Sisyphus and Existential Philosophy

In Greek mythology, whose punishment was to push a boulder to the top of a hill, only to have it roll back down to the bottom, repeating for eternity?

And the answer: Sisyphus.

Sisyphus, oil on canvas by Titian, 1548–49; in the Prado Museum, Madrid.

As a ruthless king in ancient Greece, Sisyphus was deceitful and scoffed at social norms, which infuriated Zeus. He was ultimately condemned to Hades, where his punishment was to roll a boulder up a steep hill, only to have it roll back down to the bottom, and to repeat this for all eternity.

The fate of Sisyphus inspired a new, 20th century conversation about human destiny and existentialism. French philosopher Albert Camus published an essay in 1942 titled "Le Mythe de Sisyphe", or "The Myth of Sisyphus". In this essay, Camus uses the never-ending torment of Sisyphus's fate as an allegory to the human philosophy of the absurd, comparing humanity's fruitless search for meaning to Sisyphus's eternity of pointless action and reaction. Camus wagers that without finding pleasure in the mundane, we are doing little more than going through the motions; our life slips away in the moments in between.

But Camus raises his point not to undermine the human search for happiness, safety, or greater meaning. For Camus, to identify the absurd in one's own life is to take control of it, to recognize which moments lack the conscience of pleasure and intention and to place greater importance upon them. Camus ends his essay with the following passage:

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 seems to him neither sterile or futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Like Sisyphus, Camus reminds us that meaning is found not only in the big moments, those upon which you call with the conscience of a memory, but the little moments, those which fill the seconds, minutes, hours and days in between.

Check out this video to learn more about the life and plights of the mythical Sisyphus:

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