Review: The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
Camus begins by posing a simple question: is life worth living? After reading this, most readers (and understandably) roll their eyes and think, “Oh great, here we go, another eccentric philosopher who insists on questioning basic common sense. I need a cocktail.” The problem is that if the reader persists in reading, Camus starts making some very uncomfortable arguments – namely, what if life is inherently meaningless? What if all your supposedly legitimate reasons for living were far more transitory and haphazard than you ever realized? What if, as Prince Vasili proclaimed in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, everything simply ends in death? Would life still be worth living? Uncomfortable indeed.
The first idea that Camus wants to sell you on is that life is just plain weird. If you think about it hard enough, it’s beyond weird – it’s absurd. For example, if you put on your high school chemistry hat, you’ll recall that all matter in the universe consists of one or several of the 118 elements in existence. These elements are essentially a conglomeration of like-minded atoms, which are merely a collection of electrons orbiting around a nucleus of protons and neutrons. If we get enough of these subatomic particles together, we can form all kinds of nifty things. Such a notion can easily seem ridiculous, though, no matter how scientifically accurate it may be. Surely you – with all your thoughts, feelings, joys, pains, aspirations, and regrets – are something more than the accidental collocation of a handful of chemical elements. Wouldn’t the admission of such a proposition be absurd?
However, Camus employs a Humean skepticism towards human knowledge, which makes it challenging to rise above this materialistic plane (in fact, Camus seems to doubt even this level of understanding at times). For him, the world is unreasonable in the most literal sense of the word – it seems to exist without any discernible reason. You may think you know that the world has some inherent purpose for existing, but, Camus would argue, you can’t really know such a thing with the same level of certainty with which you know that you have a cup of coffee in your hand right now. We can talk about God, souls, teleology, and whatever other metaphysical concepts suit your fancy all day long. Still, Camus says that even if these things do exist, we don’t have any indisputable knowledge of them.
Therein lies the problem: above all else, the human psyche seeks a Definite Something from which to derive meaning and purpose, an Infinite Reference Point, which we can use to orient our lives and actions confidently. Yet Camus believes such knowledge is either absent or unattainable. This dynamic of a human desire for certain meaning within a profoundly uncertain universe constitutes the fundamental condition of human existence: absurdity. We want to know “what it’s all about” and why we are here and how we should live, yet the plurality of competing answers on these issues creates a dizzying whirlwind of thought, which all but undermines itself.
DEFIANCE AND REVOLT
How should we respond to such a realization? We have to view Camus’ answer in light of two of his 19th-century predecessors who also explored the implications of an irrational world populated with ostensibly rational humans: the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Kierkegaard all but celebrated the ideas of paradox and absurdity, viewing them as the very cornerstone of authentic religious faith. The fact that our rationality seems to flounder at some extreme epistemological terminus is good news to him since it justifies – even compels – man to appeal to something beyond himself for understanding and salvation. Dostoyevsky took an equal but opposite religious tack, declaring faith to be the ultimate solvent of whatever absurdities we may encounter in this life. In his formula, given the immortality of the human soul, the existence of an all-loving and just God, and some final metaphysical reckoning, every absurdity and paradox (including those of pain and suffering, which pervade nearly all of his writings) will eventually be dispensed with. For both men, the ideas of the religious and the absurd are inextricable. In Kierkegaard’s paradigm, the former rests on the latter; in Dostoyevsky’s, the former eradicates the latter.
While Camus generally appreciates the argumentation of such faith-based positions, the fact that they require faith makes them superfluous to his mind. Camus is interested in figuring out how we should live solely in light of that knowledge which we can deem certain, and the only thing that is certain for him is that we can’t know anything of existential import for sure. In other words, Camus ultimately views the human condition of absurdity as incorrigible, and he rejects any religious solution to the problem as a sort of failure of nerves – a dodge of the real problem facing man. Absurdity is our inescapable fate, and Camus isn’t interested in any alleged cures; he’s interested in how to live with his ailments.
This is where things get tricky, as Dostoyevsky also provides a non-religious response to the problems of absurdity and meaninglessness. In each of his four major novels, we see one of the characters struggling with the inferences that seem to follow from a secular disposition (be it agnosticism, atheism, or nihilism) in which issues of human meaning and purpose are purportedly on shaky ground. One character commits murder; another descends into madness. Two of them famously argue that the only authentic, rational human action in an irrational universe is suicide – the ultimate revolt of defiant self-assertion. Dostoyevsky’s point is not a subtle one: he can’t see any way that a secular ideology – once traced out to its full logical conclusion – can provide an adequate answer to man’s existential problems.
Camus is far from pleased with this caricature of secular life, and he offers two main retorts. First, the proposition that life is inherently meaningless in no way logically entails that life is therefore not worth living; the conclusion simply doesn’t follow from the premise. For Camus, it’s not that secular ideologies fail to provide a sufficient answer to the problem of meaning so much as they redefine the problem itself (along with the potential solutions available to us). Second, Dostoyevsky’s line of reasoning can easily be turned on its head: if suicide is a noble act of revolt in the face of an absurd cosmos, wouldn’t an even greater act of defiance be to live on despite our absurd condition?
THE ART OF CREATION
In fact, Camus argues that if we want to stick our thumb in fate’s eye, not only should we choose life, we should choose it abundantly. We should dignify ourselves by joyfully laughing at the abyss of uncertainty and death; we should be virtuous and dutiful against all reason; we should carry the weight of our meaningless lives with a heart full of love and a penchant for lost causes. We should bring our purposes to fruition without reference to a transcendent realm. Above all else, we must embrace art and creation.
Just as Nietzsche before him, Camus speaks of creative artistic acts with an almost religious-like fervor. The poet with the pen, the sculptor with the chisel, the painter with the canvas – these are the saints and martyrs of our age; the courageous curators of culture who defy absurdity and meaninglessness by bringing their own creations and meaning into existence. Man is in continual revolt against the void of death and non-existence. His most valiant act in the face of this reality is to breathe his own ephemeral life into an indifferent universe with reckless abandon.
In Greek mythology, the gods condemned the king Sisyphus to repeatedly roll a heavy stone up a hill only to have it roll back down over and over again for all eternity. For Camus, this is the perfect analog to human existence. Like the mythic Sisyphus, we are condemned to forever seeing all our works caught up in dissolution and inescapable futility. However, if we are to find some form of redemption – if we are to live with any dignity – we must not shy away from this futility nor flee from absurdity. Rather, we must look at them square in the face and smile. As Camus famously tells us, we must imagine Sisyphus happy.
THE SCIENCE OF SALVATION
Wait a second, though. Surely if there is one area of human knowledge where we can make claims of certainty, mustn’t it be science? Aren’t instances of scientific knowledge perfect examples of the confidence which Camus portrays as all but absent from human existence? Interestingly, Camus says “yes” but with a rather biting caveat thrown in: the scientific knowledge we deign as certain doesn’t matter. Camus wants to know how we should live in regard to meaning and purpose. He doesn’t see how the heliocentric model of the solar system or the process of photosynthesis or the chemical composition of a Tom Collins helps us with this issue. Camus views science as a purely descriptive endeavor, forever inadequate to man’s ultimate needs.
Such a view represents the primary fault lines within secular thought. From the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, the voice of secularism came primarily from men like Camus, Sartre, Heidegger, and Nietzsche (all philosophers). It was defined by concepts of radical human freedom, creative expression, moral transcendence, the value of intuition, the limits of reason, and a valiant quest for self-justification within an ultimately mysterious universe. These men ranged from atheists to agnostics to borderline mystics. From the mid-20th century to the present day, however, the voice of secularism has come primarily from men like Sagan, Dawkins, Stenger, and Harris (all scientists), and it is defined by concepts of determinism, classification, moral utility, the danger of intuition, the aggrandizement of reason, and a valiant quest for scientific discovery within an ultimately calculable universe. These men all subscribe to a specific breed of atheism: scientific materialism.
COMMENTS AND CRITIQUES
Is Camus’ position an improvement over the religious and scientific ones he rejects? Within the Judeo-Christian paradigm, man finds truth and knowledge through the divine will (God), which is itself encapsulated in divine revelation (Scripture) and mediated by ecclesiastical authority (Clergy, etc.). Within this framework, man’s rationality can be trusted in proportion to it being in a right relationship with – and in service of – the higher divine order. Thomas Aquinas spent his life meticulously tracing out what he saw as the complementary relationship between faith and reason. He believed the former was necessary to secure the latter. In the world of scientific materialism, man’s rationality (the empirical kind anyways) can be trusted because it has proven highly effective at describing and predicting physical phenomena.
However, in Camus’ Existentialist paradigm, both of these conceptions of reason are treated as suspect: God isn’t around to guarantee reason’s validity, and when reason stands alone it is too limited to justify itself as our epistemological criteria par excellence. Whence this doubt toward reason, and what should take its place within a non-religious framework? Ironically, two of the greatest thinkers to undermine the secular dream of reason were themselves extremely secular – Hume and Nietzsche.
Every serious epistemologist has had to wrestle with Hume’s skeptical dissection of human knowledge, and every serious scientist has had to wrestle with Hume’s articulation of the problem of induction. Refuting either of these arguments is incredibly problematic, yet their implications can seem all but fatal (and therefore intolerable) for secular rationalism and empiricism alike. No matter how certain a philosophical or scientific proclamation may be, some incurable Humean skeptic in the crowd will stand up and remind everyone why the proclamation isn’t so sure after all. As Hume famously told us, reason appears to be forever enslaved by passion. After two and a half centuries of wrangling with Hume’s ideas, the increasingly popular response is to just ignore them.
However, if Hume called reason into question, Nietzsche sought to completely demolish it (he did claim to philosophize with a hammer after all). Like Hume, Nietzsche believed that something (a far more important something) lies anterior to reason. This something is all but ineffable: instinct, will, vitality, passion, and power – the very essence and force of life itself. This is what enslaves our reason and is, therefore, what we should be trying to harness and appeal to – which brings us back to Camus.
The primary argument of this book is that we can dignify our absurd and meaningless lives by embracing our fate and actively – even happily – choosing to continue our Sisyphean existence with an unflinching knowledge of its pointlessness. Upon closer inspection, Camus never really makes a well-developed, logic-based argument to support this conclusion. Instead, he follows in Nietzsche’s footsteps and relies on the force of several powerful and emotive assertions to make his point – not on a Venn diagram of ostensibly objective propositions. For Camus and Nietzsche alike, reason alone isn’t enough, and Camus doesn’t want just the cold, intellectual assent of your mind; he wants to capture the pulsating vitality of being which lies behind your rational self.
Of course, the irony here is that Camus rejects the religious and scientific positions for their (in his mind) unwarranted assertions. Yet, he turns around and offers us a different set of assertions in their place! The religious position tells us that life is dignified and worth living because God says so; Camus’ position tells us that life is dignified and worth living because Camus says so. Somewhere Dostoyevsky is frowning.
Tyler Tidwell is a retired Marine who lives in the Oklahoma City area with his wife and three children.