The Boulder of Life.

I was recently reading Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, which explores the concept of “the absurd” which arises from the fundamental disharmony between the human need to find meaning and the apparent meaninglessness of the world.

I have had hundreds of discussions over the years, and a lot of people struggle to find meaning in their life. They wonder what’s the point of continuing to wake up each day. I think this is a serious issue, because if we do have meaning, we do not have a goal. This means we do not have a map of where we need to go — in fact, we may not even know where we are right now!

At the heart of The Myth of Sisyphus is the legend of Sisyphus, a figure from Greek mythology condemned to push a massive boulder up a steep mountainside for eternity. After struggling intensely to reach the mountain’s summit and push the boulder over the top, it would immediately roll back down to the bottom as soon as Sisyphus completed his task. Consequently, he was forced to walk back down the mountain and repeat the same endless, futile effort over and over again forever, with no hope of ever actually completing his burden. The gods devised this cruel punishment explicitly to frustrate Sisyphus and deprive his life of meaning or purpose.

His labor was entirely useless – he would never make any lasting progress pushing the boulder, as it was destined to perpetually roll back down. The myth captures the essence of monotonous, repetitive human toil and futility in the face of life’s absurdity. Sisyphus’s endless, pointless struggle symbolizes the meaninglessness inherent in many mundane, routine human lives.

Camus uses Sisyphus’s story as an allegorical device to illustrate the futility of human existence, while also exploring ways in which humans can find fulfillment and happiness even in the face of life’s absurdity.

The essay would go on to become one of Camus’s most seminal and influential works, helping define his own philosophical school of thought known as absurdism. Through The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus attempts to answer the fundamental question of whether life is worth living even without objective meaning, laying the groundwork for his ideas of philosophical revolt and living life to its fullest intensity.

It is interesting to consider the connection between Sisyphus’s condemnation and our daily lives. Every day we wake up, the struggle begins afresh. We have new tasks to do, new problems to solve, and so on. The boulder has rolled down the mountain, and we need to start pushing again.

There is also the fact of considering that a lot of life is mundane and repetitive. How many times are you going to brush your teeth in your life? Quite a lot of times. But these things are actually quite important, you just have to run the maths. Habits, however small, matter.

Our previous efforts of pushing the boulder up the mountain also count for something. Perhaps we get stronger, it makes subsequent efforts easier. Perhaps we did some thing badly, we churned up mud on the way up and now it is harder to push along the same path, perhaps an alternative path is required.

Or perhaps the boulder rolling back down does not symbolize one day in our life, but our lives themselves. Each time the boulder falls down and has to be pushed back up, that is a new generation that has to make similar mistakes and grow up, and yet still inherits the progress — and mistakes — of the previous generation.

And perhaps the meaning is in the struggle. Often I find that there are things I do not want to do, and I put them off. I know I would be better off doing it, but the alternatives, however silly, appear better in the short term. Getting to the point where you do the hard things because they are hard, because you don’t want to do them can create a sense of meaning in the struggle itself. And we must remember that actions propagate across different times. We always have to balance the short-term with the long-term. And it’s not always clear where the balance is. Obviously optimising only for today without any thought for the future is not a good strategy, unless today is your last day. However, always optimising for the future may also mean that you forget to live in the present.

Despite the repetitive, meaningless nature of Sisyphus’s punishment, Camus argues we must picture Sisyphus as finding joy and contentment in his endless labor. For Camus, imagining Sisyphus as happy in his task is crucial to embracing an absurd life in the face of its inherent meaninglessness. If Sisyphus accepts his fate and toils with vigor and passion, he can rebel against the gods and the futility of his condition.

Camus believes we can apply Sisyphus’s absurd happiness to our own lives. We must revolt against the repetitive, mundane nature of human existence through consciousness, intensity, and defiance. Though we often undertake tedious, habitual tasks, we can find fulfilment in the struggle. By living passionately and remaining aware of life’s absurdity, we can discover meaning and purpose. Our revolt against monotony gives life value, just as Sisyphus’s strength and dedication lend significance to his punishment.

Fundamentally, Camus advocates embracing the present and extracting vitality from consciously engaging life’s experiences, however routine or futile they may seem. We should not only imagine Sisyphus happy, but live vigorously ourselves, unresigned to fate but determined to maximise life’s moments. Against the backdrop of certain death, transient joy becomes precious. Camus urges us to be happy in the struggle like Sisyphus, filling our brief lives with fire and intensity rather than nihilistic despair. Through passion and revolt, we affirm our existence.

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