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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.


Grade: (B-)


See also:

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

    -WIKIPEDIA: Albert Camus
    -LETTER: 21 January (1948): Albert Camus to Jean Grenier
    -ESSAY: What Albert Camus’s The Stranger Says About Our Contemporary Anxieties: Kate Christensen on Finding Inspiration in the Existentialist Classic (Kate Christensen, November 30, 2023, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Camus and the Crisis of the West: The Rebel considers what happens when human beings are unwilling to live within the limits placed on them by the cosmos. (Graham Mcaleer, 8/18/23, Law & Liberty)
    -ESSAY: Albert Camus on suicide, absurdity, and the meaning of life: Albert Camus was a Franco-Algerian philosopher with some great insights on the meaning of life, why you should look to this life and not the next, and why suicide is a poor choice. (Scotty Hendricks, 3/20/23, Big Think)
    -ESSAY: Orwell, Camus and truth: On honesty as an attitude (William Fear, 12 March, 2023, The Critic)
    -ESSAY: Camus’s Atheism and the Virtues of Inconsistency (Craig DeLancey, 1/21/20, Culturico)
    -ESSAY: Influencing the Young Albert Camus: Perspectives on Jean Grenier (Jesse Mosqueda, January 3, 2017, Fragments of History)
    -ESSAY: Is Human Suffering Metaphysical Or Mundane? (Dwight Furrow, 1/23/23, 3 Quarks)
    -ESSAY: The philosopher who resisted despair: Albert Camus and the search for solace in a cruel age. (Sean Illing, May 28, 2022, Vox)
    -ESSAY: Is It Ironic That Life Is Absurd? (Tim Sommers, 5/16/22, 3 Quarks)
    -ESSAY: Can France resist tribalism?: Albert Camus agonised over his divided country (BOYD TONKIN, 1/02/22, UnHerd)
    -VIDEO: Camus: The Madness of Sincerity
    -PODCAST: Camus (Melvyn Bragg, 8/11/19, BBC In Our Time)
    -VIDEO: Albert Camus: The Madness of Sincerity — 1997 Documentary Revisits the Philosopher’s Life & Work (Open Culture, November 30th, 2014)
-ESSAY: Without God or Reason: Albert Camus faced the human condition with clarity. (Morten Høi Jensen, January 6, 2021, Commonweal)
    -ESSAY: On Albert Camus’s Legendary Postwar Speech at Columbia University: “The years we have gone through have killed something in us.” (Robert Meagher, November 10, 2021, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Who are You Calling an Existentialist?! in “Albert Camus and the Human Crisis” (ROSS COLLIN, NOVEMBER 3, 2021, Chicago Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Of course Albert Camus was a goalkeeper. (Emily Temple, February 16, 2021, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Without God or Reason: Albert Camus faced the human condition with clarity. (Morten Høi Jensen, December 24, 2020, Commonweal)
    -ESSAY: Reading Camus in Time of Plague and Polarization: The French Algerian writer steadfastly defended democracy and humanity against dogmatic ideologies of all stripes. We need to read and reread him today. (MUGAMBI JOUET, 12/07/20, Boston Review)
    -ESSAY: How Camus and Sartre split up over the question of how to be free: If the idea of freedom bound Camus and Sartre philosophically, then the fight for justice united them politically. (SAM DRESSER, 19 July, 2020, Big Think)
    -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)
    -REVIEW: of Personal Writing by Albert Camus (Robert Zaretsky, LA Review of Books)
    -POEM: Death and the Sun: An original poem from 1986 (Derek Mahon, Times Literary Supplement)

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: 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)

    -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)