Book Review: The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays by Albert Camus

“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 questions of philosophy.”

I think that to most healthy individuals, the notion of resorting to suicide can be inconceivable. Humans are biological organisms like any other: evolutionarily geared towards survival, genetically hardwired with strong instincts for self-preservation. How then might the phenomenon of suicide be explained? What drives anyone to consider killing themselves?

Camus’ answer to this question is what he calls the absurd – a conflict between man’s search for meaning and the indifference of the universe. Most of the time, we tend to get through life without ever noticing the absurd. But then one day, out of the blue, we might find ourselves taking a good long look at the repetitive, futile, monotonous nature of existence. Everyday we wake up, we work, we sleep, and eventually we die. On a larger scale we also know that our presence here on earth is merely transitory, that everything we’ve strived for will cease to matter at some point in time. All our monuments, technology, and scientific advancements will be swallowed up by the vast silence of eternity someday. And when we find ourselves becoming conscious of such things, we naturally think “Well, ****.”

This was illustrated by the story of Sisyphus in his book, a Greek mythological figure who kidnapped and chained death so humans could live forever. As you can imagine, the gods weren’t too happy about that, so they sent him to Hades (the underworld) and condemned him to an eternity spent rolling a huge boulder up a mountain every day, only for the boulder to roll back down each evening for him to start all over again the next day. No matter how many obstacles we face and overcome everyday, tomorrow there are always more. There will be more the day after, and the day after that, and so on, everyday until we die. 

Like Sisyphus, our boulder always rolls back down, and we always have to start again in the morning. And we become conscious of the fact that this is just what life is, that it’s one never-ending, repetitive struggle, we might ask ourselves what the point of doing anything even is. Why struggle to push our boulders all the way up, if we’re just going to have to do it tomorrow? 

So what do we do in the face of this terrible, soul-crushing truth? How are meant to grapple with the existential despair that accompanies our realization that everything is meaningless? How do we convince ourselves that life is even worth the trouble of living? Camus thinks that when we become conscious of the absurd, we lose hope and stop finding satisfaction in our daily lives. It’s hard to want to live once you become aware that this is all life is and that nothing means anything.  According to him, we might resort to committing one of two forms of suicide as a result: physical or philosophical.

“The absurd ends with death.”

If you ask yourself “what is the meaning of life?”, and you can’t come up with any satisfactory answer that makes it worth suffering through, you might commit physical suicide by killing yourself. You might escape the absurd through death, because it’s not like you can worry about the meaning of life if you haven’t got a life to live in the first place. 

When we ascribe to religious ideas about there being some sort of higher purpose to which we are simply not privy, we are committing philosophical suicide. This is what Camus calls a “leap of faith”, surrendering to spiritual ideas about a greater meaning to the universe, an afterlife that makes the struggle of this one worth living.

Either way, we are absolved of our need to confront the absurd and find meaning in our lives. Camus rejects both types of suicides, and instead of trying to escape the absurd, urges us to “revolt” against it. Because only by living in full awareness of the absurd can we be given the opportunity to truly make life beautiful. To give it the meaning that we decide to give it.

He believes that because Sisyphus is fully aware of his situation, he can choose to live in the face of its absurdity, and by doing so, he changes his fate from tragic to empowering. Once he understands that the boulder will inevitably roll down every evening for the rest of eternity, he can find some control over the situation, because every successful trip up the hill is a win, and every morning is an opportunity to triumph over all the struggles of rolling that boulder uphill.

We can also live our best lives by remaining fully conscious of the absurd and choosing to keep going anyway. We too can become masters of our fate, and we can rebel against the pointlessness of existence by creating meaning in it wherever we want. For example, I love hiking with my dog and reading good books – this is what gives my life meaning. What gives yours meaning may be different; the point is that it is up to you, because it is your life to live, just like it is Sisyphus’ boulder to roll uphill.

“All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him, his rock is his thing.”

Instead of despairing over it, we can choose to live passionately and happily in the face of all our struggles, even if we know that tomorrow the struggle will start all over again. Like Sisyphus, we can keep pushing our boulders up the hill everyday, because each step along the way is a triumph; each step is a reminder of our choice to keep going, even when the odds seem stacked endlessly against us.

“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

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