, Volume 50, Issue 4, pp 543–559

Camus and Nihilism


    • The Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy

DOI: 10.1007/s11841-011-0274-0

Cite this article as:
Woodward, A. SOPHIA (2011) 50: 543. doi:10.1007/s11841-011-0274-0


Camus published an essay entitled ‘Nietzsche and Nihilism,’ which was later incorporated into The Rebel. Camus' aim was to assess Nietzsche's response to the problem of nihilism. My aim is to do the same with Camus. The paper explores Camus' engagement with nihilism through its two major modalities: with respect to the individual and the question of suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus, and with respect to the collective and the question of murder in The Rebel. While a Nietzschean influence thoroughly suffuses both books, it is in the second that Camus' most explicit, and most critical, engagement with the German philosopher takes place. The crux of Camus' critique of Nietzsche is that the absolute affirmation of existence he proposes as a response to nihilism cannot say ‘no’ to murder. In the terms of Camus' discussion in The Rebel, Nietzsche's philosophy is thus culpable in the straying of rebellion from its own foundations and its slide into bloody revolution. First, the paper argues that Camus' criticisms of Nietzsche are misplaced. Camus focuses his analysis on sections of the problematic text The Will to Power and misses important sections of Nietzsche's published texts which in fact support the condemnation of revolution which is the project of The Rebel. However, the paper argues that Camus moves beyond Nietzsche in radically democratizing the response to nihilism. While Nietzsche's hopes for the creation of meaning are focused on exceptional individuals, Camus insists that any response to nihilism needs to be accessible to the average person. Such a move is laudable, but it raises a number of questions and challenges regarding the type of problem nihilism is, and how these might be addressed.


Albert CamusNihilismFriedrich NietzscheAbsurdityThomas Nagel
In 1951 Camus published an essay in Les Temps Modernes entitled ‘Nietzsche and Nihilism.’1 The text was also incorporated into The Rebel, which appeared the same year.2 Camus’ aim in this essay was to assess Nietzsche’s understanding of, and response to, the problem of nihilism. My aim here is to do the same with Camus, by examining his view of Nietzsche’s treatment of nihilism, and by placing his work in the wider context of other responses to nihilism. Nihilism was a central concern for Camus, and in a late interview he chose it as a theme to exemplify all his work:

I have sought … to transcend our darkest nihilism … [out of] an instinctive fidelity to a light in which I was born, and in which for thousands of years men have learned to welcome life even in suffering (Camus, cited by Duvall 1999: 47).

Simply put, nihilism is the apparent meaninglessness of life, brought about in recent Western history by the bankruptcy of the evaluative structures that previously gave life consistency and direction. Nietzsche uses the phrase ‘the death of God’ to signal this bankruptcy, because of the orienting role previously played by religious, transcendent categories of valuation. For both Nietzsche and Camus, there is no question of reanimating the dead God, and the problem of nihilism becomes: how are we to live without belief in a transcendent meaning and a given code of values? Camus thus begins from the same point as Nietzsche, and his understanding of nihilism is deeply indebted to him. However, his most extended piece on Nietzsche is highly critical of the German philosopher, and through his own writings – in particular, The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel – he develops his own unique understanding of, and response to, nihilism. We will turn first to Camus’ reception of Nietzsche for the light it sheds on his own approach to nihilism.

Camus’ Nietzsche

The influence of Nietzsche on Camus’ thought is both readily apparent and deep. The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel develop and explore the Nietzschean problem of nihilism from an individual and a collective perspective (respectively). In The Myth of Sisyphus, nihilism is developed as the idea of the absurdity of existence, and is explored in terms of the individual and the problem of suicide. In the latter, nihilism is developed in the context of social relations between individuals, and explored as a problematic justification for murder and bloody revolution. If nihilism is understood as a negation of the value of life, then Camus dramatises the problem and presses its urgency by interpreting it as literally and empirically as possible, through the issues of suicide and murder. He explores the way that philosophical nihilism can potentially justify each, and he is concerned to show how such justifications may be rejected and the problem of nihilism overcome.

While the term ‘nihilism’ itself does not appear as explicitly in The Myth of Sisyphus as it does in The Rebel, a first draft of an insert for Sisyphus that Camus sent to his publisher situates the book as dealing centrally with this theme:

Modern intelligence suffers from nihilism, and to cure it, we propose that it forget its illness and go backwards. Such are the ‘returns’ to the middle ages, to a primitive mentality, to the so-called ‘natural life,’ to religion – in short, to the arsenal of old solutions. But to give a shadow of usefulness to these cures, several centuries’ contributions must be denied; we must pretend to be ignorant of what we know very well, to pretend we have learnt nothing, and to efface what is ineffaceable. This is impossible. On the contrary, this essay takes into account some clarifications we have learned from our exile. It suggests that the mind should live with its negations and to make them the principle of progress. It uses fidelity and confidence with respect to modern intelligence. In this sense, one can only consider it as a clarification, the preliminary definition of a ‘good nihilism,’ and to say everything, a preface (quoted in Todd 1998: 149).

In the book itself, instead of using the term nihilism, he uses the concept for which he has become most famous, ‘the absurd.’ William E. Duval writes that

[Camus’] understanding of the absurd is from the beginning grounded in Nietzsche’s diagnosis of nihilism, his lucid awareness of the lack of meaning, truth and finality which results from the death of God, and his consciousness of the reality of human suffering which accompanies this silence (Duvall 1999: 40).

Moreover, Walter Kaufmann has suggested that ‘the conclusion of Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus sounds like a distant echo of Nietzsche’ (Kaufmann 1975: 21). How is this echo to be heard? First, Sisyphus’ ceaseless rolling of the boulder, an eternally futile labor aimed towards accomplishing nothing, echoes Nietzsche’s eternal return, in which the universe repeats itself without aim or goal, rendering everything that happens apparently futile. Second, like Nietzsche, Camus emphasizes the superiority of a tragic view of existence – one which acknowledges the absurdity and suffering of life as well as its joy – over the pettiness of false optimism. For Camus, lucidity has its own power to master fate. According to him (still echoing Nietzsche), this mastery takes place not only by acknowledging fate, but by affirming it (‘The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing’, 2000a: 110). Thus, Camus presents a Nietzschean answer to the problem of absurdity by arguing that it is enough to affirm this world and our place in it in order to overcome absurdity and gain a sense of meaning.

Nietzsche continues to be a powerful influence shaping Camus’ later book The Rebel, but here he receives both a more extended, and a more critical, discussion. If there are resonances of Nietzsche’s absolute affirmation as a response to nihilism in The Myth of Sisyphus, it is precisely this theme that comes under attack in The Rebel. Nevertheless, as Duvall argues, despite the overt criticisms of Nietzsche that appear in the book, as a whole it must be understood as motivated by deeply Nietzschean concerns. Moreover, Duvall argues, the history of rebellion Camus presents is a kind of Nietzschean genealogy, the moments of which can be mapped on to Nietzsche’s genealogy of morality (Duvall 1999: 42). Camus tries to show how rebellion has frequently become decadent, degenerating into what he terms ‘revolution,’ in which murder becomes rampant and the original impetus of rebellion is betrayed. Despite Camus’ evident debt to Nietzsche, however, the section of the book most explicitly devoted to Nietzsche, the essay ‘Nietzsche and Nihilism,’ is predominantly critical. Taking a perspective characteristic of his commitment to practical engagement, Camus insists on interrogating Nietzsche not only according to the explicit content of his ideas, but also according to the implications of living by those ideas (Duvall 1999: 51). On this score, Camus finds Nietzsche guilty of generating ideas that helped to shape twentieth century totalitarianisms.

The crux of Camus’ critique of Nietzsche is that the absolute affirmation of existence he proposes as a response to nihilism cannot say ‘no’ to murder. In the terms of Camus’ discussion in The Rebel, Nietzsche’s philosophy is thus culpable in the straying of rebellion from its own foundations and its decadent sliding into bloody revolution. First, Camus argues that while Nietzsche’s rejection of transcendent values appears to embrace freedom, it in fact embraces a kind of servitude. His argument is predicated on the idea that free actions require some degree of direction; some constraints, and some goal. Without such constraints, a generalised relativism ensues: there is no more reason for doing one thing than another, and all action is paralysed. As Camus puts it (alluding to Dostoevsky), with Nietzsche “[a] profounder logic replaces the ‘if nothing is true, everything is permitted’ of Karamazov by ‘if nothing is true, nothing is permitted’” (Camus 1971: 63). According to Camus’ reading, in rejecting transcendent values, Nietzsche chooses an absolute affirmation of this world, a fidelity to fate and history that makes no judgements of the world. With such an affirmation, thought submits passively to an assumed necessity in the order of things, and desires no change. This is how Camus understands Nietzsche’s amor fati, which he terms a ‘deification of fate’ (64). Servitude would defuse any impetus to action, and destroy all agency.

Far more problematically than this servitude to fate, however, Camus sees Nietzsche’s absolute affirmation as consenting to murder and evil:

This magnificent consent, born of affluence and fullness of spirit, is the unreserved affirmation of human imperfection and suffering, of evil and murder, of all that is problematic and strange in our existence (63).

After noting the well-known influence of misinterpreted Nietzschean thought on National Socialism, Camus insists that we must defend Nietzsche vigorously from such misinterpretations. Nevertheless, he asserts that Nietzsche’s work can be used as a philosophical justification for murder, and to this extent, it is not innocent. In short, his judgement of Nietzsche is that ‘[t]o say yes to everything supposes that one says yes to murder’ (68).

Briefly and schematically, I wish to note three possible criticisms of Camus’ assessment of Nietzsche on nihilism, before moving on to a more extended consideration of Camus’ own position on nihilism and its possible advantages over Nietzsche.

First, Camus might be criticized for the extremely limited scope of his references. It is notable that he refers in this essay almost exclusively to a small section of The Will to Power, and, as Duvall points out, this material is not representative of anything in Nietzsche’s published works (Duvall 1999: 51). As is well known, some Nietzsche scholars argue against the legitimacy of citing any of his unpublished texts as evidence of his actual views, and even if one allows the inclusion of such material, it remains highly questionable whether it can accurately represent Nietzsche’s philosophy if isolated from the rest of his oeuvre.

Second, there is the significant and related point that if one looks elsewhere in Nietzsche’s writings, one can in fact find in some of his published works arguments against revolution. Nietzsche scholar Keith Ansell-Pearson has shown that Nietzsche consistently opposed political revolution – and thus, what Camus believes is problematically justified by his work (Ansell-Pearson 1994). For Nietzsche as for Camus, politics is adjunct to the problem of nihilism in general, because Nietzsche is concerned with the loss of the legitimacy of state power as based on religion, as well as with the loss of a unified religious culture. However, Nietzsche always warns against confusing cultural politics with the easy expedient of overthrowing the government (see, for example, Nietzsche 1986: aph. 463). Ansell-Pearson explains Nietzsche’s opposition to revolution as follows:

For Nietzsche a philosophy of revolution suffers from the delusion that once a social order has been overturned, then ‘the proudest temple of fair humanity will at once rise up of its own accord.’ The modern theory of revolution is derived from Rousseau’s belief that beneath the layers of civilization there lies buried a natural human goodness; the source of corruption lies not within man, in human nature, but in the institutions of the state and society, and in education (Ansell-Pearson 1994: 83).

Simply put, then, Nietzsche rejects revolution because he rejects the Rousseauian thesis of ‘natural human goodness’ that typically legitimizes it.

Third, Camus’s argument is potentially undermined, or at least attenuated, by a distinction in Nietzsche’s concept of ‘absolute affirmation’ established by Gilles Deleuze, a decade after the publication of Camus’ essay, in his Nietzsche and Philosophy (Deleuze 1983). Deleuze points out that Nietzsche is quite aware of the logical problem of absolute affirmation, insofar as it would seem to require the affirmation of nihilism and its causes, and thus perpetuate nihilism rather than overcome it. (Nietzsche criticizes this version of absolute affirmation in the ‘Yea-saying Ass’ section of Zarathustra). Through an analysis of various Nietzsche texts (especially On the Genealogy of Morals), Deleuze argues that the absolute affirmation Nietzsche advocates contains within itself a form of negation, which negates nihilism.3 While this is certainly not equivalent to finding in Nietzsche’s writings a prohibition of murder, Deleuze’s interpretation does undermine the basis of Camus’ claim that Nietzsche’s philosophy must say ‘yes’ to murder.

Thus, while it would take much more to show decisively that the licensing of revolutionary murder is not in fact an unintended consequence of Nietzsche’s absolute affirmation, what I hope to indicate here is that Camus’ treatment of Nietzsche in ‘Nietzsche and Nihilism’ is at the very least an unnecessarily unsympathetic one – it focuses on a tightly restricted and unrepresentative selection of Nietzsche’s unpublished texts, it ignores material in Nietzsche’s published texts that might actually have been used as grist for the mill of Camus’ own argument against violent revolution, and it overlooks the nuances and qualifications of ‘absolute affirmation’ that can be found in Nietzsche’s work.

Camus’ essay on Nietzsche and nihilism is a significantly flawed treatment of nihilism in relation to Nietzsche’s thought. Nevertheless, his reasons for rejecting Nietzsche here, misplaced though they may be, reveal much about Camus’ own perspective on nihilism: they throw into relief one very important sense in which Camus’ own treatment of nihilism differs from Nietzsche’s, and in fact might be thought preferable.

Camus beyond Nietzsche

If Camus makes a clear advance beyond Nietzsche in his response to nihilism, it is in his radically democratic approach to the issue. Camus’ rejection of Nietzsche’s response to nihilism expresses his own fundamental commitment to equality, to solidarity, and to compassion for the common person. Nietzsche’s politics have often been thought of as aristocratic and elitist, and as we have noted above there is a clear link between Nietzsche’s politics and his confrontation with nihilism. Even if, as I have suggested, there is much in Nietzsche’s writings that can undermine Camus’ condemnation of him, there would seem to be a central issue in Nietzsche’s thought that cannot be defended from Camus’ critique: the radically anti-egalitarian nature of his politics. While as argued above Nietzsche explicitly rejected revolution, he did not do so in the interests of equality, solidarity, or compassion, but rather on pragmatic grounds, and with the view to establishing a hierarchical culture. Although Nietzsche’s views were notoriously protean, one thing to which he seemed committed from his earliest writings to his last was the idea that the solution to modern nihilism and decadence could only come from exceptional individuals, thematized variously in his writings as free spirits, higher types, or Übermenschen.

Nietzsche’s endorsement in the 1880s of Georges Brandes’ characterization of his philosophy as ‘Aristocratic Radicalism’ lends support to the elitist interpretation, as do some significant passages in his writings. Nietzsche’s politics are aristocratic in that he endorsed an elitist, class-based society, but radical in that he advocated a new aristocratic social arrangement, rather than conserving existing arrangements (as the far more plentiful ‘aristocratic conservatives’ desire). Nietzsche does not provide anything like a blueprint, or a body of legislation or procedures for implementing the kind of aristocratic society he advocates, but he describes it in broad outline in passages such as the following:

Caste-order, order of rank, is just a formula for the supreme law of life itself, splitting off into three types is necessary for the preservation of society, to make the higher and highest types possible, - unequal rights are the condition for any rights at all. … A high culture is a pyramid: it needs a broad base, its first presupposition is a strongly and healthily consolidated mediocrity. (Nietzsche 2005: aph. 57)

Nietzsche argues that inequality and exploitation are essential, and a class or caste-based society is necessary, for the flourishing of ‘higher individuals.’ His argument, in short, is that higher individuals require leisure for their creative activities, and this leisure is only possible in a society in which the majority devote themselves to the labor necessary for the material sustenance of all. His most concise statement of this view appears in Human, All Too Human:

A higher culture can come into existence only where there are two different castes in society: that of the workers and that of the idle, of those capable of true leisure; or, expressed more vigorously: the caste compelled to work and the caste that works if it wants to. (Nietzsche 1986: aph. 439)

In a word, Nietzsche endorses a form of exploitation of one class by another. He admits that exploitation is an evil, but sees it as a necessary evil. In the broadest sense, Nietzsche argues that the existence of the mediocre is justified by the existence of the exceptions. He argues that the most meaningful sense of life is to be achieved, by the majority of persons, in the service of higher types. More concretely, for Nietzsche there is no intrinsic, given meaning or value of life, and the higher types are given the role of creating such a meaning. In fact, the order of rank is established by Nietzsche not around physical, economic, or political strength, but creative strength, where that is understood as the strength to honestly face the horrors of existence and creatively forge a meaningful interpretation of it, whether this be through art, philosophy, or some other means. When Nietzsche (infamously) speaks of ‘great politics’ he is referring to the combination of political process and philosophical reflection: great politics consists in the legislation of values created by philosopher-artists. Nietzsche generally saw the solution to the problem, indicated above, of declining legitimation of the State by religion, in the creation of new legitimating structures; structures that could only be created and legislated by individuals towering above the masses of humanity. As Daniel W. Conway points out, all members of society are thought by Nietzsche to benefit in some way by the production of higher types, and the activities of these exceptional individuals (Conway 1997: 36). Nevertheless, Nietzsche insists that the primary value of humanity lies in its highest types, and at times seems to see the masses as more or less expendable. Bruce Detwiler summarises Nietzsche’s radically aristocratic political stance as follows:

Among modern philosophers Nietzsche stands virtually alone in his insistence that the goal of society should be the promotion and enhancement of the highest type even at the expense of what has traditionally been thought to be the good of all or of the greatest number. (Detwiler 1990: 189)

While Nietzsche arguably remains elitist, however,4 Camus can be understood as democratizing the problem of nihilism. An anecdote told by Colin Wilson (an early populariser of existentialism in England) about his meeting with Camus illustrates this point well. Wilson recounts how during their conversation he raised the possibility that the answer to the problem of absurdity might lie in mystical experience, which seemed to him to be hinted at a few places in Camus’ writings (such as Meursault’s feeling of unity with the indifference of the universe at the end of The Outsider, or ‘The Adulterous Woman’s orgasmic feeling of oneness with the African night5). Wilson then recounts:

The idea seemed to worry Camus. He gestured out the window, at a Parisian teddy boy slouching along the other side of the street, and said: ‘No, what is good for him must be good for me also.’ What he meant was clear enough: that any solution to this problem of ‘absurdity’ must be a solution that would be valid for the man in the street as well as for mystics and intellectuals. (Wilson 2004: 173)

Wilson disagreed, suggesting to Camus that this assertion was equivalent to holding that Einstein should never have created the theory of relativity, because it was beyond the understanding of a Parisian teddy boy. But Camus insisted on his position, and Wilson notes that ‘his basic premise seemed to be that all human beings are in the same boat’ (ibid. 174).

For Camus, then, and in stark contrast to Nietzsche, any solution to absurdity must be equally available to all. How is this democratic impetus exercised in Camus’ writings? First, as noted in the introduction, Camus dramatizes nihilism by stating it in terms of its most dire practical consequences: suicide and murder. In this way, he makes the problem itself widely accessible to those who are not philosophical specialists, and highlights its scope and significance. Second, we may note his insistence on the rational intelligibility of the ideas that would respond to nihilism. A response must be given to the problem of absurdity that would be intelligible to the ‘everyman’ in the street. Now, Camus denies that the problem of absurdity can be solved by giving a rational answer to the question, what meaning is there in existing? He does not believe that human existence has a rationally intelligible meaning. However, Camus devises an ingenious way to give a thoroughly rational response to nihilism by examining the logical structure of the problem itself: a Cartesian rationalism structures Camus’ posing and answering of the two nihilist questions, of suicide and murder.

As is well known, for Camus, the absurdity of life is not simply the meaninglessness of life, but a tension between two terms: objective meaninglessness and the human desire for meaning. For Camus, to understand is above all to unify. The inability of reason to understand the world amounts to the failure of the possibility of unity. Furthermore, it is the very fact of consciousness, and with it the desire to understand the world rationally, that thwarts the possibility of unity. Camus believes that if we had no more consciousness than the lower animals, there would be no division in the world. We would be part of it, at one with it. There would be no tension between the human desire for meaning and the world, and life would not be absurd. Likewise, if the universe thought and felt as we do (i.e., if there were a God, who manifested a divine order), there would be no division and absurdity would not take hold.

Camus’ response to the question of suicide has a Cartesian structure insofar as he finds an answer to the problem in the very structure of the question itself. Just as for Descartes the very act of doubting admits one thing that cannot be doubted (the cogito), so for Camus the very question of suicide tells us that suicide is not an allowable solution. He insists that to take one’s life is to avoid the question of the absurd – and not to answer it – by abolishing one of its terms (that is, by eliminating the human desire for meaning). He thus concludes that ‘the only coherent philosophical position’ is to continue living, in revolt. For Camus, this revolt is deeply passionate, and high emotion is an essential aspect of Camus’ response to nihilism. Yet passionate revolt is itself indexed on a prior rational analysis, which is arguably the ground of Camus’ position.

Likewise, in The Rebel, Camus presents a Cartesian-inspired argument concerning the logical structure of rebellion. To rebel metaphysically, he suggests, equally means to recognize that all other human beings are in the same metaphysical situation as are we ourselves (that is, all of us are abandoned, without God and without transcendent values to give meaning and purpose to our lives). To rebel, then, means necessarily to acknowledge a metaphysical perspective from which all human beings appear profoundly equal. He expresses this as a reformulation of Descartes’ famous cogito, ergo sum: ‘I rebel – therefore we exist’ (28). According to Camus, being true to the inner logic and initial impulse of rebellion means affirming solidarity with our fellow human beings, and rejecting murder outright as prohibited by the logical structure of rebellion itself. It is only when this impulse is forgotten or perverted, Camus argues, that rebellion can devolve into bloody revolution and the philosophical justification of murder.

Although Camus does not explicitly develop this theme, there is reason to posit a strong relationship between his deployment of Cartesian reasoning and his commitment to egalitarian principles. Descartes famously states in the opening lines of Discourse on Method that reason is the most evenly distributed of all the faculties. (‘Good sense is, of all things among men, the most equally distributed … good sense or reason, is by nature equal in all men …’ [Descartes 1912: 3]). Nietzsche’s elitism seems to relate directly to his solution to nihilism: only the higher types’ power of value-creation (a rare, extremely unevenly distributed human faculty on his view) can provide meaning to human life. Camus, by contrast, chooses the most democratic of the faculties as the creator and bearer of meaning. Sartre also intimates the egalitarianism of Cartesian reasoning in his popular lecture ‘Existentialism is a Humanism,’ when he suggests that there is something in the Cartesian Cogito that transcends the class divide because it is available to everyone. Sartre writes:

Our point of departure is, indeed, the subjectivity of the individual, and that for strictly philosophic reasons. It is not because we are bourgeois, but because we seek to base our teaching upon the truth … And at the point of departure there cannot be any other truth than this, I think, therefore I am … Before there can be any truth whatever […], there must be an absolute truth, and there is such a truth which is simple, easily attained and within the reach of everybody; it consists in one’s immediate sense of one’s self. (Sartre in Kaufmann 1975: 360–61; italics added)

Just as the self-evidence of the Cogito is supposedly available to everyone equally, we may postulate that Camus was inspired to emulate Descartes’ reasoning in order to find solutions to nihilism which were both (1) indubitable, and (2) rationally intelligible and therefore available to everyone equally.

The great virtue of Camus’ engagement with nihilism, then, is the way he makes problems that are often discussed in the highest abstractions6 understandable and accessible to the ‘common person.’ He does this by dramatizing the problem of nihilism in the concrete terms of suicide and murder, and by taking as his methodological focus ‘that most evenly distributed of all things,’ the faculty of reason. For those who hold democratic and egalitarian values, Camus’ treatment of nihilism may well appear to constitute an advance beyond Nietzsche’s ‘Aristocratic Radicalism.’ So far, then, we have reviewed Camus’ reception of Nietzsche, and noted both limitations of Camus’ reception and an important way in which Camus moves beyond Nietzsche. I wish to turn now to an examination of Camus’ treatment of nihilism in the wider context of other treatments of the issue. In doing so, I wish to draw attention to some potential limitations surrounding Camus’ focus on rationalism. We will approach these issues in a somewhat circuitous route by firstly considering the intriguing treatment of the absurd by Thomas Nagel.

The Lesson of Nagel

Nagel begins his paper ‘The Absurd’ (Nagel 1979 [originally published 1971]) by claiming that the usual arguments for absurdity are not good arguments. The arguments he discusses are not ones explicitly appealed to by Camus, but as we shall see, something of significance to Camus’ approach is revealed in Nagel’s overall discussion.7 Nagel examines three arguments for absurdity; I can make my point here by restricting my discussion to two. The first of these is an argument concerning ‘mattering over time;’ it states that life is absurd because nothing we do now will matter in a million years. Nagel thinks this is a bad argument because nothing that will be the case in a million years matters now. Therefore, it doesn’t matter now that nothing that we do now will matter in a million years. Furthermore, Nagel asks, how could mattering in a million years keep our present actions from being meaningless? The second argument concerns the human place in space and time; it states that life is absurd because ‘we are tiny specks in the infinite vastness of the universe,’ and because our lives are ‘mere instants’ on the cosmic time scale (Nagel 1979: 11–12). But, Nagel asks, how could a life that is absurd and short be made any less absurd by being long, even eternal? Surely this would merely make for a life that is eternally absurd. Likewise, how could the absurd lives of small beings be made less absurd by being larger? Nagel does not believe life would be any less absurd if we were so large that we filled the universe.

So for Nagel, these arguments for absurdity are bad arguments. They do not convincingly establish that life is absurd. But nevertheless, Nagel believes that life is in fact absurd, and that despite failing as arguments, these reasons presented above provide a ‘natural expression for the sense that it is’ (11). Interestingly, he suggests that these bad arguments are in fact metaphors for absurdity. I would like to make several comments about Nagel’s analysis of these arguments. First, I believe that Nagel is right in asserting that these arguments are metaphors. However, I do not think that Nagel’s rejection of these arguments qua arguments is correct, precisely because they are metaphors. Take Nagel’s comments about the arguments based on space and time. Nagel asserts that it would make no difference to the meaninglessness of life if we filled more space or if we lived longer. He says there is something closely linking the ideas of space and time to meaning, but it is not clear what (12). Prima facie, Nagel’s views perhaps seem convincing. There does not seem to be any reason why life would be more meaningful if we were bigger or lived longer; the very suggestion itself seems absurd. But if we consider these arguments within the cultural history of meaning, I think we can make more sense of the link between ‘space and time’ and meaning, and clarify what Nagel finds obscure.

For Nietzsche, the experience of meaninglessness is culturally and historically contingent. This means that the people of a certain culture at a certain point in history will be more prone to feelings of meaninglessness, or absurdity, than peoples of other cultures and times. Now, for Nietzsche, the culture in question is Western culture over the last several centuries. Significantly, Nietzsche sees the advent of nihilism as taking place through the process of secularization. This is the process whereby—principally through the agency of science—religious interpretations of the world are replaced with secular ones. Thus, the religious view of life that once provided a sense of meaning has largely been replaced by a scientific-rational view that does not (and arguably cannot) provide the same sense of meaning.

Significantly, through the process of secularization, our views on the relative size and time span of human life and that of the universe have changed dramatically. Whereas once we conceived of our world as the center of the universe, and we believed that there existed little else besides the earth and the heavens beyond the firmament, now we consider the planet that is our home to be a mere speck in a virtually inconceivable vastness. Likewise, where once we conceived of the birth of the human race as practically synchronous with the creation of the universe, and as synchronous with its demise (‘the end of the world’), we now believe that the lifespan of our race will likely be a brief moment in the lifespan of the universe.

The argument that life is absurd because nothing that we do now will matter in a million years may also be better understood in the light of the history of secularization. On a Christian interpretation of life, in which human action is understood in terms of sin and moral goodness, everything that we do matters. All our actions matter in terms of a Christian eschatology and soteriology, that is, in terms of whether we earn damnation or eternal life in the afterworld, or in the end-times. With each of these arguments, some important points of a religious explanation of human life that gave it meaning have been replaced by secular explanations that do not give it the same meaning, but are rather destructive of the very notion of meaning that we have come to understand through a Christian worldview.

Thus, there is an important sense in which Nagel doesn’t fully understand the arguments for absurdity he discusses because he doesn’t appreciate their context in the history of Christian culture. The arguments make full sense only in relation to that context. Moreover, as a corollary, Nagel’s discussion demonstrates the difficulty of supplying positive, rational propositions that on their own would give ‘answers’ to the meaning of life. Nagel shows that such answers (‘life is meaningful because we are so big we fill most of the universe’) themselves will likely appear absurd. It is not on their own and rationally explicated, but knitted together into a ‘background horizon,’ or cultural context, that such beliefs gain their existential power. And it is not on their own and rationally explicated that the arguments for absurdity Nagel discusses gain their argumentative force—this force is due to their power to undermine the worldview that had previously sustained values and meanings. Now, Camus is in full agreement that life cannot be given a rationally intelligible meaning. But what is implicitly shown by Nagel’s failure to fully understand the arguments he criticizes is also a potential problem for Camus’ position. That is, they both seem to miss the essential role that an ‘irrational background interpretation’ plays in the construction of meaning. This has long been recognized by a tradition of thinkers, of which Nietzsche has been an important exemplar, which we may refer to as the ‘counter-Enlightenment tradition.’ In order to assess Camus’ contribution to the critical interrogation of nihilism, we need to view his work in the light of this tradition and ask whether his privileging of reason causes him to miss a key possibility in responding to contemporary nihilism.

The Antinomy of Nihilist Reason

The counter-Enlightenment tradition, particularly in Germany, has understood the problem of nihilism in terms very different from those of Camus. In a variety of different ways, philosophers associated particularly with the movements of Lebensphilosophie (life-philosophy), existentialism, and Critical Theory have argued that meaningful life or existence has as its necessary condition a grounding in something irrational, sometimes expressed in metaphors of darkness to contrast it with the light of reason. Herbert Schnäbelbach, in explaining life-philosophy, expresses well some of the basic themes of this counter-Enlightenment tradition:

… subject and object, consciousness and what it is conscious of, are themselves seen as derivative and grounded in an antecedent whole, which it is possible to ascertain only by means of intuition. Pre- and non-objective lived experience, moods, the neutrality of what is experienced are supposed to precede all objectivity; analysis, dichotomisation, the hiatus between intuition and concept – all are supposed to come about only by means of secondary exposition of that whole, which up until Heidegger was called ‘life.’ (Schnädelbach 1984: 147)

With Heidegger, what was called ‘life’ comes to be called ‘Being.’ Perhaps one of the most well-known contemporary modalities of this argument concerning the ‘irrational ground’ is Heidegger’s analysis of ‘being-in-the-world,’ particularly as it has been popularized by Hubert L. Dreyfus in his arguments against the tenability of artificial intelligence (see Dreyfus 1992). For Heidegger and Dreyfus, the capacity to apprehend anything as significant depends upon a background of assignments and relations between things that together form a ground against which things can appear as significant, and from which projects in life can be formulated. What is important here is that this ‘background significance’ is not itself readily graspable by reason, and in fact the attempt to do so undermines the effective functioning of this background to provide significance (this is one of the things Heidegger means by the oblivion of Being, or, as he sometimes calls it, nihilism). Dreyfus gives the readily accessible example of the distance one is expected to stand from strangers when speaking to them (Dreyfus 1993). In our native culture this distance is assumed naturally and will not likely come to conscious attention. When we travel and experience other cultures, we find others stand too close, or too far away, making us feel uncomfortable. But no amount of reasoning and analysis will explain this discomfort. It is part of the irrational ground that forms significance in our native culture. Such themes are also present in Nietzsche, and ground his treatment of nihilism.8

In Sisyphus, Camus describes absurdity as the ‘divorce between the man and his life, the actor and his setting’ (13). In the German philosophical tradition of the life-philosophers, of Nietzsche, and of Heidegger, it is in large part reason itself which is the agent of this divorce. For Camus life is absurd because we cannot grasp it with our reason; we cannot unify it in intelligible thought. But for Adorno and Horkheimer, for Nietzsche and Heidegger, the unity and existential meaningfulness of life depends upon continuity with an irrational background, a horizon of interconnected meanings and significances that orients our projects. For such thinkers, it is precisely the turning of the light of analytic reason on every aspect of this background that has cut us off from it, diminished its significance, and set us adrift.

This discrepancy between Camus’ rationalism and the counter-Enlightenment tradition is thrown into stark relief by contrasting the following passages:
  1. 1.

    To understand is above all to unify. The mind’s deepest desire, even in its most elaborate operations, parallel’s man’s unconscious feelings in the case of his universe: it is an insistence upon familiarity, an appetite for clarity. Understanding the world for a man is reducing it to the human, stamping it with his seal. […] The truism ‘all thought is anthropomorphic’ has no other meaning. Likewise the mind that aims to understand reality can consider itself satisfied only be reducing it to terms of thought. […] If thought discovered in the shimmering mirrors of phenomena eternal relations capable of summing them up and summing themselves up in a single principle, then would be seen an intellectual joy of which the myth of the blessed would be but a ridiculous imitation. That nostalgia for unity, that appetite for the absolute illustrates the essential impulse for the human drama.

    Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (2000a, b: 22–3).

  1. 2.

    The Enlightenment recognizes as being and occurrence only what can be apprehended in unity … Formal logic was the major school of unified science. It provided the Enlightenment thinkers with the schema of the calculability of the world … The world as a gigantic analytic judgement … On the road to modern science, men renounce any claim to meaning.

    Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1997: 7; 27; 5).


We might call the disagreement indicated by these two passages, in quasi-Kantian fashion, ‘the antinomy of nihilist reason.’ When thinking about the problem of nihilism – what it is that devalues life – two seemingly contrasting answers have been given. The disagreement revolves around the value of reason, and the role it plays in existential meaning-formation. As we have seen, Camus insists that life is absurd because reason cannot grasp life as a unity – any such attempt causes fissures to erupt in the fabric of existence, and meaningful life flows out of our hands before our very eyes. Adorno and Horkheimer here pose the opposite position, that the success of reason in grasping things as a unity, as ‘summing up relations in a single principle,’ has itself resulted in nihilism.

The question that emerges from this contrast between Camus and the counter-Enlightenment tradition is this: Is it adequate to propose a rational solution to nihilism? Of course, in one sense Camus is rejecting a rational solution: the crux of his argument for absurdity is that a rationally meaningful answer to the question, what meaning is there in existing?, cannot be given. However as we have seen, Camus turns to the structure of reason itself to find a reasonable response to our absurd situation, a response available to everyone by virtue of their own possession of the rational faculty. For Camus, everyone can be an absurd man, a rebel.

However, Camus’ rationalist response to nihilism departs from the counter-Enlightenment thinkers by by-passing, or rejecting, any attempt to ‘reground’ our irrational background significance and thus enrich the meaningfulness of life. (Arguably, this was at least part of Heidegger’s aim in his pursuit of the meaning or the truth of Being). As we saw with Camus’ insert for The Myth of Sisyphus quoted earlier, Camus wants to reject ‘the arsenal of old solutions,’ in which we might will include the idea that the individual needs to be steeped in an irrational background culture in order to have a meaningful life. In fact, Camus seems to want to reject a sense of meaning in any traditional sense.

This is perhaps Camus’ way of responding to ‘the death of God.’ Nevertheless, some more recent thinkers have argued that the death of God does not mean the end of the ‘irrational background,’ but rather that it has taken on a radically different character. This is most clearly illustrated in the work of contemporary Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, who has dealt a great deal with the meaning of contemporary nihilism. For Vattimo, nihilism means that Being has been ‘weakened.’ In the contemporary world, Being has disappeared as a stable structure or enduring presence (such as Plato’s forms, or the Christian worldview), and has been dissipated in the pluralism of multiple, conflicting interpretations of the world that suffuse our globalized multicultural context. But for Vattimo Being is a quasi-transcendental, ontological principle; it is that by virtue of which things gain their meaning, and it persists in the contemporary context even if it is profoundly weakened and its meaning has significantly changed. In fact, for Vattimo, the ‘irrational background significance’ of our culture is now precisely nihilism itself, the situation in which we have to deal with multiple competing interpretations, and the deep or overarching traditional structures that previously gave our lives meaning and direction have dissipated (see Vattimo 1992). The upshot of such a position, I believe, is that meaning still operates in a way and at a level that is more irrational than rational, and such arguments may give us pause regarding Camus’ ‘rationalist’ response to nihilism. Yet rather than attempt to decide the issue here (a formidable undertaking which lies far beyond the scope of this paper), I propose to conclude with a reflection on Camus that will indicate that his contributions to responding to nihilism may in fact contribute on this non-rational level, beyond his explicit Cartesian arguments.

Nihilism and Literature

So far I have argued that Camus makes great strides beyond Nietzsche insofar as he humanizes and democratizes the problem of nihilism, unchaining it from its orbit around a tiny elite, and making it available to the average man or woman. Like any other problem that in fact concerns everyone, Camus contributes to making it available to all to contemplate and to ‘have their say’ in solving. But I have also argued that Camus’ methodological approach to the problem—a Cartesian rationalist one—is out of step with other compelling treatments of the problem, and may well be inadequate. We have seen also that there is a strongly motivated link between Camus’s methodology and his democratism (predicated on Descartes’ view of the even distribution of reason). So the question now arises: If Camus’ rationalism is rejected, can his democratism be saved? Or in other words: Can there be a democracy of the nonrational?

I believe that a potential solution to this problem lies along an important path in Camus’ work I have not so far broached, and can only do so now briefly: the literary dimension of all his writings. Against Descartes, we might argue that there is a faculty that is more evenly distributed than reason: the faculty for enjoying a good story and for being bewitched by a compelling image. To quote a contemporary theorist of radical democracy, Jacques Rancière, ‘Man is a political animal because he is a literary animal who lets himself be diverted from his ‘natural’ purpose by the power of words’ (2006: 39). The solution to the antinomy of nihilist reason indicated above might then be found in literature, a solution to which I can only gesture here.

Arguably, literature can at one and the same time mobilize the rational and the nonrational, through the intelligible meanings of texts and the rhetoric through which they are inscribed. Literature has the power to both engage the nonrational in us as individuals, by exercising our imaginations and rousing our emotions, and to form part of our cultural horizon. Insofar as literature engages at the nonrational level, it can remedy the shortcomings of Camus’ seemingly rationalist solution to the problem of nihilism, without thereby sacrificing the dimension of rational argumentation itself. Moreover, literature gives a democratic voice to Camus’ works by appealing to a wider audience than do purely theoretical texts, and by better engaging the life of the ‘average’ person. Working together, these two elements of Camus’ solution to nihilism—the rational and the nonrational—mean that his work acts as a powerful intervention into the problem.

Camus was a passionate moralist whose appeals to his readers to take stock of their lives in the condition inaugurated by the death of God continue to be widely read today. Over and above the explicit rationalism of Camus’ theoretical texts, the literary character of Camus’ works (and this includes his theoretical texts as well as his novels, plays, and stories), and the evocative images they contain, fold back into the dark ground of our collective culture. Camus’ own contributions to the democratization of the problem of nihilism and its overcoming might then be understood not (solely) in terms of his insistence on his Cartesian heritage, but in his artistry as a writer, in the fact that his literary texts continue to be widely read, and that his powerful images, such as Sisyphus rolling his boulder up the hill, or the archer at the end of The Rebel drawing his bow, continue to persist, and insist, in the cultural imaginary.


Some portions of the current essay appear in my book Understanding Nietzscheanism (Woodward 2011), and I wish to thanks Acumen for their permission to reuse this material.


In the English translation the section title ‘Nietzsche and Nihilism’ is omitted, and the text in question appears instead under the title ‘Absolute Affirmation’.


According to Deleuze, there are two forms of negation to be found in Nietzsche, one associated with slave morality and one with master morality. The first is opposition (associated by Deleuze with nihilism and Hegelian dialectics) and the second is difference (associated with absolute affirmation and the overcoming of nihilism). The slave establishes himself on the basis of a primary negation of the master, from which a secondary affirmation of his own identity issues. By contrast, the master establishes himself on a primary affirmation of himself, from which a secondary negation of the slave issues. This secondary negation thus issues from primary or absolute affirmation, and negates only that which itself negates difference. On the basis of this interpretation, Deleuze believes that Nietzsche’s absolute affirmation is consistent with a negation of all that is nihilistic. For a detailed presentation of this interpretation, see Woodward 2009, pp. 174–82.


This interpretation has been argued against by some, most recently by Julian Young in his biography of Nietzsche (Young 2010).


‘The Adulterous Woman’ is one of the stories collected in Exile and the Kingdom (Camus 2007).


See, for example, Heidegger’s discussion of nihilism in response to Ernst Jünger, in which we are told it needs to be thought in terms of Being, but the word Being itself needs to be crossed out, to indicate ‘the Fourfold,’ a concept with which even experienced Heidegger scholars struggle (Heidegger 1998).


Nagel does make some brief critical comments on Camus in the paper, arguing (1) that absurdity is due to a collision within ourselves rather than between ourselves and the world, as Camus believes (17), and (2) that irony is a better attitudes towards absurdity than Camus’ ‘romantic and slightly self-pitying’ defiant scorn (22–23). However, both these criticisms are tangential to the point I wish to make here.


More broadly, Nietzsche is concerned with how religious traditions grounded a sense of meaning before they were ‘desacralized’ by Enlightenment reason. Nietzsche seems to hold that the majority of persons are not strong enough to embrace the objective meaninglessness of existence themselves, and that is perhaps one reason he believes humanity needs select value-legislators to imprint their interpretations on life, so that for the majority, what is consciously affirmed by the elect one or few subsists for the majority as simply a given, as an irrational background from which significance appears to spontaneously emerge.


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