The Myth of Sisyphusby Albert Camus
The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.
If one believes Homer, Sisyphus was the wisest and most prudent of mortals. According to another tradition, however, he was disposed to practice the profession of highwayman. I see no contradiction in this. Opinions differ as to the reasons why he became the futile laborer of the underworld. To begin with, he is accused of a certain levity in regard to the gods. He stole their secrets. Egina, the daughter of Esopus, was carried off by Jupiter. The father was shocked by that disappearance and complained to Sisyphus. He, who knew of the abduction, offered to tell about it on condition that Esopus would give water to the citadel of Corinth. To the celestial thunderbolts he preferred the benediction of water. He was punished for this in the underworld. Homer tells us also that Sisyphus had put Death in chains. Pluto could not endure the sight of his deserted, silent empire. He dispatched the god of war, who liberated Death from the hands of her conqueror.
It is said that Sisyphus, being near to death, rashly wanted to test his wife's love. He ordered her to cast his unburied body into the middle of the public square. Sisyphus woke up in the underworld. And there, annoyed by an obedience so contrary to human love, he obtained from Pluto permission to return to earth in order to chastise his wife. But when he had seen again the face of this world, enjoyed water and sun, warm stones and the sea, he no longer wanted to go back to the infernal darkness. Recalls, signs of anger, warnings were of no avail. Many years more he lived facing the curve of the gulf, the sparkling sea, and the smiles of earth. A decree of the gods was necessary. Mercury came and seized the impudent man by the collar and, snatching him from his joys, lead him forcibly back to the underworld, where his rock was ready for him.
You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. 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. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth. Nothing is told us about Sisyphus in the underworld. Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them. As for this myth, one sees merely the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it, and push it up a slope a hundred times over; one sees the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched, the wholly human security of two earth-clotted hands. 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 tlower 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. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! 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 toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.
If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian 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 can not be surmounted by scorn.
If the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy. This word is not too much. Again I fancy Sisyphus returning toward his rock, and the sorrow was in the beginning. When the images of earth cling too tightly to memory, when the call of happiness becomes too insistent, it happens that melancholy arises in man's heart: this is the rock's victory, this is the rock itself. The boundless grief is too heavy to bear. These are our nights of Gethsemane. But crushing truths perish from being acknowledged. Thus, Edipus at the outset obeys fate without knowing it. But from the moment he knows, his tragedy begins. Yet at the same moment, blind and desperate, he realizes that the only bond linking him to the world is the cool hand of a girl. Then a tremendous remark rings out: "Despite so many ordeals, my advanced age and the nobility of my soul make me conclude that all is well." Sophocles' Edipus, like Dostoevsky's Kirilov, thus gives the recipe for the absurd victory. Ancient wisdom confirms modern heroism.
One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness. "What!---by such narrow ways--?" There is but one world, however. Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable. It would be a mistake to say that happiness necessarily springs from the absurd. Discovery. It happens as well that the felling of the absurd springs from happiness. "I conclude that all is well," says Edipus, and that remark is sacred. It echoes in the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, has not been, exhausted. It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile suffering. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men.
All Sisyphus' silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is a 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.
What does Camus mean by "the absurd" and "the feeling of absurdity"? How is the concept of the absurd used over the course of the essay?
The concept of the absurd is born from what Camus sees as a fundamental contradiction in the human condition. On the one hand, we live with an inborn desire to find some sort of unity or reason in the universe. This desire to make sense of the universe makes us believe in a meaningful life or in God. On the other hand, the universe gives us no reason to believe that it contains any kind of reason or unity. Though we generally live with a sense of purpose born from our desire for unity, we may occasionally be struck by how senseless everything seems. We may see people riding up an escalator and imagine them as mindless robots, or we might look at a tree and see simply a "thing" that is not part of an ordered or natural universe. This feeling that strikes us occasionally is the feeling of absurdity, the awareness of the contradictory universe in which we live. The absurd man is someone who lives with the feeling of absurdity, who consciously maintains his awareness of the senselessness of everything around him.
What is "rationalism"? How does Camus reject it? Why does he reject it?
Rationalism, as it is used in this essay, is the belief that human reason can make sense of the universe. This is the hallmark of the great philosophical system builders who believe that they can find a reasonable explanation for everything that happens in life. Camus is vehemently opposed to this notion, suggesting that life is fundamentally absurd and that we cannot find any rational order in the universe. Though he rehearses a few arguments against rationalism, Camus never seems to enter into a philosophical debate with rationalist philosophy. His rejection of rationalism seems to be born more from a deep-set conviction than from a reasoned argument. Camus is interested in whether we can live only with what we are certain of, and with what we find in this life. Because we cannot be certain that the universe has a coherent order, and because a full understanding of this order is beyond our abilities as human beings, Camus rejects rationalism. He does not say that rationalism is wrong so much as he says that it is something he wants to do without.
Camus purports to be examining a certain stance that we can take toward the world rather than advancing his own philosophical position. As such, he would deny that his essay contains any metaphysical assertions. Are there any moments where you think Camus sneaks in some metaphysical assumptions? If so, how do they affect the course of his discussion?
Camus never gives any good reasons for adopting the position he does, or at least none that stand up as sound philosophical arguments. They seem born more of a profound conviction than of a reasoned position. This in itself is not a bad thing. It simply means that he is committed to approaching his subject from a psychological rather than from a metaphysical angle. One of the primary problems with The Myth of Sisyphus, however, is that Camus seems unaware that he needs to choose between philosophy and descriptive psychology. He does not seem interested in arguing philosophically at length, but he often comes quite close to adopting a contestable philosophical position. This is particularly so in his assertion that the absurd is our fundamental relationship with the universe and that the two truths of the absurd (that we desire unity and that the world gives us none) are the only two that we can know with certainty. If nothing else, this conception of knowledge is born from a rationalist background that sees knowledge as something apprehended by reason alone, unaided by the senses. An empiricist might argue that we can know plenty else besides: we can know what we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell, for instance, far better than we can know whether or not the universe has meaning. Camus never really considers the empirical position since it is outside the tradition he is working within, but he also doesn't seem to consider that an empiricist—or even a rationalist—response to his position is worth confronting. He does not have to consider possible counter-arguments if his position is not a philosophical one. However, when he starts discussing what we can know, what our fundamental relationship with the universe is, and certain truths that we are aware of, he begins to edge toward a philosophical position that needs to be defended far better than it is.
What is absurd freedom? How does it differ from the kind of freedom we experience in ordinary life?
Discuss how the figures of the seducer, the actor, the conqueror, and the writer exemplify Camus's principles of revolt, freedom, and passion.
Why does Camus see creation as the ultimate absurd act?
Camus suggests that the absurd life is a kind of mime, where the absurd man is constantly aware that he is simply playing out a role. How is it that living out a mime can be living life to its fullest?
Discuss the way the themes of this essay are played out in The Stranger.
Why does Camus consider Sisyphus a tragic hero? How does the myth of Sisyphus relate to what you know about Greek tragedy?
Camus frequently uses the word "logic" and talks often about the ordinary and the everyday. How do these themes relate to the central concept of the absurd?