Camus and the Myth of Sisyphus

The terror and cruelty of the Occupation, the slaughter of tens of millions in the war (the second such war in a generation), and the horrors of the Holocaust that were coming to light had made many despair and abandon any hope for the future of humanity. Denial of any meaning or purpose in life — nihilism — was a widespread response.

But Camus vehemently rejected nihilism and took an entirely different path. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus addressed what he contended was the fundamental issue of philosophy — “judging whether life is or is not worth living.” To Camus, the crux of the matter of life was the certainty of death. The practical question that certainty prompted was: How could one live a meaningful life in full knowledge of the inevitability of death?

Camus asserted that by recognizing the reality of the physical limits of one’s life, one attained the clarity and freedom to make the most of life as it is. He reasoned that the logical response to the certainty of death was a revolt against death — a revolt that took the form of living life passionately and to the fullest: “Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum.”

Camus’s recipe for living life to the fullest was to do nothing in hope of an afterlife, and to rely on courage and reasoning: “The first teaches him to live without appeal [to religion] and to get along with what he has; the second informs him of his limits. Assured of his temporally limited freedom … and of his mortal consciousness, he lives out his adventure within the span of his lifetime.”

For Camus, even Sisyphus — condemned as he was to rolling his rock uphill each day, only to have it roll back down and to begin again — was master of his own fate. Sisyphus created meaning in his own life by deciding that “the struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” Camus concluded the essay, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

4 thoughts on “Camus and the Myth of Sisyphus

  1. Hi, Tom, I found this “hung up” in my spam filter and approved (whitelisted) it so maybe tomorrow’s posting will come through on the automated system. I’ll let you know if I get one on Monday from WordPress and another one from you directly. (This is the first one I have seen diverted into my spam filter…) In loving spirit, Eleanor

  2. Spot on. I really struggled with his essay as I was reading it, because I found myself lamenting my own struggle with my boulder. If the rock was forever going to roll back down, why do anything at all? But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that by following my passion, my work had become a labour of love.

    About two months ago, I was stumped when Seneca asked, ‘To what end do we toil?’ Thankfully, I think I’ve found the answer in Camus’, ‘The struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.’ The joy is in the doing.

    • I believe that “aliveness” comes from the pursuit of noble objectives, not in their achievement–although that would be nice. Of course, we live this pursuit on many levels: within us; family, community, nation, and global. We do what we can to move the arc of history just a bit. Thanks for your note.

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