Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus

Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) was a French author, philosopher, and journalist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. His most famous works were the novels La Peste (The Plague)  and L’Étranger (The Stranger) and the philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus. He died in a car accident in France.

In “The Myth of Sisyphus” (1955) Camus claims that the only important philosophical question is suicide—should we continue to live or not? The rest is secondary, says Camus, because no one dies for scientific or philosophical arguments, usually abandoning them when their life is at risk. Yet people do take their own lives because they judge them meaningless or sacrifice them for meaningful causes. This suggests that questions of meaning supersede all other scientific or philosophical questions. As Camus puts it: “I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.”[i]

What interests Camus is what leads to suicide. He argues that “beginning to think is beginning to be undermined … the worm is in man’s heart.”[ii]  When we start to think we open up the possibility that all we valued previously, including our belief in life’s goodness, may be subverted. This rejection of life emanates from deep within, and this is where its source must be sought. For Camus killing yourself is admitting that all of the habits and effort needed for living are not worth the trouble. As long as we accept reasons for life’s meaning we continue, but as soon as we reject these reasons we become alienated—we become strangers from the world. This feeling of separation from the world Camus terms absurdity, a sensation that may lead to suicide. Still most of us go on because we are attached to the world; we continue to live out of habit.

But is suicide a solution to the absurdity of life? For those who believe in life’s absurdity it is a reasonable response—one’s conduct should follow from one’s beliefs. Of course conduct does not always follow from belief. Individuals argue for suicide but continue to live; others profess that there is a meaning to life and choose suicide. Yet most persons are attached to this world by instinct, by a will to live that precedes philosophical reflection. Thus they evade questions of suicide and meaning by combining instinct with the hope that something gives life meaning. Yet the repetitiveness of life brings absurdity back to consciousness. In Camus’ words: “Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or factory, meal, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday…”[iii] Living brings the question of suicide back, forcing a person to confront and answer this essential question.

Yet of death we know nothing. “This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction.”[iv] Furthermore I cannot know myself intimately anymore than I can know death. “This very heart which is mine will forever remain indefinable to me. Between the certainty I have of my existence and the content I try to give to that assurance, the gap will never be filled. Forever I shall be a stranger to myself …”[v] We know that we feel, but our knowledge of ourselves ends there.

What makes life absurd is our inability to know ourselves and the world’s meaning even though we desire such knowledge. “…what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.”[vi]The world could have meaning: “But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it.”[vii] This tension between our desire to know meaning and the impossibility of knowing it is a most important truth. We are tempted to leap into faith, but the honest know that they do not understand; they must learn “to live without appeal…”[viii] In this sense we are free—living without higher purposes, living without appeal. Aware of our condition we exercise our freedom and revolt against the absurd—this is the best we can do.

Nowhere is the essence of the human condition made clearer than in the Myth of Sisyphus. Condemned by the gods to roll a rock to the top of a mountain, whereupon its own weight makes it fall back down again, Sisyphus was condemned to this perpetually futile labor. His crimes seem slight, yet his preference for the natural world instead of the underworld incurred the wrath of the gods: “His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing.”[ix] He was condemned to everlasting torment and the accompanying despair of knowing that his labor was futile.

Yet Camus sees something else in Sisyphus at that moment when he goes back down the mountain. Consciousness of his fate is the tragedy; yet consciousness also allows Sisyphus to scorn the gods which provides a small measure of satisfaction. Tragedy and happiness go together; this is the state of the world that we must accept. Fate decries that there is no purpose for our lives, but one can respond bravely to their situation: “This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral 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.”[x]

Reflections – Camus argues that life is meaningless and absurd yet we can revolt against the absurdity and find some small modicum of happiness. Essentially Camus asks if there is a third alternative between acceptance of life’s absurdity or its denial by embracing dubious metaphysical propositions. Can we live without the hope that life is meaningful but without the despair that leads to suicide? If the contrast is posed this starkly it seems an alternative appears—we can proceed defiantly forward. We can live without faith, without hope, and without appeal.

I believe we are called upon to live without appeal, all appeals are intellectually dishonest. But perhaps there are alternatives between accepting absurdity and hopeful metaphysics besides Camus’ defiance. Perhaps we can embrace realities current absurdity, reject speculative metaphysics, and ground the meaning of our lives in the small part we can play in transforming the world into a more meaningful reality. We reject absurdity, religion, and anger. Instead we work to transform reality.

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[i] Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 72.
[ii] Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” 73.
[iii] Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” 74.
[iv] Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” 75.
[v] Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” 75.
[vi] Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” 75.
[vii] Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” 76-77.
[viii] Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” 77.
[ix] Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” 79.
[x] Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” 81.

5 thoughts on “Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus

  1. Suicide has always been stigmatized in our society for a variety of reasons; religious belief, personal feelings (shame, guilt, etc), or simply our own feelings about the subject. While our eternal fate is, and always will be, a mystery tied to our mortal coil we perpetually try to seek meaning and happiness in our daily lives.

    For some this simply isn’t enough. The reasons why, for, and how to live no longer matter.

    This article comes at an interesting time. There has been major news coverage and renewed debate in the arena for the “right to die,” and two very young women with inoperable brain cancer taking center stage. Brittany Maynard and Lauren Hill were given only months to live after their separate diagnoses. Maynard has openly ought for her right to die: “I am not suicidal. If I were, I would have consumed that medication long ago. I do not want to die. But I am dying. And I want to die on my own terms.” (http://edition.cnn.com/2014/10/07/opinion/maynard-assisted-suicide-cancer-dignity/).

    I would have to conclude that if Camus were here today he would openly accept and agree with Maynard’s decision to end her life (she passed away on Nov. 3rd). SHe accepted the absurdity of life and chose to exit early.

  2. When I was in high school my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, which she later passed away from. During this time we watched as she became a shelf of herself, and her quality of life quickly deteriorated. This was before the option of assisted suicide in Washington was even possible. This has always made me wonder if my grandmother would have tried to end her life on her own terms if it would have been possible.
    The philosophical views of Albert Camus have helped me understand why people take the road of assisted suicide when they are diagnosed with a terminal condition. Camus viewed suicide as the admittance that the effort and habits are not worth the trouble. For assisted suicide that makes sense since the person could be in constant pain and it’s an effort for them to wake up every day knowing what is in store for them. Personally for me if I know that my quality of life is going to diminish to a point where I would have trouble just waking up every day assisted suicide would be a thought that I would seriously consider. When I person gets the option of life taken away from them, why should they hold onto a world if they are going to suffer from the moment they wake up?

  3. I always knew I didn’t want to be a parent, no ambivalence whatsoever. I had a high sex drive and was worried about accidental pregnancy, so I tried to get a vasectomy when I was 24. This was the 1980s and in a rural area of the U.S., but still, I was shocked that I was rebuffed by three different doctors for the same reasons (too young, no kids yet). I thought that since I was legally an independent adult, I’d have the right to make my own reproductive decisions. How stupid could I be. Anyway, I was still determined to get a vasectomy. I didn’t like the idea of lying, but that’s what I did. I went to another doctor a little better prepared. i got a couple photos of my older sister’s two young sons, who bear a family resemblence to me. When the doctor asked why I wanted a vasectomy, I started telling him about my “troubled past.” When the time was right, I pulled out the photos and told him they were my sons by two different women. I told him they were living with their respective moms in other parts of the country, and that I was being sued for child support, that I was unemployed, had no skills or education, and that I really didn’t need another child. By the time I was done with my “story” that doctor was happy to give me a vasectomy.

    I’m 51 now and even more certain I made the right decision than I was then, if that’s possible. I would have felt tremendously guilty for causing a human to exist. I regret being born myself, and even more, I regret living this long. I often think about a quote from a collection of suicide notes I read online: “I’ve lived 47 years — there aren’t 47 days I would live over again if I could avoid it.”

    I feel the same way, except I’ve lingered around for 51 years. No excuse.

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