The Myth of Sisyphus poses a dilemma that goes to the heart of what it means to be alive. While people strive to create good lives for themselves, the inevitability of death renders this effort—according to Camus—ultimately meaningless. This tension between the human desire for logic and meaning and the world’s refusal to conform to that desire is the central idea of the book, a concept Camus deems “absurdism.” As a key part of his exploration of absurdism—especially in an effort to answer whether, in the fact of life’s meaninglessness, people should just commit suicide—Camus looks closely at the relationship between humankind and the natural world. For Camus, the natural world embodies the absurd; furthermore, the complicated relationship between man and nature even makes life more absurd. Camus sees this fundamentally as a conflict: nature’s might and longevity make a kind of mockery of human life by virtue of comparison. To make matters worse, nature is not consciously involved in this problem—again undermining mankind’s desire to make sense of the world.
Camus essentially accuses nature of acting as a kind of passive aggressor towards humanity, suggesting that it mocks the way in which individuals long for meaning in a world in which they exist for a mere moment. The natural world is a symbol of the passage of time—and the shortness of human life. Instead of offering people solace from the meaninglessness of life, then, the natural world actively intensifies it: “At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them, henceforth more remote than a lost paradise. The primitive hostility of the world rises up to face us across millennia.” The immensity of the natural world, Camus suggests, makes human beings seem all the more inconsequential. This is an expressly temporal (that is, time-based) problem. The natural world—the stars, the sea, and so on—represents lengths of time that make human life seem insignificant, heightening the sense that life has no meaning because it is destined to turn to dust—soon. This gives the natural world a “denseness” and “strangeness” that, to Camus, represents the absurd.
With the fact of death making the quest for meaning in life a fundamentally absurd one, nature takes on an antagonistic quality by acting as a constant reminder of humankind’s mortality. Camus believes that nature further heightens the sense of absurdity in life because the natural world is one of the main sites of humankind’s efforts to explain reality—an explanation, Camus argues, that can never truly be achieved. Humankind, says Camus, has a desire to rationally understand its world. Nature intoxicates mankind—“these scents of grass and stars at night”—which gives rise to an attempt to understand it. That is, humans seek to apply their rational longing to their environment in order to make sense of it. This longing to understand nature finds its greatest expression in science. But, says Camus, science can only ever describe nature—it can’t ultimately explain the meaning of nature’s existence. That is, it to an extent can answer the question of “how,” but not the puzzle of “why.”
Though science brings a certain level of satisfaction to this rational desire to understand nature—“[Science] take[s] apart its mechanisms and my hope increases”—Camus believes there always comes a point when science fails. This point, says Camus, comes when science, having done the work of seemingly explaining much about the workings of the natural world, falls back on descriptive imagery in order to do its “explaining.” Explanation is, ultimately, reduced to description. The main example that he gives is that of the atom. Here, argues Camus, science attempts to explain nature by using “hypothesis” and “poetry”: specifically, the image of “an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus.” This ultimately undermines the professed certainty that science brings to the natural world, which, remains fundamentally dissatisfying to the rational longing of humankind. As with the temporal problem, the impossibility of answering the question of the meaning of life is intrinsic to the natural world. According to Camus, rather than represent mankind’s ability to explain nature, the inevitable failure of this project comes to demonstrate the absurdity of the human dilemma itself—the longing for explanation, understanding, and meaning versus the ultimate failure of the natural world to adequately answer that call.
Humankind and the Natural World ThemeTracker
Humankind and the Natural World Quotes in The Myth of Sisyphus
A step lower and strangeness creeps in: perceiving that the world is "dense," sensing to what a degree a stone is foreign and irreducible to us, with what intensity nature or a landscape can negate us. At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them, henceforth more remote than a lost paradise. The primitive hostility of the world rises up to face us across millennia.
“There is but one luxury for them—that of human relations. How can one fail to realize that in this vulnerable universe everything that is human and solely human assumes a more vivid meaning? Taut faces, threatened fraternity, such strong and chaste friendship among men—these are the true riches because they are transitory.”
To the celestial thunderbolts he preferred the benediction of water. He was punished for this in the underworld. Homer tells us also that Sisyphus had put Death in chains. Pluto could not endure the sight of his deserted, silent empire. He dispatched the god of war, who liberated Death from the hands of her conqueror.
Sisyphus woke up in the underworld. And there, annoyed by an obedience so contrary to human love, he obtained from Pluto permission to return to earth in order to chastise his wife. But when he had seen again the face of this world, enjoyed water and sun, warm stones and the sea, he no longer wanted to go back to the infernal darkness. Recalls, signs of anger, warnings were of no avail. Many years more he lived facing the curve of the gulf, the sparkling sea, and the smiles of earth. A decree of the gods was necessary. Mercury came and seized the impudent man by the collar and, snatching him from his joys, led him forcibly back to the underworld, where his rock was ready for him.
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.