Handout on Thomas Nagel, "The Absurd," and Plato, Apology: Defense of Socrates.
I. In his essay, "The Absurd," Nagel offers several definitions of ‘absurd.’ [Note that it is important to make clear how you understand the terms and crucial words you deploy in an essay; being the masterful writer he is, Nagel does this. He does not always draw your attention to the fact that he is clarifying or defining concepts; you are supposed to realize this by yourself. For his definitions to be good, it should be the case that you can see what he means. You should, then, be able to say whether you agree or disagree and why. Also, the several definitions or clarifications of ‘absurd,’ which Nagel offers, overlap: he does not simply abandon one definition to move on to the next one; he has good reasons, which the careful reader should be able to grasp, for moving from one definition to the next, and in the process he retains some of the elements of his earlier definitions while he abandons or qualifies others. This is a good example of how you should think about, and write papers on, challenging topics.]
1. Here are some of Nagel’s definitions: a. "In ordinary life a situation is absurd when it includes a conspicuous discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality."
Is it important that this is supposed to apply to ‘ordinary life?’
What examples does he use to illustrate this definition?
On the basis of this definition, what would it take for us to rid ourselves of the absurd? [Note: would we be ridding ourselves of the absurd or just of thinking about how absurd life is?]
What do you think of this definition, and why?
Is Nagel satisfied with this definition? Why or why not?
b. The absurd ‘results’ from a "collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt."
In what respect is this definition different from the previous one? What would it take to get rid of the absurd on the basis of this definition? Would this be possible?
What assumption is Nagel making about the sources of ‘meaning’ – how does "meaning" emerge in the whole universe?
Furthermore, what does Nagel say about the ways in which human beings are able to survey and reflect on their lives?
c. "We see ourselves from outside and all the contingency and specificity of our aims become clear. Yet when we take this view and recognize what we do as arbitrary, it does not disengage us from life, and there lies our absurdity."
What does Nagel mean by this? Has he moved on, in certain respects, from the second definition above? How?
Under this definition, is there any way for avoiding the conclusion that life is absurd. Why or why not? If yes, at what cost can we ‘forget’ about life’s absurdity?
d. On page 24, section IV, paragraph 2, Nagel moves to a more subtle point: When we take a "backward" step, so we can examine our lives from a higher vantage point, we still don’t land on any given objective standards, he claims.
[Do you agree? State your reasons.]
The absurd, then, might result from our realization that we can justify our standards ultimately by reference to themselves.
Recall here the points made by Nagel in the beginning of the essay, about chains of justification – how we seek to justify our actions by reference to needs and desires, which also need justification themselves; where, how, and for what reason can we ever come to an end?
2. Nagel disagrees with Albert Camus over how human beings ought to react to this specter of absurdity hovering over human existence. Do you understand what this disagreement consists in?
3. What is the proper reaction to the realization that life is absurd, according to Nagel? Do you agree or disagree and why?
4. i. Non-feasible solutions to the problem of the absurd are:
a) never to attain consciousness; b) to be able to forget instantly. These conditions would constitute grave mental impairment; would anyone opt for them for the benefit of avoiding the realization that life is absurd?
Notice that the other extreme – being constantly reasoning about everything and being totally unable to forget or ‘let go’ – is a kind of madness.
ii. Possible solutions include:
a) identification with the whole universe or a ‘universal’ cause – at least, a cause one takes to be universal;
b) pursue life instinctively, at the cost of under-developing one’s mind.
Why can’t we say that life is not absurd, after all, since such solutions – and perhaps others – seem to be available?
I. In Plato’s Defense of Socrates, we find Socrates trying to justify his life in front of a truly democratic jury – composed of 501 jurors!
Socrates’ life was the philosophic life: he lived in order to be able to philosophize. Socrates spent all his time asking questions about things people take for granted, perpetually trying to shed light on our ordinary concepts, hoping to discern the whole universal design behind the world of everyday appearances.
Socrates says that this endeavor – philosophizing – is more important, more valuable than life itself. Life without philosophy would not be worth living.
Why, then, should Socrates cling to a life that is without philosophy – without discussion, without opportunities for asking questions, without hope of ever pursuing the discovery of truth?
No wonder that Socrates will not plead to have his life spared if the condition is that he go away from Athens to a place where he cannot expect to find anyone to have a conversation with.
Bring Socrates – or Plato – and Nagel face to face. How would they address each other? Would they agree about the ‘absurd,’ about what ‘causes’ absurdity, or about how to live one’s life unencumbered from this paralyzing notion of the ‘absurd?’
Socrates and Plato do not seem to have a clue about what the ‘absurd’ is all about. Their language did not even have the word ‘absurd’ – though it did have words for 'logically absurd or preposterous,' ‘eerie,’ ‘incomprehensible,’ ‘nonsensical,’ delusional,’ ‘unjustifiable,’ or ‘futile.’
Plato, and Socrates, were extremely intelligent and had deep minds. How is it possible that they did not recognize this most fundamental condition of our lives – the absurd? [I am not looking for a historical answer, of course.]
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Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
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