The Myth of Sisyphus


Albert Camus

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In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus aims to draw out his definition of absurdism and, later in the book, consider what strategies are available to people in living with the absurd. The absurd is often mischaracterized as the simple idea that life is meaningless. In fact, Camus defines the absurd as the confrontation between man’s desire for logic, meaning and order, and the world’s inability to satisfy this desire. Camus believes that confronting the absurd takes precedence over all other philosophical problems, because it is intimately linked with the act of suicide. People commit suicide when life is meaningless, he says, and sometimes to defend the meaning that they do perceive (for instance, someone dying for a political cause). If life is meaningless, which is a proposition Camus certainly agrees with, is it logical to commit suicide—dutiful, even? Camus outlines how people turn to religion and hold on to the hope of a better life that never comes in order to suppress the absurd. Camus wants to know if it’s possible to live in full awareness of the fact that life is meaningless.

Camus examines the work of philosophers like Soren Kierkegaard, Lev Chestov, Karl Jaspers and Edmund Husserl. All of these, says Camus, went some way to outlining the absurdity of life. But each of them has a fatal flaw—they were too afraid to commit to the absurdity of life, and instead restored meaning to the world through a leap of faith (usually to God). They try to conjure meaning out of meaninglessness, which Camus sees as distinctly irrational. Camus argues for three main characteristics of the absurd life: revolt, freedom and passion. The absurd life must resist any temptation for answers or explanations in life; act and think with total freedom; and pursue life with passion.

In “The Absurd Man,” Camus tries to move towards a more practical approach to the absurd, providing examples of figures that he feels have accommodating the absurd into their lives. For Camus, it is not about finding a solution to the absurd, but living a life that maintains full awareness of life’s meaninglessness. As an illustrative example, he looks first at Don Juan, a notorious seducer. He praises Don Juan for living a life of quantity, rather than quality—since no experience is inherently more valuable than any other, the absurd man should strive to experience as much as he can. In Don Juan’s case, this means sex with as many different women as possible. Camus’ other examples of absurd lives are actors—who live in the present and try out many different lives—and conquerors, whose political and violent struggles add urgency and vividness to life.

Camus then turns his attentions to the relationship between the absurd and creation. The creative life, says Camus, is an especially absurd one. Artists expend great energy on their creation, though their creation is ultimately meaningless. The creator can only experience and describe, not explain and solve; Camus is disdainful of those works that have a “smug” motive of proving a particular “truth.” Within this framework, Camus examines the writings of the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevksy. In particular, he looks at a character from The Possessed, Kirilov, who commits a kind of “logical suicide.” In order for life to have meaning, Kirilov thinks, God must exist—but Kirilov intuitively feels that there is no God and decides to take control by killing himself. His last words are “all is well,” which for Camus are precisely the words that living with the absurd require. Though Camus praises Dostoevsky for showing the absurd in action—which is a special capability of novels as opposed to philosophy—he criticizes Dostoevsky for turning back to God later in his personal life.

Camus concludes his essay by discussing the myth of Sisyphus mentioned in the title. Sisyphus, a Greek King, was condemned by the gods. His eventual fate was to push a rock up a mountain, only for it to fall back down, necessitating the process to start over again and again for all eternity. There are different stories about why Sisyphus incurred the wrath of the gods but, in essence, he disrespected them. One of the stories is that he put Death in chains, angering the god Pluto. Just before he died, Sisyphus wanted to test his wife’s love by ordering that she “cast his unburied body into the middle of the public square.” Annoyed that she actually did so, instead of burying him properly, he received permission from Pluto to return to earth in order to chastise her. Upon his return from the underworld, Sisyphus fell in love with the earth again—particularly its natural beauty—and refused to leave. Mercury was sent to retrieve Sisyphus, and when Sisyphus got back to the underworld his rock and the eternal, futile labor it represents were waiting for him. In this fate, Camus sees the struggle of man longing for meaning in a meaningless world. Sisyphus, says Camus, is the ultimate “absurd hero,” because he is fully aware of the futility of his actions. The moment when Sisyphus walks back to the foot of the mountain is the one that most interests Camus, representing Sisyphus’ “hour of consciousness” and total understanding of his fate. Camus pictures Sisyphus saying that “all is well,” like Kirilov did earlier. It is necessary, says Camus, to “imagine Sisyphus happy.”