This study was written by Fr. Seraphim as a sub-chapter in his book The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man, on which he was working at the time of his conversion to Orthodoxy in the early 1960's and which, unfortunately, was never finished. Although written 20 years ago, this in depth study rings true, for today we see only too clearly the disastrous effects of this philosophy of the absurd.
The philosophy of the absurd is, indeed, nothing original in itself; it is entirely negation, and its character is determined, absolutely and entirely, by that which it attempts to negate. The absurd could not even be conceived except in relation to something considered not to be absurd; the fact that the world fails to make sense could occur only to men who have once believed, and have good reason to believe, that it does make sense. Absurdism cannot be understood apart from its Christian origins.
Christianity is, supremely, coherence, for the Christian God has ordered everything in the universe, both with regard to everything else and with regard to Himself, Who is the beginning and end of all creation; and the Christian whose faith is genuine finds this divine coherence in every aspect of his life and thought. For the absurdist, everything falls apart, including his own philosophy, which can only be a short-lived phenomenon; for the Christian, everything holds together and is coherent, including those things which in themselves are incoherent. The incoherence of the absurd is, in the end, part of a larger coherence; if it were not, there would be little point in speaking of it at all.
The second of the initial difficulties in approaching the absurd concerns the precise manner of approach. It will not do-if we wish to understand it-to dismiss absurdism as mere error and self-contradiction; it is these, to be sure, but it is also much more. No competent thinker, surely, can be tempted to take seriously any absurdist claim to truth; no matter from which side one approaches it, absurdist philosophy is nothing but self-contradiction. To proclaim ultimate meaninglessness, one must believe that this phrase has a meaning, and thus one denies it in affirming it; to assert that "there is no truth", one must believe in the truth of this statement, and so again affirm what one denies. Absurdist philosophy, it is clear, is not to be taken seriously as philosophy; all its objective statements must be reinterpreted imaginatively, and often subjectively. Absurdism, in fact-as we shall see-is not a product of the intellect at all, but of the will.
The philosophy of the absurd, while implicit in a large number of contemporary works of art, is fortunately quite explicit-if we know how to interpret it-in the writings of Nietzsche; for his nihilism is precisely the root from which the tree of absurdity has grown. In Nietzsche we may read the philosophy of the absurd; in his older contemporary Dostoevsky we may see described the sinister implications which Nietzsche. blind to the Christian truth which is the only remedy for the absurd view of life. failed to see. In these two writers. living at the dividing point between two worlds, when the world of coherence based on Christian truth was being shattered and the world of the absurd based on its denial was coming into being. we may find almost everything there is of importance to know about the absurd.
Nietzsche, in the Will to Power, comments very succinctly on the meaning of nihilism:
To the absurdist, the doctrine is false. And that is one of the reasons why his universe is so strange: there is no hope in it, death is its highest god. Apologists for the absurd, like apologists for humanist stoicism, see nothing but "courage" in this view, the "courage" of men willing to live without the ultimate "consolation" of eternal life; and they look down on those who require the "reward" of Heaven to justify their conduct on earth. It is not necessary, so they think, to believe in Heaven and Hell in order to lead a "good life" in this world. and their argument is a persuasive one even to many who call themselves Christians and are yet quite ready to renounce eternal life for an "existential" view that believes only in the present moment.
If it is impossible not to sympathize with some at least of the artists of the absurd, seeing in them an agonized awareness and sincere depiction of a world that is trying to live without God, let us not for all that forget how thoroughly at one these artists are with the world they depict; let us not lose sight of the fact that their art is so successful in striking a responsive chord in many precisely because they share the errors, the blindness and ignorance, and the perverted will of the age whose emptiness they depict. To transcend the absurdity of the contemporary world requires, unfortunately, a great deal more than even the best intentions, the most agonized suffering, and the greatest artistic "genius". The way beyond the absurd lies in truth alone; and this is precisely what is lacking as much in the contemporary artist as in his world, it is what is actively rejected as definitely by the self-conscious absurdist as it is by those who live the absurd life without being aware of it.
it can only be chosen in the guise of a seeming good. If up to this point we have described the negative side of the philosophy of the absurd, its description of the disordered, disoriented world in which men find themselves today, it is time to turn to its positive side and discover in what it is that absurdists place their faith and hope.
All this, if it seems vague in contemporary absurdist art, is quite clear in the works of the original "prophets" of the age of absurdity, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. In them the revelation of absurdity has a corollary. "Dead are all the gods," says Nietzsche's Zarathustra: "now do we desire the Superman to live." And Nietzsche's madman says, of the murder of God: "Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become gods, merely to seem worthy of it?" Kirillov, in Dostoevsky's Possessed, knows that "if there is no God, then I am God."
extreme forms-their phenomenal success proves it-of what everyone else today actually believes: everyone; that is, who does not stand explicitly and absolutely with Christ and His Truth. For what is the meaning of the gigantic effort in which all nations have today joined to transform the face' of the earth and conquer the universe, to bring about an entirely new order of things wherein man's condition since his creation will be radically transformed and this earth, which since man's fall has been and can be nothing but a place of sorrow and tears, is to become, supposedly a place of happiness and joy, a veritable heaven on earth with the advent of a "new age"? What does this mean but that man, freed of the burden of a God in Whom he d01'!s not believe even when he professes Him with his lips, imagines himself to be God, master of his own destiny and creator of a "new earth", expressing his faith in a "new religion" of his own devising wherein humility gives way to pride, prayer to worldly knowledge, mastery of the passions to mastery of the world, fasting to abundance and satiety, tears of repentance to worldly joy.
Where will it all end? Nietzsche and the optimists of our day see the dawn of a new age, the beginning of "a higher history than any history hitherto". Communist doctrine affirms this; but the Communist reorganization of the world will, in the end, prove to be no more than the systematized absurdity of a perfectly efficient machine that has no ultimate purpose. Dostoevsky; who knew the true God, was more realistic. Kirillov, the maniacal counterpart of Zarathustra, had to kill himself to prove that he was God; Ivan Karamazov, who was tormented by the same ideas, ended in madness, as did Nietzsche himself; Shigalev (in The Possessed), who devised the first perfect social organization of mankind, found it necessary to deliver nine-tenths of mankind to absolute slavery so that one-tenth might enjoy absolute liberty-a plan that Nazi and Communist Supermen have put into practice. Madness, suicide, slavery, murder, and destruction are the ends of the presumptuous philosophy of the death of God and the advent of the Superman; and these are, indeed, prominent themes of absurdist art.
Many feel-with Ionesco-that only out of thorough exploration of the absurd condition in which man now finds himself, and of the new possibilities this has opened up for him, may a way be found beyond absurdity and nihilism into some new realm of coherence: this is the hope of absurdism and humanism, and it will become the hope of Communism when (and if) it enters its period of disillusionment. It is a false hope, but it is a hope that may, for all that, be fulfilled. For Satan is the ape of God, and once divine coherence has been shattered and men no longer hope for the absolute coherence God alone can give to human life, the counterfeit coherence that Satan is able to fabricate may come to seem quite attractive. It is no accident that in our own day serious attention is being given once more by responsible and sober Christians dissatisfied alike with facile optimism and facile pessimism, to a doctrine that, in Western Europe at least, was almost forgotten for centuries under the influence of the philosophy of enlightenment and progress. (Cf. Josef Pieper, The End of Time; Heinrich Schlier, Principalities and Powers in the New Testament; and before them, Cardinal Newman.) This is the doctrine, universally held by the Churches of the and West, of Antichrist, that strange figure who appears at the end of time as a humanitarian world-ruler and seems to turn creation upside-do~n by making darkness seem light, evil good, slavery freedom, chaos order; he is the. ultimate protagonist of the philosophy of the absurd, and the perfect embodiment of the mangod: for he will worship only himself, and will call himself God. This is no place, however, to do more than point out the existence of that doctrine, and to note its intimate connection with the Satanic incoherence of the philosophy of the absurd.
And the only remedy for absurdism lies at this, its source: we must again be Christians. Camus was quite right when he said, "We must choose between miracles and the absurd." For in this respect Christianity and absurd ism are equally opposed to Enlightenment rationalism and humanism, to the view that reality can be reduced to purely rational and human terms. We must indeed choose between the miraculous, the Christian view of things, whose center is God and whose end is the eternal Kingdom of Heaven, and the absurd, the Satanic view of things, whose center is the fallen self and whose end is Hell, in this life and in the life to come.'
We must again be Christians. It is futile, in fact it is precisely absurd, to speak of reforming society, of changing the path of history, of emerging into an age beyond absurdity, if we have not Christ in our hearts; and if we do have Christ in our hearts, nothing else matters.
It is of course possible that there may be an age beyond absurdity; it is more likely, perhaps-and Christians must always be prepared for this eventuality-that there will not be, and that the age of absurdity is indeed the last age. It may be that the final testimony Christians may be able to give in this age will be the ultimate testimony, the blood of their martyrdom.