Albert Camus

The Myth of Sisyphus

“The freedom to be...does not exist.”

Albert Camus’ monumental philosophical work, The Myth of Sisyphus, is a series of essays in which Camus (1913 – 1960) makes sense of the human quest for order and meaning in an indifferent (and thus absurd) universe.

The fundamental subject of The Myth of Sisyphus is this: it is legitimate and necessary to wonder whether life has a meaning; therefore it is legitimate to meet the problem of suicide face to face. The answer, underlying and appearing through the paradoxes which cover it, is this: even if one does not believe in God, suicide is not legitimate.1

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a precocious human punished by the gods to push a boulder to the top of a mountain only to have it roll back down again. Camus looks at Sisyphus as a representative human: one engaged in endless mechanical and meaningless toil.

"Sisyphus", 1548 by Titian. Featured in Albert Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus" in the Examined Life Library
Titian’s “Sisyphus,” 1548. The artist’s choice to depict the tragic hero carrying (rather than pushing) the boulder heightens the drama and our empathy. Image courtesy of Museo Del Prado. Learn more.

Although bound to this utterly ineffective (and harsh) existence, Sisyphus, Camus argues, was happy. Or rather, could be happy.

At the very end of his long effort measured by skyless space and time without depth, the purpose is achieved. Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward that lower world whence he will have to push it up again toward the summit. He goes back down to the plain.

It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. […] I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. 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 towards the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than the rock.

Absurdity, argues Camus, is what the universe throws back when we try to impose meaning upon indifference.

We normalize the absurdity, i.e., we fail to see things as absurd, because we do not want to relinquish our sense of order, meaning, or control. We continue to believe we are responsible, reason will prevail, and life will be worth something.

Camus escorts his metaphor to modern day:

Rising, tram, four hours in the office or factory, meal, tram, 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.2

But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement […] Weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness. It awakens consciousness and provokes what follows. What follows is the gradual return into the chain or it is the definitive awakening. At the end of awakening comes, in time, the consequence: suicide or recovery. In itself weariness has something sickening about it. Here, I must conclude that is good. For everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it.

Photograph of Mt. Katahdin by Ellen Vrana. Featured in Albert Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus" in the Examined Life Library.
Mt. Katahdin, Maine. The peak is littered with boulders seemingly placed by gods. Or the proletariats of the gods. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

However, the happiness that Sisyphus might feel is not from the universe; it is from himself. Atop the mountain, his work is for naught, Sisyphus pauses, recognizes his suffering, accepts that is all there is, laughs at it, and thus achieves a self-consciousness worthy of his torment.

Sisyphus, the proletariat of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition; it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.

Nothing matters except the awareness that nothing matters. In that awareness lies life’s meaning.

Who owns these scrawny little feet? Death.
Who owns this briskly scorched-looking face? Death.
Who owns these still-working lungs? Death.
Who owns this utility coat of muscles? Death.
Who owns these unspeakable guts? Death.

[…]

Who is stronger than hope? Death.
Who is stronger than will? Death.
Stronger than love Death.
Stronger than life? Death.

from (“Examination at the Womb-Door” by Ted Hughes)

At the end of his life, neurologist Oliver Sacks ruminated on leading a “universe-worthy” life. As did Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius two millennia earlier.3 Hemingway, Orwell, and Steinbeck were also writers who appeared to stand tall or small owing to the gaze of some universe value.

Somewhat conversely, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke believed that all answers lie within, a sentiment echoed by Hermann Hesse and Patti Smith.

Others seem to propose a balance of external and internal meaning by throwing themselves wholly into the universe, like poets Mary Oliver and Walt Whitman, novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, and certainly Leonard Cohen.

Photograph of Albert Camus in 1957. Photograph by Robert Edwards. Featured in Albert Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus" in the Examined Life Library.
Albert Camus in 1957. Photograph by Robert Edwards. © CC BY-SA 3.0

However we feel about reason, fate, consciousness, and meaning, one thing from Camus’ reasoning is, I think, indisputable:

At his moment of consciousness, Sisyphus was atop the mountain finished with work and thus outside his work. He was in a pause.

Camus elaborates on this physical apartness from toil:

In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion; in order to serve men better, one has to hold them at a distance, for a time. But where can one find the solitude necessary to vigor, the deep breath in which the mind collects itself and courage gauges its strength?

As you contemplate your absurdity (or the world’s absurdity) or even as you resume your toil, I wish you a deep breath in which to collect your mind and gauge your strength.