus about religion is that it does not cure the feelings of absurdity because, regardless of being religious or not, humans cannot avoid this inevitable doubt of their seriousness, and therefore creating this clash which makes life absurd. “There does not appear to be any conceivable world (containing us) about which unsettlable doubts could not arise” (Nagel 722).
Nagel’s idea about facing this absurdity is, rather than believing in something higher that gives life a certain meaning that does nothing but encourage absurdity, view life as ironic. He says to “approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair” (Nagel 727). Heroism, as seen in religion, means to value life too much, whereas despair, seen in the depressed or suicidal, means to not value life enough or at all. However, to look at the absurdity of life with irony allows humans to live this contradicting life, aware of this contradiction, but continue to live it without denial, torment, or resentment.
In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953), this concept of absurdity seen from continuing seriousness even after doubting it is portrayed. Vladimir and Estragon have chosen enslavement to an authoritative figure, Godot, and though they have yet to see Godot or even get confirmation that he will eventually come, they still continue to wait for him. This is the same idea that religion brings to humans, as they can live their lives without signs from God or true meaning from religion, yet they still believe because it gives them a sense of purpose.
However, this creates absurdity because, for religious people, they also doubt all of this purpose and meaning they are waiting for, and for Vladimir and Estragon, they doubt Godot will ever come. Towards the end of the play, it is clear that Vladimir has doubt about Godot and has a realization that he has been waiting for a long time and will continue to wait, possibly for eternity. He has this realization and doubt about his seriousness for waiting, yet continues to wait. This clash is what makes Vladimir and Estragon’s lives absurd, and is the same clash that is seen in religious lives as well.
5. According to Nagel, atheistic existentialists, such as Sartre and Camus, dwell on and blame the fact that God doesn’t exist as the reason life is absurd. They believe that without God, our lives lack the meaning which they demand, and without this meaning our lives are meaningless, and therefore absurd. However, Nagel has already pointed out that this is not why life is absurd and that whether our lives have meaning or not does not change this clash between the seriousness which we take our lives and the reality that causes us to doubt the seriousness that is the true creator of absurdity.
These atheistic existentialists view absurdity of humans’ lives as a problem, as something that needs a solution or to be fixed. Camus’ advice on dealing with this “problem” of absurdity is defiance. Nagel looks at Camus’ proposal, and says, “We can salvage our dignity, he appears to believe, by shaking a fist at the world which is deaf to our please, and continuing to live in spite of it” (Nagel 726). This, of course, will not rid our lives of absurdity, as this is not possible as long as we are self-aware and able to reflect, but Camus believes it will give humans at least a more fulfilled life.
Nagel disagrees with these ideas, and says that the absurdity of human lives isn’t even a problem at all. He falls back on his idea that absurdity is one of the most significant things that makes us human, and humans’ lives are only absurd because they posses the ability of a kind of insight that other species do not. “If a sense of the absurd is a way of perceiving our true situation (even though the situation is not absurd until the perception arises) then what reason can we have to resent or escape it?
” (Nagel, 727). Nagel says that it is important that humans are aware of this absurdity, yet do not try to avoid it as it is not possible to do such a thing and one will only dwell on this attempt their entire life. Instead, as mentioned before, Nagel suggests the only way going about absurdity is to approach it with irony. It is important to not let this absurdity become torturous, but is also crucial to not allow it to force an avoidance or attempt to surpass the absurdity.
The acknowledgment of the clash between seriousness and reality is important in acceptance and living life in between heroism and despair. If humans can look at their absurd lives with irony, the absurdity will be acknowledged, but will not effect their lives as to cause anything actually problematic from happening. Nagel also states that this absurdity is important because it exposes our human limitations and allows humans to understand these, so there is no reason to try to escape this. Nagel’s argument helps make sense of these atheistic existentialists’ works.
For example, in Camus’ The Stranger (1942), the ending is very clear because Camus didn’t believe in the idea of approaching absurdity with irony, so he did not end his book like this, and instead ended it with Maurseult approaching the absurdity with the dramatic feeling that Nagel discourages. Maurseult is unable to find irony in his absurd life, and blames God’s nonexistence for his inability to justify morals. It is clear that this happens because these are Camus beliefs, and Nagel portrays these as making a problem out of absurdity that shouldn’t be a problem at all.
Jean-Paul Sartre, also an atheistic existentialist according to Nagel, falls back on the idea that existence proceeds essence, and in that way humans achieve absolute freedom. However, this idea is contradicted by Nagel when he says that humans are born into absurdity and there is no escaping it, as it would have to have been never attained or forgotten, which is impossible to do if its part of humans from the start.
Nagel’s ideas about absurdity, such that it is unavoidable yet not necessarily a problem, contradict these atheistic existentialists’ ideas, and he ends with he belief that contrary to what these existentialists say, humans must approach their absurd lives with irony, because if nothing matters, than it wouldn’t matter to do anything other than this. Part II a. “Existentialism Is a Humanism”, by Jean-Paul Sartre (1946), focuses on freedom as the bases of morality. Sartre defends existentialism as being a moral philosophy by contradicting arguments against this idea with his own thoughts.
The first idea that Sartre rejects is that which claims existentialism allows people to “dwell in the quietism of despair” (Sartre 1). In his argument against this he focuses on the concept that existence proceeds essence, where humans first exist before anything else, such as defining themselves. “Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing—as he wills to be after that leap towards existence” (Sartre 2). This is what Sartre refers to as the first principle of existentialism.
The next idea Sartre argues against is that existentialism is a pessimistic view, however, he says that existentialism actually reflects severe optimism. He gives the example of the way an existentialist looks at a coward and sees him as personally responsible for being a coward, as something he chooses and commits to, which is an optimist way of looking at such a thing. Sartre then looks at the idea of subjectivity, which is argued as a negative aspect of existentialism as it is seen as living a solitude and therefore selfish or egotistical life, and conveys two meanings for “subjectivism”.
One meaning he points out is the freedom of an individual, and the other meaning refers to man unable to further himself beyond human subjectivity. This is a further look at existence proceeding essence, as it shows that humans do not choose being human but they do choose their actions after becoming humans, and by choosing for one’s self, one chooses for all humans. This shows, therefore, that existentialists view humans as not individuals whom are selfish, but rather that their actions speak for all humans. The last argument Sartre rejects is that existentialism denies reality and the seriousness of humanity.
However, according to Sartre, existentialism is humanist when looking at a fundamental definition of the word. “Man is all the time outside of himself: it is in projecting and losing himself beyond himself that he makes man to exist; and, on the other hand, it is by pursuing transcendent aims that he himself is able to exist” (Sartre 13). Existentialists believe that there is no human action that doesn’t have an explanation, and if an action has an explanation it is human. These ideas portray Sarte’s position that existentialism is a moral philosophy and that it is a humanism.
However, his ideas are not enough to make this statement. He focuses deeply on the idea of freedom and that because humans are free as seen by existentialists, existentialism is a moral philosophy. For existentialism to be completely moral, however, it would have to compliment Sarte’s idea of freedom with other values, such as charity, kindness, and serving our duty to the world and others, as this is what is truly moral and humanitarian. Complimenting freedom with something else though would take some freedom away and therefore his idea of the moral system being based on freedom is invalid.
One example Sartre provides to express this idea of freedom being the basis for existentialism, and the reason it is moral, is about a man facing a moral dilemma. He must choose between either staying with his mother, whom has been abandoned by everyone else in her life and only has this one son left, or leaving her, alone and empty, to go join the Free French Forces. He looks at this as a moral dilemma, however, this is not a moral dilemma because both choices are good. A moral dilemma is one where an individual is faced with two options and picks the one which is good and leaves the other which is not good.
However, whether this man stays with his mother or goes to fight for a cause, he is choosing between two goods and therefore is not making a moral decision. Sartre also looks at the idea that existentialism leaves you uncertain and that all moral decisions operate with a degree of uncertainty. This, to an extent, is true, and it is not wise to base decisions on certainty of the future. However, there are actions that are possible, and should be, taken based on their consequences. For example, the question of whether one should push another individual off an enormous cliff seems very certain.
It is true that life is uncertain, but there is quite a high chance that that individual, if pushed off the cliff, will fall and die. The immediate and certain consequences seen in life are not mentioned and are ignored in Sartre’s moral system of existentialism, and therefore is not enough to make this claim. Sartre focuses on this idea that freedom is what makes existentialism a moral philosophy, however, true morality limits freedom, and there is so much more to morality than what Sartre mentions. b.
Ivan Ilytch and Meursault both experience an epiphany at the end of their lives, and therefore die as happy men. Both men lived selfish lives, unaware of what life truly was about. They both lived under an idea of what they thought was the right way to live, with Ivan attempting to live a normal life, fitting into society, and Meursault living a life in effort to embody the universe. Both of these life styles were structured and allowed the men to just follow guidelines which they believed was the right thing to do.
However, this was selfish as it led to them ignoring the rest of the world, such as their families and other aspects of true happiness. Meursault went through life seeing it as meaningless and therefore claims he believes in nothing. However, the fact that he in so deeply devoted to this meaningless shows that he believes in this meaninglessness. This becomes clear when Meursault is talking to the priest and realizes that his uncertainty was just as strong as the priests certainty about everything, and when he says that the priest was living like a dead man he realizes that it was really him who was doing such a thing.
Meursault comes to terms with the fact the he so deeply believes that nothing matters and life is meaningless, and in doing so he looses his temper and becomes emotional and passionate about something for once in his life. This same insight about realizing that life is not so structured and that it is about existing and having fulfillment is seen in Ivan when, as he is laying on his death bed, he becomes aware that there is no goal in life.
He spent his whole life chasing something, but finally realizes that this is not what life is about, as he already had things in his life that could have given him fulfillment, such as his family. As he looks at his son and is overcome by this realization, he is finally happy. Meursault also was pursing something in life, that of embodying the universe, but he too sees that this is not what life is about. Soon before he dies, he really sees the world for the first time in his life, the smells and sounds that it holds, and is happy. He even thinks about his mother and shows a side, lacking selfishness, that he had never shown before.
With this thoughtfulness, as well as recognizing that nothing matters and there is no meaning, he finally gives himself the fulfillment that life is truly about and feels happiness. c. In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953), two men wait for an authoritative figure to appear and convey a message, telling them what to do and what to live for. This is a constant part of society, where humans continue “waiting” and spend their entire lives hoping the universe will tell them something. The play symbolizes this human waiting and longing for something more in many ways throughout it.
Estragon cannot take his shoes off, symbolizing that he is stuck on earth and nothing can be done as he cannot escape. Vladimir looks at his hat, as if to find something in it that tells him something or gives some sort of sign, but finds nothing and continues to gaze at the horizon, which holds hope and something more than this life they’re stuck in. However, as trapped and unhappy as they are, as they even considered suicide, they do not give up hope. In fact, they decide against suicide because they must wait for Godot to come and see what he offers, and then they will decide what to do from there.
Vladimir and Estragon cannot stop their wanting to live as they want to live for something, so they are hoping that Godot will give them something to live for, even though he already is just from the hope that he might come. They have lost track of time and are unsure of whether they were here yesterday, as waiting tends to make people lose track of time since it is just what humans do and is inherent in our human condition. In metaphysical time, it is always just now, and waiting is eternal. When two new characters enter the scene, Pozzo and Lucky, the main characters become puzzled.
Lucky, who is seemingly not so lucky, carries Pozzo’s bags for him, but he never puts them down, and he obeys Pozzo’s every command. Vladimir and Estragon wonder why this is, and why Lucky even puts up with Pozzo. Lucky, however, is not much different from Vladimir and Estragon, as he just seeks authority. He wants this enslavement, where he is told what to do and think and how to live. Vladimir and Estragon have their own symbolic bags that they too refuse to put down, as seen through their choice to continue to wait for Godot, with no one telling them they must wait but it being their own decision to do so and continue to do so.
When Vladimir and Estragon find themselves worried that Pozzo wants to get rid of Lucky and leave him behind, it symbolizes that they too are worried of being left behind by Godot. This constant desire for authority is something seen in this play as well as in society, as humans are very frightful of being alone or without someone to tell them what to do or how to live. Though Vladimir and Estragon’s decision to wait is questionable, it does however give them something to do and comes from a command from authority.
As mentioned before, though Godot isn’t there, Godot is still ruling over them and gives them the authority that is so desperately sought for. This enslavement to Godot seen in Vladimir and Estragon is actually rather admirable, as it shows their devotion and commitment. The patience seen in their servitude conveys their faith and religious spirit. It brings them hope and a sort of comfort to continue this faith and commitment. When the boy comes the second time to deliver Godot’s message, Vladimir seems to know that the same thing happened yesterday, and that it will continue to happen, but he still continues to wait.
The boy does not tell Vladimir that he will convey his message to Godot and does not give Vladimir his desired recognition that this is real, and Godot has not shown up, yet Vladimir and Estragon still continues to wait and do not lose hope. This idea that they are not just existing as humans but are devoting themselves to this higher authority shows that their existential journey leads beyond existentialism, as they continue to wait by choice but are being controlled by the idea of something more.
Courtney from Study Moose
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