You Are Quite Absurd: Kierkegaard, Camus, Nietzsche, King Solomon, and The Quest For Purpose

Have you ever actually considered the possibility that you serve no purpose whatsoever. Has it ever occurred to you that you came into being by chance and regardless of what you do in life you will not have achieved anything that will be of use to you the moment you die. Has it crossed your mind that more likely than not you are going to be completely forgotten within a few generations, and that even if you become some great hero or villain the memory of you will eventually fade into myth and then into nothingness as if you never walked the earth at all… Quite depressing isn’t it. Welcome to the world of Absurdist Philosophy.

In philosophy an “Absurdist” is one who recognizes the conflict between the human tendency to seek meaning and value in life alongside the human inability to find any. Let’s face the facts Jack, you are a tiny little speck of carbon, on a tiny little planet, in a tiny little solar system, in an outer rim galaxy residing in the  boondocks of a universe that (as far as we know) is simply floating around in a sea of infinite nothing. You can never hope to be more than that and since medicine can only go so far you will only truly “exist” for maybe 70-100 years (if your lucky) before you cease to be forever.

Strangely enough, human beings have been constantly searching for truth and meaning in a universe that by all logic has none. So during this small time gap that you have to live you really only have four options:

  1. Embrace Death: Upon realizing that life truly has no meaning, purpose, or real reason to continue other than it just does one can simply vote not to participate anymore. I’m not condoning suicide at all, but unfortunately this is the response many who come to realize “the Absurd” choose in order to escape this game. It’s definitely the darkest option available.
  2. Ignore The Absurd Reality: This is the most popular option, but also one of the most unsatisfying. You can simply ignore the fact that you are meaningless, insignificant, and fading fast into oblivion. You are perfectly free to go about your daily grind of work, rest, pleasure, and whatever else floats your boat ignoring the ever looming truth that everything you love and work for will one day be a pile of nothing quickly forgotten and destroyed.
  3. Embrace The Absurd Reality: This is the philosophy of Albert Camus which can be read about in “The Myth of Sisyphus”.  In short, if one embraces the absurd he can eliminate all moral constraints and  accept that meaninglessness as inevitable. If purpose exists then we cannot find it and so in the mean time we should just make up our own purpose for ourselves. Camus argued that doing this leads to a true freedom and an ability to live out your life unhindered. Camus would argue that purpose is what you make it and that true freedom comes in being able to decide for yourself what is true and what is not.
  4. Embrace “Spiritual” Purpose: This is the philosophy of Kierkegaard (and this author) which argues that there is, in fact, a purpose and meaning to all of this but it cannot be found in the physical realm. It is the rather unscientific belief in the existence of a reality and truth beyond The Absurd. Now this belief does require one to accept the intangible and empirically unproven (a.k.a. “Faith”) but it is the only way one can ever truly hold on to anything in life as being eternal, lasting, true, or meaningful. It is the only way one can ever fully fulfill the unquenchable desire for purpose.

Now needless to say these views are often in conflict with each other. Kierkegaard though that “embracing the Absurd” was a form of madness that leads one to rage against purpose rather than seeking it as man clearly was meant to. Camus, on the other hand, saw religion and the embracing of spiritual purpose as “philosophical suicide.” Then there were those like Nietzsche who look down on the notion of “purpose” as a tool for the weak who are too afraid to truly “look into the void.”

For those of you keeping score at home it breaks down a little something like this:

Is there such a thing as meaning, purpose, or value: 

  • Kierkegaard: Yes, but one can only find this through faith in a Higher Power. Logic cannot find it on its own.
  • Camus: Maybe, but we can’t find it so we might as well go with whatever feels right to you.
  • Nietzsche: No.
**If you want a more elaborate description please feel free to read up on these three, I’m oversimplifying for the sake of time and space.** 

What is interesting is that “the Absurd” was a problem that scripture dealt with long before Kierkegaard, Camus, or Nietzsche ever set foot on this earth. King Solomon himself (the alleged wisest man on earth) also struggled with this:

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

““Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.

I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.

I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.

For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”

– King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 1)

King Solomon was all about that doom and gloom stuff. You see King Solomon struggled with the idea of purpose just as we have. If you continue to read Ecclesiastes you see that he found everything from pleasure, to wisdom, to wealth, and honor utter pointless in the face of what would later be called “the Absurd.” He knew his time was limited and fleeting, and he could find no reason or purpose in anything man could do or achieve.

Eventually he comes to the conclusion that in the end no man knows what purpose God has laid out before him:

When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.
– Ecclesiastes 8:16-17

It’s a really depressing book when we get right down to it, but in the end the only things that King Solomon could think worthy of our time is to enjoy the work and life that God gave us, because regardless of any reason we can determine were put here for some purpose.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.

Ecclesiastes 12:13

Or at least that’s what wise old King Solomon deduced. Christianity offers a little more in the way of purpose than what King Solomon envisioned. We just so happen to exist on the other opposite side of the cross, and we have already begun to see God enacting his plan for the renewal of this world.

King Solomon would have never been able to dream that God would come down and take the weight of sin away from us. He never would have been able to comprehend that one day the gap between God and man would be bridged and that all of history has been moving back towards restoration ever since the fall of man.

Solomon would have never have thought to hope for renewal, resurrection, and restoration of all things to their former glory as we understand them today. As Christians we can look “the Absurd” in the eye with full confidence knowing that all is not in vain. Where Nietzsche stared into the void and saw the void staring back, we can stare into the void and catch a tiny glimpse of the mind of a great creator and planner that has more in store for us than we have dreamed.

God is ultimately glorified and we are steadily moving towards a day where pain and suffering will cease to be and all of creation will exist in perfect harmony as when it first began.

The Christian ultimately finds his place in the universe absurd, not because he is a purposeless creature seeking a purpose he cannot obtain, but because God so loved sinners that he would take suffering upon himself for our sake. God does not love us because we are good, but he is Good and as a result loves us and has a purpose for us. We are not alone, nor are we abandoned. We have a higher purpose that exists outside the mental capacity of men. It is not a conclusion hard to make when one realizes that:

1. We deeply desire purpose and meaning.

2. In spite of our best efforts we cannot seem to find it.

Or as a wiser man than I once put it:

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

-C.S. Lewis

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