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Topic: The Idea of Human Suffering in Albert Camus Existential Philosophy.


Human suffering is one of the major human problems that have become perennial in philosophy.
This perhaps is because we all at one point or another contend with some form of pains, be it
physical or emotional. There is virtually no one who would not have been bothered about the
question of why humans suffer. Innocent children in pains, people dying as a result of war, famine or
natural disasters, the pain we feel when we lose our loved ones or when we are sick, all are examples
of suffering. The Encarta dictionary defines suffering as

(a) pain ~ physical or psychological pain or distress or;

(b) a painful experience1.

It could thus be said that a state of suffering is a condition when one bears pain or distress one would
rather not happen and which we could eliminate in a twinkle of an eye. The New World
Encyclopedia describes it as ‘a negative basic feeling or emotion that involves a subjective character
of unpleasantness, aversion, harm, or threat of harm’ 2.It further distinguish between physical and
mental suffering based on whether the pain experienced is linked to feelings or emotions, where the
former is associated with the body and the latter with the mind respectively. Examples of physical
suffering as given by the New world encyclopedia are pain, illness, disability, hunger, poverty, and
death, while that of mental suffering are grief, hatred, frustration, heartbreak, guilt, humiliation,
anxiety, loneliness, and self-pity3.

Suffering does not only constitute a problem for those who believe in God only. Those who do not
believe in his existence also suffer some ill fate at some points or the other. Some atheists and
agnostics would not consider believing in God because they cannot see why those who believe in
him suffer without his help, or so it is assumed. And atheists have a very strong argument they
present for their position: that there cannot be a loving, all knowing and all powerful God, yet he
Microsoft® Encarta® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation.
Anon. Suffering, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Suffering. Accessed
on the 1/03/ 2011.

allows so much suffering and pains in the world. If we experience so much suffering then it either
means God does not exist, or he not all powerful or perhaps he derives pleasure in seeing people
suffer. In an attempt to respond to this situation, theists tend to argue that the existence of evil and
suffering in the world does not nullify the existence of God. They argue that these sufferings are
mostly unavoidable or morally justifiable, sometimes the price we pay for our sinful nature. And
when innocent people suffer, theists lean on the importance of faith in times of tribulations. This
attempt to justify God’s permitting evil and suffering is known as theodicy. But like we said earlier,
human suffering is not just a religious problem. It is a universal human problem. It only becomes
more complex when a believer is afflicted. This is because one who has faith in a God who is
omnipotent, all knowing and is infinite love cannot but wonder why he seems divinely impotent in
the face of tribulations. At this point what is been battled with is not just the question of the existence
of God but also a problem of human freedom. As C. S. Lewis put it, “From the moment a creature
becomes aware of God and of itself as self, the terrible alternative of choosing God or self for the
centre is opened to it”4. In as much as philosophers and non philosophers attempt to address the
problem, it has never been successfully and effectively solved. This is so despite thousands of
literatures that has been written on it over centuries. Among mainline religions of the world, human
suffering, its causes, and probable solutions have found major but different expressions. However,
there are points at which these religious views converge.

In the first chapter of this proposed research, this work will attempt a conceptual analysis of the
notion of human suffering. This shall involve an historical presentation of how different philosophers
have conceived it, types of suffering, and causes of suffering. We shall also look into how it is been
perceived in some religions; Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam.

The major concern of this work is to adopt the existential approach in contributing to the ever
evolving philosophical, religious, universal and enigmatic problem – human suffering. And in doing
this we shall be focusing on Albert Camus existential philosophy. The second chapter shall therefore
be an exposition of the existential movement to which Camus belongs. In the history of Western
philosophy, only Existentialism makes the subject of human freedom its central thesis. It is upon it
that any other consideration hangs. Existentialists conclude that human choice is absolute and
subjective. Humans must make their own choices without relying or being guided by external factors

C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain. San Francisco: Harper, 1996.pg 70
such as laws, ethical rules, religion or traditions. Because individuals are capable of making their
own choices, they are said to be free. In making these choices however, they are completely to be
held responsible for the consequences. Thus, this absolute freedom that humans are saddled with is
necessarily accompanied by responsibility. The existentialists’ conception of human freedom and
value arise from their view of individuals’ as concrete lonely beings. Since we are all ultimately
alone and isolated subjective beings in an objective world, we have absolute freedom over our
internal nature. Humans, the existentialists argue, should define themselves through the act of living.
This opinion gives birth to their popular thesis; ‘existence precedes essence’. A human first exist,
then he or she makes conscious efforts to define his or her essence. Without life there can be no
meaning; and the search for meaning in existentialism is the search for self. In other words, we define
ourselves by living.

Following this line of thought, Camus seem to be suggesting that in combating suffering, we should
be our own heroes and seek no support of the trancedentals or . He challenges us to continually fight
for life, even when we are not assured of victory. Camus refused to be tagged an existentialist, but his
theories of absurdity, meaninglessness and commitment identifies him as one. The third chapter of
this work shall discuss these theories extensively. Camus argues that the world we live in is absurd
and meaningless. Seeking an explanation or rationalization for this meaninglessness is itself an
absurdity. So rather than resign to fate or seek help from the trancedentals, humans should be
courageous. This view is expressed in his work; The Myth of Sysipus where the character involved
continues to assert his humanity despite the meaninglessness of his condition. Sisyphus kept
rebelling against his circumstance.

Camus position on the human condition and suffering seems to be a refined version of ‘Nietzsche’s
God is dead’, only with an extension of we need not seek his help; “since the order of the world is
shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our
might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heavens where He sits in silence?”. This can
be discovered in his work; The Plague, a novel that gives a literary expression of human suffering.
The novel tells a story of a small town slowly attacked by the bubonic plague. It started with the
town being infested with death rats and humans isolated themselves as if they were unconcerned.
Gradually, the plague started affecting humans and those who were unaffected continued to act in an
unconcerned manner. The town as a whole later became quarantined from the outside world, and the
people got trapped in an agony of watching themselves and their loved ones die in great pains and
agony. In this novel, Camus also emphasizes that collective human effort and solidarity help in
mitigating human suffering. This position at least finds a vivid expression in the earthquake and
tsunami situation the people of Japan recently find themselves. Here we have a story of a people
united in their grief, sorrow and loss.

The fourth chapter of this work shall attempt a critique of Camus philosophy on suffering. We shall
further attempt a reconciliation of Camus’ position with other views discussed in chapter one,
especially that of the Hindu and Buddhists. Hinduism for instance views suffering as an integral part
of human life and argues that there is no escape route from it except by way of liberation from the
cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Buddhism also holds the view that living encompasses suffering. So
as long as we live, we have to endure suffering. They also subscribe to the view that we exist in a
world characterized by impermanence. Suffering is however believed to be brought about by our
cravings and clinging to objects of the world which are impermanent in nature.

In conclusion, the essence of human solidarity and commitment in reducing the impact of suffering
as echoed in the philosophy of Camus shall be emphasized. The place of strong human bonds and
relationships either at the family, community, national or global level in the effort to ameliorate the
human condition cannot be overemphasized. The suggestion that we should have faith and learn to
accept the fact that evil and suffering is a part of the way things have been designed, suggests that we
should resign to suffering. Or why do we have to struggle against pain if we are aware that it was
born out of God’s love for us? Life is truly like a cycle of a long chain in which both beautiful and
ugly events often turn out to form an artistic work. The outcome of this art work however depends on
the attitude the main artist, the individual. This attitude is defined by the choices we make in the face
of the inevitable aspect of all human lives- suffering. Taking charge in suffering circumstances does
not necessarily amount to a rejection of the existence of God. Rather, submitting totally to the winds
of life in the name of religion or faith in the face of terrible human condition is a case of misplaced
priority. After all, in the face of the natural disaster just experienced in Japan, we heard little about
people praying only, even if they did. What we had is most people taking safety measures and
encouraging one another, the government organizing rescue teams, the international world showing
their solidarity by donating aids in terms of resources both human and financial. This work does not
suggest however that adopting Camus’ approach or any other for that matter guarantees happiness. It
only suggests that the struggle suggested by him could help in anticipating suffering since it is not

The Idea of Human Suffering.

Exixtentialism and Suffering

Camus on the notion of Absurdity and Commitment

Camus and the Idea of Human Suffering.

A critique of Camus on Suffering.