Book Review: The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus

We’ve all had an existential crisis at least once in our lives.

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We’ve all had an existential crisis at least once in our lives.

“It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm – this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.”

About the Book

Title: The Myth of Sisyphus

Author: Albert Camus

Published: 1942

Series: (standalone)

Genre: essays, philosophy, absurdism

My Rating: 5 stars

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The Premise

Synopsis (from Goodreads) (truncated):

“The Myth of Sisyphus transformed twentieth-century philosophy with its impassioned argument for the value of life in a world without religious meaning.”

My Thoughts

A few years ago, after abruptly realizing the hollowness of my religious faith, I found myself sitting in my room, desperately praying for God to reveal his existence to me. (he did not if you were wondering). I was horrified at the idea that the universe could have no divine meaning at all, and suddenly felt confronted with a void of existential emptiness which disturbed and scared me.

As the months passed, this feeling, which I had been trying to suppress via all manner of distractions and philosophical soul-searching, only continued to grow and become all-consuming in my life. It was only when I began to read Camus that I found a name for this feeling: the absurd.

According to Albert Camus, the absurd is the confrontation between humanity’s search for a meaning and a universe that offers none. When you break away from the autopilot motions of everyday existence and become cognizant of the absurd, there is no going back and it becomes necessary to recognize the absurd in determining how you live your life– and that is what The Myth of Sisyphus is about.

The essay opens with the famous line, “there is but one truly serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.” Upon realizing the meaninglessness of life, is it logical to kill yourself? Camus says no. He also rejects the adoption of hope for meaning or eternal life, e.g. Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, analogously calling this “philosophical suicide.” Both of these options stop you from acknowledging and embracing the full truth of the absurd.

To Camus, the ultimate life is one lived with the absurd in full view. To become “conscious” is to know and recognize the futility of your existence but continue to live anyway. You must strike a balance, being careful never to sacrifice your integrity for false hope or to give up. Paradoxically, happiness is found in living with full acknowledgement of the tragedy and futility of human existence.

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The middle section of the essay is devoted to analyzing examples of “absurd men”– people who embody this philosophy, and the ins and outs of authors like Dostoevsky and how they do or do not embody absurdism.

The last couple pages, though, are the most memorable of the essay– this is the part devoted to the actual Sisyphus myth. Sisyphus is a mythological character who is punished by the gods to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again, over and over for all eternity. As Camus points out, Sisyphus’s punishment is only torture because he is cognizant of the futility of his labor. Similarly, people are only tormented by the nature of existence when they become aware of the absurd. But there is a way around this, without suicide or illogical leaps of faith.

By staring at the absurd head-on, by having full consciousness of your fate and still choosing to live with the friction between your craving for meaning and your recognition of the world’s futility, you can choose to be happy anyway— to face the meaninglessness and simply say “screw you, I’m going to be happy anyway”, if you will.

The iconic last lines of the essay are the most-often quoted, and sum up the message pretty succinctly:

“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Have you read The Myth of Sisyphus? Any other works by Albert Camus? What do you think of absurdism? Feel free to leave a comment!

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NOTE: The Myth of Sisyphus is a philosophical thought experiment about the logic of suicide. It is not intended as a mental health resource. If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts please seek help from a mental health provider.

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