Philosophy 111 – Introduction to Philosophy (Fall 2002)
Meaning of Life and Death. Camus. ”The Myth of Sisyphus”
[Students and professors, please read.]
“Futile and hopeless labor”–is that what life amounts to, from birth to death, as Camus writes in The Myth of Sisyphus? No matter what we accomplish in our lives, good or bad, we all go out of this world the same way we came in, and take none of it with us. There are two ways of looking at our fate. We can be ingrateful and never satisfied with the life we have, or we can acknowledge life while we still have it, as it will be nothing to us in the grave.
The daily routine–each of us has one. The same things we do day after day without ceasing. It is never finished and you can never break the routine, because you always have to get up the next morning and do it all again. Just like Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill after every time it would roll back down. “But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious,” Camus writes. Many today in our society are all too aware of the absurdity of our daily routine. Many are hopelessly unsatisfied in our jobs, we don’t feel we make a difference, we feel like we are stuck doing the same repetitive tasks day after day after day for no worthy purpose. Like Sisyphus, “When the images of earth cling too tightly to memory, when the call of happiness becomes too insistent, it happens that melancholy rises in man’s heart: this is the rock’s victory, this is the rock itself. The boundless grief is too heavy to bear. These are our nights of Gethsemane.” When the repetitive tasks consume us, when all we can think of is how to escape–this is when the burden is its heaviest and we want to scream “WHAT is the POINT?!” as if there is someone out there actually listening for our cries, someone waiting to save us and show us the way.
“But crushing truths perish from being acknowledged,” Camus writes–and what a wise observation. There are so many applications of that statement! Acknowledging something negative about your condition (something you were avoiding) is the same as acknowledging a crushing truth–but only after you acknowledge it can you conquer it. Go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and they will tell you that getting past denial is the first and hardest step towards recovery. Camus imagines Sisyphus comes to a point where he “contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him,” and this means that he has taken claim of his rock, just as a recovering alcoholic has taken claim of their recovery, just as we can take claim of our unavoidable daily routine. So now Camus writes, “Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” So we can enjoy what might seem like futile daily routines just by realizing that we only have one life to live however we wish–we can enjoy every task and count it as life worth living, or we can resent every task as “Vanity, vanity–all is vanity”…and miss life completely.
“The Myth of Sisyphus.” The Philosophical Quest: A Cross-Cultural Reader, Second Edition. Ed. Presbey, Gail M., et. al. McGraw-Hill, Inc., 2000. 522-524.