What's the point?
The pandemic year(s), the value of philosophy, and how to face the absurd.
The past two years, in many ways, have been the best years of my life. I would have never guessed what a pandemic was capable of.1 Your illusion of stability gets shattered into millions of tiny little pieces. You grow your hair out, you join a six person startup, you start tweeting, and you begin combing through philosophy. You crave some new metaphysics and you start reading fiction again. With each passing day, you begin to give more of a fuck. You feel like only just yesterday you started to actually think.
The light bulb turns on and you hop off the treadmill — it is time to run outside, in the real world. Barefoot, in the grass, the dirt and the flowers and the pebbles pressing against the soles of your feet. The real world.
This is important because it is not the default modus operandi. Life has a way of keeping you on somebody else’s treadmill. Schopenhauer:
…most men discover when they look back on their life that they have the whole time been living ad interim, and are surprised to see that which they let go by so unregarded and unenjoyed was precisely their life, was precisely that in expectation of which they lived.
Over the last two years, I became obsessed with the meaning of life. This is not a popular question to ask nowadays. It is basically the easiest way to get made fun of.2 Society hates philosophy, but everything is philosophy. If you’re not dissecting things down to their most hypothetical, bare, and naked implications then you’re not really thinking much at all.3
“What’s the point?” is the only question that matters. Or at least the very first one. It is the base case in the genetic recursive algorithm that we call life. You get this wrong and nothing else matters. You ignore this and, in my humble opinion, lose a lifetime. You don’t live life this way, life lives you.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus tackles this head on through the question of suicide. If nothing matters, why not simply kill yourself? His conclusion is a beautiful one: man must face the absurdity of life head on, every single day, in revolt.
You do not hide from the absurdity; lest you prefer to remain in Plato’s cave. “There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing.” Open your eyes.
You do not only cast it towards the heavens and onto another life. I believe you certainly can, and I personally try to. I think everybody does.4 It may, in fact, be necessary — but it is by no means sufficient. The absurd “makes fate of a human matter, which must be settled among men.”
Camus ends The Myth of Sisyphus by bringing us back to Sisyphus, at the foot of the mountain. The boulder has fallen yet again, and it is time to push it back up. This is life, and it is happiness, he says:
The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
But what is the struggle? The struggle is art. This is what Camus tells us when he says the artist “must give the void its colors... In this universe the work of art is the sole chance of keeping his consciousness and of fixing its adventures.” Camus’ most absurd character of all is the artist. Nietzsche tells us the same:
Art and nothing but art. We have art in order not to die of the truth.
As do Simone de Beauvoir, and Viktor Frankl, and countless others. Art is what finds Sisyphus at the bottom of the mountain. Creativity and divine inspiration roll the boulder up the hill, only for Sisyphus to do it all over again at the end of it all. To create is to revolt against the absurdity of life. And what a struggle it is. Like Sisyphus, we find ourselves at the foot of the mountain every single day. And every single day, we must choose to create and to revolt, only to be faced with the same choice again should we be lucky enough to see the sun rise once more.
Create art and create life.5 Build something new, write something new, paint something new. Be someone new, again and again, over and over. Find yourself at the foot of the mountain. Over time, the rest will make itself known.
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I also consider myself extremely lucky to have my loved ones emerge relatively unscathed from it all.
You can end up with all of your thoughts compressed into literal fortune cookies, or drift so far out into the unknown that you become incomprehensible. You can spiral into madness.
This was one thing I loved about Tyler Cowen’s Stubborn Attachments and its critique of Utilitarianism. You have to run things all the way down to their implied conclusions, even (especially?) the extreme ones.
Have kids! I’m excited to have kids. Kids are what makes the algorithm of life recursive. They are wonderful. Kids are like little balls of hope for the future.