by Grant Weishaar. Originally published in the December 2020 edition of Live Ideas. Find it here.
For over two thousand years, much of the western world had a divine purpose derived from each region’s respective religions. But during the turn of the 19th century, religious skepticism evolved from being a belief held by a small handful of individuals, to a thought process held by a large portion of the population. With rapid advances in science challenging orthodox beliefs, philosophers now had to wonder if they were alone in the universe, and, supposing they were, if the universe could continue to hold any meaning. Modern existentialism, or the idea that the universe holds no inherent purpose, was born under these circumstances. Albert Camus—a 20th-century existentialist—writes in his Myth of Sisyphus: “On the plane of history, such a constancy of two attitudes illustrates the essential passion of man torn between his urge toward unity and the clear vision he may have of the walls enclosing him. But never perhaps at any time has the attack on reason been more violent than in ours” (8). Camus’ Absurdism provides an intriguing alternative to the hopelessness associated with the existential dread of the 20th century.
Before understanding the central ideas of Camus’ essay, we must first understand what he means by ‘absurd.’ The common usage of the word ‘absurd’ might be described as a set of circumstances that are self-contradictory, impossible, or both. Camus elaborates: “If I see a man armed only with a sword attack a group of machine guns, I shall consider his act to be absurd…[and] the magnitude of the absurdity will be in direct ratio to the distance between the two terms of my comparison” (10). ‘Absurd’ is used to describe a scenario that is so great, so impossible, and so strange that it may only elicit amusement.
Camus’ use of ‘absurd’ follows closely its everyday meaning, though it demands more attention. Stated simply, “The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need [for purpose] and the unreasonable silence of the world” (1). There exists no more fantastic comparison than the search for inherent meaning in a universe that holds none. Because of the extreme distance between these two thoughts—those being the ideas of inherent meaning and a meaningless universe—the absurdity of the search for inherent meaning is absolute. Camus then states the necessary conditions for this supreme absurdity: “…a total absence of hope (which has nothing to do with despair), a continual rejection (which must not be confused with renunciation), and a conscious dissatisfaction (which must not be compared to immature unrest)” (11).
Camus uses colorful—although depressing—language to illustrate how one first becomes aware of the absurd: “It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, street-car, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, street-car, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm—this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement” (5). Once man arises from his mundane existence to realize that, despite his longing for purpose, he lives in an inconsiderate and indifferent universe, absurdity takes hold of his soul. Now that we understand what Camus means by <absurd>, we may dive into the main issue of The Myth of Sisyphus: that of suicide.
Camus begins The Myth of Sisyphus with an ambitious claim: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide” (1). Camus reasons that the matters of the highest importance must have the most serious consequences. The converse is also true: the ideas that do not have serious consequences do not deserve a high level of importance. Galileo, for example, abandoned his heliocentric theory when the church threatened to act upon his life. While Galileo certainly thought the theory important, he did not value its reception more than he valued his own life. Camus concludes that one’s own life holds the most importance, and that, “…the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions” (2). He also argues that, if life has no meaning, it cannot have any importance. If it does not have any importance, it is better to be dead, as dead men cannot suffer.
Camus wishes to tackle suicide logically, arguing that most cases of suicide are not born of reason, but of impulse. “Rarely is suicide committed (yet the hypothesis is not excluded) through reflection [alone]” (2). While people might have a reason to commit suicide—such as losing a loved one, being let go from work, or some other tragic event—seldom is the decision to take one’s life born of pure reason. Instead, confronted with a distaste for existence, their passions lead them to choose escape over struggle. Suicide is a confession: “But if it is hard to fix the precise instant, the subtle step when the mind opted for death, it is easier to deduce from the act itself the consequences it implies. In a sense, and as in melodrama, killing yourself amounts to confessing” (2). But what if, Camus questions, we were to approach the issue of suicide rationally; when faced with the absurd, must one end their life?
Combining Camus’ absurdity and the issue of suicide results in a distressing thought: “…no one will live this fate, knowing it to be absurd, unless he does everything to keep before him that absurd brought to light by consciousness” (18). If we recognize the absurd, suicide becomes not only logical, but also desirable to escape a lifetime of suffering. For Camus, there is but one answer to this dilemma: instead of accepting the absurd, we must revolt against it. Note that this does not mean merely ignoring the absurd, as we must be aware of something to be able to reject it. Camus claims that anything we do, as long as we do it with the intention of revolting against the absurd, can be thought of as our life’s meaning.
Through this revolt against the absurd, man gains a certain kind of freedom. By losing the obligation to conform to a traditional, preordained purpose, one is free to choose a meaning that is unique to their circumstances. As long as he is mindful of the absurd, “…the absurd man feels released from everything outside that passionate attention crystallizing in him. He enjoys a freedom with regard to common rules” (20). When using a god, science, or any other means to define his purpose, the absurd man may never become free: he is a slave to that which has predestined his existence.
This freedom from obligation is what gives the absurd man a reason to live. “That revolt gives life its value…To a man devoid of blinders, there is no finer sight than that of the intelligence at grips with a reality that transcends it” (19). To see that life is absurd, and to revolt against it, allows one to see the world for what it is. “…it is clear that death and the absurd are here the principles of the only reasonable freedom: that which a human heart can experience and live” (20).
While now aware of Camus’ answer to whether or not living itself is desirable, how is the absurd man to live? Camus thinks that, if an ultimate good were to exist, it would lie in a life that is long and full of experiences. In short, to revolt against absurdity, one must live as intensely as possible. “Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death—and I refuse suicide” (22).
Now understanding Camus’ thoughts, we will address the myth that The Myth of Sisyphus derives its inspiration: Sisyphus was a Greek character who was known for incurring the wrath of the gods through his craftiness. When people of today discuss Sisyphus, rarely are the tales of his life brought up; instead, it is the punishment for his deeds that interests us. Sisyphus was condemned by Zeus, who was often at the receiving end of Sisyphus’ tricks, to roll an enormous boulder up a hill for eternity. While this task is daunting in itself, there was a catch. While the punishment could have been merely physical, Zeus decided to torment Sisyphus with the strain of repetition. Instead of having Sisyphus roll up this boulder on an infinitely tall mountain—like rolling a ball on a treadmill—Zeus created a finite mountain. Every time Sisyphus would nearly reach the peak, the boulder would tumble back down. Sisyphus would then trudge down to the base of the mountain and start the process all over again. This feeling of reaching only to fail is the foundation of Camus’ Absurdism. Camus ends his essay by discussing, with what we now understand about the absurd, the nature of Sisyphus’ situation. As I do not feel I can do it literary justice, I provide it in its entirety here:
“All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his efforts will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is, but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which become his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling. 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” (24).
“Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus.” University of Hawaii, n.d.