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In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus says that there are two methods of thought to conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions: those of La Palisse and Don Quixote:

Whether the earth or the sun revolves around the other is a matter of profound indifference. To tell the truth, it is a futile question. On the other hand, I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living (what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying). I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions. How to answer it? On all essential problems (I mean thereby those that run the risk of leading to death or those that intensify the passion of living) there are probably but two methods of thought: the method of La Palisse and the method of Don Quixote. Solely the balance between evidence and lyricism can allow us to achieve simultaneously emotion and lucidity.

I understand that he is trying to emphasize the boldfaced sentence. But, can someone elucidate who these people are and what their methods of thought are?

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    I think the main idea appears in the last sentence, see extended commentary in Novello, Albert Camus as Political Thinker, p. 51ff:"La Palisse represents the compelling, ‘mathematical’ evidence (MS, p. 230) of death and absurdity (MS, p. 222)... Don Quixote represents the lover who is only capable of seeing his own idea... Don Quixote is aware of his own short-sightedness; therefore, he is free from the fetishistic belief in the objectiveness of ‘blind‘ hope and of the ‘dialectique savante et classique‘ (MS, p. 222)".
    – Conifold
    Sep 15, 2021 at 5:07

2 Answers 2

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La Palisse was a French nobleman who is associated with jokes based on truisms. When he died his comrades famously made a song about it, saying "if he wasn't dead he would still be alive". To Camus he probably represents the cold application of logic, "evidence". "If life is not worth living, then we'd better die" is the kind of truism la Palisse was famous for.

On the other hand Don Quixote is a novel character who aspired to a life of knighthood, and fought monsters who existed only in his own imagination. The most famous episode being him charging at windmills he thought to be giants. Don Quixote had no quest, faced no peril, so he invented them. To Camus he represents people who invent their own meaning to life, sometimes to the point of absurdity. "Lyrism", or the ability to ascribe meaning in the meaningless. Like the people who persuade themselves a pizza shop is some kind of pedo-satanic parlor front to a world conspiracy, and find a goal to their life in "fighting" said conspiracy. Or, closer to home, people who find meaning in raising their children, forgetting that those lifes will be just as meaningless as their own, humanity being bound to disappear without a trace any way.

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  • Good on Quixote, but not on La Palisse. According to wikipedia, the nobleman was not famous for truisms in his life, but a satirical ballad popularized them long after his death, based on a comical misreading of the epitaph on his grave. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lapalissade Jul 3, 2023 at 13:47
  • @ScottForschler That's true, but his name is definitely associated with this type of humor. That's why Camus used him as a symbol. Whether he himself enjoyed what he is now known exclusively for does not matter much in the context of OP's question.
    – armand
    Jul 3, 2023 at 14:10
  • Great answer. I wonder though: your critique of Don Quixote seems like a direct attack on the point of view that I usually associate with Victor Frankl, who advocates inventing the meaning of life (e.g., in Man's search for meaning) and is often described as existentialist. Was Camus in any way aiming at existentialists in this passage (and in the book in general)?
    – Roger V.
    Jul 3, 2023 at 14:22
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    @RogerVadim I'm in no way a specialist of Camus, but my opinion is that Camus is looking for balance between the two (as per OP's quote). Camus thought that any meaning we find in life is invented by us, which makes him an existentialist. I think his problem with Don Quixote is that he is dupe of his own invention, he is not aware that the quest he gave himself is of his own making. So is the terrorist who crashes a plane into a building: he forgot that his made up cause do not give him the right to decide for others and that his death makes any effect he hopes to have on the world pointless.
    – armand
    Jul 4, 2023 at 0:06
  • @armand Camus rejected the existentialist label, and believed meaning in life is an illusion since existence is absurd. He rejected complicated intellectual theories for a visceral approach to life.
    – J D
    Jul 4, 2023 at 5:11
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“The balance between evidence and lyricism can allow us to simultaneously achieve emotion and lucidity” is the following line and is what contextualizes almost to the point of understanding the preceding sentence about which OP is asking for me.

It’s a great question because this sequence is so layered and dense but also the reference is quite obscure.

By way of analysis of at least one such layer: Even when I didn’t know anything about one of those two dudes he mentions, the emotion/lucidity got me to what felt like the gist. Because I knew that lyricism/ emotion was definitely referring to don quixote, I assumed the French police guy must have been a real stick in the mud or at least just a rigid rationalist. Turns out he was (perhaps erroneously) posthumously known for his sharp dad jokes (truisms) which, by the famous example, would fairly be considered to be dark. So Camus is saying, a bit critically of his predecessors and contemporaries, that the only two ways this topic has even indirectly been addressed are either too cold and logical or too detached from reality.

there are other meaningful insights to be derived from this dichotomy that will, surely, be expounded on in the pages to follow. Can’t wait!

The rock keeps a rollin’ all night long!

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