The Myth of Sisyphus

The Myth of SisyphusCartoon image of a man pushing a rock up a hill

Albert Camus (1942)

The Myth of Sisyphus is a 1942 philosophical essay by Albert Camus.

Sisyphus is famous for his punishment in the underworld instead of anything he did in his life. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the founder and king of Ephyra (now known as Corinth and located in south-central Greece). Hades punished him for cheating death twice by forcing him to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down every time it neared the top, repeating this action for eternity. The gods perceived that an eternity of futile labour was a hideous punishment. Through the classical influence on modern culture, tasks that are both laborious and futile are therefore described as Sisyphean.Cartoon image of a man carrying a rock up a hill

Mythology does not tell how Sisyphus endures his punishment in the underworld: that’s left to the imagination. Albert Camus focuses on Sisyphus’ state of mind in that moment after the rock rolls away from him at the top of the mountain. As he heads down the mountain, briefly free from his labour, he is conscious and aware of the absurdity of his fate. His fate can only be considered tragic because he understands it and has no hope for reprieve.

The Myth of Sisyphus suggests that Sisyphus might even approach his task with joy. The moments of sorrow or melancholy come when he looks back at the world he’s left behind, or when he hopes or wishes for happiness.

Happiness and the absurd are closely linked in this myth. They are both connected to the discovery that our world and our fate is our own, and that our life is purely what we make of it. As he descends the mountain, Sisyphus is totally aware of his fate.

“The struggle itself … is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”