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The Myth of Sisyphus ()


Nobel Prize Winners (1957)

It seems to me that one of the central tragedies of the 20th Century is the failure of faith that assailed good men like Albert Camus.  It is tragic in the sense that it made their own lives miserable, but also in that someone like Camus used his genius to propound a philosophy that is enormously dangerous in the hands of men who are, unfortunately, not as decent as the author.  The danger, as Dostoevsky said in The Brothers Karamazov, is that: If there is no God, everything is permitted.  Try as he might, and I believe that his career was essentially one long attempt to do so, Camus was never able to disprove this dictum.

Camus begins his essay by stating the proposition that:

    There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.  Judging whether life is or
    is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.

This indeed is the essence of Existentialism when turned inward upon the self; if there is no point nor purpose to our existence, then why should we continue?  Now if it should turn out that there is no good answer to this question, there's not much danger to the rest of us, existentialists can all just kill themselves.  But there's a more insidious corollary to this question, one that arises when you turn Existentialism outward upon others : if human life is purposeless, isn't it also valueless?  And if human lives have no value then what reasonable basis is there for morality?  Why should we refrain from killing each other?  Camus unceasingly sought to answer these questions, but, given existential assumptions, his answers are necessarily feeble and therein lies the danger.  A philosophy that relies on the inherent goodness of man's nature, and fails to posit absolute laws of behavior, is completely inadequate.  And the absolute, by it's very nature, assumes something--some being, some power, some law--external to man.  If man is the measure of himself, then everything is relative and anything goes.

Existentialism though, does not merely require that it's adherents deny the possibility of the divine, it also requires them to deny reality, by failing to acknowledge human progress.  The famous eponymous metaphor that Camus uses to explain existence is the myth of Sisyphus.  Like his better known compatriots Atlas and Prometheus, Sisyphus challenged the gods of Greek mythology and for his temerity was sentenced to push a huge boulder up a hill every day and every day as he reached the top, it would roll back down.  Camus draws a parallel here to the human condition, that we, like Sisyphus, toil away at senseless and ultimately futile tasks.  But to believe that this is true, one must willfully ignore the enormous strides that we have made as a species in the realms of science, medicine, and social justice.  Though our lives may seem at times to be as difficult and unproductive as Camus maintains, at the end of each day we've moved that boulder a little further, and though some slippage does occur, even the most pessimistic among us would have to concede that it's pretty far up the hill at this point and shows virtually no likelihood of ever rolling back to the bottom.  In fact, it even seems possible that the summit is in sight.

It may be that Camus was simply a victim of time and place; being French and living through two World Wars would be enough to whip the optimism out of most anybody.  It's probably hard to be too upbeat when you spend all your time with one ear cocked, listening for the roar of German guns coming to pummel your nation into submission, again.  We, on the other hand, certainly live in a time when it is easy to be optimistic--everything from the cosmos to the genetic code seems to be yielding to our inquiries these days.  But it is important not to let Camus off the hook quite that easily.  Like Orwell, he should be remembered as a man of great moral courage, character and intellectual honesty, one of the key figures (post Darwin, post Freud, post Nietszche) in trying to preserve ethical standards of conduct for Man in the absence of God.  But it should also be recalled that had his philosophy prevailed, enormous harm would have resulted.  For the ultimate, inevitable result of his philosophy is to destroy the foundation upon which moral standards must be built. The Myth of Sisyphus is an admirable attempt to rebuild those foundations, but it's real significance lies in it's very failure to do so.  Existentialism, which starts out by denying God, ends by denying Man, and is, therefore, anti-human.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B-)

  

Websites:

See also:

Albert Camus (4 books reviewed)
General Literature
Nobel Prize Winners
Albert Camus Links:

    -ESSAY: Camus and the Neo-Cons: More in Common Than They Might Suspect (EDWARD ROTHSTEIN, February 7, 2004, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Albert Camus: Camus has overtaken Sartre to become the popular hero of existentialism. Now even his views on Algeria have outgrown Sartre (Paul Barker, December 2003, The Prospect)
    -ESSAY: Camus as Conservative: A post 9/11 reassessment of the work of Albert Camus (Murray Soupcoffm, Iconoclast)
    -ESSAY: To be a man: Albert Camus' vision in The Plague was bleak, but his study in terrorism is also a fable of redemption (Marina Warner, April 26, 2003, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: 'This one's had a good start born in the middle of a move.': This is how Albert Camus, alias Jacques Cormery in the novel, was born - Camus called it his War and Peace, but after he was killed his friends suppressed the First Man for fear it would undermine his reputation. Antoine De Gaudemar of Libération on the novel held back for 34 years (Antoine de Gaudemar, April 16, 1994, The Guardian)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Albert Camus (kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "albert camus"
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Guide to the Nobel Prizes : Albert Camus
    -Albert Camus--Nobel Laureate for Literature 1957 (Nobel eMuseum)
    -Albert Camus (Nobel Prize Internet Archive)
    -Nobel Acceptance Speech
    -FEATURED AUTHOR: Albert Camus (NY Times Book Review)
    -existentialism and Albert Camus (Katharena Eiermann, Realms of Existentialism)
    -A Page About Albert Camus
    -An Albert Camus Page
    -Albert Camus (1913-1960)
    -Albert Camus Critical Interpretation Page
    -Existential Frames: Existentialism: An Introduction
    -The Notebook on Albert Camus
    -A Page About Albert Camus
    -Albert Camus (1913-1960) (Bohemian Ink)
    -Albert Camus (Timothy Leuers)
    -Annotated Existentialism Links
    -ETEXT: The Myth of Sysiphus by Albert Camus
    -ESSAY: The Absurd Hero (Bob Lane)
    -ARTICLE: Camus's Last Work, a First Draft, Shows His Life and His Style (ALAN RIDING, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Classic French Novel Is 'Americanized' (HERBERT MITGANG, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: SISYPHUS IN ORWELL'S DECADE (Gunter Grass, NY Times Book Review)
    -ARCHIVE: "Camus" (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: THE FIRST MAN By Albert Camus Translated by David Hapgood (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: THE FIRST MAN By Albert Camus. Translated by David Hapgood (Victor Brombert, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  Le premier homme by Albert Camus (Tony Judt, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: CAMUS' 'FIRST MAN': A MASTERPIECE IN THE MAKING (Richard Dyer, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: of Albert Camus, Le premier homme   The Last Camus (David Cook, ctheory)
    -s o l i t a i r e   e t  s o l i d a i r e  Russell Wilkinson talks to  Catherine Camus about Albert Camus' The First Man (Spike)
    -REVIEW: of The Stranger (Paul M. Willenberg, Senior Honors English, The Overlake School)
    -REVIEW: of 'The Plague' by Albert Camus (Stephen Spender, NY Times Book Review, August 1, 1948)
    -ESSAY : Neither the translator, nor the publisher, could have anticipated the piercing relevance that September 11 would bring to this new translation of Albert Camus's legendary novel The Plague: a new translation Ý(Robin Buss, OCTOBER 31 2001, Times of London)
    -REVIEW : of The Plague : A New Translation (Boyd Tonkin, Independent)
    -ESSAY: Sickness Unto Life (James Wood, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of  A Happy Death by Albert Camus (John Weightman, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Notebooks 1942-1951 by Albert Camus (Paul de Man, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Notebooks, 1935-42 by Albert Camus (Susan Sontag, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of ALBERT CAMUS A Life By Olivier Todd Translated by Benjamin Ivry (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of CAMUS By Patrick McCarthy (Peter Brooks, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of ALBERT CAMUS A Life By Olivier Todd. Translated by Benjamin Ivry  (Isabelle de Courtivron, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Albert Camus: A Life by Olivier Todd (John Weightman, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Camus by Patrick McCarthy (Frederick Brown, NY Review of Books)
 

GENERAL
    -The Notebook  for Contemporary Continental Philosophy
    -REVIEW: of Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 by Tony Judt (John Weightman, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY:  Idealism and Its Critic (John Bayley, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Summing Up Sartre (John Weightman, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Sartre's Cage (Stuart Hampshire, NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: The Deadly Sins/Despair; The One Unforgivable Sin (Joyce Carol Oates, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE BLOODY CROSSROADS Where Literature and Politics Meet. By Norman Podhoretz (Cynthia Ozick, NY Times Book Review)

Comments:

Thanks very much for the review and the discussion. Many comments are very well formulated. I am struck by the premise that ideas can be dangerous; if this is the case, then I find the idea of progress to have been one of the most dangerous and, counterintuitively, destructive of meaning and value in the last 300 years. Of course, I am making an historical rather than analytic comparison. I shall always cherish Camus' work, what he wrote, what he worked for, and what he endured without the hope or promise of progress. Thanks again!

- LMHennon

- Oct-09-2006, 22:06

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It seems to me that you make several logical errors in analyzing this work -- and in doing so you miss the entire point of existentialism. I'll try to keep this brief, but I make no promises...

"if human life is purposeless, isn't it also valueless"

This doesn't necessarily follow logically. A Rembrandt or Monet serves no real purpose, but people pay obscene amounts of money for them anyway. There's no real point to playing football or soccer; nothing is accomplished. Nevertheless, people -find- value within in the form of entertainment.

As a previous reviewer (thanks, John Selig) stated, existentialism does -not- require denial of a divine being. While Camus couldn't reconcile his search for meaning with religion, Kierkgaard managed to blend Christianity and existentialism rather well.

Later in that same paragraph you go on to say that:

"...to believe that this is true, one must willfully ignore the enormous strides that we have made as a species in the realms of science, medicine, and social justice. Though our lives may seem at times to be as difficult and unproductive as Camus maintains, at the end of each day we've moved that boulder a little further..."

You're confusing scientific and social progress with the existentialist struggle. The fact that one is enabled to live longer by virtue of medical procedures and prescriptions does not grant meaning to life in and of itself. Indeed, many existentialists would argue that science is a surrogate for faith in that it grants mankind a standard foundation of meaning objective to man's existence. Nevertheless, science (be it physical or social), does not enter into Camus' equation; life, for the existentialist, continues to be as senseless and absurd as it was from its beginning. The truly important part of this work was that focusing on Sisyphus' descent from the hill. Sisyphus knows that his existence will know no change for the rest of his days, but he keeps his head high. That was the point Camus was trying to make; to use his terminology, that is the essence of the Revolt.

In the last paragraph you state that existentialism attempts "to destroy the foundation upon which moral standards must be built." It seems to me that you're arguing from an absolutist viewpoint here; you're assuming that there must be a zero point from which all morality originates, and there is as yet no proof for the existence of a moral benchmark for the rest of humanity.

Additionally, your closing statement -- that existentialism is anti-human -- is ridiculous. Read Sartre's "Existentialism is a Humanism." What it boils down to is that for the existentialist, there is no absolute morality. Even so, existentialists choose to continue living, making the the decisions they see as most logical. It follows, therefore, that in making decisions about how they live their lives, existentialists make a declaration of the ideal of human existence, as any man would choose their own ideal over any other path.

One last statement:

"being French and living through two World Wars would be enough to whip the optimism out of most anybody."

That comment is not only in error, it's dangerously ignorant. Camus was an active fighter in the French Resistance and also published resistance propoganda. If you honestly believe Camus wasn't an optimist, you wasted your time reading his works.

- J. D. Cuevas

- Mar-12-2006, 03:01

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Except that if there is a Creator then mere existence isn't the point.

- oj

- May-12-2005, 16:34

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Orrin, thanks for that thoughtful review. However, existentialism does not require the denial of the possibility of the divine, nor does it require the denial of reality. The leading existentialists varied on their beliefs about God. Nietzsche and Sartre denied the existence of God; Kierkegaard and Heidegger did not. (Although it's uncertain Nietzsche was a true atheist, unlike Sartre--assuming we could really get into these fellows' heads and ascertain their true beliefs.)

Dostoyevsky's claim, "If there is no God, everything is permitted," is, of course, profound and perhaps of the utmost importance. Fear of God and His wrath give many a reason to behave. In that sense, yes, Camus' philosophy might have done some harm if it indeed prevailed.

- John Selig

- May-12-2005, 13:24

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Please learn the difference between "its" and "it's." "It's" is a contraction of "it is," and "its" is a possessive. An easy way to remember this is to use "its" for everything that isn't "it is." Since it doesn't make sense to say "by it is very nature," it must be "by its very nature."

- L. A. Bowen

- May-04-2005, 15:25

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No, Camus recognized his own shortcoming but couldn't adopt the faith required to heal himself:

http://www.brothersjudd.com/blog/archives/007072.html

- oj

- Feb-26-2005, 20:33

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I'm not sure I agree that Camus is as lacking in optimism as you propose. Rather, it appears to me that Camus' position is that in order to wholly love and appreciate something, (here, your life, or your existence) it is necessary to truly know, and understand it. To truly know and understand something, one must be honest with themselves about some of the more difficult and troubling things associated with it.

- Jennifer Jeans

- Feb-26-2005, 20:20

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