Sisyphus was a great King of Greek mythology. So clever, he was able to outwit the gods themselves. Twice, he cheated death. First, by capturing Thanatos, the god of death. Then, by tricking the goddess of the underworld, Persephone, into releasing him back into the lands of the living.
The gods weren’t happy with this, and so for his arrogance, Sisyphus was given a deceptively simple punishment – roll a boulder up a hill.The problem was that the boulder had been magically enchanted to fall back down to the bottom every time Sisyphus managed to get it to the top, effectively condemning him to an eternity of repeating the same impossible and meaningless task.
Classical interpretations of the myth view it as an allegory for the futility of trying to escape death. No matter how powerful or how clever a person is, we’re all doomed to meet the same fate. More modern audiences have found something more relatable about Sisyphus’s struggle. Seeing it not as a simple parable about the inevitability of death but more like a metaphor for the drudgery and monotony of their own lives.
Every day, we wake up, make coffee, take the train to work, stare at a computer for hours, get yelled at by our boss, stare at the computer some more, take the train back home, binge Netflix or YouTube while eating dinner, go to bed, and then wake up and do it all over again. Just like Sisyphus, we seem condemned to repeat the same meaningless tasks over and over and over.
Most of us do this everyday for the rest of our lives as though we were sleepwalking, never waking up or stopping to ask why. For some of us, one day we’re standing on a street corner preparing to go to work when in an instant, we’re struck by the strangeness of it all. Suddenly nothing appears to have purpose. Life is haphazard and meaningless. You look around you and whisper to yourself, why are all these people in such a hurry? For that matter, why am I? What’s the point of all this? Why am I even alive?
Human beings crave meaning. It’s part of our biology. We are evolutionarily programmed to search for patterns in chaos to try to understand why things are happening. It’s how we learn. The problem is that existence is, at best, random and irrational. Nothing really seems to matter. Your loved ones die, stars explode, natural disasters wipe out entire cities, millions of people spend half their day on TikTok, and for what? Yet, we keep going, constantly striving to create order by giving these things purpose despite the Universe denying it.
This conflict is what the French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus referred to as “the Absurd.” It’s an irreconcilable paradox – we yearn for meaning in a meaningless Universe. Camus uses the Myth of Sisyphus as an allegory to describe this relationship. We can try to push the boulder to the top of the hill, but inevitably it will roll back down. More often than not, the effects of this are intense feelings of anxiety, alienation, and hopelessness. We shout into the void but are met only with deafening silence. Not even an echo.
For most of history, people have turned to religion for answers. You didn’t need to worry if your life had meaning because some higher power was there to provide it. This all changed in 19th century Europe, as new forms of science and philosophy threatened to replace Christianity as the central axis around which people’s lives revolved. Notable texts such as Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species challenged previously held beliefs about the nature of humanity, leading to a radical shift in society away from religion.
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche noted this, famously declaring, “God is dead, and we have killed him.” Despite what some may think, this statement was not claiming that God had literally been murdered, nor was Nietzsche celebrating. Rather, it was an observation that without Christianity, society had lost the foundation upon which it had built centuries-old systems of morality, metaphysics, and meaning. Nietzsche felt a great deal of anxiety about this, worrying that without a clear replacement, people would succumb to nihilism.
I’ve talked about nihilism before in another video, so I won’t go into depth here. But to give a brief explanation, nihilism is the belief in nothingness. A belief that rejects the idea of objective truth. According to Nietzsche, nihilism was a necessary step on the journey away from religion but it was not the destination because it presented a very real problem. If people viewed life as having no inherent meaning, it would likely lead them to despair.
Because of this, Nietzsche sought to speed up the arrival of nihilism so that he could, in turn, speed up its departure. He believed that after nihilism had passed, humanity could finally arrive at the true philosophical foundation on which society could thrive. Unfortunately, while he successfully expedited nihilism's arrival, he failed to do so with its departure. In fact, Nietzsche's philosophy was taken up by many of the violent ideologies that defined the early 20th century.
Well over a hundred years later, nihilism remains rampant throughout global culture. Trust in both secular and religious institutions is at an all-time low. Our governments are corrupt, there are CEOs with more money than some countries, and our spiritual leaders often appear ineffective and out of touch. Most people today report that faith plays little to no role in their lives.
Instead, we’ve begun looking to science and reason for answers, but these haven’t been able to offer a sufficient solution to the problem of meaning either. So what are we to do? Should we simply accept our fate, conclude that our lives are without purpose, and allow the boulder to roll back over us?
Well, 20th-century philosophers Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre didn’t think so. Both argued that in the absence of objective meaning, we, as free and rational beings must fight to create our own purpose. Sartre is credited as the father of modern existentialism, a philosophical school concerned with our plight as individuals forced to assume responsibility for our lives without certain knowledge of truth.
Though its roots can be traced back to 19th-century figures like Soren Kierkegaard and Fyodor Dostoevsky, Sartre differentiated himself by rejecting the idea that humans were reliant on an external power like God to provide us with meaning. He claimed that “man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself” and referred to those who would outsource this responsibility to a higher power as acting in what he called “bad faith.”
In Sartre’s view, existence precedes essence. We are conceived, and only after being born do we figure out what our purpose in life will be. This might seem like an uncontroversial opinion to us today, but in the mid-twentieth century, this was a radical idea. For most of human history, it was assumed that essence precedes existence. Since the time of Plato and Aristotle, it was widely believed that our purpose as individuals was assigned to us before birth. The meaning of your life was ready-made by the gods, prepackaged before you were even born.
Sartre’s claim was a direct contradiction of this widely-held belief, a declaration that we as humans are not beholden to gods or kings to provide us with meaning, only to ourselves. For Sartre, the problem of existence wasn’t its lack of meaning but rather it's absolutely terrifying level of freedom. After all, without an objective meaning or morality, every one of us is responsible for designing our own purpose according to our own ethical code.
Camus largely agreed with Sartre’s diagnosis that we live in a meaningless Universe where we as humans are, in Camus' own words, “abandoned to freedom.” However, he did not agree with the cure. To Camus, the solution to the problem of meaning was not as simple as just making up your own. The Universe would naturally rebuke our attempts to do so, no matter how hard we tried.
We can push the boulder up the hill, but it will always fall back down. This, in turn, would still give rise to feelings of the Absurd as well as the associated sense of anxiety, alienation, and hopelessness that accompanies it. To Camus, there were only three possible reactions to this. The first of these is suicide which Camus famously wrote is the “one truly serious philosophical problem.”
Rather than grappling with the absurdity of life, you can simply refuse to play the game. The only issue is when you’re gone, you can no longer enjoy life, however meaningless it may be. It also doesn’t actually solve the problem. It only allows the absurd to decide your fate. It’s essentially admitting defeat.
The second possible reaction is “the solution of faith,” which Camus dubs “philosophical suicide.” Similar to Sartre’s concept of “bad faith,” it’s when a person rejects the burden of creating their own meaning by shifting the responsibility to an external ideology. This amounts to a kind of denial where the individual deludes themselves into thinking they’ve conquered the problem when, in reality, they’re just avoiding it.
It’s simply an attempt to replace the Absurd with a set of man-made beliefs, the consequence of which is the abdication of existential freedom. Importantly, Camus doesn’t limit this to religion. Any ideological system can serve this function. Nationalism, capitalism, or even the values of our own family. When we allow external systems to dictate meaning to us, we give away the potential to determine our life’s purpose.
How many of us took a job or studied for a degree solely because our parents told us that we should? In a world as complicated and confusing as ours, it can be tempting to contract out our thinking and just go along with what we’re told, but the risk we run in doing this is ending up in a situation where we’re unhappy and unfulfilled. It’s why many of us pause on that random Tuesday afternoon and ask ourselves, “why am I doing any of this?”
If, instead, we make our own choices, we can decide meaning for ourselves and follow a path that calls to us instead of one that’s just prescribed. Of course, there’s no guarantee of success. In fact, according to Camus, you are destined to fail again and again. What he argues, though, is that this is the only true solution to the problem. To acknowledge the meaninglessness of life and continue living anyway. Or, as Camus puts it, “the only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
The Universe will always reject all attempts by the individual to create meaning. Just like Sisyphus, we’re doomed to forever push the boulder up the hill, knowing that, no matter how hard we try, it will inevitably roll back down to the bottom. Yet, we must fight back against the Absurd because it is by virtue of our struggle that we empower ourselves to live life the way we want. It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.
This philosophy effectively rejects nihilism as nothing more than a stepping stone on the way to Absurdism. Life is meaningless, sure, and the only rational course of action is to behave as such. There is no plan, no objective truth, and everything happens purely by accident. But this doesn’t necessitate nihilism. If we instead choose to embrace the Absurd, we can view our circumstances as an opportunity to change our perspective.
Camus notes that it’s not meaninglessness that hurts. Rather, it is the desire for meaning being continuously rejected. If we can put aside our desires and simply accept life for what it is, we open ourselves up to experiencing it fully, living as passionately and as intensely as we like. In a world without meaning, we are free to constantly invent and reinvent our life’s purpose, changing it as often as it suits us.
Today, you may be stuck in a redundant, dead-end job, but tomorrow you could easily quit and go about completely redefining your existence. Maybe you want to be a chef or a classical composer. Maybe you want to spend the next year backpacking through the wilderness or volunteering with an aid organization. All you have to do is find the courage to acknowledge your own freedom and you can be whoever you want to be.
Knowing this, we can abandon any expectations for the future and instead choose to live in the present moment. It isn’t necessary that our actions lead to something bigger. There’s no goal we have to reach, no afterlife to prepare for. Then, we can find joy in every situation, no matter how unpleasant or absurd, because, well, it doesn’t really matter. Although we may be fated to fail, there’s no reason we can’t be happy while we do it. This might lead to greater empathy for our fellow humans as we recognize that every person alive is fighting the same fight that we are.
We can feel a sense of camaraderie in knowing that we’re all in this together. We’lll never make it to the top of the mountain, the meaning of our lives will forever elude us, but as Camus says, “the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” It’s because of this that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.”