Source: pp 200-201, A Little History of Philosophy (2011 ed; not 2012 Reprint ed.) by Nigel Warburton PhD in Philosophy.
A novice, I am still easing into philosophy with introductions and do not feel prepared yet to read Camus; but please tell me if primary sources answer my question.

Albert Camus (1913–60), a novelist and philosopher also linked with existentialism, used the Greek myth of Sisyphus to explain human absurdity. Sisyphus’ punishment for tricking the gods is that he has to roll a huge rock to the top of a mountain. When he reaches the top, the rock rolls down and he has to begin from the bottom once more. Sisyphus has to do this again and again for ever. Human life is like Sisyphus’ task in that it is completely meaningless. There is no point to it: no answers that will explain everything. It’s absurd. But Camus didn’t think we should despair. We shouldn’t commit suicide. Instead we have to recognize that Sisyphus is happy. [1.] Why is he happy? [2.] Because there is something about the pointless struggle of rolling that huge rock up the mountain that makes his life worth living. [3.] It is still preferable to death.

  1. How is 2 true? What exactly about this pointless struggle ennobles such a rock roller's life?

  2. How is 3 true? Even if you must do 2 for the rest of your life, daily?

  • 1
    Ah, lovely question; +1, I am very much looking forward to reading the answers. The trouble, of course, is you're asking for a rationale for an intentionally anti-rational philosophy (it is my understanding that throughout the body of The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus went to great lengths to avoid arguing for his position, as he believed the despair caused by the contradiction between man's desire for purpose and the demonstrable purposelessness of existence preceded all reason, all philosophy). My (layman) take has been, for Sisyphus, at least, being happy was the ultimate revenge: one big FU.
    – Dan Bron
    May 6 '16 at 16:05
  • 1
    3 follows logically from 2. Note that 2 claims that there is something ... that makes his life worth living. So if it's true then yes, it is preferable to death. The question would then be: What is it that makes life worth living in that situation? I suggest reading this: plato.stanford.edu/entries/camus/#SuiAbsHapMytSis
    – Eliran
    May 6 '16 at 19:00

You have to keep in mind that "rolling the rock" purposeless, was Sisyphus' punishment. If, instead, he rolls it over wheat, he will make flour, which could be used to feed people, thereby giving purpose/value to his efforts (life). Life is not a punishment, but rather an opportunity to help others and enjoy their company, to go through the different stages of life, and to perpetuate the human species. Any one of these (a lofty goal in itself), would make life "worth more" than death. Whether life is a punishment or an opportunity is up to you.


How is 2 true? What exactly about this pointless struggle ennobles such a rock roller's life?

Can you conclusively prove death would offer a better purpose than life (no matter what was done while alive) ?. Calling this struggle pointless assumes any other pursuit has a point. How is that true ?. It would be imposing your definition of "point" on Sisyphus' life.

The story, like many other greek mythological stories is an allegory (not to be taken literally). Sisyphus lead a greedy life filled with trickery and deceit . He wholeheartedly believed he was cleverer than the Gods and for a while managed to convince himself he had tricked Death.

Zeus then ordered Thanatos, Death, to chain King Sisyphus down below in Tartarus. Sisyphus was curious as to why Hermes, whose job it was to guide souls to the Underworld, had not appeared on this occasion. King Sisyphus slyly asked Thanatos to demonstrate how the chains worked. As Thanatos was granting him his wish, Sisyphus seized the opportunity and trapped Thanatos in the chains instead. Once Thanatos was bound by the strong chains, no one died on earth.

The punishment is not the physical labor undergone in rolling the rock. It is being trapped in the illusions created in your mind. Life is very much like rolling the heavy boulder up the steep hill. Happiness is not contingent upon any specific activity that is performed. It is state you arrive at (not because you do something) , because you choose it.

It is not true that the heart wears out — but the body creates this illusion. Those who prefer their principles over their happiness, they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness. If they are happy by surprise, they find themselves disabled, unhappy to be deprived of their unhappiness. - Alburt Camus, Notebooks 1951-69

In that sense Camus feels the struggle and the journey to the top is all there is. (*) To believe there is more is to be imprisoned in an illusion. To stop pushing the boulder is to sacrifice happiness for your principles, to truly lose the point of being alive.

How is 3 true? Even if you must do 2 for the rest of your life, daily?

This assumes (*).

  • Like when Suzuki praised the child for answering the question: "What is the point of eating breakfast?" when the child answered: "The point of eating breakfast is to eat breakfast." Apparently, people do not want to accept that.
    – user16869
    May 9 '16 at 22:59

Rolling a large rock up a hill is pointless, and such a task was imposed by the gods as punishment for Sisyphus; Camus, however, uses this as a symbol of the human condition when a meaningful world has been undermined by the intellectual collapse of European religion - i.e. Christianity; Camus locates meaning in the very action of living, it's this action that is symbolised by Sisyphus's task: Sisyphus is happy simply because he is living his life, with its ambiguities, its joys and sorrows, its achievements, and its failures.

Arendt would call this the vita activa, the life of action.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.