Camus states that there is one philosophical problem that takes precedence over all others: suicide. Suicide is inseparable from the meaning of life, and investigating this question comes before any other concerns, whether they be about ontology or science. Furthermore, people kill themselves sometimes because life seems meaningless, and other times because they have meaning that they wish to defend. The meaning of life, then, is the most urgent question.
Suicide is the most urgent philosophical problem, for Camus, because its consequences are literally a matter of life and death. No one, he reasons, has ever killed themselves over mathematics or geometry. It’s not a straightforward equation between life’s meaninglessness and the act of suicide: some people might kill themselves for a political cause or because their love is gone—in other words, because life does have meaning.
Camus speaks of the difficulty of truly understanding the act of suicide. While for some the act of committing suicide might be the result of “personal sorrows” or “incurable illness,” it could also be that merely having a bad day opens up latent feelings of self-destruction.
Essentially, the act of suicide cuts an individual off from being properly understood by others. Because the person is no longer around to explain their actions, people hypothesize.
Suicide, says Camus, is an admission that life is “not worth the trouble.” Much of living is done by habit, and suicide represents a realization that this habit lacks any meaning. Camus likens this feeling to one of “exile.” The feeling of a divorce between man and his life represents “absurdity.” He states that his essay is chiefly concerned with the “relationship between the absurd and suicide”—whether the latter is truly a solution to the former.
Camus agrees with the idea that life has no inherent meaning. His essay, then, represents his attempt to question whether, in light of this knowledge, the only logical thing to do is commit suicide. Important to note here (as is reiterated throughout), is that the absurd is not solely life’s lack of meaning—it is the conflict between humankind’s longing for meaning and the world’s inability to provide a satisfactory response.
Camus argues that it is too simplistic to think that there are only two answers to the absurd: suicide or living. Most people go on living, while still questioning the meaning of life. Furthermore, suicide can be committed by people who believe in the meaning of life and, vice versa, some people live within the belief that life is meaningless.
Camus is looking for a third way: a mode of living that unflinchingly incorporates the absurd into daily life.
The most common way of “eluding” the absurd, says Camus, is through “hope”—hope that something better is on the way in the future. Camus sees mankind as fundamentally confused about life, making the issue of its absurdity the prime concern above all others. He vows to pursue this issue in order to see if it’s possible to live with the absurd.
Camus sees hope as fundamentally irrational, because it defers confrontation with the absurd long into the future. For example, people might put up with dissatisfaction in their lives because they believe one day it will be better. This is not an effective strategy, in Camus’ opinion.