Albert Camus, the Myth of Sisyphus and Happiness

Homer, the ancient Greek poet, is said to have believed that Sisyphus was the wisest and most prudent of all mortals. Other traditions describe him as a bit of a scoundrel. And, really, at the root, at the heart of matters, those who are wise and who are seen as scoundrels may not be all that very different.  Indeed, there are any number of stories about Sisyphus and his relationship and interactions with the gods of his day.  A consistent theme of the stories is that Sisyphus was a man who looked the gods squarely in the eyes and spoke his mind even making fun of what he thought were their foibles and short comings. Sisyphus loved life and living, he hated death, and he taunted the gods.  Well, as you can imagine the gods would only have but so much of that from Sisyphus, and indeed one day the gods have had enough, and they condemned Sisyphus to roll a huge round boulder to the top of a mountain.  At just the moment when Sisyphus and the stone reach the summit of the mountain – yep, you can see it coming, the boulder rolls down again. And, Sisyphus is compelled to return to the base of the mountain to undertake his task again and again and again in perpetuity.

Albert Camus’ description of Sisyphus’ struggle and his analysis of the existential (its Camus of course there is existential angst!) meaning of the struggle provide an interesting twist to the myth. Camus observes:

Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them. As for this myth, one sees the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it, and push it up a slope a hundred times over; one sees the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched …

Now, I’ve read the myth of Sisyphus dozens of times, of used the myth as an analogy of all kinds of dull repetitive work, but I’ve never felt it like I did as I read Camus’ description! And then he goes on the descript Sisyphus as an absurd hero. An absurd hero whose scorn of the gods, whose hatred of death and Thanatos, whose passion for life won him a penalty in which his whole being is exerted toward accomplishing – exactly nothing. Now – how many of us have felt like we worked our hearts and souls out, like we worked our butts off and accomplished exactly nothing! Ah, Sisyphus our brother – absurd, yes, but hero?

Well, Camus redirects our focus to the moment after the boulder rolls down from the summit, the moment when Sisyphus turns and begins his own descent down the mountain. In that moment, in those moments Sisyphus stands as EveryMan, as EveryHuman, and walks in consciousness, in awareness of who he and the existential being of his condition. Wretched, but lucid, he thinks and therefore he claims liberation. Camus phrases it, “The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory.” The descent of Sisyphus is marked by exhaustion, frustration, sadness, and by joy. Within the angst of the dark night, of unbearable grief, of Gethsemane, within the soul of tragedy the lucid soul can find the foundation of strength and resilience.

Camus has Edipus cry out: “Despite so many ordeals, my advance age and the nobility of my soul make me conclude that all is well.”

This story is worth telling, worth thinking about – I think – just to get to that quote — “Despite so many ordeals, my advance age and the nobility of my soul make me conclude that all is well.” The phrase, ‘the nobility of my soul’ resonates for me. The conviction that ‘all is well’ even in the midst of ordeals, even in the midst of Sisyphus’ seemingly hopeless, endless, meaningless struggle – even then and there, all is well. Now that is something. That is a place where the discovery, the claiming of human dignity has depth and resonance and meaning.

And, Camus goes on to highlight that happiness and the absurd are siblings. There is no sun without shadow. There is no day without night. The choice to claim our fate, to say yes to the tasks, the actions we undertake – and to do so with conscious awareness and lucidity – there is the home of freedom and happiness. 

Be well my friends. Rest well and deeply knowing that all is well.