Is Life Worth Living?
Albert Camus, Nobel prize winner, half-length portrait, seated at desk, facing left, smoking cigarette (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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.