Is Life Worth Living?
By Noel West
“To destroy one of its terms is to destroy the whole. There can be no absurd outside the human mind. This, like everything else, the absurd ends with death.”
Humankind seems to be at odds with itself in finding meaning in life. We have this consciousness and awareness, but physically only need a handful of things to survive and perpetuate our species. For many of us, our basic needs are easily met (assuming one lives in a society in which this is normal). We do not have to think about our food, water, and shelter sources in many ways. This gives many of us the privilege of having to worry about what our lives mean. According to Albert Camus, “we get into the habit of living before we get into the habit of thinking” (Camus, 6). This habit means that we fulfil our basic needs of how to live in practicality before we question what life is. If we were constantly fighting for our survival, we would not have the time to think about this. The goodness and meaning of life would be to survive and nothing more. Now that our survival is essentially guaranteed, we face this question of “why” or “do we have purpose”. Regardless of whatever purpose we may have, we are stuck with the dilemma addressing whether or not life is worth living. Friedrich Nietzsche gives us the idea that our lives are what we make of them. Camus claims that our lives are completely absurd due to our awareness. Contemporary film provides us with an example of how one might theoretically face this existential moment of unknowing by becoming an active role in ones own life. All three of these ideas come together to form an answer to the question of whether or not life is worth living, even if we do not have a purpose to live. Since antiquity, scholars have been fumbling around for an answer to this question by trying to prescribe some sort of meaning to our existence. We are seemingly cursed with an unsatisfied awareness of the world and our place in it.
To answer our question of whether or not life is worth living, we shall examine a few different perspectives on the subject. To start, we will look at Friedrich Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence as a parallel (or, precursor) to Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus followed by a slightly different take on how one might handle such a question in the contemporary film, American Beauty. In between, however, we must address a major point that Camus raises about suicide from a philosophical perspective. This bit of suicide, Camus claims, is one that needs a philosophical address as it has only been investigated from a psychological or sociological perspective. All three accounts provide interesting ways of reasoning (or, doing) to come to the same answer to whether or not life is worth living or if we should all go “off” ourselves when we are confronted with such a question.
The eternal recurrence refers to an idea that Nietzsche proposes in which we ought to be able to look upon our lives and say that we would wholeheartedly repeat it in an eternal loop, from birth to death, from the beginning of perceived time to the end. Nietzsche suggests that we embrace this life, that we learn to say “yes” to our lives and decisions in their sum total. We ought to accept every event that has happened and will happen, regardless of how much pain or joy it may bring us. In doing so, we should recognize that we are also an event, not necessarily just a static being that happens to exist in a fixed world. We are in a constant and persistent state of growth, development, curiously, and hunger. This constant striving for power after we have learned that we are not fixed is what Nietzsche dubs the will to power. It is a difficult concept to define, but certain aspects of it seem more clear than others. The will to power comes from our innermost nature and desires, and that is to not belong or fit in with our society and survive, but to transcend all of these things. That is, we are not satisfied with just living. We need more. This will to power overcomes a simple will to live. We do not let life happen to us, we are the embodiment of life if life were understood as a persistent state of emergence and betterment. With Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence and will to power, we get a resounding, gleeful, “YES! why wouldn’t it be” to answer our question, as if it were some obvious fact. Now, Nietzsche does not force a purpose upon our lives. He claims that it is “why the ethical teachers come forward, as the teachers of the aim of existence” (Nietzsche, 1). This follows down a long road of logic, but essentially leads us to the idea that it is our imprinting ethical values on our lives that forces us to ask what our meaning of existence is. By throwing out this meaning given by morality, we can better and more genuinely understand our lives as being worthy of living, even though by giving ourselves morality, we have given ourselves a secondary reason to consider our lives worthy. Camus takes this a bit further with absurdity to discuss the background of how we could possibly come to such a conclusion.
Camus goes to great length to discuss the option of suicide before he gives us Sisyphus’ story. At first though, we must understand how Camus comes to the conclusion that man is ultimately absurd before we can understand how suicide relates to this absurdity. Camus states, “the absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need [for happiness and reason] and the unreasonable silence of the world” (Camus, 26). The world does not provide some explicit reason for our existence. It is futile to try to find meaning when we know that we will find none. From here there are two options, one more obvious than the other. The first is that of suicide. We can eradicate this absurdity in our individual lives by simply removing ourselves from the equation as we can not remove the world and its lack of empathy to our desires. Our second option is to embrace that absurdism of our condition. In doing so, we can find immense freedom in our being, rather than being chained down to a constant search for that which does not exist. This second option seems far more appealing than suicide, if one were trying to figure out a reason to live based solely on whether or not it is worth it to do so, even if one is resigned to an eternity of repeating a difficult task that has no result.
Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus is a demonstrative portrait of how Camus views a method of finding meaning in life. In this portrait we find Sisyphus condemned to hell. He is stuck rolling a boulder up the side of a mountain over and over for all eternity. Camus points out this one moment when the boulder rolls back down the hill, every time Sisyphus has managed to roll it up, he has a moment of meaning – “all Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols” (Camus, 118-119). It is subtle. We can not see it, but this is where Sisyphus claims his fate and puts forth the idea that life is worth living, despite the fact that is already dead and in hell, suffering eternal punishment. Sisyphus balks at the repeated action of his punishment and in that moment has something more that no gods could ever take away from him. He has found meaning and determined that his fate is not only good, but that it is his. In his revolt against the futility, Sisyphus recognizes the absurdity of his fate and accepts it as his own. In this reclamation, we can see that Camus means that no matter what life we live, it is worth living because it is ours. Not only is it ours, but taking ahold of this absurdity, we have no reason at all to wish for an end. Without purpose, we have the most freedom to enrich our lives and flourish to our fullest extent because we no longer have some expectation of all the things that come along with purpose.
There is a slight issue with Sisyphus, however, especially regarding practical matters. We are not stuck in an eternal fate of our conscious awareness. If Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence is true, we are not aware that we have lived this life we live right now on an eternal loop like Sisyphus is aware that he is on an eternal loop. Fortunately, modern media has given us an idea of how this might play out in our practical, everyday lives. We do experience the futility of Sisyphus’ fate in a slightly different way. Through our own experience with the repetitious futile performances we put on everyday can we can get a sense of what it is like for Sisyphus. The film, American Beauty, portrays this repetitious life, an impending existential crisis, and its consequences quite well. In the film, the main character comes to terms with the idea that he feels that his life is essentially meaningless in his 9 to 5 job, with his SUV, his wife who is certainly emotionally distant, his house in the suburbs and so forth. He quits his job and takes his life back into his own hands, no longer playing by the “etiquettely” driven rules of society. Here, we can see his life unfold and become more to him. His character changes, he looks healthier, he is kind to himself. He is literally becoming himself as time passes. As opposed to jumping out his office window to end it, he realizes that he can have freedom in his life by not only questioning why his life is worth living, but by no longer denying his inner nature and embracing his humanity. This would be humanity in a Nietzschean sense, in which one embraces both that which is considered good and evil about ones actions and decisions rather than denying the will to power. The cycle of repetition should, in theory, give us less meaning and desire but our character here sees that this is not the case. By giving up the idea of having meaning in life, he now has the freedom to become who he is and discover that life is worth living. This existential “breakthrough” is commonly used now in psychotherapy to assist with existential crises. When we can take the reigns in our lives, despite whatever purpose we have imprinted upon it, then we can live fully and know that our lives are not unworthy.
In conclusion, Camus and Nietzsche both conclude that as one must live in the world, one must take one’s life into his own hands and make of it what he will. The approaches are starkly different – Camus being far more subtle and Nietzsche being loud and dramatic. However, the thing they have in common, and likewise with other existential thinkers and media, is this active position towards life and the acceptance of our fates and actions. We ought to not let ourselves be subjected to the world. We have the ability to prescribe our own purpose. Even if we do not find purpose, it is still better to live and embrace the absurdity than it is to leave it all behind for a state of nothingness and nonexistence. Taking a route of suicide to end the absurdity of life is quite possibly the most wrong course of action a person could take. Suicide says that you give up, that you refuse to accept life, that you are “confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it” (Camus, 4). It is not the revolt against the “system” that we might think it is. Instead of giving up, we can be defiant in the face of absurdity by embracing that which seems most contradictory. We do this by living. We are the embodiment of that absurd truth. So to fully answer our question, of whether or not life is worth living, we come to an astounding, yes, of course it is, as if it could be so obvious.
It’s not a peer-reviewed paper however, so you may want to include that information if you’re still interested in posting it. Thank you!
University of North Florida
Graduate Student, Philosophy
And here is a link to “The Tender Indifference of the World: Camus’ Theory of the Flesh” by
American Beauty. Dir. Sam Mendes. DreamWorks, 1999. Film.
Camus, Albert, and O’Brien, Justin. The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Penguin Group, 2005.
Nietzsche, Friedrich W, and Walter A. Kaufmann. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Apendix of Songs.. New York: Vintage Books, 1974