Positive Living Newsletter

Camus and Amery: Titans Diverging on the One Truly Serious Problem

Frances Grace Hart, B.A.
Research Assistant, McLean Hospital

In line with one scientist’s predictions, the 20th century saw man-made horrors beyond comprehension (Holdsworth, 1947, p. 125). In light of these horrors, two prominent thinkers of the 20th century were led to remarkably disparate conclusions. For Austrian essayist Jean Amery (1912-1978): a rejection of the “logic of life” that insists we must go on despite it all. For French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960): a resolve to live in spite of everything. Considered together, their writings provide an exploration of the extremes in how one might decide whether “to be or not to be.”

Although still a much-appreciated and distinguished thinker in his own right, Amery does not enjoy the same acclaim as his absurdist contemporary. Perhaps some readers found his writings a bit mood-dampening. In his work On Suicide (1976), Amery reflects that people often tell those faced with hardship that, “In the long run, you’ve got to live.” Amery argues that most ideologies, religions, societies, and people believe that life is the highest good of all, and therefore must be sustained at all costs. He terms this way of thinking “the logic of life.” Amery does not agree with this logic, and believes that this disagreement is the source of suicidal desire. Beyond losing or rejecting the logic of life, voluntary death is, in the view of Amery, a reasonable conclusion to draw from the tortuous nature of reality and the inevitably of death. To illustrate his point, Amery tells the story of a convict who took his life before his scheduled execution–“isn’t it better to beat the blade that guillotines us all to the punch?” (1976). Although Amery does not encourage suicide, he does view voluntary death as an act of affirming one’s dignity, freedom, and self-determination in defiance of inevitable suffering and annihilation. Referencing Freud’s own opting for euthanasia while dying of oral cancer, Amery provides a powerful anecdote of even the father of psychotherapists–who are often the loudest opposers of suicide–rejecting the logic of life under certain conditions. This invites the reader to consider if suicide might be rational in some contexts. If so, then the argument necessarily becomes about “where to draw the line” rather than the rationality (and by extension according to general consensus, permissibility) of the act at all. This perspective undoubtedly contributed to Amery ultimately dying by suicide himself in 1978. His life and body of work stand in sharp contrast to those of Camus,* which present a way of thinking that appears to be more attractive to most readers.

It was once famously declared, and since then endlessly quoted, that “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide” (Camus, 1942). While on the surface this may seem but a pithy remark to toss around when hoping to appear pensive and melancholic, the text from which it is drawn is in fact a powerful affirmation of life’s worthiness in and of itself. While at times we all may find ourselves overcome by the suffering and absurdity of existence, Camus implores us not to give into despair, and seek reasons to continue. For Camus, this is the ultimate self-affirmation. While some have argued that the absurdity of existence necessitates suicide, Camus rejects this proposition robustly, urging his readers instead to say “yes” to life, imperfect and painful though it may be. Camus even goes so far as to argue that meaning may not only be found in spite of the absurd, but because of it: “Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death—and I refuse suicide” (1942).

Philosophy is an often underappreciated source of scientific- and clinically-relevant information. The writings of Camus and Amery are no exception. Amery may be useful for researchers and clinicians seeking to better understand those experiencing suicidal desire. The writings of Camus may offer insight into how we might diminish this desire. I hope that this (very) brief review might convey the utility and relevance of these works even decades following their publication, and inspire others to explore them as sources of understanding and empowerment.

*(Note): It would be irresponsible not to note that Amery and Camus, while living in Europe during the same period, had dramatically different experiences of the Second World War, which undoubtedly influenced their philosophies. While Camus resided in Nazi-occupied Paris and joined the French Resistance, this was not comparable to the experiences of Amery, who as an Austrian Jew not only suffered in the camps, but suffered the loss of his wife during this time. As such, it is indubitable that Amery’s inclination toward suicide is at least partly attributable to his having greater first-hand traumatic experience of the horrors of the Third Reich.


Amery, J. (1976). On suicide: A discourse on voluntary death.

Camus, A. (1942). The myth of Sisyphus.

Holdsworth, D. (1947, October 1). Ahead of his time. Esquire, 28(4), 124-125.