Camus, Suicide, and Imagining Sisyphus Happy
Albert Camus was a French philosopher, author, and journalist. His views contributed to the rise of the philosophy known as absurdism. To examine Camus’ central ideas and views surely one must get back to one of his best works, The Myth of Sisyphus.
The central essay revolves around a portrait of the mythological figure of Sisyphus. Sisyphus, the king of Corinth, was infamous for his trickery, ultimately cheating death twice, which ultimately led Zeus to sentence him to an eternal punishment of rolling a boulder up a hill in the depth of Hades, only for the boulder to roll back down again.
Camus presents The Myth of Sisyphus as an allegory attempting to justify that life is meaningless and absurd, but nonetheless should be taken as a challenge. Sisyphus is a symbol of mankind as a whole and Sisyphus’ punishment symbolizes what we do every single day during our lives. In Camus’ view, our actions are also as meaningless and fruitless just like Sisyphus’ boulder-rolling.
Surely this sounds horrifying, a life lived with utter despair, but Camus tells us that we should imagine Sisyphus happy, he writes:
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Sisyphus is happy because he has accepted the punishment assigned to him. Sisyphus understands that he has to roll the boulder up, and when he achieves this goal while standing at the top of the hill he experiences happiness, momentary happiness. He looks forward to this happiness.
He wanted us to imagine Sisyphus happy so we ourselves can face the absurdity of life, and only when we acknowledge the absurd we can overcome it, and thrive towards some kind of happiness.
Camus claimed at the beginning of the Myth of Sisyphus that the only important philosophical question is suicide, the rest is secondary. Each day millions of people ask themselves, is this life worth living? And in this question lays Camus’ concern.
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. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.
Camus held that suicide amounts to a confession that life is after all not worth living. And this confession is linked to “feeling the absurd”. Generally, people go through life with some sense of meaning and purpose, finding reason and good in what they do in their lives. But occasionally some people may find that their daily actions and thoughts are dictated by many factors, utterly making the one meaningful life, absurd and pointless.
Camus is concerned here with whether the idea that life is meaningless necessarily implies that life is not worth living, meaning is suicide a solution to the absurd? Camus held that we should not be fooled to think that because there are only two possible outcomes (life or suicide, that there are only two possible answers to this question.
Most of human beings continue living largely because they have not reached a definitive answer to this question. There are plenty of contradictions between people’s judgments and their actions. Those who commit suicide might be assured life has meaning, and many who feel that life is not worth living still continue to live.
Facing the meaningless of existence, what keeps us from suicide? To a large extent, Camus suggests that our instinct for life is much stronger than our reasons for suicide: “We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking.” We instinctively avoid facing the full consequences of the meaningless nature of life, through what Camus calls an “act of eluding.” This act of eluding most frequently manifests itself as hope. By hoping for another life, or hoping to find some meaning in this life, we put off facing the consequences of the absurd, of the meaninglessness of life.
In this essay, Camus wants us to face the consequences of the absurd. Camus argues that life is meaningless and absurd. Still, we can revolt against the absurdity, and find some happiness in its midst. Essentially Camus asks if there is a third alternative between acceptance of life’s absurdity or its denial by embracing dubious metaphysical propositions. Can we live without the hope that life is meaningful, but without the despair that leads to suicide? If the contrast is posed this starkly it seems an alternative appears — we can proceed defiantly forward. We can live without faith, without hope, and without appeal. We should imagine Sisyphus happy.