The Struggle of Sisyphus: Absurdity and Ethics in the work of Albert Camus
Absurdist Camus - The Myth of Sisyphus
Kem Stone - July 2006
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide” (Camus, Myth, 3).  This bold and
striking assertion is how Camus begins
The Myth of Sisyphus, his essay on the absurd and its implications for
human life.  Immediately, one might object that there are more serious philosophical problems than that of suicide.  
While this issue is certainly important, Camus might first consider the epistemological question of whether we can
actually
know whether life is worth living (Kamber, 51).  Camus, however, is not actually considering the problem
of suicide in general, but rather the much narrower question of whether the discovery of the absurd leads one to
the conclusion that life is not worth living.  Or to put it simply: “should a person convinced that life is absurd
conclude that there is no point in continuing to live?” (Kamber, 52).

In considering this question alone, it is easy to see how one might come to the conclusion that life’s absurdity does
indeed render it pointless.  For instance, a person raised as a Christian is taught that life’s purpose is to accept
Christ and earn one’s place in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Should this person eventually lose faith and accept that
nothing he or she does has any bearing on a life beyond this one might easily conclude that all struggles are fruitless
and that life is not worth living.  Why love thy neighbour and give up worldly possessions if there is no reward
waiting in the afterlife?  Why do anything at all if nothing lasts forever and all accomplishments are doomed to
destruction?  If we know that any sand-castles we build will inevitably be washed away by the tide, why exert the
effort towards building them?  In the same vein, might we not conclude that life itself warrants no effort when all
our efforts amount to nothing in the end?

Camus recognises this problem and intends to give it serious treatment:

    Hitherto, and it has not been wasted effort, people have played on words and pretended to believe
    that refusing to grant a meaning to life necessarily leads to declaring that it is not worth living.  In
    truth, there is no necessary common measure between these two judgments….One kills oneself
    because life is not worth living, that is certainly a truth—yet an unfruitful one because it is a truism.  
    But does that insult to existence, that flat denial in which it is plunged come from the fact that it has
    no meaning?  Does its absurdity require one to escape it through hope or suicide—this is what must
    be clarified, hunted down, and elucidated while brushing aside all the rest.  Does the Absurd dictate
    death?  This problem must be given priority over others, outside all methods of thought and all
    exercises of the disinterested mind.  (Camus, Myth, 7)

Camus clearly feels that the judgment that life is absurd does not necessarily lead to the judgment that it is not
worth living.  He must therefore show that life can be meaningless and valuable at the same time—that we should
live our lives in spite of the recognition that our lives do not matter.


Christianity

While the issue of Christianity is never directly addressed in The Myth of Sisyphus, it is nevertheless an important
aspect of the confrontation with the absurd.  “With the advent of the modern period and of critical reason, Jesus
was discovered to be not God but man, and with this discovery Western civilization had come full circle back to
the realities of evil and death from which it had arisen, leaving human suffering unjustified and unexplained beneath
the veiled face of a sovereign God” (Hanna,
CCE, 54).  For centuries, Europeans lived their lives while taking the
doctrines of the Christian faith more or less for granted.  But as the influence of science and reason grew, these
doctrines were brought into question.  It became harder and harder to accept claims such as the Immaculate
Conception or the Resurrection because these miracles stood in direct contradiction to what we know to be
scientifically possible.  More and more people came to the conclusion that Jesus could not have been anything
more than a man, as mortal as all other men.  And if Jesus himself had not been resurrected, there was no longer
any hope of man’s resurrection.

Camus recognises the significance of this loss of faith for humanity.  The issues that Christianity professes to
resolve are the issues that Camus himself is most concerned with.  “As a philosophical thinker, he was
preoccupied with questions about the place of humanity in the universe, the meaning of human life, reasons for
living, and morality—questions central to all religions, including Christianity” (Kamber, 7).  In spite of his deep
concern over these issues, Camus does not accept the answers given by the Christian religion.  He does not
believe that human beings ought to spend their lives in preparation for another life, as he is convinced we have only
this life.  Therefore we must look for our reasons to live
within this life, and not outside of it.  “He liked to think of
himself as instinctively pagan: a man in love with the tangible pleasures of this earth rather than the ethereal
blessings of heaven” (Kamber, 7).  This type of sentiment—that man should be more concerned with earth than
heaven—can be found throughout Camus’ work, most notably in the character of Meursault in
The Stranger,
who takes the impulse for appreciating only worldly experiences to its extreme.  This issue will be returned to later.

For Camus, people who live according to religious doctrines such as that of Christianity are subordinating the
value of their own life to something external to it.  Their belief that life is worth living is not based in the value of life
itself, but in the promise of an eternal reward to be gained once life is over.  Life is not an end in itself, but merely
the means to a higher end.  But for the atheist, there is no higher end to which life brings us.  If life is to be
appreciated, it can only be appreciated for its own sake.  To live merely for the hope of another life is to drain one’
s own life of value.  “For Camus, to live life in its fullest majesty is to live it for its own sake in unflinching
recognition of the absurd.  Instead of being humbled by the world’s unintelligibility and lack of hope, we should
defiantly assert our independence by refusing hope and affirming life” (Kamber, 59).  Camus’ message stands in
complete contradiction with Christianity, which teaches detachment from earthly things and the hope of everlasting
life in heaven.


Absurdity

The notion of the absurd appears in every one of Camus’ works, but nowhere does he spend as much time
defining and clarifying the term than in the first section of
The Myth of Sisyphus, entitled “An Absurd Reasoning”.  
Man’s confrontation with the absurd is almost inevitable; as our lives play out and we find ourselves lost in routine,
we are bound to question the reasons we have for doing the things that we do.

    It happens that the stage sets collapse.  Rising streetcars, four hours in the office or the factory, meal,
    streetcar, 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.  (Camus, Myth, 10)

It is this “why” that presents the problem.  If we can not accept the answers that religion provides, we find
ourselves with only questions.  We may be able to determine our reasons for performing certain actions—I go to
work so I can make money, make money so I can eat, eat so I can live—but for what purpose do I live?  We can
find no definite answer to this question, and are thereby confronted with the absurd.

And so absurdity arises as a confrontation between man and the world.  “In this particular case and on the plane
of intelligence, I can therefore say that the Absurd is not in man…nor in the world, but in their presence together”
(Camus,
Myth, 23).  There is nothing inherently absurd about the mind or the world when considered separately,
but putting them together results in a torrent of confusion and contradiction.  It is one of the oldest and most
difficult philosophical problems—how to reconcile conscious experience with the world
of conscious experience.  
Camus makes no attempt to solve this problem, but declares that we must accept it as insoluble and take it from
there.

    And it is by this elementary criterion that I judge the notion of the absurd to be essential and consider
    that it can stand as the first of my truths.  The rule of method alluded to above appears here.  If I
    judge that a thing is true, I must preserve it.  If I attempt to solve a problem, at least I must not by
    that very solution conjure away one of the terms of the problem.  For me the sole datum is the
    absurd.  The first and, after all, the only condition of my inquiry is to preserve the very thing that
    crushes me, consequently to respect what I consider essential in it.  I have just defined it as a
    confrontation and an unceasing struggle. (Camus, Myth, 23)

Camus makes it clear that his intention is not to reject the absurd as a false conclusion but to accept it as a first
premise and draw conclusions based upon it.  And the absurd, according to Camus, is the confrontation between
what man thinks the world
should be and what it actually is.

Camus must only show that this confrontation need not result in despair.  If a man can accept the absurd and still
find satisfaction in life, then Camus’ conclusion is correct and the absurd does not lead to suicide.  But if there is
no God, what could make life satisfying?  The answer is the one thing man gains by God’s removal: freedom.  
Camus clarifies that he is not discussing freedom in the sense of the debate over whether man’s actions are free or
predetermined, but merely in terms of our freedom to act as we wish.

    The only conception of freedom I can have is that of the prisoner or the individual in the midst of the
    State.  The only one I know is freedom of thought and action.  Now if the absurd cancels all my
    chances of eternal freedom, it restores and magnifies, on the other hand, my freedom of action.  That
    privation of hope and future means an increase in man’s availability.  (Camus, Myth, 42)

By rejecting the notion of a Divine Will, we are left with only
our will.  We cast off the chains of the Master and
find ourselves at liberty to do as we please.  Thus, “the discovery of the absurd is liberating.  It frees us from our
precious illusions.  But the price of this freedom is high.  If the world has no moral order, no meaning, direction, or
standards by which our choices can be judged, how can we lead meaningful lives?” (Kamber, 56).  So there is a
downside: man can appreciate that he
can choose, but he must also face the anguish of knowing that he must
choose.

Thus we have “Absurd Freedom.”  If God does not exist, then no action is forbidden, but nor is any action
recommended.  We are left completely in the dark, able to travel in any direction but unable to see where each
direction leads.  Camus’ position seems to have back-fired—life is not only meaningless but full of anguish.  Still,
he only needs to show that a life freely chosen in recognition of the absurd can be worth living.  And in the next
major section of
The Myth of Sisyphus entitled, “The Absurd Man” Camus paints three portraits of individuals
living out their lives in the face of the absurd—the Don Juan, the play-actor, and the conqueror.  They have each
chosen for themselves a way of life that is fulfilling to them, with no direction from God or religion.  While they
may not be accomplishing anything of eternal significance, Camus wants to endow their struggles with a different
sort of value—the value of action in spite of futility.  “There is thus a metaphysical honor in enduring the world’s
absurdity.  Conquest or play-acting, multiple loves, absurd revolt are tributes that man pays to his dignity in a
campaign in which he is defeated in advance” (Camus,
Myth, 69).


Values

With his three portraits in “The Absurd Man” Camus begins to give shape to the sort of value he is proposing, and
in his next section, “Absurd Creation,” he gives it a name and a description:

    In that daily effort in which intelligence and passion mingle and delight each other, the absurd man
    discovers a discipline that will make up the greatest of his strengths.  The required diligence, the
    doggedness and lucidity thus resemble the conqueror’s attitude.  To create is likewise to give a
    shape to one’s fate.  For all these characters, their work defines them at least as much is it is defined
    by them.  (Camus, Myth, 86).

The value is in shaping one’s own fate according to one’s own values and desires.  Rather than subvert to the will
of a higher being that does not exist, human beings ought to live by their own will, in constant confrontation with
the absurd.  By performing an action while at the same time recognizing the futility of that action, the action takes
on a new value.  If one can live by this value, then one’s life can indeed be worth living.

The final section of the essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus” provides us with a powerful illustration of this message.  
Camus chooses the Greek hero Sisyphus as his icon—an appropriate selection due to Camus’ pagan sentiments.  
In the version of the myth that Camus describes, Sisyphus obtains permission from Pluto to temporarily leave the
underworld, but loves earthly life so much that in defiance of the gods, he refuses to return.  His punishment is to
spend eternity rolling a rock up a mountain.

    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. (Camus, Myth, 89)

The story of Sisyphus is tragic because its hero is conscious of his fate—he knows that every time his rock
reaches the summit it will roll back down and he will be forced to repeat the task again.  It is this moment that
Camus draws our attention to, the moment when Sisyphus turns to begin his descent down the mountain.

This moment captures the essence of Camus’ meaning.  “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” (Camus,
Myth, 90).  In spite of the absurdity and cruelty of his fate, Sisyphus continues to endure, continuously pushing the
rock up the mountain with full knowledge that it will only come crashing down again.  And just as Sisyphus
endures in spite of absurdity, so must we.  It may be that none of our actions has any deeper meaning or enduring
significance, but if we act anyway we prove our strength, and
that is what gives our action its value.  “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 cannot be surmounted by scorn” (Camus,
Myth, 90).

Camus is proposing that we will never be able to get beyond the absurdity of life, but we can rise above it by
accepting it and enduring in the face of it.  We may not have the power to alter our condition but we do have the
power to change our attitude regarding it.  “The gods have assumed that Sisyphus will be crushed by the misery of
his fate.  But Sisyphus in Camus’ tale proves stronger than the gods.  He scorns the gods by embracing his labor
with perverse enthusiasm and by refusing to be miserable” (Kamber, 61).  This is exactly the attitude that Camus
is advancing.  It may seem that our only two options when confronted with the absurd are denial and despair.  
Camus does not wish to take the path of religion and deny life’s absurdity, but he also does not wish to despair.  
Thus he presents us with a third option—acceptance.

And so Camus concludes that absurdity does not in fact lead to suicide.  Life can be worth living even without a
God to bestow it with grace.  Like Sisyphus, we can embrace our futile struggles with open arms and laugh at our
absurd circumstances.

    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.  (Camus,
    Myth, 91)

Why despair over the absence of a higher world when there is plenty to appreciate in this one, absurd as it might
be?  Life does not require a divine purpose to make it worth living—it is enough to live for by itself.  Thus the
message of Sisyphus is to appreciate every passing moment, to live without appeal to anything beyond life itself,
and to adopt a positive attitude regarding life’s absurdity.  While many of his opinions change as his career
develops, these beliefs remain central to Camus’ philosophy.