Literature and philosophy are often intricately entangled with one another to influence a written piece of work. In the years following the Second World War, the works of European philosophers despite doctrinal differences, shared the belief that philosophy begins with the human being, also known as existentialism. Existentialism claimed a significant presence within the literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Within the overarching existentialist movement there was a plethora of ideas that overlapped but were oppositional.
Existentialist thinkers such as Soren Kierkegaard and Albert Camus at first glance may not express compatible ideas, but the two share similar views on the absurdity of life. Kierkegaard held the belief that when people make decisions, we have absolute freedom of choice. Ironically, the free will does not liberate us, but imprisons us with feelings of anxiety and dread. How we make those choices is critical to our lives, and it is our will alone that determines our judgement (“Dizziness of Freedom”).
According to Albert Camus’s philosophical beliefs, however, not only does the individual have freedom of choice, but those choices are inherently meaningless because the universe as a whole is devoid of meaning. “Life is meaningless’ Searching for the point of life is anxiety-provoking; thus, the only way a human can live well is to accept the meaningless of life. Both the works of Kierkegaard and Camus depict that life is absurd because there is no pattern or point to the world around us, and both philosophers wrestle with how humans can overcome feeling lost and directionless.
Therefore, studying Camus’s writing through the lens of Kierkegaard’s philosophy, the only escape out of a life ridden with anxiety and despair is accepting the meaningless of life and claiming personal responsibility over making definite decisions. Known as the “Father of Existentialism”, Soren Kierkegaard was born in 1813 to his father Michael and his mother, Ane. He was the seventh child of his family and experienced a tormented and unhappy childhood. He was educated by his father who taught him a guilt-ridden version of Christianity through his religious teachings.
He was taught that guilt and suffering go hand and hand and that only an extreme sacrifice could cleanse the sin that had been committed. When Kierkegaard studied at the University of Copenhagen he realized that his father had raped his mother because he was born two months after their marriage. Because of this horrid act, he neglected his studies and resulted in a period of overindulgence. His father died shortly after, which allowed for him to pursue the life of his choice. Kierkegaard’s past trials and tribulations are what influenced him to eventually become a philosopher.
Through his philosophical works, he found that actions dictate the outcomes of human life, which he connected to because of the similarities present in his own life. After his father raped his mother, it caused a downward spiral for Kierkegaard because the actions his father committed created a chain effect that dictated his life for a short time. The actions that are taken by humans, create a lasting effect on those around us and because of that, every action has a consequence.
In The Fall by Albert Camus, Jean Baptiste Clamence, a once big-shot lawyer tells the story of how he went from being a wealthy and important man, to an insignificant person with no true meaning in his life. In the novel, one of the main themes is judgement and how humans have the natural tendency to judge one another. “People hasten to judge in order not to be judged themselves” (Camus 26). Jean Baptiste claims that the very process of judgement is what makes humans unhappy.
Similar to Kierkegaard, the idea that if humans try to find and apply meaning to their lives, it causes dizziness and sadness. Because he is a lawyer, his job is to judge the crimes and mistakes people have made. Because of this, he comes to the realization that he is a hypocrite because he does not judge his own actions, but rather those around him. Kierkegaard would say that because of the choice Clamence has, his fear rests within the fact that he has total control over another human beings life and because of that realization, it creates the dizziness that humans experience.
The fear is actually that he is not mastering his own life and decisions yet, which heightens the feeling of anxiety. The choices and freedoms that we as humans possess in our lives is the dizziness that Kierkegaard believed that because of the great responsibility of decision making, that it creates the feeling of anxiety and dizziness. As seen in his novel, The Concept of Anxiety, he gives two concrete examples of decision making.
First, Kierkegaard asks us to imagine a man standing on a cliff or a tall building. If the man looks over the edge, he experiences two different kinds of fear: the fear of falling, and the fear brought on by the impulse to throw himself off the edge” (“Dizziness of Freedom”). He says that the second fear that the man would feel is anxiety because he comes to the total realization he can choose to jump or not. His fear is as dizzying as his vertigo” (“Dizziness of Freedom”). This fear is found throughout many short stories, plays, and novels, not just solely in existentialist considered works.
Hamlet, a Shakespearean play, shows how Hamlet, the protagonist, is caught on the precipice of a horrible choice. He can choose whether to kill his uncle or rather leave his father’s murder unavenged. Hamlet wrestles with the choice and freedom he holds to either murder his uncle or let him live. In that moment, Hamlet can choose to do “nothing or anything” (“Dizziness of Freedom”). He has the choice to kill his uncle or just walk away and because he can decide, the feeling of dread is followed afterwards.
To Kierkegaard, the internal struggle is the definition of the dizziness that is created through decision making. In The Fall, Jean Baptiste goes back in time to recall a decision that he made years before. One night after he had been drinking a little bit he walked across a bridge to get home. On the bridge he noticed a woman standing on the side of it and when he walked past her, she jumped. Jean Baptiste heard screaming and splashing but did nothing. He let the woman commit suicide and when the story turned up in the newspaper the next day, he did not even read it.
Jean Baptiste chose to do nothing. He chose to not help the woman and let her die. This represents Kierkegaard’s idea that a human can choose to do “nothing or anything” (“Dizziness of Freedom”). Clamence took personal responsibility for his actions, or rather lack of them. This proves Kierkegaard’s idea that humans must acknowledge their actions in order to make definite decisions. Kierkegaard also suggests that we experience the same anxiety in all our moral choices because we come to the realization that we have the freedom to make hor terrifying decisions.
While the “dizziness of freedom” provokes the feeling of dread, it can also awaken our minds by helping us become more aware of the available choices in life. Furthermore, this increases our self-awareness and the sense of personal responsibility. We as humans should recognize that life is meaningless, and by accepting that, we can live well. Albert Camus, a French existentialist philosopher believes that by “embracing the meaninglessness is the only way we are capable of living as fully as possible” (“Life Has No Meaning’).
This idea appears in Camus’s essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. A Greek king who fell out of favor with the gods, Sisyphus was sentenced to an abhorrent fate in the Underworld. He was condemned to roll a large boulder up to the top of the hill, only to watch as it rolled to the bottom to begin the task again. This would be repeated for all of eternity. Camus was enthralled and fascinated by this myth. “Because it seemed to him to encapsulate something of the meaninglessness and absurdity of our lives” (“Life Has No Meaning”).
This represents the cycle of life that is inescapable because we as humans try to apply meaning where there is none present. Kierkegaard would reply to this by saying that if Sisyphus attempted to find a purpose for his eternal task, he would never find one, because of the absurdity and cyclical nature of life. When humans try to look for the meaning in life, it creates the feeling of dread and anxiety. Both Soren Kierkegaard and Albert Camus agree that humans are trapped within their own lives if they continually look for guidelines on how to live life.
The only way to break the cyclical nature of life, is through acceptance, which ultimately allows humans to live well. Jean Baptistlt is not to look outward for answers, but rather inward to make your own decisions and take life as it is. Existing means having freedom of choice and searching for meaning, but both make people unhappy. The philosophies of Kierkegaard and Camus urge humans not to mull over decisions in life but rather, it propels them forward to conquer the meaninglessness and dizziness of life.