What is "the Nietzschean criterion" in Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus"?




It seems there are but two philosophical solutions [regarding killing oneself], either yes or no. This would be too easy. But allowance must be made for those who, without concluding, continue questioning. Here I am only slightly indulging in irony: this is the majority. I notice also those who answer "no" as if they thought "yes." As a matter of fact, if I accept the Nietzschean criterion, they think "yes" in one way or the other. On the other hand, it often happens that those who commit suicide were assured of the meaning of life. [...]

I'm not sure what the Nietzschean criterion is, nor am I sure whether it's an accepted thing or merely something I would be familiar with if I were very familiar with Nietzsche.


Posted 2017-06-25T17:03:59.100

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The allusion to the expression "the Nietzschean criterion" is, I think, merely internal to the present text (The Myth of Sisyphus). It is not something we the readers are supposed to know if we read this expression without having read the previous pages in The Myth of Sisyphus. And its understanding does not even require a previous familiarity with Nietzsche.

So what does the expression "the Nietzschean criterion" allude to? Just a few pages before:

THERE is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy...

And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act.

This is, then, what Camus playfully called the "Nietzschean criterion": to practice what you preach. And in our case:

Here I am only slightly indulging in irony: this is the majority. I notice also that those who answer “no” act as if they thought “yes.” As a matter of fact, if I accept the Nietzschean criterion, they think “yes” in one way or another.

Or in other words, since the majority do not commit suicide, and supposing that they adhere to the "Nietzschean criterion", that is, authenticity, it follows that the majority believe that life is worth living. For otherwise, they would have committed suicide.

Ram Tobolski

Posted 2017-06-25T17:03:59.100

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3This. Short, elegant, referenced. Just as I like answers best. – Philip Klöcking – 2017-06-26T21:12:15.363


The question Camus is asking is whether life is worth living, which, he believes, is equivalent to the problem of suicide. For the equivalence, Camus establishes such auxiliary assumptions as living is absurd and man should act upon his belief. Camus says there are more than two immediate answers: Yes and No. A third possible answer, according to Camus, is, "Yes to mean in one way or the other." To explain how this third type answer is possible, Camus appeals to the Nietzschean criterion. So what is the criterion?

Nietzsche himself does not offer a criterion, thus we must infer the criterion from the work of Nietzsche. Nietzsche believes that there are two kinds of people: those who believe in God (or common pejorative-sense morality: cf "Nietzsche's Moral and Political Philosophy" in SEP) and supermen (Übermensch: human perfection). God is the guarantor of meaning for Christians. According to Nietzsche, those who believe in God think that life after death is the reality and thus has the true meaning. But they also believe that the life on earth also has meaning since it is the creation by the God.

By the Nietzschean criterion, thus, Camus must be meaning these two types of people: Christians and supermen. And by they, Camus must mean the Christians. Viewed in this light,

they think "yes" in one way or the other

should mean that Christians think that life (on earth) is worth living and life in after-life (heaven) is also worth living.

Appendix (Hopefully this appendix has some use value, unlike the one in human body whose only function is to blow up)

  1. A helpful block quote of Nietzsche's influence on Camus which relates to my answer. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/camus/#NupCamStaPoi

Camus is sometimes mistakenly called a “pagan” because he rejects Christianity as based on a hope for a life beyond this life. Hope is the error Camus wishes to avoid. Rejecting “the delusions of hope” (N, 74), Nuptials contains an evocation of an alternative. Camus relies for this line of thought on Nietzsche’s discussion of Pandora’s Box in Human, All Too Human: all the evils of humankind, including plagues and disease, have been let loose on the world by Zeus, but the remaining evil, hope, is kept hidden away in the box and treasured. But why, we may ask, is hope an evil? Nietzsche explains that humans have come to see hope as their greatest good, while Zeus, knowing better, has meant it as the greatest source of trouble. It is, after all, the reason why humans let themselves be tormented—because they anticipate an ultimate reward (Nietzsche 1878/1996, 58). For Camus, following this reading of Nietzsche closely, the conventional solution is in fact the problem: hope is disastrous for humans inasmuch as it leads them to minimize the value of this life except as preparation for a life beyond.

  1. With the superman idea, according to the following SEP article, what Nietzsche has in mind is to understand what kind of life is a well-lived life. To Nietzsche, of course, the life of the superman, not that of a Christian. Why? Some key concepts to answer the question are power, perfection and eternal recurrence. The author of the article, however, concludes that there is no shared answer on this point. The author, for instance, considers the following two proposals, and rejects them: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche-moral-political/

This leaves the question whether there are (formal or substantive) criteria of “perfection” for Nietzsche? Many writers (e.g., Hurka 2007; Nehamas 1985; Richardson 1996) are attracted to the idea that “style” or “unity” is a criterion of excellence or perfection for Nietzsche, and, indeed, as noted above, the pursuit of a unified or coherent life project is a characteristic feature of those Nietzsche deems to be higher men. Whether such style or coherence suffices is a vexed interpretive question, since it is not entirely clear that the formal criterion of style or unity is available only to Goethes and Beethovens: did not Kant, that “catastrophic spider” as Nietzsche unflatteringly calls him (A 11), exhibit an extraordinarily coherent style of creative productivity over many years?

Others (e.g., Magnus 1978) take Nietzsche's idea of eternal recurrence (the hallmark of life-affirmation, as noted above) as the criterion of a well-lived life: perfection is a matter of living in such a way that one is ready to gladly will the repetition of one's life, in all its particulars, in to eternity. This, too, seems both too thin and too severe as a criterion of perfection standing alone: too thin, because anyone suitably superficial and complacent might will the eternal return; too severe, because it seems to require that a post-Holocaust Goethe gladly will the repetition of the Holocaust.

Nanhee Byrnes PhD

Posted 2017-06-25T17:03:59.100

Reputation: 3 550

1A quote or passage from N himself would go a long way here – Joseph Weissman – 2017-06-26T12:37:26.187

2Camus coined the term Nietzschean criterion, i.e., a view that is borrowed from Nietzsche's philosophy: so no direct quote, but only interpretation. – Nanhee Byrnes PhD – 2017-06-26T14:19:12.197

1I think it is crucial to show how this can be argued in Nietzsches own words, especially as I think that some things are not to the point here: Nietzsche's overarching theme here is that of transcendence, where Christians have to be limited and 'all too human' since God is the only instance of transcendence, whereas the Übermensch is the embodiment of transcendence of the human. Übermensch therefore is not! human perfection, but superior to humanity and beyond it, something totally different. You are inviting idealistic readings he strongly rejected (e.g. in Ecce homo). – Philip Klöcking – 2017-06-26T14:31:34.120

2The context of my answer is how Camus is interpreting Nietzsche, and thus a criterion of demarcating people that Camus believes that Nietzsche will not disagree with. How to interpret Ubermensch is beside the point to answer the Camus passage. I indicated it by human perfection for the reason that Nietzsche is categorized as a perfectionist that only a few genius can achieve the level of perfection Nietzsche has in mind. 'Transcendence' is a suspicious concept among philosophers in the US. – Nanhee Byrnes PhD – 2017-06-26T15:09:23.793

2That's not the point. You make statements about Camus that are not referenced in Camus and about Nietzsche that are - as they stand - in neither Camus nor Nietzsche. And not referenced. It is a narrative that imho is simply wrong. Not only the mentioned part, also the third way of Camus is explicitely "without concluding, continue questioning" (what the majority in fact is doing, according to Camus). I think the 'they' in the bold part in question includes both them and the group that "anwer[s] 'no' as if they thought 'yes' ", as both groups act that way (live on). See answer of @RamTobolski – Philip Klöcking – 2017-06-26T21:26:05.707

2I apologise for any personal offence, this had never been intended. It is rather that arguments from authority are ill-suited for StackExchange, especially when dealing with controversial matters. Comments are in fact not to attack anybody, but to improve the answer. And I still fail to see the link between answer and specific question/textbit. Even with SEP quoted. It is not shown that this is the Nietzschean criterion in question, but that Camus considered these ideas of Nietzsche (as well). Camus' text itself gives no such indication. But it includes a criterion linked to Nietzsche by him – Philip Klöcking – 2017-06-27T15:55:53.307