Why Sisyphus's Punishment Differs from the Human Condition
Claiming that our lives are similar to Sisyphus's is Wrong and Harmful
Posted Jan 28, 2018
In the well known myth of Greek mythology, the gods inflict a terrible punishment on Sisyphus: he has to push a heavy rock uphill, but shortly before succeeding to place the rock on the hill's top, the rock rolls downhill, and Sisyphus has to descend and start it all over again. Sisyphus has to do this continuously, incessantly, forever.
The French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus discusses this story approvingly in his famous book The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus takes our lives to be similar, in essence, to Sisyphus's; he believes that like Sisyphus's life, so ours, are absurd, moreover are necessarily and irretrievably so. I do not have the space in this post to consider the arguments Camus presents for this claim; instead, I will focus here on Camus's discussion of Sisyphus, a discussion that has caught the imagination and attention of many.
Camus was a gifted literary author—indeed, he won the Nobel in literature—no less than he was a philosopher. He had such rhetorical power that many have come—regrettably, in my view—to believe that their lives are indeed similar to Sisyphus's life. I have met many people who were convinced by Camus's powerful, vivid prose that they, too, are living futile, absurd lives.
Here is why I think that—at least as regards the lives of many people—Camus's claim is wrong.
1. Achievement: Sisyphus's efforts are futile; he never succeeds in what he does. However, many of us do succeed in some or much of what we do. Many of us are not engaged in futile effort as he is.
2. Value: What Sisyphus is forced to try to achieve, namely, to put a stone on a top of a hill, is silly and has no value. Thus, even if Sisyphus were to succeed in his effort nothing worthwhile would be gained. However, some of the goals that many of us set ourselves to achieve are worthwhile, so that if we achieve them, something valuable would be gained.
3. Pleasure: Sisyphus's activity—pushing a big rock uphill—seems unpleasant and painful. But many of the activities we are engaged in are far more pleasant.
4. Variety: Sisyphus has to repeat incessantly only one activity. This has to be boring. However, many of us vary our activities and can take breaks between them.
5. Autonomy: Sisyphus does not choose autonomously the activity he is engaged in. He is forced to do it against his will. However, many of us autonomously choose significant aspects of our life and activities.
6. Community: Sisyphus has to continue performing his punishment and life in loneliness. We, however, are often part of a small or large community, or can create or join a community.
7. Possibility of Improvement: Sisyphus' lot cannot improve. The gods doomed him to continue pushing the rock forever. Our lot, however, can improve, and we often can and do change the way things are.
I propose that the dissimilarities between Sisyphus's condition and ours are too many and too significant to see his life as an appropriate parable to ours. The lives of many of us are far from being absurd as Sisyphus's, and it is misleading to portray his condition as akin to ours, as does Camus.
Some might object at this point that the lives of some people in the world unfortunately do, in fact, correspond in many ways to Sisyphus's life. For example, the lives of some people who have been imprisoned in hard labor camps, or who have to work in sweatshops, may be quite similar to Sisyphus's.
However, the existence of such lives is insufficient to corroborate Camus's radical claims. For Camus, not only some people, but all people, including all those who are not in hard labor camps, do not work in sweatshops, etc., live in the absurd condition similar to Sisyphus's. Moreover, for Camus, this cannot be changed; it is an essential and necessary aspect of the human condition. But activists who point at and protest about the appalling conditions in which some people in the world live do not typically hold this view. They think that only some people in the world, not all, live in these terrible conditions, and that these conditions can and should be changed. Indeed, it is the belief that these conditions can be changed and the commitment to do so that motivates activists to direct public attention to this issue and protest against it.
I know quite a few people who were, unfortunately, influenced by Camus's powerful literary and rhetoric ability and came to see themselves as living absurd lives, similar to Sisyphus's. I think that Camus has thus unnecessarily (but unintentionally, of course) harmed them. The lives of many of us are very different, in many respects, from Sisyphus's and, in the cases they are not, we can often improve them. In his book Camus tries to show us how, once we accept that we live absurd lives, we can try to cope with this situation. But a better route is probably to reject the premise that we necessarily lead absurd lives similar to Sisyphus's.
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O'Brien (New York, Knopf, 1955).