Fahim Khan Spinozism and Existentialism Albert Camus’ philosophy, as expressed in The Stranger and his essay “The

Myth of Sisyphus,” attempts an answer to what he referred to as a problem of absurdity present in existence. Absurdity means to Camus the existential angst that emerges between the human desire to find meaning in life through a moral teleology and the apparent morally-indifferent processes of nature. Camus’ idea of a hero is a person that can overcome this desire for meaning in order to appreciate life as it is. Mersault in The Stranger and Sisyphus of Greek myth are heroes in this regard, and that they can maintain their dignity in such horrible circumstances means that everyone else can too. Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, however, does not have any conclusion that answers the problems posed by existentialists. For Vladimir and Estragon to remain waiting for Godot can be expressed within Camus’ definition of absurdity because Godot is supposed to provide answers to the questions that the protagonists have, while at the same time it appears that Godot cannot provide any answers – Godot is analogous to the desire for teleological meaning that cannot exist. Now, Beckett wrote his play after Camus published his works, so the insistence of Vladimir and Estragon to wait for Godot shows that either they disagree with the course of action prescribed by Camus, or that such action does not lead to the dispelling of existential angst. The problem, finally, is not recognizing that life may not have any normative values but how to accept that conclusion. If the endings of The Stranger and Waiting for Godot are compared, Camus is much more

optimistic about humanity’s prospects at overcoming the feeling of absurdity than Beckett is. Within Camus’ idea of absurdity, there are underlying concerns with free will and morality which can be seen as mutually consequent from the views held by Benedict Spinoza, an Enlightenment ethicist that significantly influenced Camus’ thinking. Spinoza’s view of ethics denounces the accepted definition of good and evil as something like ontological descriptors – the two terms are instead only human inventions that arise out of a belief in a humanistic God. Spinoza held hard determinist views, thinking that

everything that occurs is logically necessitated, whether or not there is a predestined purpose to it all. Now, if there really has to be a purpose to life, it cannot be a moral purpose: if everything happens by necessity, then the idea that there is a humanistic God who does not let bad things happen to good people is self-defeating, because a person is not in control of what happens to them (they can exercise no actual moral agency). Since the traditional JudeoChristian view of morality requires one to be able to make either a good or bad choice, a world that is both moral in this sense and deterministic is contradictory. To redefine morality for it to be compatible with determinacy is to say that the good and bad of an event is simply the interpretation that a person has of it – for it to be good, the interpretation must coincide with God’s view of the situation. But such a perspectivist interpretation of morality is contradictory to traditional morality as well, because a moral God who is also all-powerful and all-knowing should design a world that is all-good in his perspective. If one insists that a God made this morally troubled world, and that he designed the world to perfectly reflect his perspective, this

perspective cannot possibly be a moral perspective, but a purely logical one. So, whether or not one believes in a God, if the world is accepted to be rational, there is no moral basis for existence. Apart from his rejection of morality, Spinoza’s other radical

philosophical stance is his rejection of the existence of free will. Free will, like morality, cannot exist in a deterministic world since everything is logically preempted. People will act as they are required to act by the machinations of the world. A person may believe that they control their actions, but this sense of control is only a fantasy, because Spinoza’s hard determinism is also monistic i.e. the world is only one substance – for this substance to be selfconsistent and rational, there can be no arbitrariness to its behavior. In other words, even thought (in the sense of being a causal agent) has to be consistent with the world, and the only way for it to be so is to be caused by an event in the world – so, no one can exercise their free will upon the world. The only vestige of the idea of free will that can remain is the attribution or perspective that one applies to their life. Spinoza believed that this is all that is necessary, because if people can come to understand the nature of the world and appreciate its irrepressibility, they will not feel guilt over things that they have no control over. This latter point holds applicability even in a “softer” brand of determinism that recognizes free will in the traditional sense, because a point of much existentialist writing is that there is very little control over the circumstances of the world. In the case of Mersault, examples of uncontrollable events include the death of Maman, his murder of the Arab, and his condemnation to death. As shown in his reaction to these events, Mersault’s odd sense of morality,

though appearing reprehensible, inhuman, strange to others, describes a distinctly Spinozan rationality. When Mersault recalls the newspaper article about the son who was clubbed to death by his sister and mother who did not recognize him (they commit suicide upon finding out), he comments that the event “was completely natural” and the son “pretty much deserved what he got [because] you should never play games” (80) since the mother and sister merely did what they thought was rational – everything was mere cause and effect. Furthermore, Mersault later states: “What would it matter if [the prison priest] were accused of murder and then executed because he didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral? Salamano’s dog was worth just as much as his wife. The little robot woman was just as guilty as the Parisian woman Masson married, or as Marie…” (121). Worth, guilt, and virtue (in crying) are moral designations that are meaningless in the absence of a moral God presiding over the events of life. People are incontrovertibly “caught up in the machinery” (109) that is the world and “we’re all elected by the same fate” (121) of death, whether that comes about from this or that sequence of necessary events. Therefore, Maman’s death is no tragedy, the Arab’s death is no tragedy, and even the guilty verdict for Mersault is predictable – for surely no rational person could be expected to acquit Mersault by his testimony that he killed “because of the sun” (103), since there is no reason to believe this claim. That the judge, prosecutor, and jurists declaring Mersault guilty may have been morally wrong is inanely irrelevant - “an ordinary man’s good qualities [i.e. rationality, righteousness] could become crushing accusations against a guilty man” (100). Such is the nature of the world – “familiar paths traced in summer skies could lead as easily to prison

as to the sleep of the innocent” (97). Nothing is good or evil by nature, so it should come as no surprise that a seemingly good thing leads to bad, and vice-versa. The world in The Stranger is, then, absolutely absurd in a moral sense but this moral perspective is what Mersault has to shed by the end of the story in order to find contentment (according to Spinoza, as long as he has moral rather than rational expectations, he will always be disappointed by the “bad” things that happen). Though Mersault is throughout the story seemingly amoral, the finality of his condemnation and his conversation with the priest causes Mersault to have a short crisis where he realizes that he has not fully embraced the Spinozan ethic. He speaks of “the whole absurd life I’d lived” (121) – by calling his life absurd, he is referring to its moral quality, not its “elegant” logical necessity that Spinoza believed people must accept to achieve a sense of peace. His outburst, however, “that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself—so like a brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again” (123). Mersault rids himself of hope, an irrational desire, to accept the amoral character of the world and his happiness reflects the Spinozan ideal of coming to appreciate the logically necessary (instead of the absurd). Camus’ reveals the mantra of his existentialist philosophy in this passage, and it echoes his interpretation of the moral of the Sisyphus myth – as long as one sees their particular predicament as something that should not happen he will remain continually unfulfilled and unhappy.

Beckett, as opposed to Camus, is far more pessimistic about the usefulness or tenability of rejecting absurdity because Waiting for Godot does not have a resolution in the same sense as The Stranger. Basically, Vladimir and Estragon just wait for Godot over two acts, and the dialogue mostly reveals how and why the two got to where they are. Some sections of the dialogue are significant criticisms of Camus’ philosophy. Unlike Camus, Beckett states that rationality cannot promise contentment: Estragon asks Vladimir, “Use your intelligence, can’t you?” and Vladimir responds, “I remain in the dark” (13). The two cannot make their angst intelligible; it is genuinely existential angst, not angst arising from a contradictory morality as Spinoza envisioned was the source of unhappiness in life. The world may be fundamentally amoral, and happiness can come from recognizing this, but it does not follow that happiness should or will follow. In fact, Estragon suggests to Vladimir, “We should turn resolutely towards Nature;” but, “We’ve tried that” (71). A Spinozist might respond, “Well, try harder,” but this does not answer the underlying critique. The view that happiness should be the goal of life is certainly a negotiable perspective, as there are many definitions of happiness. Spinoza’s or Camus’ definition of happiness refers to the contentment in accepting nature, but people can certainly have different tastes if they want to. To be sure, the ability to be happy by accepting nature is a privileged position, one that requires a predisposition (finding beauty in nature or rigid rationality). If someone does not have this predisposition, then they should not be forced to change their being without sufficient cause. It is true that the kinds of people who Camus considered heroes—those who escaped the feeling of absurdity—may be

more intelligent than those who cannot, but it is also true that Mersault is considered a “monster” (102) by many of those around him. The reason that they call him so is perhaps because they do not understand Mersault’s intentions, but Mersault also does not appreciate others. Mersault’s seeming flaws do not defeat Camus’ or Spinoza’s beliefs, but they reveal the serious sacrifices that have to be made. There is, as such, justification to waiting for Godot, even if he never arrives and “he does nothing” (106) anyways. What matters is not the futility of the action (the very term is meaningless in a deterministic world), but the perspective placed on the action. Seeing Spinozan ethics as finally a perspective rather than a solution makes the overall lack of plot development in Waiting for Godot more comprehendible. Vladimir and Estragon may never be totally happy with their condition, as a Spinozan might be, but they still affirm life because they wait for Godot, if the act is seen as the end in itself. To do so, the act must be seen as a consequence of Vladimir’s and Estragon’s worldviews, which is altogether more humanistic – such as it is expressed in the regular but discontinuous affection Vladimir and Estragon feel for each other. The waiting keeps the two distanced from the kind of life that others live, one governed by the mechanics of power. For example, Pozzo and Lucky have a clear master-slave connotation to their relationship, and if one ascribes to the philosophy of Nietzsche (or his influents Schopenhauer, Darwin, Hegel and, back again, to Spinoza), this dynamic playing out of “will to power” is a natural process. As such, it cannot be avoided – but should it be accepted? Because, it also seems natural to abhor the way that Lucky is treated, and the fact that the whole relationship could be allowed to exist in

the first place. True, the situation is uncontrollable and so Spinoza would say one has to learn to live with it – he, by no means, would say one should support the idea, since support/dissent are rational ideas, but finding the idea depressing would be a moral designation. Finding the idea depressing is the point though, even if the feeling will have no effect on the world. Just because morality is unsuited to describing a deterministic world, it does not follow that a person should not have a moral consciousness. An expression of how things should be can be an “absurd” statement, but it is also a description of one’s being as something that is against a particular idea. The notion of being is far more static than the notion of viewpoint, and since the “human condition” seems to contain suffering, acknowledgement of suffering is understanding what it is to be human, regardless of whether the feeling has any effect on the world – not acknowledging suffering makes one inhuman (in The Stranger, this

designation can be applied to Mersault as well as his condemners, since they don’t care about Mersault’s suffering). Says Vladimir: “The tiger bounds to the help of his congeners without the least reflection, or else he slinks away into the depths of the thickets. But that is not the question. What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come—“ (91). Moral consequences (such as those of the tiger’s actions) are meaningless, but moral understanding may define what humans are – Godot, being someone who can provide answers, represents a striving for moral understanding.

Camus and Beckett both proclaim, as Estragon often says, that there is “nothing to be done” (2). They differ however on how people should interpret this fundamental restriction. Camus names absurdity as the belief that people can effect their (moral) will upon the world, a belief that is consistently overturned by the world. To get away from absurdity, Camus embraces the rational, adopting the “will” of the world over our own. Beckett recognizes this direction of possibility, but does not follow it because part of our own being may be compromised. Contentment, according to Beckett, is not so worthy that it should define existence (baldly, this is what Spinoza and Camus believed), because existence can never really be changed – to be is to be mostly unhappy, and unfulfilled. The absurd hope of Godot’s arrival is not so much indicative of a belief in his arrival as it is a reminder of the existential questions he is supposed to answer.