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I am having trouble understanding what Camus meant when he says "One must imagine Sisyphus is happy" in the essay The Myth of Sisyphus. What does Camus mean by happiness, and how can Sisyphus be happy when faced with a meaningless existence?

When one accepts absurdism, you acknowledge that life is absurd and that trying to find any meaning in it is absurd. This means that you don't hope for anything better and you're content with your current position. You don't hope for a greater meaning or purpose. How does this make someone happy? I really don't understand how you can actually be happy about meaninglessness, but I can see how you can be content in the sense that you aren't looking for anything better.

  • Camus doesn't specify exactly what happiness is either, but people seem to understand what he's talking about anyways. I guess that's also apart of my question: what does it mean when Camus is talking about happiness. I do, however, define what I mean by content. I'll make some edits. – Movers Jul 16 '16 at 6:56
  • Is someone depressed, not sad? So how is someone content, not happy? It is possible to cut happiness up into categories: cheer, passion, ecstasy, exhilaration, joy, contentment, etc. But where, in your taxonomy of the world, do some positive emotions fall out and no longer constitute happiness? (Some of these may have no value, or even be destructive -- e.g. Nietzsche's "wretched contentment" or Aristotle's "momentary passion", but they still qualify for those who experience them.) – user9166 Jul 16 '16 at 16:00
  • maybe content with the fact of absurdity, though this doesn't mean they "aren't looking for anything better", only that futility isn't seen as bad – user6917 Jul 16 '16 at 21:08
  • @MATHEMETICIAN, I can see that futility isn't seen as bad, but Camus goes beyond content and asserts that Sisyphus is happy. I just don't understand that. I can understand being content, but why do you have to see your hopeless situation as happy? That seems like you're pretending to feel something when you're not. – Movers Jul 16 '16 at 21:39
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    @Movers well that's i guess what the essay tries to convince you. it's fine not to be convinced by a philosopher – user6917 Jul 16 '16 at 22:05

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There is not room to quote the whole essay here, or even the whole last paragraph. They explain Camus' point pretty well. The last two sentences are:

The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

So, no, Sisyphus is struggling, not content. He is happy because his heart is full. What would make Sisyphus (or any absurdist hero) unhappy would be to say to himself "You know, I'm going to quit trying this, because it makes no sense."

It is key to remember that, for the absurdists, nothing else you could be doing makes any more sense than pushing a rock uphill.

For a view agreeing with some premises of absurdism but rigorously rejecting Camus's claim that the human condition is absurd, see Beauvoir's Ethics of Ambiguity.

  • That doesn't make anything clearer. I don't understand why doing a meaningless task (like pushing a rock) will give someone happiness. Why is the struggle happiness? It just doesn't make logical sense. – Movers Jul 16 '16 at 16:13
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    @Movers Yes, you are right. To be happy simply because you are struggling toward the heights is absurd. This is one difference between the absurdists, and say analytic philosophy. – Colin McLarty Jul 17 '16 at 0:00
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    I have found, traditionally, "happiness" is a term which is not easily made sense of using logic. In fact, every time someone finds a logical argument for what someone should do to become happy, that thing curiously fails to provide lasting happiness. Logically, we should be happier if we win the lottery. Given that we can always just throw the money away and go back to exactly where we were, it should be clear winning the lottery can do no harm. Yet many lottery winners are ruined by the money. – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Jul 17 '16 at 0:14
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    @Movers Your perspective is just biased: Why would doing a meaningless task like living a human life give someone happiness? We believe all kinds of things like freedom and goals are necessary for happiness, but we also find people with less of those things, like people in rigid, primitive societies, or religious monastic or 'cult' members, report being happier and get the health benefits of happiness. So either they are just lying, or giving up freedom and meaning can be an equally effective way of being happy, and something unrelated is going on. – user9166 Jul 17 '16 at 18:47
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    The rock & the hill can't imbue meaning, Sisyphus must do that. He must make sense, even of the irrational, because that's all there is, all any of us can do. There is meaning, just not in the things we do. We run from that. But if we face it, even Sisyphus is free. – CriglCragl Mar 10 '18 at 1:03
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The question is a tough one because it is very hard to know what Camus had in his mind while writing that. Many interpretations are possible. However, there is one way to look into it.

Camus starts from presupposition that life is absurd and meaningless. This is important to remember. Camus also considers the philosophers that mitigate or eliminate the absurdity by turning to other concepts as having failed in the task - the task of presenting an absurdist's actual point of view accurately. The moment you try to somehow answer to life's absurdity (which according to Camus is a conflict between reason and unreasonable) by abandoning or elevating reason, you have just compromised on the absurdist's position/feelings.

Sisyphus represents thus an ideal absurdist - one that has not failed like others. This is because he knows that he will never fulfill his goal and he accepts that. Thus, he is content - in a sense that he knows there is no life that is better than his that he should aspire because that is not possible (just like it is not possible for humans to have a better life though they might have more options than Sisyphus).

However, according to Camus, after acceptance of the absurdity (that absurdity exists), it is important to live it without abandoning it and falling in some kind of hope. Sisyphus does that. And, that makes him happy. Sisyphus is happy because he has conquered his fate - not by changing it, but by accepting it and yet revolting against it. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn. He is not saddened by lack of meaning and hence he is happy because he realises that.

Now, for answer to latter part of your question, consider the chain of events.

A man who realises that there is absurdity in life, that there is a conflict between what he thinks to be rational (should be) and how the world is, is saddened by this knowledge. What Camus offers is a solution that arises from making peace with fate (with disdain). A man must accept that the world is unreasonable and that he looks for reason and thus there will always be a conflict between the two. Now, when he accepts that, he is no longer sad. Because the only reason (in this context) for unhappiness is removed, a man is now happy. Here, I must give you an example -

You work in a 9 to 5 job and are happy. Suddenly you suffer the crisis that Camus is talking about. You realise that all this is meaningless. Getting up, going to office, succeeding some times and failing other times, coming back home, spending time with wife and children, going back to sleep, waking up next day again and so on. This realisation makes you sad. If somehow that sadness will be removed, you will be happy once again.

If Sisyphus dislikes pushing rocks, he will be never happy with it. But, if he is sad just because he knows he will never make it to the top, then if this only reason for his unhappiness is taken care of, he will be happy again.

You don't hope for a greater meaning or purpose. How does this make someone happy?

You may be happy in doing anything like rolling in sand, putting hands in a sack of grains, dancing impromptu, or putting ice cubes on your tongue. If you read Camus, you will see his characters get pleasure in all the things that somehow stir our emotions and make us happy - like lust for power etc. You become sad if you realise how meaningless they are or how they are immoral. However, if you accept that and accept that there is nothing better possible, and accept your fate (with disdain), then you will grow out of your search of trying to find a non-existent meaning. If you disregard there is something "better", that there are values, you will be out of the moral-immoral conflict in your head. And, thus you will be happy.

An absurdist is like a person who ignores that he will die one day ((ignores that life is meaningless) except that absurdist knows, accepts and does not ignore that he will die one day.

Consider Don Juan. He moves from one woman to next. He does not desire true love. He just wants to get most enjoyment from present moment. He knows the limitations. He knows that he won't get true love and he does not want it. The only happiness he has is the happiness that he experiences because of his acts. He does not hate what he does and what he does tickles his "happiness-inducing" senses. Hence there is no guilt but just petty happiness and it is all that he wants.

Whether this position can actually be defended and absurdist view can be held consistently is beyond the topic as Camus does not talk about that (whether Don will be one day realise how much better true love is and regret his actions), however, what is certain is that people do find happiness in acts that do not make a whole lot of sense - you might have seen those duck-faced selfies;)

  • I understand that removing any hope for something "better" will remove the unhappiness, but I still don't understand why Camus goes as far as saying that will make you happy. – Movers Jul 17 '16 at 22:04
  • Camus does not say that. What will make you happy would be other things like making women want you as in case of Don. The only thing is that now, the meaninglessness of these acts does not deter you from enjoying them. Camus says, "One must imagine Sisyphus is happy" and not that he is happy. It is perhaps, to just stress that our default position for Sisyphus should not overemphasise his unhappiness. We do not know whether Sisyphus is sad or happy but we think he must be sad because we see that meaninglessness. Camus just says this is not how we should look at him. – IsThatTrue Jul 18 '16 at 3:00
  • Why are we supposed to imagine Sisyphus as happy though? Where does Sisyphus' happiness come from. What could he possibly be happy about? – Movers Jul 18 '16 at 3:07
  • Anything and if it isn't he can make it for himself. As he believes there is no way his life could be more meaningful (like absurdists), he is not in any anxiety. He can waste his life pushig rocks all day long and each time reaching a specific position a second earlier and getting happy about the improvement. Here happiness is not derived from hope but indulging senses. – IsThatTrue Jul 22 '16 at 18:32
  • The character in say 'The Outsider' is not a hedonist, could hardly be less like Don Juan. He is someone who doesn't turn to others for motivations, or approval. He lives in and reacts to the moment, living each one fully, accepting the consequences of that good and 'bad'. – CriglCragl Mar 10 '18 at 0:43
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Just going to keep it short since a wall of text is a bit too much for this. He means the act of the individual creating their own meaning, checking their theory for errors, and replacing it with a theory which lines up with your current level of understanding. Explore the world physically and intellectually as much as possible to construct a personalized suit, and the process of altering that belief structure will grant a sense of contentment in the process, and avoids the trap of escaping into delusional fantasies about humanity. One rests easy when they realize rats at the gate tend to just be a few.

  • Would you have any references that take a similar view? These would help support your answer and guide the reader to further resources. Welcome. – Frank Hubeny Apr 15 at 17:53
  • Well, I mean I can quote from the Myth of Sisyphus. Essentially, falling into a belief structure other than one the individual personally self generates fits all of the conditions for different types of suicides Camus lists. With the happy or satisfied man, finding something enjoyable about the constant process of reinventing meaning. – ZeroPhase Apr 20 at 7:47
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One must imagine Sisyphus happy => One must imagine Sisyphus not unhappy.

Consider following assumptions in context of whole essay.

A. Life is Absurd and meaningless.

B. Search for meaning when there is none causes (existential) unhappiness.

C. Every goal is as absurd as other.

Rolling boulder uphill and to watch it roll down repeatedly represents a plain meaningless task. Thus by (B) Sisyphus should be unhappy. But when he stops searching for meaning he becomes not unhappy.

  • If you have references to those taking a similar view this would strengthen your answer and give the reader a place to go for more information. Welcome. – Frank Hubeny Jun 18 at 11:53
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The clue is in "One must imagine Sisyphus happy". You must imagine it because it's not true and Sisyphus himself knows this. He is pretending to be happy. It's the loser s way out. Can't have what I want so I ll just pretend I'm happy with what I don't want. nadia1830@live.com.au

  • He didn't say 'Sisyphus must imagine himself happy', he said we must. A prisoner, a slave, someone with a terminal illness, we must imagine happiness in a way that it is not beyond their reach. Outer conditions are always at least to some extent beyond our control, but inner conditions, how we meet them, is not. – CriglCragl Mar 10 '18 at 0:48
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Ok good explanation. So you forced yourself to like it and now I imagine you do and all is well. I can t be like Sisyphus, I give up. I would roll the rock on the of the mountain and try somehow to place myself under it so it could crush me on its way down.

  • Sisyphus was a king, given the task as an eternal punishment for his misbehaviour in life - he was famous for his scheming and machinations, and the punishment can be seen as a metaphor for being forced to watch them unravel. – CriglCragl Mar 10 '18 at 0:23
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Happy or content ? Neither : see why I say this. It will take only a few minutes.

▻ CHECK OUT THE MYTH

Any useful answer needs to go back to the myth itself. Camus uses a figure from Greek mythology - until we know what the myth is, we've no context in which to set and elucidate the remark. In the myth Sisyphus is in Hell - or rather Tartarus, the underworld of punishment created by the gods :

Why is Sisyphus in Hell? Because he loved life enough to defy the gods and was punished for his magnificent presumption. His eternal task in hell is to push a boulder up a mountain; when he reaches the top, the stone tumbles back to the valley and he must return to push it up again. Camus believes "one must imagine Sisyphus happy." Sisyphus is superior to his rock which he conquers by his scorn. Like the old and blind Oedipus, Sisyphus might say, "conclude that all is well" as he turns to descend the mountain to reclaim "his rock." (Perry Alva Bialor & Max Cosman, 'Two Views of Camus', Chicago Review, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Autumn - Winter, 1956), pp. 92-3.)

▻ WHAT CAMUS SAYS

Let's add a quotation from the novel :

Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition : it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.'

▻ NOT HAPPY !

'One must imagine Sisyphus happy'. This is not necessarily so just because Camus says it. An author can misdescribe a situation in their own work. 'Happy' ('heureux') just does not seem the right word if only because of its association with pleasure. Sisyphus is in no state of pleasure. Even if we lop off the association with pleasure it is hard to see how someone 'who knows the full extent of his wretched conditions' can be described, other than paradoxically, as 'happy'. He is not glad to be in his situation after all.

▻ NOT CONTENT !

To talk of Sisyphus' 'victory', his surmounting of his fate by scorn, scarcely makes the word 'content' any more applicable than 'happy'.

▻ EXISTENTIAL HERO

This seems to be Sisyphus' right description. In a wretched situation, he is undefeated by his punishment. Admittedly he can never accomplish his task; the gods have made sure of that : the rock will tumble down again inevitably. But Sisyphus never gives way to despair. He 'triumphs' over the rock in the sense that he will return to his task without repining each time the rock falls back down. He may be compelled to do something pointless but the rock will never 'win'. Sisyphus cannot be broken by the absurdity of his world.

▻ SISYPHUS VERSUS PROMETHEUS

Just an endnote. Camus later saw Prometheus, not Sisyphus, as the emblematic mythical existential hero. Here is a totally nobler and more hopeful figure : he suffers because he tried to help mankind with the gift of fire, contrary to the gods' wishes, and there is however remotely the chance of release. What Camus calls Sisyphus' 'magnificent presumption' covers, we may note, clever trickery and seduction aided by deception. Of course, it's all a myth.

REFERENCE

A. Grafton and others, 'The Classical Tradition', Harvard : Belknap Press, 2010, 888.

  • Sisyphus was said to have tried to cheat death, the ultimate presumption. The torment of Prometheus can be interpreted as conscience, as he watched what humanity did with his gift of fire, much good, but also much evil. – CriglCragl Mar 10 '18 at 0:30
  • Thank you for the comment. I should have omitted all mention of Prometheus; the remarks were just an unnecessary coda to the answer. I contrasted the two figures. You have added to the contrast. I appreciate. – Geoffrey Thomas Mar 10 '18 at 3:51
  • Prometheus / Lucifer (the bringer of Enlightenment, literally) saves man from eternal servitude to a brutal god that requires humanities love. Prometheus frees us from our limitations, while causing relatively little harm when all things are considered. Prometheus / Lucifer's greatest sin was compassion. – ZeroPhase Apr 15 at 17:44
  • what is he scornful of? of his punishment? – another_name Jun 19 at 0:17
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Given the second law of thermodynamics, everything is unravelling, rolling down hill. Everything ends. We all die. Civilisations collapse. Our conventional sources of motivation in 'the grand scheme', are meaningless, pointless, irrelevant.

So, we are all Sisyphus. We set ourselves tasks, they unravel, either before or after our deaths. So why do anything? Camus is saying don't turn to 'the grand scheme', meaning gas never resided outside ourselves, can never be 'found' in the world. Accept that being happy is a creative, imaginative act, which we must turn to ourselves for, and to living authentic lives - living with a full heart.

Edit to add: 'We must imagine Sisyphus happy' can be looked at as parallel to Hume's 'Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions'. We cannot reason our way into happiness, it is an irrational, absurd act, to be happy.

  • What I don' take is the first paragraph. The "decaying" world picture is not at all the metaphor of Camus' view of absurdity. Contrary, Camus' world is often sunny, beautiful and flourishing. Yet it rejects man and his requests, thereby it is absurd. – ttnphns Mar 10 '18 at 6:17
  • "Praise tinker and saint, and the rose that takes its fill of sunlight though a world breaks." - George Mackay Brown – CriglCragl Mar 11 '18 at 17:34
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I can see that futility isn't seen as bad, but Camus... asserts that Sisyphus is happy

This raises the question, for me, why the Rebel Camus, who asks us not to conform, chose a protagonist that can't help but do so (in hell). I guess to show that what he urges is also impossible.

But Sisyphus has not given up. Even as every project will collapse, his scorn for that means Sisyphus is content with himself.

He tried?

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"One must imagine Sisyphus happy".

Yep ... because imagining the likely reality would be too painful.

I think Camus is using 'severity by opposites'. (I am quoting myself as I don't know the proper term for this.)

This means there's no words that carry the weight needed so instead you use words from the opposite end of the meaning spectrum.

For example if our waiter asks if we enjoyed our meal, given that the plates are clean, we could say 'inedible ... hated it ... We want our money back and we didn't even pay yet.'

The absurdity gives weight to the depiction.

Alternatively, nope.

Sisyphus has free will and that means one can choose (to pursue) to be happy regardless of the situation.

Camus is saying that, conventionally, it's not possible for reality to give us the external circumstances for instant gratification.

Every single conscious person, through free-will, can choose to pursue desensitizing themselves to an otherwise unpleasant reality, and possibly, ultimately, learn to love, be happy with, something you previously hated.

I will offer the very very dissimilar in scale example of me and broccoli.

I hated it until age 30. I forced myself to eat it ... masking it with spices or such, and now it's my favorite veggie, and I also prefer veggies as my main food group (previously being 'junk food').

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