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The Myth of Sisyphus is a book written in 1942 by the French author and philosopher Albert Camus. Despite its small size (only 134 pages), it is full of interesting ideas (some might argue horrifying ideas). Albert Camus is one of the most important contributors to the absurdist philosophy. Absurdism is a rather scary philosophy. Its proponents fundamentaly argue that life does not have an inherent meaning and that any attempts at finding meaning are doomed to fail in the end. This does not sound overly optimistic, however, in my opinion the Myth of Sisyphus ends on a rather optimistic note. In this analysis of Tthe Myth of Sisyphus we will discuss if and how such a philosophy can be considered optimistic. The version of The Myth of Sisyphus that I read can be found here on Amazon: https://amzn.to/37dxTqB
Becoming Aware of the Absurd
Camus argues that ‘the absurd’ is always present in our lives. According to Camus everyone will experience the absurd at one point in his or her life: “It symbolizes that odd state of soul in which the void becomes eloquent, in which the chain of daily gestures is broken, in which the heart vainly seeks the link that will connect it again, then it is as it were the first sign of absurdity.” (p.11) In this sense the absurd can, for instance, take the form of a crisis or a sudden moment of complete consciousness of the absurdity of life.
We might suddenly become aware of the absurd at any moment: “Rising, tram, four hours in the office or factory, meal, tram, 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.” (ibid)
Time and Nature are Absurd
After awakening to the absurd one will notice that the absurd is present in many ways throughout one’s daily live. For instance, Camus illustrates that ‘time’ is absurd: “He belongs to time and, by the horror that seizes him, he recognizes his worst enemy. Tomorrow, he was longing for tomorrow, whereas everything in him ought to reject it.” (p.12) Time kills you, but still we cannot wait until ‘we are grown up’, or until ‘we retire’. According to Camus once one becomes slightly conscious of the absurd, more and more things will start to feel strange: “A step lower and strangeness creeps in 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.” (ibid)
As a result of these sudden revelations, we might find ourselves in an uncomfortable position. According to Camus the world might no longer make any sense. Through tales and habits, we have masked the true nature of the world. Our ‘old world’ is shattered, and we must face the world as it really is, an absurd place.
Efforts to Deny the Absurd
Camus argues that it is impossible to deny the absurd. Any efforts made to give meaning to the world, as also argued by the philosophical school of absurdism, are useless. Camus argues that this is the case because it is simply impossible to know anything for certain: “This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction.” (p.17)
Because one knows so little it is useless to give any meaning to anything, according to Camus. Furthermore, Camus proposes that it is even impossible for anyone to clearly grasp the ‘self’: “For if I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and to summarize it, its nothing but water slipping through my fingers […] Between the certainty I have of my existence and the consent I try to give to that assurance, the gap will never be filled. For ever I shall be a stranger to myself. (p.18)
How to Live with the Absurd
All of this does not sound very promising. According to Camus there is no inherent meaning to our life on this planet, and to make things even worse our lives are, while being meaningless, also absurd. However, the absurd should not necessarily be considered a bad thing: “The Absurd is not in man (if such a metaphor could have a meaning) nor in the world, but in their presence together. For the moment it is the only bond uniting them. […] A single certainty is enough for the seeker. He simply has to derive all the consequences from it.” (p.29)
Since we are not certain of anything, except for the absurd, we can use the absurd to guide us. Man can draw a certain form of strength from his acceptance of the absurd. He can decide to live without any hope for meaning or ‘happy ever after’ fantasies, and thereby accept his fate by accepting the absurd: “The absurd man thus catches sight of a burning and frigid, transparent and limited universe in which nothing is possible, but everything is given, and beyond which all is collapse and nothingness. He can then decide to accept such a universe and draw from it his strength, his refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation.” (p.58)
Friedrich Nietzsche, in Human All Too Human, also argued that hope is one of the greatest evils, disguised as a source of happiness: “Now man has this box of happiness perpetually in the house and congratulates himself upon the treasure inside of it; it is at his service: he grasps it whenever he is so disposed, for he knows not that the box which Pandora brought was a box of evils. Hence he looks upon the one evil still remaining as the greatest source of happiness – it is hope.” (p. 103)
By accepting the absurd, and therefore living without hope, one would rid himself of one of the greatest sources of evil: “Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum.” (p. 61)
Now it is up to us to decide whether Albert Camus’ book the Myth of Sisyphus is absurd, or whether the world around is absurd. I believe that The Myth of Sisyphus puts forward a remarkably interesting theory, a theory which does make more sense after investigating it further. However, what I think is equally interesting, is that we can, even from accepting that the world is meaningless and absurd, still find a form of meaning in this meaninglessness. As such, The Myth of Sisyphus can to a certain extent be considered an optimistic book, despite looking rather pessimistic in the beginning. If you liked this discussion, then you might also be interested in Nietzsche’s theory of The Eternal Recurrence.
Thank you for reading! Please let me know what you think of Albert Camus’ the Myth of Sisyphus.