In mythology, the character Sisyphus is famous and unique for his crime and punishment in the underworld. On one account, when Sisyphus dies, he wrestles and overcomes Thanatos (death) and chains him as he is being sent to Hades.
In another account, Sisyphus orders his wife to throw his naked body in a public square upon his death. When his wife does this, Sisyphus complains to Hades and Persephone that he had not gotten a proper burial and that he needs to go back to the upper world to punish his wife. When he does this, he refuses to return to the underworld until Hermes drags him back.
His punishment for these crimes is being forced to push a rock up a mountain, and every time he succeeds in getting to the top, it rolls back down. This punishment embodies endless toil and labor for no reward.
Although Sisyphus is a mythological figure, we can use his punishment to reflect on ourselves. Do we not also get ourselves to push a rock up a mountain every day and endure strenuous tasks for only a brief moment of relief and reward? No matter our reward and accomplishments, we have to go back at it. Push another rock up a mountain. It’s a never ending cycle.
Life through this perspective can be seen as pointless. Why do we toil day after day knowing that we only have to toil more, that the tasks never get any less difficult?
Albert Camus utilizes the punishment of Sisyphus to describe his philosophy of absurdism, the belief that we exist in a purposeless universe. According to Camus, there are three ways to confront this reality:
- Make a leap of faith to find a meaning in life, and defend this leap of faith to the death.
- Interpret life being purposeless as meaning that life isn’t worth living, and commit suicide.
- Embrace the absurdity of life, and learn to love it.
Camus embraces the third, but to the second point, Camus was one of the of the first philosophers to see suicide not as a social phenomenon of crazy people. He was the same person who wrote: “Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal,” a quote that brilliantly describes the plight of the mentally ill.
Unlike us, however, Sisyphus cannot kill himself because he already suffers in Tartaros. As we continually push a rock up a mountain, and the toil becomes too much, we are unable to find an answer to why we keep doing it. A horribly destructive alternative realization comes to us: unlike Sisyphus, we can end our own lives.
To Camus, suicide is our response when we flee life’s meaninglessness. However, Camus fervently believes that we should fly full force into it, and accept and immerse ourselves in its pointlessness.
Personally, I struggle with the questions What’s my purpose in life? and What is my mission here? every night before I go to bed. As an agnostic, for the last decade, I’ve struggled with my conviction in a greater power, attempting to utilize it to rationalize my existence. Unfortunately, I know this struggle is common to most of us: it is the struggle of our human condition.
For people like myself, who lack a spiritual foundation and awareness, living the absurd life is finally giving up on the leap of faith in trying to find a religion, philosophy, and overall purpose to live by. It is giving us the freedom to not only decide what we believe, but define our actions, and ultimately our lives passionately.
However, I don’t agree with Camus that accepting faith is a leap of faith. Currently, we live in an open society that respects each person’s religious views, in one that tries its hardest not to impose a worldview upon anyone. Thus, accepting faith in our contemporary society is having a worldview with which we embrace absurdity.
No matter what Genesis may explain etiologically, 99 percent of life is still purposeless and uncertain. We can’t tell the future; we have limited control of our fates; we still can’t explain most things. In all this, the faithful person is still the absurd person, living in the unpredictable present.
For myself, living the absurd life means to stop questioning my purpose, to stop worrying about what will happen tomorrow or the mistakes I made in the past. Will I be a hypocrite and still do both those things almost every day? Absolutely. It’s only human.
But pressing forward, I aspire to live a little more like Sisyphus, who loved life so much that he put Death in chains, that he came back to the upper world and refused to go back to Hades, who most likely saw pushing the rock up the mountain not as punishment, but as a reward. He had a different rock with a different shape and texture each time, pushed it a different way each time, and had a different sensation of happiness when he reached the top of the mountain each time.
Camus closes “The Myth of Sisyphus” with this: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Originally published at https://www.theodysseyonline.com on May 3, 2016.
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