The Myth of Sisyphus: Lessons in Absurdity
The legend of Sisyphus begins with a man who, if we are to believe Homer, was one of the wisest and most prudent of mortals. Nonetheless he would fall out of favor with the gods of ancient Greece. He was taken to the kingdom of the underworld and was forced to endure one of the most pointless and excruciating punishments of ancient mythology.
Every day, he would carry a massive boulder up a mountain, straining and sweating all the while. When Sisyphus reached the top of the mountain, the boulder would immediately roll back down the hill in a matter of moments. Sisyphus would then make his tired march down the hill where he would start this task over again. It is said that Sisyphus would be forced to endure this for all of time, performing a pointless, tired task until the end of existence.
‘Sisyphus’ by Antonio Zanchi. (Public Domain )
How did Sisyphus Anger the Gods?
What did Sisyphus do to anger the gods? There are several different accounts. The one that Albert Camus seems to favor in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, involves Sisyphus testing his wife's devotion and love as he nears death.
According to the story, Sisyphus asks his wife that, upon his death, she cast his unburied body into the town square. When Sisyphus dies he wakes up in the underworld only to find that his wife has indeed fulfilled his request. Sisyphus is angered that his wife would choose strict obedience to his word, rather than devoted love to his memory and dignity. Sisyphus is deeply troubled and (for reasons I don't understand personally) asks Hades to return him to the world of the living so that he might scold his wife.
- Sisyphus: King Cheats Death, Annoys Zeus, and Receives Never-ending Punishment in the Greek Underworld
- Crime and Punishment: Eternal Damnations as handed down by the Ancient Greek Gods
- The Hell of Tartarus, Ancient Greek Prison of the Damned
It would seem that Sisyphus' wife is truly the tragic hero in this story, having followed her husband’s request she is promptly confronted with a newly resurrected Sisyphus who scolds her for only doing as he asked. It doesn't make sense, I know, but stick with me on this one.
After Sisyphus returns to the mortal world he quickly decides that he does not wish to return to the underworld. He learns to love the trees, the cool oceans, and the feel of warm stone under his feet. He wishes to stay and so betrays Hades by refusing to return. It is only after Hermes swiftly captures the newly freed man, does Sisyphus return to the land of the dead. And there his boulder is waiting for him.
Persephone supervising Sisyphus in the Underworld, Attica black-figure amphora (vase), c. 530 BC, Staatliche Antikensammlungen. (Public Domain)
It is not hard to see how Algerian author and philosopher Albert Camus would find inspiration for his philosophy of Absurdism from the myth of Sisyphus. In The Myth Of Sisyphus, his first essay published in 1942, Camus uses the myth as a cornerstone on which to build his unique school of existential thought, known as Absurdism.
Absurdism teaches that human beings struggle with an internal, never ending quest for purpose and fulfillment in life. This search for purpose is in direct conflict with the apparent purposelessness of the universe. Struggling to find meaning in a universe devoid of any is at the heart of the human condition, a condition that tortures us the more we fight against it.
Albert Camus. (CC BY SA 4.0)
Camus writes that he is not so interested in the observation of the absurd, but rather the consequences of realizing it. He explains that we can either ignore the absurd, continue to search for meaning in vain, or reject the absurd and rebel against the purposelessness of the universe. In his own words...
"There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn." -Albert Camus (The Myth of Sisyphus)
Despite how it may appear, and this is the important part, The Myth of Sisyphus is not the musings of a mad man bent on self-destruction. It is instead a manual for happiness. Camus tells us that as the boulder rolls back down the hill, Sisyphus must slowly descend to retrieve the rock to repeat his punishment. It is at this moment that he reflects on his punishment, much like the human being must become conscious of the absurd predicament of life. And yet it is in this moment of self-reflection that we are happiest.
‘Sisyphus’ (1920) by Franz Stuck. (Public Domain)
By accepting the absurd we can likewise accept the fact that life is meaningless, and it is at this time that we are capable of living fully.
Our lives become a constant revolt against the meaninglessness of the universe and we can finally live freely. All at once the universe is quieted, the gods that might wish to control us cease to exist. Our lives become our lives alone, not dictated by any outside force. Our fate becomes a human matter that can only be settled among men.
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What Sisyphus can Show Us
The legend of Sisyphus would appear tragic. A man condemned to struggle eternally, he never accomplishes anything of value. The philosopher Albert Camus would tell us that, much like Sisyphus, our lives are devoid of any real meaning or purpose. Our struggle to find purpose that does not exist is the root of human despair.
It is only when we accept the absurdity of life, only when we rebel against the meaninglessness of the universe, do we truly become free. Life is lived all the better if it has no purpose. We become captains of our own ships, authors of our own story. And it is only at our most fragile, most uncertain times that we may say 'All is well'...
Top Image: Detail of ‘The Punishment of Sisyphus’ (1548-1549) by Titian. Source: Public Domain
By Van Bryan