(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Regarded as one of the foremost thinkers and writers of modern France, Albert Camus reached maturity at a time when Adolf Hitler came to power. Camus’s writings express the horror of living during Hitler’s rise and during World War II, and the desire to establish a meaningful life in a meaningless world of war and futile conquest. Not content with the nihilism of his age, and unable to ignore the catastrophe of modern life, Camus developed two related concepts, the absurd and revolt, into a significant philosophy of personal life. He examined the concept of revolt at length in The Rebel (1951), but in The Myth of Sisyphus he presents the concept of the absurd and thus outlines the belief that the individual has worth but lives in a world that denies such worth. The absurd is the clash between the order for which the human mind strives and the lack of order that one finds in the world.

Camus begins The Myth of Sisyphus by categorically stating that the one truly serious problem of philosophy is suicide, because suicide is the confession that life is not worth living. Why, he asks, do people not commit suicide? From this springboard he goes on to describe the absurdity of existence. People are not logical in the act of killing themselves, but they do believe in the absurdity of their lives. The absurd, Camus explains, forces itself upon a person when that person desires to find absolutes by which to guide his or her life; a person searches for absolutes but finds that the world is not reasonable. Once one realizes that existence is absurd, two solutions emerge: suicide or recovery. In short, one’s experiences bring the necessity of choosing between suicide and life in absurdity. If one chooses life, then one must accept the absurd. This absurdity is neither in the person (who has an internally consistent understanding) nor in the world (which also is consistent), but is the bond uniting them; therefore, physical suicide does not answer the question of absurdity—such an act merely destroys one of the terms.

Having stated this thesis, Camus then considers the alternatives to physical suicide. Philosophical suicide, the existential “leap of faith,” is an antirational acceptance of the limits of reason. Reason’s limitations are an excuse to transcend to God. Camus calls this attitude an escape; the absurd does not lead to God but only to itself. Hence, to speak of a “leap of faith” is like advocating physical suicide since both are escapes and, therefore, seek to contradict or negate the absurdity of existence. Physical suicide attempts to have value or meaning in a meaningless existence; the existential “leap” tries to evade the condition of life. Rejecting physical and philosophical suicide, Camus reaches the final alternative: A person must fully confront the truth of his or her existence and accept it. Continually tempted to either kill oneself or make a “leap,” a person must live only with the certainty that nothing is certain except the absurd. A person must find whether it is possible to live without appeal. Such a person is indifferent to the future but wants to live the now to its fullest; such...

(The entire section is 1296 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus’s most explicit philosophical pronouncement, begins by dismissing all reflection that evades the question of why people live. “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide,” he declares. “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

The Myth of Sisyphus includes several miscellaneous pieces—a discussion of Franz Kafka, a self-interview on the responsibility of the artist, and four personal evocations of the landscape of Algeria that were also published elsewhere. The most remarkable and influential section of The Myth of Sisyphus, however, is its title essay. In it and the supporting chapters, Camus appropriates the ancient Greek story of the king of Corinth who was punished by the gods for failing to show them sufficient respect. Sisyphus is condemned for eternity to push a boulder up the side of a steep mountain. Whenever he is about to reach the summit, the boulder rolls back to the base, and Sisyphus is obliged to begin his endless, pointless task again.

Camus seizes on this myth as an emblem of the human condition. Life, he contends, is absurd. Devoid of purpose, existence is an endless, empty series of compulsive repetitions with no possibility of attaining a goal. Sisyphus becomes the prototype of the “absurd hero,” a figure whose variations Camus traces in the roles of the...

(The entire section is 528 words.)