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Sisyphus, a model for happiness

17 May

Reluctantly, I’ve come to realise recently that the view of happiness presented by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus comes quite close to my own. Basically for Camus happiness is a product of the condition of the absurd. This is encapsulated in humanity’s search for meaning in a world where God does not exist, and where there are no absolute truths or values. Our ‘appetite for the absolute and for unity’ constantly runs up against ‘the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle’. The world is simply not reasonable. So the human project is doomed to failure – we will never succeed in our attempts to apply reason to a state of being that is fundamentally unreasonable. This, in a nutshell, is the absurd.

Does our recognition of the absurd demand suicide as a response, Camus asks.No, we just have to live with the contradiction. Reason and its limits must be acknowledged, without any false hopes. But the absurd must never be accepted: it requires constant confrontation, constant revolt. For Camus, this revolt leads to freedom: when we are no longer bound by hope for a better future or for eternity, we have no need to pursue life’s purpose or to create meaning; instead we enjoy ‘freedom with regard to common rules’.

In the last chapter of this short work Camus relates the condition of the absurd to the Sisyphus myth. The latter was a character in Greek mythology who tried to outwit Zeus, the ruler of the gods, and in the process committed some pretty bloody crimes. Finally Zeus ordered Death, or Thanatos, to chain Sisyphus up in the Underworld. Cunning as ever, Sisyphus asked Thanatos to show him how the chains worked; while Thanatos was obliging him with a demonstration Sisyphus seized the initiative and imprisoned Death in his own shackles.

In other words, Sisyphus tried to outwit Zeus by abolishing death. This caused such an uproar among the gods that Sisyphus was bullied into releasing Thanatos. He was then condemned to a punishment which most of us can easily recognise from our own day-to-day lives: he had to spend the rest of eternity in the Underworld, rolling a huge boulder up a steep hill; whenever he got near the top the boulder tumbled back down again, forcing Sisyphus to begin the task all over again. (Think, for example, of spending hours cleaning the house, knowing that next week we’ll have to do it all over again. Are our more serious tasks any different – do we ever really complete them?).

Camus sees Sisyphus as the archetypal absurd hero who lives life to the full, hates death and is condemned to an utterly meaningless task. His never-ending and pointless toil can be interpreted as a metaphor for human life, full of unremitting drudgery which we are compelled to take seriously, since existence would be unsustainable without it.

According to Camus the truly tragic moment comes when Sisyphus is beginning his task all over again, and becomes conscious of his own miserable condition. He does not have hope, but ‘there is no fate that cannot be overcome by scorn’. When Sisyphus acknowledges the futility of his task and the certainty that he will never succeed in it, he is freed to realise the absurdity of his situation and to reach a contented acceptance. ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy’.


A brief postscript: Camus’ account of our flailing attempts to apply reason to problems which will never admit of reasonable solutions reminded me of Steven Knight’s brilliant film Locke. Ivan Locke thinks that if he just stays calm and remains rational he will work out how to do the right thing in a nightmare situation where there is no right thing that can be done. It’s agonising to watch.