Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus”: A Close Reading of the Absurd

Background | Reading The Myth of Sisyphus | About the authors | About the image

No one who lives in the sunlight makes a failure of his life. Albert Camus, Notebooks

Background

Albert Camus (1913–1960) was a French Algerian writer perhaps best known for novels such as The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall. As a thinker he was linked to the intellectual movements called existentialism and absurdism, although Camus himself detested both of these labels (and labels in general).

Sisyphus. Gravestone, Highgate Cemetery, LondonAt beginning of Western philosophy, Aristotle taught that all human beings desire to know and that the universe, which he called a cosmos, is knowable. Upon that rock, he built a whole philosophy and founded (along with Plato) the tradition of classical rationalism. Camus agrees that we desire to know the meaning of existence but that we live in a universe devoid of purpose (or whose purpose cannot be know). There are no "Platonic ideas" or "Aristotelian final causes" to guide us and modern science only knows of matter in motion.

What separates Camus from the entire rationalist tradition, ancient and modern, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is that he denies that there is an answer to this question and rejects every scientific, teleological, metaphysical, or human-created end that would provide an adequate answer.

Camus’ first attempt at a sustained essay, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), begins by asking what he calls the only serious philosophical question: whether suicide is justified. He goes on to assert the absurdity of human life. Hegel's belief that history has a purpose has been refuted by the history of the 20th century, the routine of daily life is futile, human motives are inscrutable, and death is pointless. Surprisingly, he does not conclude from al this that suicide is legitimate. Instead, he charts a way out of despair, reaffirming the value of personal existence and the possibility of a life lived with dignity and authenticity. This LaunchPad is designed to help you understand Camus’s paradoxical conclusion.

It is worth noting that Camus wrote this work at the beginning of World War II, when France was occupied by the Nazi's he served heroically in the French Resistance movement against the occupiers of his country.

The following questions fall into five distinct reading sections. They are intended to guide you in examining the myth that provides the foundation for Camus’ essay and then in exploring the connection Camus sees between the story of Sisyphus and the position of man in a seemingly absurd, hostile, and indifferent universe.

This LaunchPad uses a freely available online version of The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. For those who wish to use the print edition (New York: Random House, 1955, 1983), page numbers are supplied.

Reading The Myth of Sisyphus

Before beginning Camus, first read about the classical myth.

Passage 1. “The Myth of Sisyphus” (pp. 119–123)

As you can see from the account of the myth above, there are various reasons attributed as to why the mythical Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to such an arduous and futile fate.

—Of these reasons, which ones does Camus give for the condemnation of Sisyphus? What is their significance for his philosophy?

Camus imaginatively depicts Sisyphus’s strenuous effort to push the boulder up the hill, saying that it is the moment just after the stone rolls back down the incline that interests him the most, and labeling it his “hour of consciousness”: a time when he is “superior to his fate” (121).

—Is Camus’ language ironic here? How does he explain his interpretation of Sisyphus’ reaction to this futility?

Camus says “There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night” (123), implying perhaps that it is crucial to accept an irrational, even absurd, suffering as part of the human experience. To this he adds that Sisyphus “teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks,” ultimately concluding that “[o]ne must imagine Sisyphus happy” (123).

—In light of the arduous fate to which he has been condemned, how does one explain this incongruous perspective? How can Sisyphus possibly be happy, given his onerous circumstance? How can one rejoice in torment? Can one embrace the absurd?

—Camus also uses the imperative, saying “We must imagine [Sisyphus] happy?” Why this word must? What implications does this suggest for human beings?

Passage 2. “Absurdity and Suicide”” (pp. 3–10)

Camus opens his essay with a bold claim: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide” (3), saying that the taking of one’s own life is “confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it” (5). Camus further states that “in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger” and that his “exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land” (6). Though Camus ultimately rejects suicide as a rational action, he tries to understand why a human might even consider such a drastic action.

—How has the story of Sisyphus triggered this thought?

—To what might Camus be referring in the words and phrases of the final citation (5)? What might constitute the “lost home” and the “promised land” and how does their absence impact humans in a negative fashion?

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Passage 3. “Absurd Walls” (pp. 12–22; 27–28)

Camus suggests that man seeks clarity in the universe; that if he realized “that the universe like him can love and suffer, he would be reconciled” (17), only to state that man is denied this clarity and instead feels alienated. He further observes, “At this point of his effort man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for rationality. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world” (28).

—What does he mean when he says, “In this unintelligible and limited universe, man’s fate henceforth assumes its meaning” (21)?

—What are the ways in which this man/universe confrontation may be mediated?

—Camus suggests we not be overwhelmed by this realization that the world inherently will not meet our needs and desires. How is this possible?

Passage 4. “Philosophical Suicide” (pp. 28–32; bottom 49–50)

In this section of his essay, Camus implies that some existential philosophers attempt to rationalize the irrational, claiming that “in a closed universe limited to the human, they deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them” (32) and suggesting that the absurd is replaced by God.

What, precisely, is the Absurd? Consider the following passage in your response:

…I must admit that that struggle implies 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). Everything that destroys, conjures away, or exorcises these requirements (and, to begin with consent which overthrows divorce), ruins the absurd and devaluates the attitude that may then be proposed” (31).

—What position would Camus take on these philosophers’ perspective?

—Why does he insist that he “is not interested in philosophical suicide, but rather in plain suicide” (50)? What is the difference? Why does Camus see philosophical suicide as undesirable, and can one possibly avoid it?

Passage 5. “Absurd Freedom” (pp. 51–65)

Camus avers, “In its way, suicide settles the absurd” (54), saying, “Before encountering the absurd, the everyday man lives with aims, a concern for the future or for justification…He weighs his chances, he counts on ‘someday,’ his retirement or the labor of his sons. He still thinks that something in his life can be directed…” (57).

—How does man’s encounter with the absurd change his perspective?

—Why does Camus ultimately opt for defiance over self-sacrifice? How is this stance noble, even heroic?

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About the authors of this Launchpad: Mr. Richard Vogel and Mr. Bernard Sell are high school teachers and were Summer Scholars in the NEH Existentialism summer seminar directed by Professor Thomas Wartenberg, Mt. Holyoke College, in 2014.

ABOUT THE IMAGE

Sisyphus. Gravestone, Highgate Cemetery, London. Photo: vintagedept, Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0