When Albert Camus wrote his classic essay The Myth of Sisyphus he was attempting to portray the banal absurdity of human existence by comparing it to eternally struggling to push a rock to the top of the hill complete in the knowledge that it would always roll back down before he could push it over. It is this ridiculous aspect of existence that is at the very heart of the philosophical school of thought known as existentialism. How ridiculous it might seem to an alien observer that we attach such importance to the daily events in our lives despite our full knowledge that we will die.
Of couse, there is also the hope of an afterlife. But what will form will that afterlife take? Eternal paradise or damnation? Or reincarnation? When you take the time to think about it, from our first moment of consciousness that our time here is borrowed to the our last breath, every single action we undertake is really nothing more than whistling past the graveyard, convincing ourselves that what we’re doing is important. Hope for an afterlife obviously is widespread and certainly must be considered a major motivating foractor for choosing to do good rather than ill in this world. Regardless, the simple fact is that every action you took today and will take tomorrow that doesn’t benefit your own self-interests is completely and utterly ridiculous.
No matter how deep your faith, no one can truthfully deny that there is absolutely no evidence of an afterlife. So then, why isn’t crime running rampant in the streets? What is it that makes people put the needs of others ahead of their own? Why do the overwhelming majority of us behave daily in such totally ridiculous ways when the one single certainty we have in life is that we are going to be here for a very short time and most of us will never get everything we really want simply by working hard and following the rules? Fedor Dostoevsky submits his answer to these questions in his short story “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.”
The short story is really just an extended monologue; a mode of expression at which nobody has ever been better than Dostoevsky. The monologue begins with an acknowledgment by the narrator that he has “always been ridiculous, and I have known it.” Clearly, he is comparing himself to other people, but there is also the suggesting that he is making a comparison between humanity and lesser species. As far as we know, man is the only species who knows his ultimate fate. That is what makes him so much more absurd than other animals. This knowledge of his own destruction is the key point in existential thought. Dostoevsky’s ridiculous man questions the validity of existence and the purpose and so is rude to people and angry. Then he proceeds even further away from absurdity toward a spiritual void.
The ridiculous man listens in on the conversation of some of his friends and comes to a realization that we’ve probably all experienced: they don’t even care about what they are arguing about. As continues to listen to them, he attunes himself to the fact that they are completely alienated from the topic they argue about; they are no longer capable of authentically feeling the emotions they profess to fee, it’s simply a pretense. Although Dostoevsky was writing in the 19th century, he may as well have written it last year. Alienation seems to be a conditional aspect of modern life. If contemporary man wasn’t alienated from so much, why would so much money be spent by so many people on entertainment that is nothing more than a simulation of reality? The story itself takes place during the period when the industrial revolution was in the process of dehumanizing society at an alarming pace, but it could well have been written now when technology is further distancing people from each other. The ridiculous man reaches a crisis point; he realizes and accepts that no evidence exists to suggest that life is worth living.
The ridiculous man slide into despair, utterly enthralled by his alienation. At this point, a young girl appears and begs him to help save the life of a stranger. His response is to send her away. After all, the person is going to die at some point, whether he intervenes or not. If not now, then later. He turns his back on humanity. As he continues his monologue, the ridiculous man says that he can experience pain and pity for his fellow humans. Even so, he remains steadfast in his refusal to intervene. At the moment of his deepest and darkest despaire, the ridiculous man does something even more ridiculous. He falls asleep and into a deep dream.
Or is a dream? Perhaps it is a vision. What is the difference? The ridiculous man believes it is a vision that mirros the Fall of Man. In his vision, the ridiculous man is presented with an eden free from shame or fighting or jealousy or evil. It is idyllic, a site where everyone is happy. But as with all utopias, a price must be paid. The ridiculous man momentarily considers keeping to himself the rest of the story, but realizes that it is rest of the vision that contains the real lesson of the vision.
It was the ridiculous man who was responsible for corrupting this new eden. How did he manage this feat, this ridiculous man, this ordinary human being? Clearly, he is not a fallen angel; a serpent in the garden looking to bring about the fall of perfection. And yet, he does exact that which the serpent did: he brings knowledge. After doing so, this new eden follows the course previously followed on earth: loss of innocence, sexual debauchery, competition, nationalism, war. But with the acquisition of knowledge comes such things as ethics and laws that creates a false sense of morality detached from the natural state in which man is born. Indeed, the savage being knows no laws, lives as an animal. But men are not animals, right? Men have created laws and rules and we follow them either through choice or coercion or force. Lacking knowledge, lacking ethics, these people were really nothing more than savages themselves, animals following instinct without thought or consciousness. The ridiculous man brings knowledge and corrupts them, but in doing so he also brings them humanity. And from this devastation of paradise, the ridiculous man is reborn. Not only is he reborn, he is in ecstasy. Why?
Why is knowledge forbidden? Why is the acquisition of knowledge the beginning of the downfall of both the biblical eden and the paradise the ridiculous man sees in his dream? What is so wrong with knowledge? As can be seen throughout history, knowledge has a duality about it. The same knowledge which can be utilized for good can also be utilized for evil. The same knowledge which can create power from the atom to generate electricity for thousands can also be harnessed to instantly obliterate millions. The ridiculous man comes to understand that knowledge is better than life. To merely exist as instinctual creature with no ability to reason or to choose is not life at all. Given the possibility of living in a paradise in which there is no choice but to do good, or living in a word in which you lead a good life because you choose to, the ridiculous man makes the choice that any existentialist would make. The ecstasy that the ridiculous man feels is the awakening of his consciousness, the awakening of his understanding of both the greatest and the most horrible truth of existence: morality is a choice devoid of anything mitigating circumstances.
What could be more ridiculous than to choose to lead a moral life when there is no guarantee of a payoff? Mimicking the Bible, the ridiculous man states “the chief thing is to love others like yourself, that’s the chief thing.” But what, really is to be gained by doing this? The ridiculous man fails to mention God or Jesus or an afterlife. In fact, he promises, “Suppose that this paradise will never come to pass (that I understand), yet I shall go on preaching it.”
And that is exactly the existential choice. The choice to be good, to be moral, to understand that morality is a choice. Up to this moment, the ridiculous man has been alienated and indifferent to the world around him. He has been indifferent because he has questioned the validity of expectations. Remember, from the beginning he has seen himself as ridiculous. He describes others as calling him ridiculous. He was educated and knowledge revealed his inability to understand. As he says, “the more I learned, the more thoroughly I understood that I was ridiculous.” A disconnect has always run through the ridiculous man. He has always been distanced from those around him and this is the mark of an existential hero. An existential hero must always be apart from those around him because there is always the nagging question about reality. It is not coincidental that the ridiculous man comes to understand because of a vision. His disconnect from what is deemed natural condemns him to a life of questioning what is tossed at him. What seems natural and normal and real must always be considered with suspicion to the existential hero and because of this he will forever be deemed ridiculous.
Why can he not just accept life and go on? Why are there so many who refuse to go along with plan; to take in the images consistently provided them and accept it as reality? Because for the ridiculous man, a person has to want to rise above the dream that we take for reality. It is far too easy to accept the lies and deceit that pass for reality. The ridiculous man saw things in a vision and he is deemed a madman because of it, but wasn’t his vision just a rewriting of the reality that billions of people have followed for centuries. Because it wasn’t introduced to him via the media we deem reality, he is suspect. But his vision captures perfectly the model of morality followed blindly by an entire religion. Knowledge is the key to happiness. The ridiculous man comes to this particular brand of knowledge and realizes that true happiness can be attained in this world only by choosing to be good. It is not enough to be an automaton, blindly following a set of rules that promise happiness, even eternal happiness. Ethics and morality are nothing if we don’t have the ability to choose to say no. (For a cinematic take on this idea, see Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange).
Morality is meaningless if one doesn’t also possess the chance to deny it. The ridiculous man is ridiculous, perhaps even mad, simply because he understands that the real key to happiness is knowledge. The knowledge that at any time, he can choose to forsake ethical laws and morality and he will still end up exactly in the same position as everybody else. The good man and the bad man will both meet the same end. Death is the ultimate equalizer and so far no proof has been offered that choosing to be bad is any worse than choosing to be good. It is absurd to suggest that morality is a necessary component of existence. It isn’t. One can be good, bad or even indifferent to all that goes on around them and they won’t be in any better or worse shape when it’s all over than anyone else. So why choose to be good? Why choose to live a moral life? It is ridiculous to do so. And yet is really the only choice any of us can make.