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.
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:
If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works every day of his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is of 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.
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.
Camus concluded that the only way out of such an absurd and meaningless existence would be to commit suicide, and to entertain this consideration is really the only philosophical question that mattered for him. However, he does not recommend to exit life voluntarily; instead, he urges us to “die unreconciled and not of one’s own free will”. Accordingly, we should recognize our fate for what it is, absurd as it maybe, and embrace life fully within the face of it, defiantly, challenging its mortality while attaching one’s own meaning to it, i.e., accept and live your life for what it has given you, unconditionally, without preconditions, which means not having it defined by either the finality of death or the promise of an afterlife, or – for that matter – lacking the reasons for being in the first place. Clearly, Camus dismisses religion which has traditionally tried to take ownership of the meaning of life and death.
Existentialism was of interest to me after embracing atheism from an early age. And how could you not become an atheist, the moment you start to read up on human history, or when you find out what happened during the holocaust. The typical response to questioning even the possibility of any such events occurring within the realm of the Almighty would be to say that “God works in Mysterious Ways”, and which I found to be more of an insult to reason than a justification.
I have since concluded that religious beliefs – of whatever variety – make no sense. Instead, we need to be guided by some version of humanism that celebrates our unique contributions to the world should we decide to live up to them, such as integrity, tolerance and mutual respect, and most importantly: empathy and compassion. These are the values we need to make central to our lives, but I’ll be damned if I know how we – collectively, as a species – will ever be able to get there.
So, not surprisingly, you will find rants and railings against religion on this site, and in particular against the institutions of organized religion, when they continue to manipulate people towards their own ends.. And this not only because they falsely claim to have all the answers, as they most decidedly have none! But while in many cases their mythologies might function harmlessly enough among the masses – like a soother in the mouth of babes, delivering no substance at all– it is the fight for absolute dominance between competing religious factions that has shown itself to be a true scourge of mankind, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the ensuing conflicts since their perplexing superstitions first infected the human mind.
But not only rants against religion; in today’s deeply troubled times there is no shortage of issues that I absolutely need to give a piece of my mind, so expect various harangues about subjects that get stuck in my craw and are compelling me to write about. I believe catharsis is the operative word here.
Other than that, I simply can’t resist poking holes in the fabric of the established order, if only because it is so easily done as we continue to pretend that we actually know what we are doing here and are living our lives accordingly.
As to the Existentialist claim that we live in a cold and indifferent universe, completely devoid of meaning, I don’t necessarily agree with that. Since we can’t exclude the possibility that there is a meaning and purpose to the universe – and we’re just not able to grasp this at the moment – we are in no position to make assertions of that nature. In the meantime we are forced to make it up as we go long – but hopefully in a more positive sense than what Sartre referred to as “being 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. (Jean-Paul Sartre, 1945)