Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus: The Absurdity of Human Existence

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One of if not the most successful and debated of Albert Camus works, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ is ground-breaking for many reasons, opening with the infamous quote, “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging where life is or is not worth living, that is the fundamental question of philosophy” (Camus 1942). A reason for this blatantly stark choice is that, in Camus' eyes as soon as we approached any question seriously, we can only see that life has no meaning unto itself. We, therefore, set ourselves up for the eternal struggle for meaning before questioning if we should just be done with it all as we are essentially moving in no purposeful direction.

To make sense of this extreme thesis we are being presented with, we must situate Camus in the scope and history of thought. This announcement that we may indeed have to kill ourselves as life may be meaningless is set on the foundations of a possible rich life under a god given meaning. Although this concept may well become more remote as we drift past the realm of strict religion centred community and existence, this was the only way of life for the vast majority of people for the past two millennia. The notion of this meaningful life was anointed to us by one institution held above any other, the Christian church. Our lives hold meaning through a notion of Gods plan for us’, an ideal held by Kierkegaard’s solution to the meaning of our existence. Camus suggests that this is but a mere distraction from the reality of the world we live in. Camus is from a long line of existentialists devoted to the idea that we are nothing but a collection of atoms in a vast, indifferent void we can’t even comprehend, without any structure from a benevolent creator shaping our lives towards a goal of salvation through commandments. There is no bigger point.

Unlike some philosophers and many existentialists, Camus ends up resisting utter hopelessness of nihilism. He argues that we have to live with the knowledge that all our efforts will be largely futile, and our lives are forgotten but, yet we should endure never the less. We must live like the ancient Greek figure, Sisyphus forever condemned to move a boulder up a great hill before having it fall to the bottom in an endless cycle. Camus suggests that in accepting the absurdity of our existence, we triumph over the constant possibility of hopelessness. “one must imagine Sisyphus happy” (Camus 1942).

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When we look further into what Camus terms ‘Absurdity’ it is clear his approach stems from that of Blaise Pascale, often considered the start of mainstream philosophical existentialism. Pascal addresses the idea of what the mid turns to when faced with all the distractions it can be given. He addresses this in the form of a king who is in want of nothing. He cites, “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber… The natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely” (Pascal n.d., 139). It can be said that as a species we seek distraction. We find it in anything from drugs, to sex, to sport to even television. And it is ever present that in a world with constant distractions any break from such a mindset leads people to observe the absurdity within there lives, leading to a growing population of people who identify with existentialism. Where Pascale falls to the previously discussed outlet of religion to show the meaning life can bring, the modern world only heightens this solution to become more of a problem. With a growing lack of faith in religion, what many generations before us had to depend on for the comfort meaning, we sadly lack. Camus understood this as the opening into absurdity.

Everything created has a purpose. As a hammer is built as a tool to hammer down nails is such to that a Christian is the tool used by God to reach an unknown goal. With this lack of essence and structure, we are driven towards a life of existence preceding essence. As our lives come before any known meaning we are left with the emptiness within the certainty of absurdity. Camus puts it as, “Men, too, secrete the inhuman. At certain moments of lucidity, the mechanical aspect of their gestures, their meaningless pantomime makes silly everything that surrounds them. A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible dumb show: you wonder why he is alive. This discomfort in the face of man’s own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this “nausea,” as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd.” (Camus 1942)

If such a dire reality is fact, why must we imagine Sisyphus happy? His menial task is a clear contrast to our own lives. The same way that he has his distraction of pushing a boulder up a hill, we too have our jobs, and school and whatever other distractions. It would not be a stretch to suggest that out of the time Sisyphus spends in his punishment that his distraction is the most enjoyable part. It is the peak of the mountain, the decline back to the start and a walk of reflection that breaks this tragic hero. This is again paralleled in our lives, times of lucidity and times of distraction. The quite literal ups and downs of life are present if he chooses to put ourselves in his shoes. Sisyphus must be happy to be able to hold his sanity in such a cruel world, but again why bother? Turning the concept of meaninglessness on its head to embarrass and make a meaningless mark is nothing if not very human. Its an ideal we can all strive towards and give meaning for the sake of giving meaning with nothing holding us back. To suggest being happy with no consequences, I believe is what Camus is leading towards as us being the freest beings we can. We are responsible for our own happiness and, even if you chose to look at it from a utilitarian perspective thinking its simply better to be happy then sad, there is seemingly more to be gained from nothingness now then before. A shining fragment of optimism which means nothing, and if we are to affirm that we have any chance of a worthwhile life we must imagine him happy.

There is little more that can be said for the meaning of Camus interpretation of this myth. My stance is that I agree, I find myself hell-bent against the notion of religion and the need to devote my time to something questionable at best. I also agree that life, in general, is absurd and that little to nothing may come of it even as depressing as that may well be. It is an awakening to realise our place in the world and also a necessity to act when we realise it. It is therefore correct to imagine Sisyphus happy and to ourselves strive to be happy in the face of the absurd. I can understand why some may find it impossible to let go of the notion of meaning especially if that meaning is rooted in a faith you have held your whole life, and many may never have this awakening, but suicide is never the answer, nothing is gained, and the problem remains.

Camus even stated that in these two options of death or happiness at the realisation, one puts us on a better path. “At the end of the awakening comes, in time, the consequence: suicide or recovery” (Camus 1942). whatever state of mind Sisyphus was in before he came happy, I believe it is universal that this leap was a recovery and that it is the only solution to our unavoidable predicament

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