One of Albert Camus’ most famous and important works is the philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus. It starts off with a powerful and thought-provoking statement:
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
Physical suicide tends to happen without going through reflection, “one evening the person pulls the trigger or jumps.” Killing oneself is a sort of confession, that life is too much, that it is incomprehensible, or that it is not worth the trouble. Dying voluntarily implies the absence of any profound reason for living and the uselessness of suffering.
The novel presents itself through an absurdist lens. The Absurd is the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life, and the human inability to find any meaning in a purposeless, meaningless, and irrational universe, with the “unreasonable silence” of the universe in response. Trying to define this, is like water slipping through one’s fingers.
However, this world in itself is not absurd, what is absurd is our relationship with the universe, which is irrational. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. It is all that links them together. Thus, the universe and the human mind do not each separately cause the Absurd, but rather, the Absurd arises by the contradictory nature of the two existing simultaneously.
Another important aspect of this book is that it is atheistic in nature, he calls the Absurd, which we all live in to be “sin without God.”
For Camus, believing in some ready-made belief system (practically all of the world’s religion) is one of the most common ways of ‘philosophical suicide’. We believe in a hypothetical belief system, immediately alleviating us from these insecurities, at the cost of committing a sort of mental suicide by shutting down our mental faculties. There are also secular ways of committing this act, such as escaping into the world of entertainment.
However, in a world suddenly divested of illusions, man feels an alien. Without hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.
Moreover, our daily life is also absurd:
“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. But one day the ‘why‘ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.”
Thus, we all live in an absurd freedom, and to become lucid and conscious of it is to revolt, which is the only coherent philosophical position:
“It [Revolt] is a constant confrontation between man and his own obscurity. It is an insistence upon an impossible transparency. It challenges the world new every second. Just as danger provided man with the unique opportunity of seizing awareness, so metaphysical revolt extends awareness to the whole of experience.”
Suicide is never an option for the Absurd man, much like the leap of faith, it is acceptance at its extreme, it would be a way of going along with our absurd condemnation, by implicitly affirming that life is really intolerably absurd and that suicide is our only option.
The contrary of suicide is man condemned to death, in constant lucidity of his own absurd nature with the passionate flames of human revolt. This recognition gives life meaning, as we are truly free “to live without appeal“, as he puts it, a philosophical move to define absolutes and universals subjectively, rather than objectively.
“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
He draws from the absurd three consequences: revolt, freedom and passion. Essentially, man is his own end. And he is his only end. If he aims to be something, it is in this life:
“The flames of earth are surely worth celestial perfumes.”
So, where does the title The Myth of Sisyphus come from?
Camus associates our condemnation to the absurd to the mythological character of Sisyphus, a man condemned by the gods to a lifetime of rolling a boulder up a hill, a back-breaking and gruelling labour, only to reach the top of the hill and have the boulder inevitably roll back down to the bottom for him to start all over again, condemned to a lifetime of pain and anguish and working hard only to have his efforts be completely futile in the end.
It isn’t the repetitive and futile nature of human existence per se that makes it absurd. What really makes our human existence absurd is our consciousness of our Sisyphean condemnation when we avoid the trap of philosophical suicide.
In perhaps one of his most celebrated quotes, Camus states that:
“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Camus adds that there may be a moment when Sisyphus is walking back down the hill when he is briefly free, when he is “superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock“. Sisyphus then, is both a prisoner and rebel.
Unlike many existentialists, Camus is an earth-loving and sensitive man who loves his native home of Algeria: its sunlight, nature and the beauty of the race. At the end of the book, he writes short essays such as the Summer in Algiers where he states:
“For if there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.”
And Return to Tipasa, where he writes:
“In the middle of winter, I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.“
“There is thus a will to live without rejecting anything of life, which is the virtue I honor most in this world.”
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