The Myth of Sisyphus

by Albert Camus

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Understanding the "Myth of Sisyphus" and its influence on modern thought


The "Myth of Sisyphus," by Albert Camus, explores the absurdity of human existence and the constant struggle for meaning in a meaningless world. Sisyphus's eternal punishment of rolling a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down, symbolizes human perseverance. This myth has influenced modern existentialist thought by highlighting the importance of embracing life's challenges without seeking inherent meaning.

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Can you explain the "Myth of Sisyphus"?

Camus uses the Greek myth of Sisyphus to develop his concerns about man's absurd condition in the universe. We need to understand the word "absurd" as "out of harmony." In Camus' thought, man is out of harmony with the world in which he lives and with himself. By exploring several philosophical theories, such as the ones posited by Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and others, he broaches the one question of philosophy that, in his opinion, matters the most.

Though not plainly asked, Camus' question points to whether man's realization of absurdity should lead to suicide. After careful discussion of various authors and a most interesting reinterpretation of the original myth, he reaches the conclusion that life should be accepted as it is. Far from despairing, man should embrace acceptance of disharmony -i.e., conflict- and make the most of his possibilities.  

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Can you explain the "Myth of Sisyphus"?

The central idea of the "Myth of Sisyphus" is the conflict of what Camus called the 'absurd;' the conflict occurs between what we want in the universe (enlightenment, order) and what we find in the universe (abstraction, chaos).  Camus argues that just because life may have no higher purpose or calling does not mean that life is not worth living. 

Camus proposes three main ways that people can adjust their thinking to accept the absurd life.  They must revolt by not accepting any answers for the way the universe is, experience a greater freedom to think how they choose, and live passionate lives full of rich experiences.

Camus ends his discussion by giving the reader the mythological example of Sisyphus, who Camus feels is the perfect example of the struggle against the absurd.  Sisyphus was cursed to spend all eternity rolling a rock up to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll back down before he reached the summit.  Sisyphus struggles non-stop with no hope of success.  Camus suggests that as long as Sisyphus accepts that there is nothing more to life than this hopeless struggle, he may find happiness in it.

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How has the Greek myth of Sisyphus influenced the modern world?

Philosopher and author Albert Camus saw Sisyphus as a great absurd hero who loved life, hated death, and scorned the gods.  In his famous essay, "Myth of Sisyphus," Camus says that Sisyphus loved his life so much that he put Death in chains so he could live another life.  After this, he was punished by rolling a rock up a mountain, only to have it roll down again.

Camus says Sisyphus accepts his punishment, that living two lives is worth the punishment.  He even says Sisyphus is above the punishment of the gods in that he can accepts that pointless labor is absurd.  The rock is a symbol of meaningless in Sisyphus' life, and instead of the rock causing him to despair, Sisyphus learns to accept the rock's meaninglessness as part of the absurd universe.

The protagonist in Camus' novel The Stranger (written the same year, 1941, as the essay) is strikingly similar to Sisyphus.  Meursault also hates death (refuses to cry at his mother's funeral), loves life (spends the day after the funeral in the water, making love to Marie) and scorns the gods (refuses to feel guilt for his crimes).  At the end, he is beheaded--a fate similar to Sisyphus' eternal punishment--but he has no regrets (meaning he was ready to live the same life all over again).

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