In The Myth of Sisyphus published in 1942 French author and Nobel laureate Albert Camus retells the fate of Sisyphus in order to explore the human condition, as likening it to Sisyphus’ fate as he endures his never ending punishment – while being fully conscious of the absurdity of it.
Sisyphus, as we know, is the figure in Greek mythology who was the king of Corinth who was punished by the local Gods for his deceitfulness by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down again at the top, forcing him to repeat this action for eternity.
Camus is perhaps best known for his concept of The Absurd – of placing the human condition in an essentially meaningless and indifferent universe. And while he himself disavowed of the label, he has this view in common with existentialist writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre who viewed the universe as an irrational, meaningless sphere. This leads the latter to say that we have been condemned to be free: “Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything that he does. ”
However, I think both Camus and Sartre are a little too hasty in dismissing the universe as being devoid of meaning or purpose, if only because we can’t exclude the possibility that there is in fact a meaning and purpose to the universe – and we’re just not able to grasp this at the moment – and as a result, we are in no position to make sweeping assertions of that nature.
In the meantime we are forced to make it up as we go along, and this would be consistent with the 16th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza who wrote that “people find themselves with needs and desires without understanding the reasons why they want and act as they do”. Lacking this knowledge about themselves and their place in the world creates the illusion that they can do as they please, and which is a source of much grief in the world when they act against their own interest because they appear not to know any better.
Much of what I will be writing here will be about the effort to gain some insight into the human condition, why we want and act as we do, and in the process arrive at a better understanding of what we are about, all the while allowing for the possibility of getting a glimpse – however tiny – of the larger context that we find ourselves a part of. This on the assumption that the human phenomenon is a defining feature of the universe, as it can be seen as underwriting our very presence in it. Unless we
The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things which lifts human life a little above the level of farce and gives it some of the grace of tragedy. (Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes, 1993)