Radhule Weininger reconsiders the mythical sufferer as a joyful model for us all.

(credit to Radhule Weininger)

In these unpredictable and possibly perilous times, many of us experience feelings of heightened anxiety, fear, and even dread.

When I contemplate the committed people I know working for the well-being of the planet, for healthcare, the environment, and immigrant rights, I think of Sisyphus. The Greek hero was condemned by the Gods to do a task for eternity. Each day he struggled to roll a huge stone to the top of a mountain only to watch it roll back down on its own weight. Some see Sisyphus as the quintessential sufferer, condemned to repeating hopeless and meaningless toil.

Like the mythic Sisyphus, many of us harbor suspicions that the stones we push up the mountain are just about to roll to the bottom once again. Many of us worry that our acts of engagement may be futile.

I have come to see Sisyphus an enlightened being.

One of the best-known writers to examine this myth is the existentialist Albert Camus. He proposes an alternate and inspiring view of Sisyphus. In The Myth of Sisyphus Camus sees the absurd hero as the one who defies the gods because they have abused their power. Sisyphus’ punishment for speaking out is to effort the stone up the mountain. In Camus’ interpretation, Sisyphus is well aware of his situation, of what led up to it as well as what his future will be. According to Camus, Sisyphus pushes his stone forward with an attitude of knowing, dignity, and even joy, choosing to be present to his task. Knowing that he has no choice other than to shove the stone up the tall and steep mountain again and again, he uses what choice remains to turn and replace sorrow with joy.

I see Sisyphus as deeply present with what is; he embraces the absurd, which Camus saw as the result of our desire for meaning in a meaningless world. Sisyphus realizes that in tending to the part, he is tending to the whole. Camus writes “…each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world.” In engaging with his own world, by showing an attitude of mindfulness, kindness, and complete presence, Sisyphus engages with the entire world.

On a recent meditation retreat, I felt myself drawn to reflect on the stone and Sisyphus’s relationship to it. I kept coming back to a fundamental understanding: As we are taking care of our personal world with kind attention, we are also taking care of the whole. I thought of the many people I know who, in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, give their all to work in some small way to help the world. My friend Manny Jesus, a retired professor of psychology, ceaselessly tries to assure the well-being and protection of Mexican-American youths as he engages in battles with city boards. Terrified about the fate of future generations, Nancy and seven other mothers get together while their children are in school to write letters to congressmembers about healthcare, education, and the environment.

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Enter your email How would it be if they, indeed if we all, saw this stone in a fresh way? Not as the burden of one Sisyphus pushing his or her personal stone up the hill, but as the common burden belonging to all of us, the rough and heavy boulder of our “human condition”? How would it be if we could, with eyes wide open embrace our “human condition,” deciding to carry this stone for the sake of all of us? Seeing each small act as one of compassion and solidarity, of understanding that everybody has the task of moving the stone of our human condition forward, we give meaning to our lives.

In engaging with his own world, by showing an attitude of mindfulness, kindness, and complete presence, Sisyphus engages with the entire world. I have come to see Sisyphus as a bodhisattva. In the Buddhist tradition, the bodhisattva is an enlightened being, who chooses to forgo entry into Nirvana so she can stay with all others, until the last suffering being will be saved. The bodhisattva understands that everything in life is interdependent and constantly co-arising, forever. The bodhisattva does what he does out of love and without regard for the immediate outcome. The bodhisattva’s insight that we are all connected, that we are all relatives, gives rise to her deep loving care.

Buddhist scholar and social activist Joanna Macy tells us, “If we take bodhichitta, the desire for the welfare of all beings, as our foundation stone, then that is what we can count on, whatever else is happening.”

Camus’ Sisyphus is joyful. He is filled with gladness as he takes his fate into his own hands and chooses to participate out of his own choice.

What happens when Sisyphus walks down the hill, aware of his feet sensing the earth, before he chooses to pick up the stone once again? As my Sisyphus wanders downwards, following gravity, he is in the flow. This moment gives him respite and the refuge to be with what is, now with lightness and vision.

As we give to others with love, we begin to transcend loneliness, separation and fear. As I think of my own engagement in this current world, I feel a sense of freedom. I see myself embarking on my various projects propelled forward by my own choice and by the tenderness I feel for others.

The central concern of The Myth of Sisyphus is what Camus calls "the absurd." Camus claims that there is a fundamental conflict between what we want from the universe (whether it be meaning, order, or reasons) and what we find in the universe (formless chaos). We will never find in life itself the meaning that we want to find. Either we will discover that meaning through a leap of faith, by placing our hopes in a God beyond this world, or we will conclude that life is meaningless. Camus opens the essay by asking if this latter conclusion that life is meaningless necessarily leads one to commit suicide. If life has no meaning, does that mean life is not worth living? If that were the case, we would have no option but to make a leap of faith or to commit suicide, says Camus. Camus is interested in pursuing a third possibility: that we can accept and live in a world devoid of meaning or purpose.

The absurd is a contradiction that cannot be reconciled, and any attempt to reconcile this contradiction is simply an attempt to escape from it: facing the absurd is struggling against it. Camus claims that existentialist philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Chestov, and Jaspers, and phenomenologists such as Husserl, all confront the contradiction of the absurd but then try to escape from it. Existentialists find no meaning or order in existence and then attempt to find some sort of transcendence or meaning in this very meaninglessness.

Living with the absurd, Camus suggests, is a matter of facing this fundamental contradiction and maintaining constant awareness of it. Facing the absurd does not entail suicide, but, on the contrary, allows us to live life to its fullest.

Camus identifies three characteristics of the absurd life: revolt (we must not accept any answer or reconciliation in our struggle), freedom (we are absolutely free to think and behave as we choose), and passion (we must pursue a life of rich and diverse experiences).

Camus gives four examples of the absurd life: the seducer, who pursues the passions of the moment; the actor, who compresses the passions of hundreds of lives into a stage career; the conqueror, or rebel, whose political struggle focuses his energies; and the artist, who creates entire worlds. Absurd art does not try to explain experience, but simply describes it. It presents a certain worldview that deals with particular matters rather than aiming for universal themes.

The book ends with a discussion of the myth of Sisyphus, who, according to the Greek myth, was punished for all eternity to roll a rock up a mountain only to have it roll back down to the bottom when he reaches the top. Camus claims that Sisyphus is the ideal absurd hero and that his punishment is representative of the human condition: Sisyphus must struggle perpetually and without hope of success. So long as he accepts that there is nothing more to life than this absurd struggle, then he can find happiness in it, says Camus.

Camus appends his essay with a discussion of the works of Franz Kafka. He ultimately concludes that Kafka is an existentialist, who, like Kierkegaard, chooses to make a leap of faith rather than accept his absurd condition. However, Camus admires Kafka for expressing humanity's absurd predicament so perfectly.

Albert Camus (1913–1960) is not a philosopher so much as a novelist with a strong philosophical bent. He is most famous for his novels of ideas, such as The Stranger and The Plague, both of which are set in the arid landscape of his native Algeria.

Camus studied philosophy at the University of Algiers, which brought him into contact with two of the major branches of twentieth century philosophy: existentialism and phenomenology. Existentialism arises from an awareness that there is no pre-ordained meaning or order in the universe and that we must take responsibility for determining the meaning and order we are to give to our lives. Camus is particularly interested in religious existentialists, such as Kierkegaard (though such a label is not entirely fair to Kierkegard), who conclude that there is no meaning to be found in human experience, and that this necessitates a "leap of faith" that places an irrational and blind faith in God.

Phenomenology, as advocated by Edmund Husserl, confines itself to observing and describing our own consciousness without drawing any conclusions regarding causes or connections. Like existentialism, phenomenology influenced Camus by its effort to construct a worldview that does not assume that there is some sort of rational structure to the universe that the human mind can apprehend.

This idea—that the universe has a rational structure that the mind can apprehend—characterizes an older trend in European philosophy called "rationalism." Rationalism traces its roots to Rene Descartes and to the birth of modern philosophy. Most of twentieth century European philosophy has been a direct reaction to this older tradition, a reactionary attempt to explore the possibility that the universe has no rational structure for the mind to apprehend.

Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus around the same time he wrote his first novel, The Stranger, at the beginning of World War II. Camus was working for the French Resistance in Paris at this time, far from his native Algeria. While it is never wise to reduce ideas to their autobiographical background, the circumstances in which this essay was written can help us understand its tone. The metaphor of exile that Camus uses to describe the human predicament and the sense that life is a meaningless and futile struggle both make a great deal of sense coming from a man, far from his home, who was struggling against a seemingly omnipotent and senselessly brutal regime.

An Absurd Reasoning: Absurdity and Suicide

"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide." If we judge the importance of a philosophical problem by the consequences it entails, the problem of the meaning of life is certainly the most important. Someone who judges that life is not worth living will commit suicide, and those who feel they have found some meaning to life may be inclined to die or kill to defend that meaning. Other philosophical problems do not entail such drastic consequences.

Camus suggests that suicide amounts to a confession that life is not worth living. He links this confession to what he calls the "feeling of absurdity." On the whole, we go through life with a sense of meaning and purpose, with a sense that we do things for good and profound reasons. Occasionally, however, we might come to see our daily actions and interactions as dictated primarily by the force of habit. We cease to see ourselves as free agents and come to see ourselves almost as machine-like drones. From this perspective, all our actions, desires, and reasons seem absurd and pointless. The feeling of absurdity is closely linked to the feeling that life is meaningless.

Summary "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide." If we judge the importance of a philosophical problem by the consequences it entails, the problem of the meaning of life is certainly the most important. Someone who judges that life is not worth living will commit suicide, and those who feel they have found some meaning to life may be inclined to die or kill to defend that meaning. Other philosophical problems do not entail such drastic consequences.

Camus suggests that suicide amounts to a confession that life is not worth living. He links this confession to what he calls the "feeling of absurdity." On the whole, we go through life with a sense of meaning and purpose, with a sense that we do things for good and profound reasons. Occasionally, however, we might come to see our daily actions and interactions as dictated primarily by the force of habit. We cease to see ourselves as free agents and come to see ourselves almost as machine-like drones. From this perspective, all our actions, desires, and reasons seem absurd and pointless. The feeling of absurdity is closely linked to the feeling that life is meaningless.

Camus also associates the feeling of absurdity with the feeling of exile, a theme that is important not just in this essay but also in much of his fiction. As rational members of human society, we instinctively feel that life has some sort of meaning or purpose. When we act under this assumption, we feel at home. As a result, absurdists feel like strangers in a world divested of reason. The feeling of absurdity exiles us from the homelike comforts of a meaningful existence.

The feeling of absurdity is linked to the idea that life is meaningless, and the act of suicide is linked to the idea that life is not worth living. The pressing question of this essay, then, is whether the idea that life is meaningless necessarily implies that life is not worth living. Is suicide a solution to the absurd? We should not be fooled, Camus suggests, by the fact that there are only two possible outcomes (life or suicide)—that there are only two possible answers to this question. Most of us continue living largely because we have not reached a definitive answer to this question. Further, there are plenty of contradictions between people's judgments and their actions. Those who commit suicide might be assured life has meaning, and many who feel that life is not worth living still continue to live.

Face to face with the meaninglessness of existence, what keeps us from suicide? To a large extent, Camus suggests that our instinct for life is much stronger than our reasons for suicide: "We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking." We instinctively avoid facing the full consequences of the meaningless nature of life, through what Camus calls an "act of eluding." This act of eluding most frequently manifests itself as hope. By hoping for another life, or hoping to find some meaning in this life, we put off facing the consequences of the absurd, of the meaninglessness of life.

In this essay, Camus hopes to face the consequences of the absurd. Rather than accept fully the idea that life has no meaning, he wants to take it as a starting point to see what logically follows from this idea. Rather than run away from the feeling of absurdity, either through suicide or hope, he wants to dwell with it and see if one can live with this feeling.

As his starting point, Camus takes up the question of whether, on the one hand, we are free agents with souls and values, or if, on the other hand, we are just matter that moves about with mindless regularity. Reconciling these two equally undeniable perspectives is one of the great projects of religion and philosophy.

One of the most obvious—and on reflection, one of the most puzzling—facts about human existence is that we have values. Having values is more than simply having desires: if I desire something, I quite simply want it and will try to get it. My values go beyond my desires in that by valuing something, I do not simply desire it, but I also somehow judge that that something ought to be desired. In saying that something ought to be desired, I am assuming that the world ought to be a certain way. Further, I only feel the world ought to be a certain way if it is not entirely that way already: if there was no such thing as murder it would not make sense for me to say that people should not commit murder. Thus, having values implies that we feel the world ought to be different from the way it is.

Our capacity to see the world both as it is and as it ought to be allows us to look at ourselves in two very different lights. Most frequently, we see others and ourselves as willing, free agents, people who can deliberate and make choices, who can decide what's best and pursue certain ends. Because we have values it only makes sense that we should also see ourselves as capable of embodying those values. There would be no point in valuing certain qualities if we were incapable of acting to realize those qualities.

While we generally take this outlook, there is also the outlook of the scientist, of trying to see the world quite simply as it is. Scientifically speaking, this is a world divested of values, made up simply of matter and energy, where mindless particles interact in predetermined ways. There is no reason to think that humans are any exception to the laws of science. Just as we observe the behavior of ants milling about, mindlessly following some sort of mechanical routine, we can imagine alien scientists might also observe us milling about, and conclude that our behavior is equally predictable and routine-oriented.

The feeling of absurdity is effectively the feeling we get when we come to see ourselves in the second of these two alternative perspectives. This is a strictly objective worldview that looks at things quite simply as they are. Values are irrelevant to this worldview, and without values there seems to be no meaning and no purpose to anything we do. Without values, life has no meaning and there is nothing to motivate us to do one thing rather than another.

Though we may never have tried to rationalize this feeling philosophically, the feeling of absurdity is one that we have all experienced at some point in our life. In moments of depression or uncertainty, we might shrug and ask, "what's the point of doing anything?" This question is essentially a recognition of absurdity, a recognition that, from at least one perspective, there is no point in doing anything. Camus often refers metaphorically to the feeling of absurdity as a place of exile. Once we have acknowledged the validity of the perspective of a world without values, of a life without meaning, there is no turning back. We cannot simply forget or ignore this perspective. The absurd is a shadow cast over everything we do. And even if we choose to live as if life has a meaning, as if there are reasons for doing things, the absurd will linger in the back of our minds as a nagging doubt that perhaps there is no point.

It is generally supposed that this place of exile—the absurd—is uninhabitable. If there is no reason for doing anything, how can we ever do anything? The two main ways of escaping the feeling of absurdity are suicide and hope. Suicide concludes that if life is meaningless then it is not worth living. Hope denies that life is meaningless by means of blind faith.

Camus is interested in finding a third alternative. Can we acknowledge that life is meaningless without committing suicide? Do we have to at least hope that life has a meaning in order to live? Can we have values if we acknowledge that values are meaningless? Essentially, Camus is asking if the second of the two world views sketched above is livable.

An Absurd Reasoning: Absurd Walls

A feeling carries with it more than can be expressed in words. The feeling of absurdity—like the feeling of jealousy or the feeling of generosity—frames the way we look at the world and defines our perspective. A feeling is a worldview and comes prior to words. As such, Camus acknowledges that it is difficult to describe the feeling of absurdity. Instead, he offers a series of sketches to clarify the kinds of experiences that might provoke such a feeling.

We may experience a moment of awakening in the depths of weariness with routine. The impulse to ask why we bother leads us to the feeling of absurdity. Or the feeling may strike us as we become aware of ourselves as drift wood on the river of time: nothing we can do can extract us from time's inevitable progress. Or it may strike us when we see objects in the world divested of the meaning and purpose that we give them. In a moment of absurdity, we see them as naked "things." Or it hits us when we see a person talking animatedly behind a glass so that we hear nothing and his gestures seem a ridiculous pantomime without significance. Or we sense absurdity when we see a dead body and realize that this is our inevitable, cold, senseless end.

These are examples of the feeling of absurdity on the level of experience. Camus notes that we can encounter the absurd on the level of the intellect as well. The mind is driven by a "nostalgia for unity," an ardent desire to make sense of the universe, to reduce it to a unified, comprehensible whole. Camus uses Aristotle to show on a logical level the problems with asserting a single, unified "truth." On the level of science, a theory can describe the world, but it cannot ultimately explain it. The world is made up of such diversity, and there are so many different perspectives we can take on understanding it, that it seems futile that we should ever find one absolute Truth, one correct way of looking at the world and understanding it at once in its entirety. The unifying reason that we hope to apply to the world is not in the world itself: the world is fundamentally irrational.

Camus identifies the absurd in this confrontation between our desire for clarity and our understanding of the world's irrationality. Neither the world nor the human mind is in itself absurd. Rather, absurdity finds itself in the confrontation between the two.

There have always been thinkers who have tried to confront the irrationality of experience rather than deny it, and Camus notes that the past century has produced quite a number of such thinkers. Heidegger speaks of our anguish when confronted with the absurd, but asserts that we find our greatest alertness in this anguish. Jaspers asserts that we cannot know anything that goes beyond immediate experience, and exposes the flaws of philosophical systems that claim otherwise. Chestov examines human irrationality, and is more interested in seeking out the exception than the rule. Kierkegaard essentially lives the absurd, fearlessly diving into all sorts of contradictions. Husserl is interested in the diversity of the world, and encourages full and equal awareness of all phenomena. These thinkers all share the awareness that only the limitations on human knowledge are clear: the rest is incomprehensible.

This chapter rehearses the shortcomings of rationalist philosophy, and defines the philosophies of the irrational that have sprung up in response. Rationalism, as Camus uses it, is the idea that human reason can make sense of the world it inhabits. A rationalist philosopher hopes to construct some sort of system according to which all experience can be explained: he wants to be able to say once and for all how and why things are. The sky is blue for this reason, I exist for that reason, the universe works the way it does for that reason. A rationalist wants the world to make sense, for things to be clear. Rationalism is based on the not unreasonable hope that we can give reasons for why things are the way they are.

Camus rejects rationalism, but he does not seem to provide any philosophical argument against it: he claims several times in this chapter that he is doing nothing more than rehearsing and clarifying ideas that are familiar to all. He does not try to convince us that there is a flaw with rationalism so much as he assumes that we already agree that it is flawed. True, he touches on reasons why we might find rationalism unsatisfying—our failure to unify the diversity of experience, etc.—but these reasons are hardly convincing in themselves. They are not arguments, but rather examples of where a rationalist worldview seems untenable.

James Wood suggests that Camus's essay rests on faith, though faith of a negative kind. Camus is determined to believe that there is no God and that life is meaningless more than he is determined to argue for that meaninglessness. He is not presenting a philosophical system so much as he is diagnosing a certain way of looking at the world. Camus is not trying to argue that "seeing the world as absurd is the right way of seeing the world." Rather he is first of all doubting the idea that there is a "right way" of seeing the world, and second of all suggesting that seeing the world as absurd is often inevitable. The feeling of absurdity is essentially the feeling that strikes us from time to time that, like it or not, the world does not make sense and it is not clear. He is not saying the feeling of absurdity is necessarily "correct" so much as he is saying that it exists. He is less of a philosopher and more of a physician: he is interested in what living with this feeling entails more than he is interested in whether this feeling is correct.

Camus lists a number of thinkers whom he associates with the "irrational," with the rejection of rationalism. Where Camus uses the term "irrational" we might today use the term "existential." "Existentialism" is a tricky term to use correctly, largely because very few philosophers openly associated themselves with it. Still, it shares many of the themes Camus has been discussing, particularly the idea that the world in itself simply exists, and that any meaning or essence that makes sense of the world is applied after the fact by a human mind. Jean-Paul Sartre, a contemporary and sometime friend of Camus's, was the main proponent of existentialism as a movement. Though he borrowed the name from Jaspers's existenz-philosophie and many ideas from Heidegger, neither of these German thinkers considered themselves existentialists. While Kierkegaard or Nietzsche are sometimes called "proto-existentialists," they lived and died in the nineteenth century, before "existentialism" as a term had currency. Even Camus would later disown himself from this movement, leaving only Sartre as a committed "existentialist."

We should note that Camus, and all the thinkers he refers to, are deeply rooted in the philosophical tradition of the European continent. This tradition is deeply influenced by Hegel and by the earlier rationalist tradition of figures such as Descartes and Leibniz. It places a heavy emphasis on the faculty of reason and our ability to sort out metaphysical truths through the exercise of pure reason.

The English language tradition of philosophy, by contrast, follows much more in the empiricist vein of Locke and Hume. This tradition de-emphasizes the abilities of pure reason, insisting instead that we turn to sense experience for knowledge.

The dilemma Camus faces in discussing the absurd could, in a sense, only exist in the tradition of continental rationalism. The idea that our mind cannot make sense of experience is a far greater emergency to a rationalist thinker than to an empiricist. This is not to dismiss Camus' position so much as it is to place it in its proper context.