The Philosophy of Albert Camus

Open Culture, an excellent source on intellectual and educational media, has an excellent article on French absurdist philosopher Albert Camus, one of my all-time favorite figures. Camus has greatly influenced my approach to life, addressing the very common modern problem of finding happiness and meaning in a seemingly uncaring world.

Among the great videos featured in the article is one by philosopher Alain de Botton, whose School of Life project is an excellent resource on all sorts of relevant social, moral, and philosophical topics. It offers a pretty great rundown of Camus’ life and philosopher in under ten minutes.

I find Camus’ solution to existential challenges to be spot on. Life may be meaningless, and the universe cold and unloving, but so what? That is all the more reason to live this one life we have to the fullest, to make the most of our hopes, dreams, relationships, and experiences. Camus presents a rare beacon of hope and encouragement in what is an often cynical and despairing quest for meaning. What do you think?

To see more great videos on other philosophers and ideas, visit the School of Life’s YouTube channel here.


Download Walter Kaufmann’s Lectures on Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre & Modern Thought (1960)

For anyone who loves these philosophers, or philosophy in general, or who is simply curious. Click the link and enjoy some of the best lectures on these subjects you’re likely to find, courtesy of the great Walter Kaufmann. Though over 50 years old, these talks are still highly regarded and well worth a listen.

You just have to love the culture of open exchange and all the wonderful treasures it reaps.

A Cruel World

A car crash in Cape Cod this holiday weekend claimed the life of Marina Keegan, a 22-year-old woman from Wayland, Mass. who graduated from Yale University last week, with plans to pursue a writing career, the New York Daily News reports.

Keegan was killed around 2 p.m. Saturday afternoon in a single-vehicle rollover that occurred when her boyfriend Michael Gocksch, also 22, lost control of his Lexus and hit the right-side guarding rail, according to a press release from police in Dennis, Mass.

Keegan was pronounced dead at the scene while Gocksch, a fellow Yale alum who graduated with Keegan last Monday, was transported to Cape Cod Hospital in stable condition. Police said both passengers were wearing seatbelts and speed did not appear to be a factor in the crash.

According to Yale Daily News, Keegan was “a prolific writer, actress and activist” who graduated magna cum laude from the university with a concentration in writing. She had just landed a job at The New Yorker as an editorial assistant and was scheduled to move to Brooklyn with friends in June.

In addition to acting, writing plays and serving as President of the Yale College Democrats, Keegan was a member of OccupyYale who sparked debate on campus with a feature story in Yale’s WEEKEND Magazine called “Even artichokes have doubts,” which discussed the high percentage of Yale graduates who enter the consulting and finance industry. National Public Radio highlighted the story in a February episode of the program “All Things Considered.”

During Memorial Day weekend, Keegan had planned to workshop her folk musical “Independents,” which was slated to appear in the New York International Fringe Festival in August.

“[Marina] was just one of those amazing, wise souls that was given to us as a gift. She had an unbelievable, beyond-her-years way of looking at the world, and her passion was to try and use her words to explore the human condition,” Keegan’s mother told the New York Daily News. “[The musical] is one of her legacies that she will leave behind.”

In her last piece as a staff writer for the Yale Daily News, an editorial called “The Opposite of Loneliness” published Sunday following her death, Keegan wrote about her hopes and anxieties as she looked toward the future.

“What we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over. Get a post-bac or try writing for the first time,” Keegan wrote. “The notion that it’s too late to do anything is comical. It’s hilarious. We’re graduating college. We’re so young. We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.”

Source: Huffington Post

This is yet another reminder of the horrific randomness and indiscrimination of death. By all accounts, this girl did not deserve to die. Nor should she have: she was wearing her seatbelt, and the car was not going particularly fast. Many people have survived far worse. That could just as easily have been me in her place. There’s just no telling how death will work its arbitrary ways.

Think about what this young woman could’ve given this world. She had talent, intelligent, and ambition. She was already a leader among her generation. And now she’s gone forever due to the most unexpected scenario (though we’ve yet to know what really caused the crash).

I feel especially bad for her boyfriend, who will wake up to hear the most horrific news imaginable. He’ll no doubt blame himself, too, given that he was the driver. Losing someone like that is hard enough, but feeling some level of responsibility for it is even worse. It’s an awful feeling, and I had a close-call like that myself (sparing the details, at one point I thought my girlfriend had died in a car accident; the horror remains indescribable).

The world is such a cruel place. Even if you remove all our capacity for evil and foolishness, there are still terrible occurrences like this going on all the time (an earthquake recently struck Italy for example). As long as we have the intellectual capacity to be self-aware of our mortality, we’ll always suffer for some reason or another. Even a “natural” death is no less painful to loved ones. Distress is an inseparable component of life. All the good in the world is just a band-aid.


What Makes a Human

A human is made of the following:

  • Oxygen (65%)
  • Carbon (18%)
  • Hydrogen (10%)
  • Nitrogen (3%)
  • Calcium (1.5%)
  • Phosphorus (1.0%)
  • Potassium (0.35%)
  • Sulfur (0.25%)
  • Sodium (0.15%)
  • Iron (0.70%)
  • Magnesium (0.05%)
  • And trace amounts of Copper, Zinc, Selenium, Molybdenum, Fluorine, Chlorine, Iodine, Manganese, Cobalt,  Lithium, Strontium, Aluminum, Silicon, Lead, Vanadium, Arsenic, Bromine.

It’s hard to realize that everything we are, down to the smallest sub-atomic level, is a product of nature. We share the same origins and atoms of a tree, rock, insect, or star. Everything around us, everything in this entire universe, has the same origin. How strange it is that we’re all so connected in this way.

And just as our bodies are made off the atoms of previous organisms and stars, so too will future substances contains our atoms once we die. Nothing is ever destroyed. Our matter merely moves on to take another form, to make up some other part of our wonderful universe. As a great physicist once said, we are literally made out of star stuff – and visa versa.

Survivor’s Guilt?

For lack of a better term, I sometimes feel a sense of survivor’s guilt at my own fortune. The overwhelming majority of human beings who have ever lived on this Earth, as well as most people alive currently, have endured miseries that I don’t even remotely know (aside from reading about them).

By a sheer accident of birth, I happen to be born in a place where I’ve never experienced starvation, war, chronic disease, domestic abuse, abject poverty, and the like. Why should I be so lucky when so many human beings aren’t? Given that most of the poorest countries have much higher birth rates, and are younger demographically speaking, the odds were against me.

(Of course, being poverty in and of itself doesn’t mean you’re more miserable. I’m talking about those who have experienced a plethora of difficult circumstances.)

That could just as easily have been me, and visa versa.

I’ve told myself not to worry about things you can’t change? Try as we might, there will always be tragedies we cannot prevent or solve, whether in our individual lives or the world as a whole. But even accepting that premise, as I usually do, leaves me unsatisfied and powerless. The world is a cruel place, and by the luck of the draw, I won a good few could ever imagine.

But I do feel lucky. Thoughts like these are what make me appreciate my life so much more. I’m one of the lucky few to be able to, an d I shouldn’t squander that. Feeling guilty for my randomly placed existence is the least I could endure in return.

A good friend of mine responded to this reflection with one of my favorite statements, from one of my favorite philosophers. In fact, it’s what I based my “About Me” section on, and what has inspired my current path in life:

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.
I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness–that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what–at last–I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

Courtesy of Bertrand Russell. It’s not a bad way to live. I could conceive of no better motivations than those he described. This is the only life I have and I mustn’t take it for granted. I know I’ve pontificated on this before, and that the statement is rather cliche, but it bears constant reminder. Far too often, it’s easy to forget these things until it’s too late, when the same random chance that gave you a good life suddenly turns against you. If and when that day comes, I’ll be sure to have lived a good life.

The Niceties of Life

Arguably, life is all about experience. When it comes down to it, we live to enjoy the act of living itself – albeit insofar as we don’t interfere with other’s right to do so too. If we’re going to have this fragile, finite, and – as far as we can know for certain – singular existence, we might as well make the most of it and work with what we got.

Our ability to derive pleasure from a wide-range of things is perhaps the greatest asset of our lives. Without our feelings, senses, and higher-brain function, we’d be no better than automatons: existing solely to consume, sleep, and breed; existing only to keep on existing.

Granted, that’s what our role as organisms boils down to. Strip away all of civilization – all the various ideas, belief systems, and inventions with which we embellish our time on this world – and all we’re left with are animals driven by nothing more than the natural instinct to survive long enough to make new life. And so on and so forth.

Therein lays the value of our cognitive abilities. We make our very own purpose in life. We create or embrace the stimuli that make us feel good in any number of ways. We find the conflicts, challenges, and unknowns that drive us to think, explore, and invent. The world is full of things to enjoy – music, dance, cuisine, art, games, friends, books, sleep, etc. We all have different tastes and drivers, but what matters is that we have something, anything, to keep us going, and to give our lives meaning.

In the end, we all just want to validate ourselves. Some do it through transcendental religion, others through secular causes, and still others through the indulgence of sensory pleasure – from casual materialism, to outright hedonism. I don’t think we should be opposed to material wealth or pleasure for its own sake, so long as such things are done in moderation. Otherwise, too much of it can be self-destructive, or cheapen the joy and excitement we encounter when we first feel its effects.

Speaking for myself, I take the middle path in all this. I’m not religious, so I make humanism – a concern for the well-being of other creatures – my transcendent belief system. I want to enrich my experiences, and take in as much of this world as I can. There are few moments as pleasurable as when we first make a new friend, encounter a new love, listen to a good song, explore an unknown place, and savor a new taste or aroma.

Few people in the world have the opportunity to enjoy all these things as I do. I must make the most of my good fortune, and use my time on this Earth to make sure as many other fellow human beings can do the same too.

What about you? What keeps you going in this world? What moments or memories do you have to comfort you? What meaning have you given to your own existence?

What Keeps Me Up At Night

It seems as if I’m starting a trend with topics that cause me to feel psychological and emotional discomfort. I hope no one tires of this, as I fear it may become too redundant or somber for some of my readers (if not already). In my defense, this blog was intended to intersect subjects that are both personal matters and of general interest to me. More often than not, there is an intersection of the two.

This is just such an instance. Last night, as I trawled through my pipeline of news reports, columns, and articles (a nightly ritual), I came across a brief but deeply disturbing post in Foreign Policy about the Srebrenica Massacre that transpired during the Bosnian War of the mid-1990s.

That entire conflict entailed a horrific genocide that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, the overwhelming majority of them civilians. Like most victims of genocide, they were mostly targeted for nothing more than being of the wrong ethno-religious group (in this case, Bosnian Muslim, or Bosniak) at the wrong time.

That is precisely what makes genocide the most unsettling manifestation of human evil: aside from the sheer scale of the slaughter, the act is driven by a collective and deep-seated homicidal hostility to the existence of a particular group of people. While there are certainly other dynamics at play – fear, misunderstanding, a sense of vengeance, and so on – the idea that individuals would come together in order to concertedly wipe out an entire people is horrifying on an unprecedented level. What’s it like to relate with that kind of mentality? What’s it like to live within such a bloodthirsty and hateful collective?

Most importantly, what’s it like to be the victim? That’s precisely what columnist Matt Dobbs asked when he described, in grim detail, the fate of six young men who were taunted and abused before being executed in cold-blood. It was all caught on a graphic video, hyperlinked in the article, which speaks horrifying volumes about the level of callousness of the perpetrators. They were completely dispassionate about what they were doing. Taking innocent lives, and inflicting physical and mental abuse to top it off, meant nothing to them. The only emotions they displayed were satisfaction, pride, and borderline glee.

Reflecting on this hasn’t helped my psyche, to say the least. It deeply saddens me to know that what transpired in that footage is hardly an isolated incident. It’s happened before, is happening now, and will keep on happening for the foreseeable future. What exactly goes through these people’s minds – I mean both the victims and their killers – in the moments leading up to acts like this? I can’t even begin to comprehend the intense fear and disbelief, the sense of powerlessness over their fate. I’m certain the converse is true of most of their killers: they feel fulfillment and power.

It’s these sorts of reflections that tormented me last night, and that will no doubt continue to do so for some time. I’ve been reading and studying this sobering material for nearly a decade now, and for the most part I’m more detached and tolerant of it than many people would be; but I am only human, and our minds can only take in so much suffering and senseless pain before they start to feel some residual agony as well.

The only time I sleep well is when I accept my supreme fortune in having a warm bed to sleep in, and how I should be grateful enough to make the most of it. That’s about the only silver lining I can derive from any of this. My flirtations with misanthropy and depression become greater by the day it seems. It’s a cycle I’m becoming accustomed to, and I’m not ashamed to air that out. Can anyone else relate to some degree?

Attachment to Life and Inspiration from Death

One of my most profound fears is losing someone I love. It’s something that has disturbed me since I was very young. When I first became aware of mortality – I can’t specify a time or incident – I very soon realized the implications, even at my young age: I would some day die, whether I want to or not. So would everyone and everything I’ve ever known and will know. It was a disturbing realization, and one that has since resurfaced regularly thanks to my tendency for neurosis. Were it not for the human capacity to disassociate from such concerns and focus attention elsewhere, I’d probably be driven to a consistent state of chronic depression and nihilism.

But it does keep me up some nights, and I do endure bouts of sadness as I reflect on the inescapability of death. Nothing I can do will stop my loved ones from perishing one by one. Nothing I can do will save me either. Everyone I see today will eventually disappear, the following generation replacing the previous one, only to be superseded itself some day, and so on and so forth for as long as our species continues. I dread the day when I have to worry about my parents or older relatives deteriorating. I’d rather not even write about it.
While some very few of us will live on through memory, the majority of us will forever cease to exist after a few generations. There will be only faded tombs or memorials, if even that. It’s a terrifying prospect to wrap my head around, and one that partly explains why so many people seek the comfort of faith and an afterlife (indeed, that’s arguably why such concepts were universally developed by humans in the first place).
The invincibility and permanence of death are not what terrify me the most, but the sheer randomness of it. There is nothing to stop or prevent death. You can reduce its probability but never eliminate it. I know of all kinds of stories of people dying arbitrary deaths in the most unlikely circumstances. Few people wake up in the morning knowing that they’ll die – heck, few people wake up really thinking about death at all. The fact that anyone I know, myself included, could die at any given moment is a disturbing realization, not helped by the fact that I have a graciously wide circle of people that I love. We go about our business with death looming over us at all times, never certain who, when, and where it’ll strike. Most people don’t think about it, but those of us that do find the concern nerve wracking, even if it’s fleeting.
I have an intense love of life. I imagine most humans do as well, of course. But I’m referring to something deeper than merely the act of living. I want to consciously enrich my life. I love and cherish every human experience: the expansion of knowledge, the meeting of new people, the exchange of good dialogue, the taste of good food, the sound of good music – all of it is what makes living precious. These aren’t just hedonistic indulgences, but the most vital element to being alive. Our times are brief, and our senses and perceptions are all we have to embrace the time we spend here. The more we stimulate them while we can, the better. When we grow old and reach the precipice of our demise, all we’ll have are these memories (or what is left of them).
To that end, love and compassion are equally valuable. As far as I’m concerned, a life lived well must encompass some degree of empathy for others. The time we spend with other humans (and animals) is the spice of life. As a social species, we are intrinsically reliant on one another to survive, not only in the most basic sense – for food, shelter, etc – but also for emotional and mental well-being. Without some degree of love, friendship, or empathetic interaction, we become troubled and even psychologically ill.
We’re all in this together: whatever our differences in this world, we all share the same fate. Death is the great equalizer. But most of us also share in common the gift of life as well. We share this Earth. We bear a responsibility to enhance and deepen one another’s experience, and in doing so, become surrounded by pleasant people who care about us and provide us with companionship. We seek better this world for our friends and children, and as we become more interconnected and intimate with one another, we expand this circle of responsibility to include entire regions, continents, or the human race.
In other words, all we have – to the best of our knowledge – is this one life, this one Earth, and this one generation of fellow humans who share it all with us, and who are in the exact same predicament. At any given moment, all of this can be taken away from us. There doesn’t have to be any warning, or pattern, or reason. This is frightening to me, but also empowering. It gives me a sense of purpose. I can either wallow in despair at the seemingly nihilistic nature of our existence, or I can make the most of my finite and fragile existence on this planet.
I want a life that is wealthy with happiness, experience, and friendship. I want a legacy that will endure for generations, if only for at least a handful of people. Simply put, I want a life lived well. Any minute, my life can take a turn for the worse. As morbid and disconcerting as this might be, it’s as good a reason as any to make sure I can squeeze the most out of every second.

The Universe

The universe is on a scale that is literally incomprehensible to the human mind. We can convey it mathematically of course (which is itself a remarkable feat), but our imaginations can scarcely piece together just how big it is, and how much is contained within its seemingly infinite expanse. This chart, a bit difficult to navigate given its size (go figure), gives just an inkling of what I mean.

How does one visualize an area that is 10 billion light years in its dimension? Indeed, how does one even visualize a light year in the first place: the number itself is unreachable by normal cognition. Moreover, how do we envision the billions of planets, stars, and galaxies that compromise this universe when can’t grasp even a single example of these? The size of my city is huge enough, yet my state, country, continent, or planet are each well beyond my mental faculties.

This chart, which is itself to large to post here, greatly illustrates what I’m talking about. First you have planets, then solar systems, than a collection of millions if not billions of these solar systems as galaxies, than a collection of all these galaxies known as nebular – and so on and so forth, with one indescribably large unit of stuff comprising even more indescribably large units.

I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps our universe is itself a component of an even larger unit. Not only could we have multiple universes, but these can each be part of something else entirely. Given what we know about the structure of matter, is it really to unlikely to consider such a possibility? Consider the history of the human understanding of the world.

Early humans knew only of the immediate geographical area they lived in. Most people that have ever lived didn’t see much beyond their town or village, let alone know of the existence of other communities elsewhere around the world. Even the nomadic types could only see so much within their lifespan. As empires formed, the world as those societies knew it grew, though it often extended a little bit beyond the borders. It took generations of gradual technological innovation, exploration, and expansion to shrink our planet enough to even realize it existed.

Thereafter, we began to finally probe the distant “heavens,” only to realize with time that the confines of what constitutes physical reality was larger than we thought. We keep pushing the limits of what we once thought were our confines. Who’s to say we will not somehow manage to shrink the universe itself?

Going into the other direction, there are infinitesimally small objects that form everything around us: with regards to organisms, there are cells that in turn have organelles, which in turn have molecules, which in turn are comprised of atoms, which furthermore contain sub-atomic particles, and so on. No matter how you slice it, it seems everything is constituent of something, and many of these units are beyond our level of analysis, whether they’re too big or too small.

It wracks my brain trying to comprehend these things in the first place, let alone trying to articulate it in writing. My physical size and perceptual scope relative to the grand reality around me can be both awe-inspiring and nerve-racking. My body is compromised of trillions of smaller objects that all come together to form the fully functionally and living being that I am. This body is in turn part of a larger system, including billions of other organisms who share this planet, and billions of other planets – perhaps some with organisms of their own – that make up this universe.

It’s this sort of realization of our reality that makes existence itself almost magical.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Thinker’s digressions.— With many thinkers, the course of their thought as a whole is rigorous and inexorably bold, indeed sometimes cruel towards themselves, while in detail they are gentle and flexible; with benevolent hesitation they circle around a thing ten times, though in the end they resume their rigorous path. They are rivers with many meanderings and secluded hermitages; there are places in their course where the river plays hide-and-seek with itself and creates for itself a brief idyll, with islands, trees, grottos and waterfalls: and then it goes on again, past rocky cliffs and breaking its way through the hardest stone.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality

I am a huge fan of Nietzsche, and count him as one of my favorite and most influential thinkers. Indeed, he’s widely regarded as one of the most important philosophers in human history, having contributed heavily to a diversity of subjects, including religion, morality, contemporary culture, and science. His influence was particularly significant in the topics of existentialismnihilism and post-modernism, all of which were  largely conceptualized by him well in advance of other thinkers. These represent some of the most vital concerns of the 21st century, making Nietzsche’s work as crucial as ever.

He remains most known for his style and radical questioning of the value and objectivity of truth, as the above quote, alluding about the meandering of thoughts, attests. Some of his key ideas, which have become well-established in popular culture and language, include the death of Godperspectivism, the Übermenschamor fati, the eternal recurrence, and the will to power.  A central theme that underpins most of his philosophical works is the idea of “life-affirmation,” also known as Nietzschean affirmation,  which entails a sincere inquiry towards all doctrines that drain life’s expansive energies, however socially prevalent those views might be. Essentially, he concerned himself with what validates one’s existence, something that inevitably interests all human beings in one way or another – and makes Nietzsche and indispensable person to read.

I highly recommend you all engage in at least a cursory look at his philosophy, and try to read some of his works. He’s definitely an author that discusses a lot of topics vital to any human who has ever let his or her mind wander. Expect me to post more from him in the future, though I’ll refrain from trying to explain or interpret his work – I prefer to leave that to my reader’s discretion, given the frequent debates that center around what past philosophers really meant or said . Many thanks to my friend and fellow philosopher Paul for bringing up the quote.