Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus – Embracing life’s absurdity in a universe that couldn’t care less
Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) was born in present-day Dréan, a small town at the very Eastern end of Algeria’s coastline, which at the time was under French occupation and part of French Algeria. Camus was from what they used to call a Pied-Noir family, people of French descent living in the North-African French colony.
He was one of the most influential thinkers in France and post-war Europe. Together with his philosophical drinking-buddies, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, he discussed the meaning of life, or lack thereof. Sartre, De Beauvoir, and Camus were existentialists and the core of existentialism lies in the concepts of finitude, death and their accompanying anxieties. The anguish of the human condition in a universe that doesn’t care.
Camus was an exceptionally good-looking and charming character, and had a virile track record with women to match. In short, unlike Nietzsche or Schopenhauer, he’s the philosopher you’d actually want to be. Tragically, he died in a car accident at the early age of 46, after he chose at the last moment to not take train. One of his philosophical works, and probably the most famous one, is The Myth of Sysiphus, written in 1942 while living in Nazi-occupied Bordeaux.
The book revolved around the question whether life was meaningful enough to not just commit suicide and be done with it.
“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. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories, comes afterwards.”
This book explains the tragedy of human life and the world’s indifference towards it. In this indifferent world, mankind tries to illuminate existence and to make sense of it all. To structure the world is to lessen the existential anguish which is bound to a mortal existence. This is the human condition. A yearning for the known and the structured. The need for balance and contemplation.
Camus describes the daily lives of generic people, always going forward, thinking about tomorrow and yesterday. Always in a rush and in a state of structured illusion and repetition. Mankind at the same time both loves and hates the repetitive life. It hates it, because it always leads to a moment of wonder and contemplation about the meaning of life and existence, which can induce profound anxiety.
On the other hand, mankind loves repetition, because most of the time it gives him the illusion of balance purpose:
“A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.”
The last word, ‘absurdity’, is what he became most widely associated with. It is why Camus didn’t want people to call him an existentialist, but an Absurdist. The absurdity of life is the core of Camus’ work and his gateway out of nihilism and suicide.
The absurd is the result of the confrontation between the human condition and his inclination to make sense of reality and the indifference of the universe towards it. This moment, when everything feels so strange and alien, when everything else feels so large and oneself so tiny, this is the Absurd:
Perceiving that the world is ‘dense’, sensing to what degree a stone is foreign and irreducible to us, with what intensity nature or a landscape can negate us. At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them, henceforth more remote than a lost paradise. The primitive hostility of the world rises up to face us across millennia. For a second we cease to understand it because for centuries we have understood in it solely the images and designs that we had attributed to it beforehand, because henceforth we lack the power to make use of that artifice. The world evades us because it becomes itself again.
Our human condition is primed to use heuristics and general laws to structure our lives and give a certain share of meaning to it. That’s okay, Camus explains, but to really give our lives meaning and depth, we need to understand the human role in this universe. We need to understand how little we know and how little we can actually do to understand the Truth. Even through science, we can’t grasp the essence of reality, Camus says:
And here are trees and I know their gnarled surface, water and I feel its taste. These scents of grass and stars at night, certain evenings when the heart relaxes – how shall I negate this world whose power and strength I feel? Yet all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine. You describe it to me and you teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanism and my hope increases. At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multi-coloured universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know. Have I the time to become indignant? You have already changed theories. So that science that was to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art.
What is the answer to it all, when we, as humans, can’t even begin to grasp reality? Is life worth living, or should we just be done with it and kill ourselves? Neither, says Camus. There is a third choice. Maybe life is worth living, maybe life has a meaning, but we can’t know. In this part, Camus explains the Absurd as an almost transcendental entity. Something we humans can’t grasp, but is always there and it’s always a part of our life. We have but to take ‘the leap’ and recognise the nature of human reality, and w can go forward with all our strength and with all the freedom that is attached to it. Face the anguish and push forward. Give your life meaning and be the individual and the man you want to be. You have the freedom and willpower to reach your goals, if you would only grasp them.
Camus explains this with his idea about the eternal revolt. Not only philosophically, but also against reality. Reality may be hard and unreasonable, but if you would revolt against it, constantly, you can achieve anything. You will reach your goals and find happiness in a world that is fundamentally absurd and terrifying.
“The theme of permanent revolution is thus carried into individual experience. Living is keeping the absurd alive. Keeping it alive is above all contemplating it. Unlike Eurydice, the absurd dies only when we turn away from it. One of the only coherent philosophical positions is thus revolt. It is a constant confrontation between man and his own obscurity. It is an insistence upon an impossible transparency. It challenges the world anew every second. Just as danger provided man of seizing awareness, so metaphysical revolt extends awareness to the whole of experience. It is that constant presence of man in his own eyes. It is not aspiration, for it is devoid of hope. That revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it.”
This confrontation with oneself, his world, and the consequences is the core and the key to Camus’ philosophy. He brought man back to his knees and made him aware of his insignificance in this world and universe. Man creates his own dignity through determination and humility. That’s the key to life.
Man is like Sisyphus, the former King of Ephyra, who was condemned to push a large boulder to the top of a mountain. At the top the boulder would fall back to the foot. Then Sisyphus would repeat the same action, “till the end of days“, the same scenario would repeat:
There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort 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 towards his rock, in that slight pivoting, he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death.
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 unaversive 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 towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.