French journalist and philosopher Albert Camus said, “man in the world is absurd.” Like so many recent Western philosophers, he was thinking of the individual rather than the human race as a whole. Camus felt that he (like all individuals) was alone in the world, and the world, being cold and inanimate, cared nothing for him. In return, he owed the indifferent world nothing. While he does end on a defiant note (we must stand against the uncaring world and take possession of it) this is definitely not a philosophy designed to infuse your spirit with joy.
Albert Camus’ emphasis on the individual left him with the feeling that “man in the world is absurd.” (Image: public domain)
Camus’ position arises from two sources: the human craving for meaning and the desire for individual immortality. In fact, he frames his entire argument from the perspective of the individual person. Nowhere does it occur to him that he might take a broader perspective, move to a higher level. When it comes to meaning and immortality, the concept of society (humans in organized groups) is not on the radar for Camus. There is only the wretched mortal individual and his pathetic lonely agony in a cruel world.
The way out of this suffering is not heroic fist-shaking defiance. A better solution lies in the concept of community. Only those who pledge their loyalty solely to themselves feel as Camus feels. Those loyal to a larger social unit, whether it is a race, a society, a civilization, an empire, or humanity in general, feel quite differently. For these people, meaning comes from being part of the social entity and participating in achieving the goals of that entity. They are part of something larger than themselves and derive comfort and succour from making their small contribution to the wellbeing, continuance, or advancement of that greater whole.
Nevertheless, what are we to make of death? How shall we think of individual mortality?
History has shown us countless times that individuals can accept death for themselves when they are defending something larger and more important than they are. These altruistic souls recognize that, while some may perish in the struggle, as a group they can preserve the larger social unit to which they have pledged their loyalty. We have only to accept the obvious truth that the human race is immortal (no blind faith required) and man in the world is no longer absurd. Individuals, instead of philosophically isolating themselves need only look to some larger social unit to acquire a sense of purpose and meaning in life. They have only to join with the larger social grouping to regard their contribution (especially their children) as something of themselves that will go on regardless of their own mortality. This does not eliminate the instinctual fear of death, but it does remove the dreadful feeling that death renders life absurd.
The cult of individuality, so highly valued in the West has not enriched our lives. In fact, it has devastated all of the Western nations. Our birthrates are so low we have no hope of surviving for more than a few generations. The selfishness engendered by overemphasizing the importance of the individual leads us into dead-end behaviours and worthless values based entirely on the “here for a good time, not for a long time” mentality. Extreme short-sightedness is the order of the day. Sneering citizens openly despise their own governments while demanding ever more entitlements. Our only compromise is the current obsession with charity work. Even here, the dominant motive is not a genuine concern for something or someone other than ourselves but a sick need for emotional highs and vain false persona enhancement. We say, I (heavy emphasis on “I”) feel so good working with these people. See how caring I am.
Individualism is a dish best served cold. In the West, individualism reveals our aversion to true warm-blooded passion. As Nietzsche knew, we prefer pity. We revel in all its forms: self-pity, pitying others, others pitying us. Yet pitying ourselves is puerile narcissism. We love to be victims. Attention, entitlements, and high status await anyone who can qualify. Pitying others is pleasurable condescension, Goethe’s “Pity to show and in the showing pleasure.” Wanting the pity of others is weakness and selfishness. We “need” grief counselling and trauma counselling. We cannot bear open-endedness; we must have closure.
The West trumpets its emphasis on the individual as its greatest strength and highest achievement. The sordid reality of extinction-level birthrates, worthless values, shabby morals, and rampant selfishness tells a very different story.
4 thoughts on “The Cult of the Individual”
Good post, Thomas. This is slightly off topic, but am I right in thinking that Camus wrote that truly dismal story ‘The Plague’ – I believe meant to be symbolic? It’s meant to kill all who catch it, but one person survives, I seem to remember, besides those who don’t catch it. The lover Simone de Beauvoir mentions by code as ‘C,’ I think. If so, let’s hope he had his jolly moments…
It has been a very long time since I read *The Plague,* but as I remember it, quarantined Oran (where Camus was from) is considered a metaphor for Vichy France, with the rats that bring on the plague being the invading Nazis and their local sympathizers who established the unoccupied but puppet state. The novel goes well beyond just political considerations, though, with Camus laying out his philosophy of heroically defying and battling against death even though we know the whole effort is absurd.
This is precisely the position I am arguing against in my post. I believe death is irrelevant if you recognize that human beings are a (potentially) immortal species and not just a gaggle of isolated mortal individuals. The species-as-entity view is clearly what nature ‘intended.’ No human being can survive alone.
Looking at death from the species perspective, we should scornfully turn our backs on the Grim Reaper and join together to move the race forward. Camus’ focus on battling death is a backward-looking waste of time.