Home > 'Self Help', Misc, Philosophy > The Absurdity of Life: Does that mean meaningless and despair?

The Absurdity of Life: Does that mean meaningless and despair?

Read time: 12 minutes.

Post based on Thomas Nagel’s paper, The Absurd, in the book ‘Mortal Questions’.


What makes life absurd? Can we escape this view? and if not, does it matter? This is a continuation to my last post, why so many people think the western work ethic is right. For those of us who realise that this work ethic is fatally flawed, we often think it’s because such work is absurd and pointless. This post explores this idea further, and suggests why the idea of absurdity is in fact a good thing.

What makes life absurd?

Human life is full of effort, plans, calculations, success and failure: we pursue our lives, with varying degrees of sloth and energy. It would be different if we could not step back and reflect on the process, but human beings do not act solely on impulse. They are prudent, they reflect. They ask whether what they are doing is worthwhile.

They spend enormous quantities of energy, risk, and calculation on the details: His appearance, his health, his sex life, his emotional honesty, his social utility, his self-knowledge, the quality of ties with family, colleagues and friends. Leading a human life is a full-time occupation.

Yet humans have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves, and the lives to which they are committed, with that detached amazement which comes from watching an ant struggle up a heap of sand. And the view is at once sobering and comical.

We step back to find that the whole system of justification and criticism, which controls our choices and supports our claims to rationality, rests on responses and habits we never question. These things we do or want without reason are the starting points of our scepticism. We see ourselves from outside, and all the contingency and specificity of our aims and pursuits become clear. Yet, it does not disengage us from life.

And there lies our absurdity; not in the fact that such an external view can be taken of us, but the fact that we ourselves can take that view, without ceasing to be the persons whose ultimate concerns are so coolly regarded.

Why can’t we escape this view?

Absurdity results because what we take seriously is something small and insignificant and individual. Those seeking to supply their lives with meaning usually envision a role or function in something larger than themselves. People come to feel, when they are part of something bigger, that it is part of them too.  They worry less about what is particular to them.

But a role in some larger enterprise cannot confer significance unless that enterprise is itself significant. So, any such larger purpose can be put into doubt in the same way that the aims of an individual life can be, and for the same reasons. It is as difficult to find ultimate justification there as to find it earlier, among the details of the individual life.

If there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism and despair.

If we can step back from the purposes of individual life and doubt their point, we can step back also from the progress of human history, or of science, or the success of a society, or the kingdom, power and glory of God, and put all these things into question in the same way. What seems to confer meaning, justification, significance, does so in virtue of the fact that we need no more reasons after a certain point. If we continue to need reasons, the meaning and justification soon breaks down.

Consequently, the absurdity of our situation derives not from a collision between our expectations and the world, but from a collision within ourselves. The absurdity comes from the operation of us, not from the external world.

So why does this view not change our attitudes and actions?

This backward, external step is not supposed to give us an understanding of what is really important. We never, in the course of these reflections, abandon the ordinary standards that guide our lives. We merely observe them in operation and recognise that if they are called into question we can justify them only by reference to themselves, uselessly.

We adhere to them because of the way we are put together. What seems to us important or valuable or serious would not seem so if we were differently constituted. And so, we return to our familiar convictions with a certain irony and resignation.

Absurdity results because what we take seriously is something small and insignificant and individual.

For once we have taken the backward step to an abstract view of our whole system of beliefs and justification, and seen that it only works by taking the world for granted, we cannot shed our ordinary responses, for if we could, it would leave us with no means of conceiving a reality of any kind. Philosophical scepticism does not cause us to abandon our ordinary beliefs, but it lends them a peculiar flavour.

We are left to return to our lives with our seriousness laced with irony. Not that irony enables us to escape the absurd. It is useless to mutter: ‘life is meaningless; life is meaningless…’ as an accompaniment  to everything we do. In continuing to live and work and strive, we take ourselves seriously in action no matter what we say.

What sustains us in belief and action, is not reason or justification, but something more basic than these. For if we tried to rely entirely on reason, and pressed it hard, out lives and beliefs would collapse.

Can we avoid the absurdity of life?

Given that the transcendental step is natural to us humans, can we avoid absurdity by refusing to take that step and remaining entirely within our sublunar lives?

The only way to avoid the relevant self-consciousness would be either never to attain it or to forget it- neither of which can be achieved by the will. If someone simply allowed his individual animal nature to drift and respond to impulse, without making the pursuit of its needs a central conscious aim, then we might, at considerable cost, achieve a life that was less absurd. It would not be a meaningful life either, of course. But it would not involve the engagement of a transcendent awareness, and that is the main condition  of absurdity.

Is thinking of life as absurd a problem?

I would argue that absurdity is one of the most human things about us; a manifestation of our most advanced and interesting characteristics. It is only possible because we possess a certain kind of insight- the capacity to transcend ourselves in thought.

It results from the ability to understand our human limitations. It need not be a matter for agony, not need it evoke a defiant contempt of fate that allows us to feel brave or proud.

If there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism and despair.

  1. March 25, 2010 at 1:11 am

    Thank you for reading and responding to my blog. Nice to know it doesn’t get lost in netherland.
    I greatly enjoyed your blog post and insights. You make great points. My variance seems to be your statement that “It results from the ability to understand our human limitations”.

    Believing I am physical causes me to believe I am limited.
    Believing I am spiritual, experiencing a human existence allows me to believe I am limitless and have no limitations, excepting my beliefs otherwise. Steve Ideas-institute.org

    • adventurist
      March 25, 2010 at 10:54 am

      Hi Steve. I understand what you’re saying, but so far, I have not yet come across anything that has touched my consciousness enough for me to propose anything spiritual within me, nor in anyone else. Is there anything you could recommend that may show me the light? For otherwise, it seems that this illusion of spirituality may be nothing more than our psychology playing tricks on us…. Rob.

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