French thinker Albert Camus believed the myth of Sisyphus to be a brilliant metaphor for our everyday existence — and a perfect encapsulation of all intellectual endeavour.
Have you ever felt — no matter what you do — that you're not getting anywhere? That all your efforts are futile? That regardless of how you act you simply end up back where you started?
Well consider Sisyphus. He's the unlucky protagonist of the Ancient Greek myth where, having royally upset the gods, he's condemned — for all eternity — to push a boulder up a mountain, only for it to roll all the way back down upon reaching the top. Each time, Sisyphus must descend and start again. And he must do this over and over — forever.
Doesn't sound great, does it? Poor guy. Thank God our lives aren't like that…
Or are they? Indeed, 20th-century French thinker Albert Camus believed the myth of Sisyphus to be a brilliant metaphor for our everyday existence.
“The workman of today,” Camus writes in his mind-bending book The Myth of Sisyphus, “works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd [than Sisyphus's].”
We wake up, we toil, we sleep; we wake up, we toil, we sleep; we push the boulder up, it rolls back down, we start again. And this cyclical mundanity points to the fundamental absurdity of the human condition: all this time we thought we were making progress — we're all just Sisyphus, each with our own boulders to bear.
For Camus, it's not just the similarities between Sisyphus and our repetitive day-to-day schedules that make our existences absurd; it goes far beyond that. Camus thinks Sisyphus's situation perfectly encapsulates the entirety of human intellectual and philosophical endeavour.
How so? Well, Camus argues that a paradox lies at the heart of human experience. On the one hand, we are by nature curious animals who long for meaning and purpose — a fundamental reason for existing. On the other, we are not equipped to ever adequately satisfy this longing — Camus rejects every scientific, metaphysical, or religious attempt at doing so.
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In other words, despite our yearning for an ultimate explanation for existence, in Camus’s mind such an explanation will always be beyond our comprehension.
And it is this hopeless space we occupy — between our impulse to ask deep questions and our inability to answer them — that Camus labels ‘the absurd’. Hence the image of Sisyphus: we build theories up, inevitably they crash back down, and compulsively we start again. (For a slightly different take on the absurd, see Thomas Nagel’s argument that absurdity arises not from our need for meaning in a meaningless world, but from the fact we are consumed by our concerns, while simultaneously recognizing how contingent they are.)
If we grant Camus that we do occupy this absurd space of yearning but never finding, it could be said that almost all of our concerns simply don’t matter, for on this view all of our beliefs, thoughts, and actions towards the world become trivial and meaningless. We are all Sisyphus, pointlessly rolling our boulders. Powerless. Petrified in absurdity like insects in amber.
In this picture one concern does remain, however — and it's a big one.
“There is only one really serious philosophical question,” Camus says, “and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy.”
To sum up, then, according to Camus: we live in absurdity, we cannot escape this absurdity, and — due to the fact we are condemned never to comprehend the ultimate nature of existence — the only act that can have any bearing on our condition is suicide.
So far, so bleak — pointlessness, futility, suicide… On Camus’s view the answer to the question of whether or not life is worth living surely seems only to point one way...
But wait! Stop! You see, rather than as a sad indictment of how we live, Camus actually views Sisyphus's exertions up and down the mountain as a triumph.
Camus argues that Sisyphus is demonstrative of the fact that we can live “with the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it.” Sisyphus shows us strength and resilience in the face of absurdity: he “knows himself to be the master of his days.”
After the rock tumbles down — confirming the ultimate futility of his project — Sisyphus marches down after it. This, thinks Camus, is the moment Sisyphus's absurd fate is wholly laid bare, and where he attains full tragic consciousness.
Trudging down the mountainside, he recognizes the full extent of his wretched condition, yet "all Sisyphus's silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing."
We could simply numb ourselves with mindless entertainment to cope with the inevitable toil and suffering of life. But we will never attain true happiness or purpose with this kind of escapism. Instead, if — as Camus imagines Sisyphus does — we take ownership of and responsibility for our own lives, if we avoid false solutions and accept our condition, we establish purpose — even happiness — in the face of absurdity.
Just as Sisyphus chooses to march down after his rock, thereby accepting the futility of his punishment and reshaping his tragic fate, Camus argues we become fully alive through choosing to acknowledge the hopelessness of the human condition, and carrying on regardless. By approaching life with full consciousness, with vitality and intensity, by becoming the masters of our absurd fate — this is how we answer the question of suicide, how we defy futility and establish what it means to live.
Ultimately, then, while Camus believes we are condemned to absurdity by the human condition, his point is that that's not necessarily a bad thing — in fact it's only by confronting this absurdity and heroically carrying on in spite of it that a truly authentic life can be lived.
Indeed, as Camus concludes The Myth of Sisyphus:
The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
If you're interested in learning more about Camus's absurdism and the existentialist themes explored in this article more generally, check out our brief introduction to existentialism, as well as our existentialist reading list.
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