For context, this is the paragraph:

I come at last to death and to the attitude we have toward it. On this point, everything has been said and it is only proper to avoid pathos. Yet one will never be sufficiently surprised that everyone lives as if no one "knew." This is because in reality there is no experience of death. Properly speaking, nothing has been experienced but what has been lived and made conscious. Here, it is barely possible to speak of the experience of others' deaths. It is a substitute, an illusion, and it never quite convinces Us. That melancholy convention cannot be persuasive. The horror comes in reality from the mathematical aspect of the event. If time frightens us, this is because it works out the problem and the solution comes afterwards. All the pretty speeches about the soul will have their contrary convincingly proved, at least for a time. From this inert body on which a slap makes no mark, the soul has disappeared. This elementary and definitive aspect of the adventure constitutes an absurd feeling. Under the fatal lighting of that destiny, its uselessness becomes evident. No code of ethics and no effort are justifiable in the face of the cruel mathematics that commands our condition.

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    It seems that the author is alluding to "the experince of others' deaths" as a substitute of the real experience of death, that is impossible. Aug 27 at 16:54
  • There are two issues. First, what is the "melancholy convention"? and Second, if it could be persuasive, what would it persuade us of? I think the answer to the first question is the idea that speaking of the death of others is speaking about death. It seems to me that the answer to the second is that we might be persuaded that we understand death.
    – Ludwig V
    Aug 27 at 20:39

3 Answers 3


I am put in mind of 'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living'. Or

"Do not stand at my grave and cry; I am not there. I did not die."

-Mary Elizabeth Frye


"That is no country for old men. The young In one another's arms, birds in the trees, —Those dying generations—at their song, The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas, Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long Whatever is begotten, born, and dies."

-Sailing to Byzantium, Yeats

This insight is a kind of trope. Death is not part of life. It is incomprehensible. And as Ernest Becker noted, building on Kierkegaard among others, we practice The Denial of Death.

Because to face it is like this: If everything ends one day why don't we end it today? Which is exactly Camus' point. As an individual, there can be no rational answer. We reach as much by intuition and impulse as reason, for the transpersonal, the transcendental, as though it can salvage that fundamental conundrum. It can salvage meaning for that transpersonal result, the maintenance or furthering of that transcendental theme; but for us ourselves, we are pushing a boulder endlessly up a hill, and it cannot matter to us except exactly as much as we decide in our local mortal way that it mattered, and that mattering to ourself, will inevitably be swept away with our disintegration.

It has been a common theme in wisdom literature and religion to say, well this other kind of self is more real, something persists, or transmigrates. Camus is taking the other tack, and recognising that cannot matter to the thing that ends, and that is the thing that we feel we are, the self we act on the behalf of in how we live ordinarily.

"Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises."

-from Ecclesiastes 1-12

This book of the Bible takes the contradiction head on, and points towards "I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works" in a way strikingly similar to Camus of Sisyphus, and talks of simple pleasures in life, harmony with the seasons and opposing oppression. Theologists do a little dance about the repeated phrase 'under the Sun', saying above the mundane world are the transcendental themes. But the message for our mundane finite self muddling through down here is actually the same. The transcendental cannot cure you of the agony of recognising the vain contradiction of thinking reason or outcomes can give our life meaning. It must come from within our life, and it won't be rational (it lists knowledge, wealth, & pleasure as possible justifications for a life, & dismisses them for humbler things).

When we recognise the contradiction in our pursuit of meaning for our life outside our life, we are forced to see a meaningful life to ourself, as more like an artwork than a rational endeavour. Ultimately even the most constrained life, of Sisyphus, can be reunderstood and related to differently, not as a failure to achieve grand aims, but as choosing even without reason, to be happy. Even with the worst materials, we have this much freedom to shape them. This is the liberation of giving up the contradiction embodied in our feeling that ignoring death makes the mathematics of it's inevitable approach any less real or final.

"The meaning and purpose of dancing, is the dance."

-Alan Watts

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    Watts was my first exposure to philosophy of any sort. He's que relatable.
    – J D
    Sep 26 at 23:51

In The Myth of Sisypus, Albert Camus speaks to how life is fundamentally absurd. Absurdism, which posits there is no grand narrative in life despite our internal use of reason and narrative to understand the world, is a philosophy that deals with coping with life and death. You ask after the following:

Yet one will never be sufficiently surprised that everyone lives as if no one "knew." This is because in reality there is no experience of death. Properly speaking, nothing has been experienced but what has been lived and made conscious. Here, it is barely possible to speak of the experience of others' deaths. It is a substitute, an illusion, and it never quite convinces Us. That melancholy convention cannot be persuasive.

"Melancholy convention" literally means "a sad consensus on practice on how to do things". Camus is saying we should be surprised that people lived as if they know death, when they have no introspective experience of death, and instead of first person experience, they rely on third-person arguments by habit and tradition. He demands us to reject those habits and that tradition, because that third-person narrative becomes the foundation of the grander narratives we build to cope with our lack of first-person knowledge about death. And accordingly, to accept those narratives uncritically amounts to what Camus calls philosophical suicide.

Think about the Christian story, as an example. It's a narrative, and one about dying. It is one that many children are forcefully taught, one which is used to condition the young into a perspective on life and death. And if one accepts (or rejects) the Christian narrative of life and death uncritically, then one is committing philosophical suicide because one is accepting the common thread of these narratives, that we can know death and by knowing escape it. It is an existential longing to escape death. But in the section Philosophical Suicide, Camus says:

[T]o limit myself to existential philosophies, I see all of them without exception suggest escape... That forced hope is religious in all of them.

But it is religious tradition that Camus rebels against in this work. His essay is an appeal to recognize the absurdity of trying to cope with death by these sorts of narratives and personal truths. Just prior he says:

[A] man is always prey to his truths. Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them. One has to pay something. A man who has become conscious of the absurd is forever bound to it.

So absurdism results and demands an escape from rather simple convention and habit about pretending we know death, when knowing and learning from death as a conscious experience isn't even possible.

  • Newniz Leibton. Any relation to Leibniz Newton? ; )
    – J D
    Aug 27 at 18:31
  • And if you hadn't caught it, Camus rejects the label of existentialism because he rejects the method of existentialism which claims that one can invent one's meaning. Being absurdist simply recognizes that attempt to write one's own narrative are an exercise in vanity.
    – J D
    Aug 27 at 18:33
  • Here I have a query regarding his reasoning: If "melancholy convention" is to be rejected, what about just abject grief one feels after a loss - how must that be shaken off. It is, in my position, not the death of an individual that bothers those around them but rather their perennial absence. Also, how is then logical suicide (committed by the likes of Kirilov) different from the philosophical suicide Camus is pressing on here? Aug 27 at 19:37

He's just re-capitulating what he just said. The "melancholy convention" is to speak of death as though it were something we knew anything about. In fact, we know nothing, and can no nothing (he claims). It doesn't persuade, because deep down we know it to be a lie.

Given Camus' religious sensibilities, he is likely thinking specifically about pieties about the afterlife, but this statement has force against anything we say about death that isn't primarily about how the living react to death.

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