The Myth of Sisyphus begins, earnestly, with a very simple question: why don't we just all kill ourselves? Although Albert Camus phrases it a little more eloquently, he nonetheless is quite serious that it is a question of utmost importance. The rationale is rooted within a very fundamental truth about existence that Camus believes: life has no meaning; no absolute, clear meaning that could ever be known to him or any individual.
Despite knowing this, Camus is also certain of another truth - that he will never stop in this futile search for meaning. In fact, no one will ever stop; it is within our nature to seek these answers. Knowing these two facts, the rational individual could reasonably decide that this is not worth the struggle and the suffering...why not take back some control of your existence and end things on your terms, rather than when this cold and unreasonable universe decides to?
"Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the adverse of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering"
— Albert Camus, "The Myth of Sisyphus" pg. 78
Pretty heavy stuff. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus attempts to clearly illustrate the nature of the absurd, how it arises and how it is reflected in various aspects of society and culture. He then sets to work on deconstructing what he believes is the essential question - why, and how, should one continue existing in an absurd universe once they have become aware of its incongruous nature?
Albert Camus, born 1913, was a French philosopher known for popularizing this philosophy of absurdism, through a variety of stories and essays like The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus was also an author, journalist, and all-in-all a pretty fun and socialable guy from what I've read. I mention this in particular as I think its typical to think of philosophers as bearded, old, armchair-dwelling hermits without much care for reality; by all accounts it sounds like Camus was an outgoing and friendly man who enjoyed sport, politics, and women. I think that these details are important to keep in mind when reading Camus and his ideas on life, especially since the core tenet of absurdism is the fact that we will never find meaning in existence. As a result of his literary accomplishments, Camus became the second youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature ever, winning it in 1957 at the age of 44.
I find the philosophy of absurdism to be quite interesting, and I feel that it has resonated with me at a very fundamental level. In life, the search for meaning and purpose can be an emotional, lifelong journey. I find that my understanding of these questions is fleeting and ephemeral—I have moments of lucidity where the form of an answer becomes reachable to my consciousness. I say reachable because I would never have the gall to admit I have found life's meaning, only to have felt it was close by. Unfortunately, I think the confidence in our beliefs in these moments of contemplation is driven by emotion. In other words, the entire view of one's existence is slowly shaped and altered in these memorable, yet irrational moments. For example, doing a good deed for another person generally makes us feel a sense of fulfillment, and it invites us to think that meaning is found within this connection with others—we should strive to be altruistic and co-operative because acting in this way, helping others, is our intended purpose. And yet, in different times we may accomplish some great feat or complete a goal which we have invested ourselves emotionally, and in this space we believe that our purpose is to strive for personal success and in the betterment of ourselves. All life is Darwinian, and our society is built upon a hierarchy, so should we not conclude, in this natural existence, our goal is to be the best we can be?
Of course, all this searching and contemplation for meaning presupposes one fact about the searcher: they are not religious. Religion offers the answers to these questions, and all it takes is for one to believe, to take a leap of faith, and their need to search is gone. It's a belief in the existence of a higher power; one who has decided that you should exist. A transcendent entity who has laid out a set of teachings and commands that provide a blueprint for how we should live. These blueprints are divine and borne from a place outside of our earthly reality, so their correctness doesn't need to be questioned. And as for purpose, religion offers the reward of infinite happiness to those who choose to believe and to follow these doctrines throughout life. I admit this is all a gross simplification of the broad category of beliefs considered to be religion, but the point is that religion offers answers.
Camus, from the very start of The Myth of Sisyphus, begins his examination from an areligious standpoint.
"In this sense it may be said that there is something provisional in my commentary: one cannot prejudge the position it entails"
— Camus, pg. 126
The entire essay is a priori based upon acceptance of the absurd. Camus wished to explore the consequences of this conclusion, rather than it's legitimacy. Although Camus strongly believes in the premise regardless. He explains that, as a rational individual, he can only base his truths on empirical and sensory information. Religion offers him no solace in this search for purpose as it provides no evidence. In fact, Camus actually begins from the belief that evidence for life's meaning and purpose will never be found. This truth, that it doesn't matter whether life has meaning because we cannot know it, constitutes the first leg for which the absurd stands upon. The second is found in individual consciousness. Camus believes that the absurd arises from the incongruity between the individual's incessant search for meaning, and the overwhelming evidence that no one shall ever find it. (Sidenote: I am trying to avoid the use of the term "Man" since it's 2019, even though I think it sounds more apropos when alluding to an individual in these contexts) He elaborates thusly,
"The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. This must not be forgotten. This must be clung to because the whole consequence of a life can depend on it. The irrational, the human nostalgia, and the absurd that is born of their encounter - these are the three characters in the drama that must necessarily end with all the logic of which an existence is capable"
— Camus, pg. 50
Here, Camus is alluding to his ultimate goal: being able to derive meaning from this absurd conclusion. How can one continue living within the walls of this existence?
To answer this question, our scholarly author enlists the help of a classical figure from Greek mythology, of whom this essay is named after. Sisyphus was the king of Ephyra, who was punished by the gods for a series of self-aggrandizing and deceitful acts. Sisyphus is represented as a crafty and arrogant individual who tried, on several occasions, to outsmart the gods. In my opinion, the arrogance and self-centeredness of Sisyphus represents the phase of innocence and ignorance we all experience as children growing up. From the moment of birth our only care is for our own needs, and our universe is simply the confines of our immediate environment. Life is simple, and we are blissfully unaware and unconcerned with these existential dilemmas. We might even feel capable of out-smarting the gods of our universe—our parents. It is only as we age that we begin to grasp the nature of our reality, or better yet we begin to lose this grasp; reality becomes less clear and our motivations become more complex. This is the time when the notion of the absurd may manifest itself in our consciousness.
For his child-like actions and insulting hubris against the gods, Sisyphus was handed a severe and unique punishment in hell. Sisyphus was condemned to the task of pushing a large stone up a mountain, but this stone was enchanted by Zeus to always fall down once it reached the top of the mountain, forcing Sisyphus to climb down the mountain and start pushing all over again. This was his eternal fate: a supreme exercise in futility (This punishment is so famous that the term Sisyphean is used to refer to a laborious and futile task).
In Camus's eyes, he sees Sisyphus as the absurd hero; one who is condemned to a meaningless fate requiring constant work and suffering. Just as the ignorant child eventually grows up and must take on the burden of understanding the world around her, so too must Sisyphus pay for his carnal pleasures:
"His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him the unspeakable penalty in which his whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth"
— Camus, pg. 110
Sisyphus' eternal fate had been laid out before him, and this much we know for certain. But Camus sought to imagine how Sisyphus might find solace in this inconquerable task. How can the former king, as he stares at the rock at the bottom of the mountain, fully aware of his wretched condition, start pushing once again? How can he continue on when, each and every time he reaches this summit, his efforts and accomplishment literally roll away from him? Camus believes that it is precisely in this moment that Sisyphus could transcend his destiny. Nothing but his own will carries him back down that hill,
"That hour like a breathing space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock"
— Camus, pg. 113
I think Camus has revealed something very poignant about the human experience with this story of Sisyphus. Anyone who has ever questioned their beliefs knows this feeling that Camus describes. These are the moments in our lives when existential doubt creeps in, or perhaps it is lucidity. We question our foundations, our own "rock" if you will. Camus refers to these personal confrontations with the void as the absurd, but things need not be so grandiose. I believe the core lesson which Camus wants to remind us of is that strength is born out of these moments. Choosing to believe in your rock, pushing forward in the face of uncertainty - this is the price of living. Camus concludes thusly,
"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 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 towards the heights is enough to fill a mans heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy"
— Camus, pg. 128
A Practical Analogy
If you find the concept of the absurd to be rather extreme in its premise, or perhaps too abstract, I think that's understandable. Having the time to contemplate suicide because you have not found enough meaning in life is something of a privileged existence. The vast majority of humans are almost completely occupied each day with not dying involuntarily, as well as ensuring their family does not meet such a fate either. I'd say for them the continuation of life itself provides purpose enough to motivate them. However, I'm not sure whether this argument necessarily invalidates absurdism...I think what is important to every individual cannot be compared directly. We all experience our own reality, and every heaven and every hell is uniquely ours. What can be said for certain is that this concept of the absurd resonates with a significant majority of people, given that Camus is known for it and this idea is still talked about today. Although this does not mean it's approachable to someone not familiar with contemporary philosophy like myself.
I've thought about this idea a lot lately, as I've now read this essay twice in the last year. One night over the holidays this year, while I was drunk and in the bathroom, where all great epiphanies happen, I thought about a way to re-interpret the absurd in the context of daily life, in a way that makes sense to me at least.
In life, in almost any pursuit we occupy ourselves with, we all strive to be better, with the underlying implicit goal that we want to be the best. Whether it's tax accounting, saxophone playing, basketball, personal attractiveness, gardening, et cetera. In all these pursuits there is at least one, if not several metrics of quality that we try to improve upon. Whether these metrics are absolute or just relative to others doesn't matter, if you are seriously involved with an activity we intrinsically feel the desire to become better. I understand that some may object to this premise by asserting that they have no desire to be the best in the world at tax accounting, or whatever. And I agree that the pursuit to be the greatest is not a conscious idea normally, but in principal I believe our human nature pushes us to be better.
Now, our critically thinking tax accountant might agree to this premise, but they may also claim that they'd be perfectly happy being the 2nd best accountant in the world, or even the 1000th best. This may be true, but for argument's sake let's assume they do in fact reach this pantheon of accounting supremacy. At this point, would any rationally acting accountant then cease trying to improve? I believe not, and I believe all humans, barring any external factors and circumstance, will never give up this pursuit to be the best in whatever disciplines and skills they happen to occupy themselves with. I think this is analogous to how we will never stop trying to determine the meaning and purpose of life.
The second tenet of this analogy is a statistical one. Given that there are over 7 billion people on the planet, it is overwhelmingly likely you will never become the best in the world at anything. This is a fact of life that only someone with an enormous ego would fail to accept. But regardless of your confidence or your ego, we all strive for betterment. We accept that we will not be the best, and in some cases you may never even improve significantly—yet we all try. This infallible conviction that is hardwired into us represents the mentality we must harness to face the absurd, according to Camus. Despite acknowledging the fact that you or I will never find meaning in life, we must search for meaning every day. Faith requires one to believe in irrefutable answers, while the absurd, on the contrary, invites one to never stop looking for them:
"But it is bad to stop, hard to be satisfied with a single way of seeing, to go without contradiction, perhaps the most subtle of all spiritual forces. The preceding merely defines a way of thinking. But the point is to live"
— Camus, pg. 64
To live is Camus' answer to the question posed at the beginning of this essay. Meaning can be found by living with a lack thereof; this tension represents one's dedication to truth:
"Suicide is a repudiation. The absurd man can only drain everything to the bitter end, and deplete himself. The absurd is his extreme tension, which he maintains constantly by solitary effort, for he knows that in that consciousness and in that day-to-day revolt he gives proof of his only truth, which is defiance"
— Camus, pg. 77