The meaning of life: Albert Camus on faith, suicide, and absurdity
Albert Camus was a Franco-Algerian philosopher with some great insights on the meaning of life, why you should look to this life and not the next, and why suicide is a poor choice.
Albert Camus was a Franco-Algerian writer who preferred not to be called a philosopher. He is often associated with the existentialist school of thought, though he preferred to be considered separately from it. His life and way of thinking are rather different from most philosophers and even the existentialists he is grouped in with.
His ideas on how to live our lives and deal with existence are bold and often less than comforting. Despite this, he can give us insights into how to cope with our existential dread and offers us some suggestions on how to live our meaningless lives.
“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide,” so claims Camus in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus. By starting with the question of whether life is worth living, Camus places the problem of how we are to live our lives squarely in the center of his thought.
For many people, a life without meaning is not a life worth living. Camus understands this and tackles the problem head-on. He concludes that suicide is of little use to us, as there can be no more meaning in death than in life, and turns to questions of what makes life worth living. When it comes to what meaning we might find, however, he is of little help.
The meaning of life
Camus makes a rather bold claim on the meaning of life: there isn’t one and we can’t make one either. He argues that it is impossible for us to find a satisfying answer to the question of the meaning of life, and any attempt to impose a meaning on the universe will end in disaster, as whatever meaning we pick will be sent up later. He further denies that science, philosophy, society, or religion could ever create a meaning of life that would be immune to the problem of absurdity.
Camus’ entire philosophy is based on the idea of the absurd. Humans have a drive to find meaning in things and where it doesn’t exist we usually try to create it. However, as the universe is cold and indifferent to this quest for meaning we will always be faced with absurd situations where our attempts to find meaning fail. Our lives are meaningless and will remain so.
However, Camus doesn’t see this meaninglessness as bad. He explains that to understand that life is absurd is the first step to being fully alive. While the problem of living in a world devoid of meaning is a big one, it is one to be solved like any other.
What makes life worth living then?
Across his body of work, he praises sunshine, women, the beach, kissing, dancing, and good food. He loved sports and was a champion soccer player in his youth. He took great enjoyment in the little things and encourages us to do so as well. Just because life is meaningless doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable! Indeed, the meaninglessness is just a background fact, like gravity, that must be reckoned with.
The absurd hero
Camus has a critique of those who try to endure the meaninglessness of life by imposing meaning on it. While that can bring us comfort, those systems of meaning are, themselves, doomed to failure over the long run. The universe remains indifferent to us, random events happen, and we will again face meaninglessness.
He points out that Kierkegaard, for example, understood that life was absurd but fled towards God rather than embracing the fact. The French existentialists also did this in a secularized way which is why Camus didn’t identify with them.
Sartre and Beauvoir sitting with Che Guevara after the Cuban revolution. Camus would later fall out with his former friends over their support of Soviet and later Chinese Communism. An event with ramifications that lasted the rest of their lives.
Camus tells us that the answer is to embrace the meaninglessness. The person who can truly know that life is absurd and get through it with a smile is an Absurd Hero. Camus was a real-life example and he sighted the literary examples of Don Juan and Sisyphus for us to look to. “We must imagine Sisyphus happy,” he tells us, for the absurd hero is able to carry out a life as meaningless as eternally rolling a boulder up a hill and find enjoyment in it anyway.
He also encourages us to reject the idea of an afterlife because it is not only unlikely but also because an attempt to live in such a way as to assure you get into the next life detracts from this one. Trying to justify this life by pointing to the next one is just another way to deny the meaninglessness of life, no matter how you phrase it.
So, what should I do today?
Camus recommends that you: get outside, enjoy the sunshine, go for a walk by the beach, play some football, have lunch at a café with a friend, refuse to give into despair, and embrace the meaninglessness of existence by choosing to carry on with what you enjoy doing despite the lack of meaning to your actions.
Can we find a meaning of life that can satisfy our need for one? Camus says no, but that this needn’t be a problem. We are still living here and now and have every ability to enjoy ourselves. Life is worth living and should be embraced as it is. While it is difficult to face meaninglessness without retreating into the loving arms of religion, science, society, or even producing meaning ourselves, Camus encourages us to bravely face the absurd with a smile on our face.
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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?
- Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
- Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
- A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses
Dramatic and misleading
Image: Reddit / SICResearch
The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.
Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.
The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.
Let's zoom in:
- It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
- By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
- Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
- In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
- Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
- By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.
Image source: Reddit / SICResearch
This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?
- "The end is near."
- "The idiocracy grows."
- "(It's) like a spreading disease."
- "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
- "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
- "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
- "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
- "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."
Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:
- "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
- "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
- "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
- "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."
"Old people learning to Google"
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)
But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:
- "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
- "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
- "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
- "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."
A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.
The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.
One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.
Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.
It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.
CNN, Fox and MSNBC
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison
For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):
- Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
- MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
- CNN: 706,000 (-9%)
And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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