Sunday, August 21, 2011

Afterthoughts on Albert Camus' "Myth of Sisyphus"


     “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide,” thus Albert Camus opens his book The Myth of Sisyphus.  “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.  All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards.  These are games; one must first answer.”1

     To get ahead of Camus’ story, the answer he gives to his own question is:  yes -- in spite of everything -- life is worth living.   Of course, that position is by no means peculiar to Camus.  All of us who continue to live in spite of life’s difficulties share that position.   But the road by which Camus arrives at that answer constitutes this French philosopher’s unique contribution to twentieth century philosophy.

     Camus starts his inquiry by pointing out what he calls the “absurdity” of man’s condition.  Simply put, man’s condition is absurd because he wants – nay, he needs – life to have an inherent meaning, yet he soon realizes that life is totally devoid of such a meaning. Man hopelessly demands meaning from an utterly meaningless world.  The reason why man often finds it hard to understand life is that life, in fact, is without reason.  This “confrontation” between “the irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart”2 comprises man’s permanent dilemma.

     Other philosophers have offered man a way out of this dilemma by appealing to a transcendent source of meaning.  By positing the idea that there is a God who, as it were, holds everything – including man and his life – in His hands,  man is given the assurance that his life is, after all, not irrational.  How can human life be devoid of reason when it has been created and is being looked after by no less than an all-knowing and an all-powerful God?   Man may not be able to discover all the answers to his questions now.  He may not be able to understand everything now.  But, later on, he will find the answers and attain the understanding that presently elude him.   For the moment, all that is asked of him is to believe that – thanks to God -- his life is meaningful in spite of its apparent meaninglessness. 

     In truth, the very irrationality of life necessitates, for the above philosophers, this appeal to the existence of a God.  They maintain that the logical alternative to belief is, after all, suicide.  Either one believes in God or one eventually finds life so intolerable, so meaningless, the only reasonable thing to do is to stop living.

     And it is in this context that the novelty of Camus thought shines forth.   Camus proposes that there is, in fact, one more alternative to belief – and it is exemplified by the mythological figure named Sisyphus.   According to the myth, Sisyphus was punished by the gods for an offence he had committed.   His punishment was rather unique:  he had to roll to the top of a mountain a rock that inevitably rolled down, of its own weight, as soon as it got to the top.  Sisyphus’ punishment was to do this task over and over:  to roll the rock to the top of the mountain and to do it again once it rolled down.  

    The fact that Sisyphus was aware of the incurable futility of his efforts made his punishment a real torture.  But this same awareness was the key to his eventual victory.  For Sisyphus could, then, choose his attitude toward his punishment.  He could choose to embrace the permanent fruitlessness of his efforts – nay, to be happy about his apparently hopeless condition.   He could rebel against his fate by choosing to accept and even enjoy it.   Hence, Camus writes:  “The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory.  There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.... If the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy.”3

     Camus teaches that all of us can follow the example of Sisyphus.  We can choose to rebel against our fate by embracing the inherent meaninglessness of our life and even rejoicing in it.   We do not have to make an appeal to any transcendent source of meaning.  We do not have to ask God to come into the picture.  In fact, in Camus’ view, we would actually be better off if we evacuated God from the landscape of our life altogether.  For if there is no God, then you and I are totally free.   If there is no God, then you and I are absolutely free to construct our own meaning out of the meaningless bits and pieces that constitute our life. 

     I have heard many people express how Camus’ philosophy has kept them from ruining themselves.  It has been a saving hand to many men and women who have reached a point in their life when suicide seemed to be the most logical step to take. In particular, Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus has been a wellspring of courage for those who have lost heart but who, for some reason, cannot bring themselves to turn to God for solace.   Camus, in short, has made it possible for people to find sense in living without having to believe in God.  

     Ironically, however, the strength of Camus’ book constitutes its very weakness.   Note that Camus does not offer any arguments for God’s non-existence.  His atheism is a decision, not a conclusion.   He has chosen not to have faith in God in the belief that by doing so he would do man a great service:  henceforth, man will be freer to construct his own meaning in the midst of this universe bereft of meaning.   Yet, by ejecting God from human affairs, Camus has actually cut off man’s lifeline to his one and only source of true meaning.   By negating God, Camus has not really freed man.  He has, on the contrary, bound him further.

     As he neared his fifties, the Russian writer Leo Tolstoi experienced a spiritual crisis that almost made him decide to take his own life.  In his long essay, “A Confession,” Tolstoi recalled:  “My question, the one that brought me to the point of suicide when I was fifty years old, was a most simple one that lies in the soul of every person, from a silly child to a wise old man.  It is the question without which life is impossible, as I had learnt from experience.  It is this:  what will come of what I do today or tomorrow?  What will come of my entire life?  Expressed another way the question can be put like this:  why do I live?  Why do I wish for anything, or do anything?  Or expressed another way:  is there any meaning in my life that will not be annihilated by the inevitability of death which awaits me?”4

     Unlike Camus, however, Tolstoi’s questionings eventually led him to a reaffirmation of his belief in God.   “Faith,” he later confessed, “remained as irrational to me as before, but I could not fail to recognize that it alone provides mankind with the answers to the question of life, and consequently with the possibility of life....  For me, as for others, faith provided the meaning of life and the possibility of living.”5

     Whether we like it or not, the meaning of human life is inextricably linked with God.  God is, in fact, the fountainhead of such a meaning.  No wonder, our search for life’s meaning is almost indistinguishable from our search for God. Tolstoi (and the other thinkers like Soren Kierkegaard whom Camus criticizes for making a leap of faith after coming face to face with the apparent irrationality and senselessness of human life) saw this clearly.   Camus, I guess, saw it too.  But he opted to turn his eyes away.

     In Camus' most famous work, The Stranger, a painful encounter transpires between the novel’s hero Meursault and a priest.  Camus describes the encounter thus:

     The priest gazed around my cell and answered in a voice that sounded very weary to me:    “Every stone here sweats with suffering.  I know that.  I have never looked at them without a feeling of anguish.  But deep in my heart I know that the most wretched among you have seen a divine face emerge from their darkness.  That is the face you are asked to see.

     This perked me up a little.  I said I had been looking at the stones in these walls for months.  There wasn’t anything or anyone in the world I knew better.  Maybe at one time, way back, I had searched for a face in them.  But the face I was looking for was as bright as the sun and the flame of desire – and it belonged to Marie.  I had searched for it in vain.  Now it was all over.  And in any case, I’d never seen anything emerge from any sweating stones.6      

     There is indeed a divine face embedded in the walls of human existence.  Unfortunately, it is only with the eyes of faith that anyone can ever discern it.     


     1Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, Justin O’Brien, trans., with an introduction by James Wood (London:  Penguin Books, 2000), 11.
      2Ibid., 26.
      3Ibid., 109.
      4Leo Tolstoi, A Confession and Other Religious Writings, Jane Kentish, trans. (London:  Penguin Books, 1987), 34-35.
      5Ibid., 53.
      6Albert Camus, The Stranger (New York:  Vintage International, 1989), pp. 118-119 (italics mine).