I run through the woods like a wolf. Pulled fast on feet that barely touch the ground and with the hungry eagerness of a predator chasing prey. The wind cools my sweat soaked skin and the slow, dull ache of overused muscles pushes again to the front of my mind. I stop amid the emerald green path of moss and dirt and work to catch my breath. There is a heat in my lungs that cools at every deep breath I can take. The million chorused voice of bird songs start to sing in the wind, with the great pines, stretched like spears towards a blinding sun, groaning like old men. The fragrance of heated pine needles overwhelms the air and it is in that moment I am taken by the beauty of it all and how magical it is that I can experience it in such a powerfully sensual way. With everything of my body and mind tied to this little stretch of forest and time where I take my runs, I feel alive and happy and full of purpose and meaning.
And in that wildly sensual experience lies the doorway of the philosophical escape route proposed by absurdist and existentialist philosopher Albert Camus when he came face to face with the meaninglessness of existence and our absurd attempt to give it such. But before we get to the meaning of his philosophy, let’s get to know our buddy Al.
Who Was Albert Camus?
Basically, at the very bottom of life, which seduces us all, there is only absurdity, and more absurdity. And maybe that’s what gives us our joy for living, because the only thing that can defeat absurdity is lucidity. – Camus
If any philosopher was ever going to be featured in People’s Sexiest Man Alive issue, it would have been Albert Camus. I mean, this was a darkly handsome, motorcycle riding, chain smoking, slick backed hair wearing, freedom fighting, slab of masculinity. But beyond just a pretty face, Albert Camus was an important, if controversial, personage in the world of philosophy and the development of Existentialism. All despite his insistence that he was a neither a philosopher or an existentialist.
Albert Camus proposed an absurdist view of the world in his philosophy. He presented a world view that stripped all meaning from life and had man in the position of trying to give meaning to things that had none. His philosophy is no better illustrated than in his most famous work, The Myth of Sisyphus. Here Camus presents the ancient hero Sisyphus engaged in his fruitless and absurd punishment of pushing the boulder up the hill only to have it roll down again.
The action of Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill has no meaning because it will simply come tumbling down again. And for Camus, all human activity amounted to as much. Sandcastles washed away in the waves of life.
But he did not end there. Camus did not leave us out in the nihilistic playground where life just fades to grey and we are left with no reason to pursue anything. No. He had one parting resolution to this otherwise nihilistic philosophy. We must imagine Sisyphus happy. And how do we do that? We do that by appreciating the sensual aspects of his punishment and the meaning that it gives to the otherwise meaningless experience of pushing our boulders up the hill.
What is Sensual?
I can guess that the first thought that comes to mind for most people when they hear the word sensual is that of the sexual but that is only one small element of the sensual as it relates to philosophy. The dictionary definition of sensual is; “of or arousing gratification of the senses.” But if we know anything, we know that dictionary definitions be damned with philosophers and we are going to have to provide some nuance and qualification to this definition.
The sensuality of Camus’ philosophy does apply to an “arousing gratification of the senses”, but sexual sensuality is only a part of it. Camus also incorporates the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings of everyday experiences that seem to pass us by as we are laboring to give meaning to the meaningless. The sensuality spoken of by Camus is one of sensory presence – a “nowness” as he calls it. That “nowness” is the most important connection we have to the world, as it is the only thing that all our senses can be directed towards collaboratively. Every “now” is the greatest opportunity to entirely engage in the physical experience of living. We don’t look back and try to give meaning to events, and we don’t look forward to try to cast meaning to future events not yet here. We remain “now” and with all of our senses open to the cacophony of sensual experience that swirls around us in every moment.
Now, I would like to say here that Camus’ was not the first philosopher to put forth the idea that the highest good of life should be that we look to enjoy the sensual pleasures of living. The philosophical concept of hedonism – the ethical value of sensual pleasure as a highest good – has existed for a long time.
The Cyernaics were a philosophical school founded in the 4th Century BCE by a Greek philosopher named Aristippus. Aristippus was a follower of Socrates and he is traditionally given credit with the original ethical idea of pleasure as the highest good.
Cyernaisim focused on the idea of not deferring any pleasures and giving no thought to future consequences of the pursuit of pleasure in the moment. The greatest good was to pursue immediate pleasures, and those of the body took precedence. Bodily pleasures took precedence over mental pleasures because the Cyernaics held to a skeptical epistemological position regarding what we could know of anything outside the senses. They believed that the only thing we could know for certain was the sensual experiences of living; and those things manifested in the body, were felt in the body, and gave rise to passions of the body.
The use of the word Epicurean today is largely unrepresentative of the spirit of the original idea. It has come to mean refined tastes for elegant and decadent things but that is far from the truth of this philosophical school founded in 3rd Century BCE by Epicurus.
Epicureanism calls for us to esteem, above all things, the simple pleasures of life and to cultivate a tranquility of spirit through the pursuit and enjoyment of those simple pleasures. A quiet, simple dinner with family. A warm bath. A long conversation with a missed friend. Reading a good book. Watching a sunset.
This is a very different sort of hedonism than that presented by the Cyernaics, but it is another philosophy that sees in life, the importance of sensual experience as the highest ethical pursuit.
How Camus Differs
I bring up these two philosophies, and could bring up many others that supply some variation on the “hedonistic” ethical position, because I want to distinguish them from Camus. Because there is something more to Camuss’ exit from absurdity.
Camus’ delight in the natural world, and the experiences there, are not nearly as so extravagant as those espoused in Cyrenaism and not nearly as asture as those espoused in Epicureanism. What Camus’ was proposing was a middle ground between these two philosophies. Not explicitly proposing, but he did land there in his attempt to provide a shred of meaning to a meaningless world.
I will not deny that there is a bit of Cyrenaism and Epicureanism mixed in with the ideas Camus’ proposes but the most important aspect of his philosophy – the idea of the Absurd – is lacking. Because of that lack, the ethical purpose of sensual pleasure seeking in Camus’ philosophy is done for a different purpose than most other hedonistic philosophical ideas.
As the world lacks meaning, and we are made absurd in it by trying to give it meaning, we gain peace from that absurdity by retreating to the safe haven and obvious potency of our sensual perceptions and we gain freedom by refusing to give meaning to the meaningless.
Delighting In The Sensual
The world does not have to have meaning to be beautiful and worthwhile. The natural world, while random and untameable and lacking any inherent meaning, is also fascinating and exciting, and to be able to experience the sensuality of it can be a source of constant joy and gratitude.
There needn’t be a why on the cool wind that runs over your sweat soaked skin on a hot day. There does not have to be any deeper explanation behind the swishing silk sound of skin against skin created by a naked embrace with another. No one need question the purpose of a child’s laugh, or the sound of rain, or the smell of fresh cut grass on those first spring days, to be able to enjoy them.
These things, and a million other sensual experiences, need no explanations if we choose to embrace them fully in the moment of their being. It is the goal then to immerse ourselves in the visceral, sensual, immediate pleasures of the natural phenomenon around us as much as possible. In that lies your salvation from absurdity.
This includes people. Exploring with sincere curiosity and sensual intent the being of another person is a magical way to find in them the little pieces of experience that make them more than another meaningless construct of consciousness bouncing around this big rock. In that person is a host of possibilities for mutual enjoyment, pleasure, meaning, and happiness. The same as in you, but we need to see in them, and offer up to them, all the sensual pleasures we can create.
It is necessary to fall in love… if only to provide an alibi for all the random despair you are going to feel anyway. – Camus
That’s what love is, after all. It is when two people offer each other mutually magnificent and significant sensual experiences. When two people come together who know how to offer the right level of nearly all sensual pleasures to a another person it spawns love.
The right level of speech through respect and interest. The right level of arousal through the visual physicality and through deeper physical touching. The right level of fragrance that solidifies the memory of them in the mind and offers the strongest reminders when they are away. Even the right level of taste, the flavor of kisses and of their “themness”.
When all of these things come together to the right degree, we fall in love. Through that shared sensuality that allows us the only real opportunity for meaning or purpose in the world. That is why love feels so powerful. Because we find someone who shares our sensual version of the world. The only version that gives meaning to our lives.
The Meaning Of Life For Camus
You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life. – Camus
The meaning of life then for Camus’ is to return consistently to the ever present unfolding of experiences in all of our senses and to delight in their abundance and possibility. The mere fact that we are alive to experience such a thing as this world is a mysterious magic in itself, and that we were blessed with such beautiful modes of perception to experience it all is a great gift.
So, day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute, we draw ourselves back to this experience of living. To the fresh cut smell of grass and the finger tap rhythm of rain. To the breath stealing warmth of a lover’s kiss and the new life smell of an infant. A million opportunities for meaning made of the sensual. Meaning derived from the sheer experience of it.
Go outside right now – I don’t care where you are -and your senses will explode. Sure, some of it will be undesirable. The smell of car exhaust. A screeching siren. An cacophony of voices. But that it is possible for you to feel at all, through your sensual experience, is the magic and meaning of life. That is the life for Camus’. That he is an experiencer of it. Of whatever random, meaningless, stretch of time this is, it is made magnificent and worthwhile because we can experience it now. Here. In this very moment. It is ours and it is everything and it means the world to us.