“The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.” So begins existentialist philosopher Albert Camus’ famous essay, The Myth of Sisyphus.  But what kind of man was Sisyphus? What did he do to incur the gods’ wrath? Accounts differ.
According to Camus, Homer described Sisyphus as “the wisest and most prudent of mortals.”  Other translations of The Iliad use “wiliest.”  While the connotations of these two descriptions differ vastly, Sisyphus was at the very least intelligent. The king of Corinth, Sisyphus once offered to help the river-god Asopus find his lost daughter in exchange for a spring of fresh water for his kingdom. Unfortunately, Zeus himself had absconded with Asopus’ daughter, and after Sisyphus led Asopus to her rescue, Zeus sent his brother Hades to bring Sisyphus to his death.  But Sisyphus tricked the god of the underworld and held him captive so that no mortal could die. When Ares, god of war, finally rescued Hades and Sisyphus perished, he asked his wife to forgo the traditional funeral rites. Because such an oversight was considered extremely impious in the Greek tradition, Sisyphus convinced Hades to let him go back to Earth to correct this error. [5, 6] Yet Sisyphus had no intention of returning to the underworld once his task was complete, and he lived for many more years before Hades tracked him down and sentenced him to the stone.
Sisyphus was hardly a common sinner. Descriptions of his mortal exploits indicate he was a clever man who was good to his kingdom, loved life and desired to remain on Earth for as long as possible. And for this spirit, the gods condemned him to the most rote and eternally frustrating task in the afterlife. The man who lived to cheat death did merely die; he was sentenced to an endless existence of reiteration, which the gods must have considered the exact opposite of the pleasures he found in life.
The nature of Sisyphus’ torture lies in this endless repetition. Each time he reaches the top of the mountain, the stone falls back to the bottom again. He must push it up the mountain not once, not twice, but over and over again for all eternity. Sisyphus’ bane is his consciousness. He recognizes the nature of his fate. He knows the toll the last trip took on his body and his will, the toll each previous trip took, and he knows he will have to go through it all again. The parallels here to everyday human life are obvious if we view life as a series of tasks to be completed, obstacles to be conquered. But there is no hope of succeeding finally and absolutely in life, just as Sisyphus cannot escape his punishment. There is always another task, another obstacle, and a human lifetime is no match cosmically for time and mortality.
Yet Camus reminds us that “there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”  Once Sisyphus comes to grips with the inevitability of his lot, he regains a modicum of control. The rock sits before him. He can drive it up the mountain once again. The gods who put him there cease to matter. The task is in his power to complete. Each successful trip up the mountain is a victory. Each restart at the bottom is an opportunity. Therefore, Camus concludes, “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”  For Sisyphus, each step upward, each successful ascent, is another triumph over his fatigue, over the gods and over his past, and these cumulative victories are enough for his happiness.
For me, it is essential to the power of the myth that Sisyphus’ challenge is physical. The choice is certainly a reflection of the era of the story’s original telling (after all, this is the same culture that gave us the Olympics), but the ancient Greeks were not short on great thinkers either (see Aesop, Archimedes, Aristotle, Democritus, Euclid, Hippocrates, Homer, Plato, Pythagoras, Socrates, Sophocles and Zeno for starters). But consider the diminished impact of the following revision of the story:
The gods condemned Steve to ceaselessly solving the same Sudoku puzzle. But each time Steve was about to fill in the last number, all his work would disappear and he was forced to start again from scratch.
I find it hard to see the romantic luster of the original myth in Steve’s plight. We can imagine poor Steve chained to a desk, hunched over a worried scrap of newspaper, frantically jotting down numbers before they wash away. Hardly the same noble figure as Sisyphus straining under his rock.
Does Steve’s fate hit a little too close to home in comparison to our modern lives? Would our feelings about the story change if Steve’s task was to solve Fermat’s last theorem, cure cancer, or unlock the secret to thermonuclear fusion? I think not. Physical achievement holds a broad appeal across our society—consider the salaries earned by professional athletes in comparison to those of mathematicians, oncologists, and nuclear physicists.
What makes Sisyphus’ story so compelling and so tragic is its physicality, its very tangible nature. There are no half-measures, no equivocations. Sisyphus’ rock rests at the top of the mountain or it does not. Intellectual pursuits are too abstract, too indefinite, to carry the symbolism of myth. We can easily picture a scientist who develops a cure for all known forms of cancer, only to see the rise of some new mutation that resists her panacea. Did she truly cure cancer at all? But when the rock reaches the top of the mountain, the rock reaches the top of the mountain. Sisyphus’ task is accomplished. Hades may cause the rock to roll back down again or set a new peak in front of Sisyphus, but these are new challenges and not continuations of one long endeavor.
Likewise, the pure physical torment of Sisyphus’ task strikes a chord with us that the intellectual equivalent does not. There is no end to Sisyphus’ agony as he strains against his stone. His hands and shoulders scrape and bleed against the jagged rock, sweat cascades down his brow, every muscle fiber in his body burns and screams under the weight. Perhaps demons come to whip him if he tarries too long at the bottom before taking up his task again. How will the demons know if Steve is pondering the intricacies of the sums of exponentials or merely daydreaming of Elysia? Everyone sees Sisyphus’ pain. Everyone recognizes his effort. And when he succeeds, we can all acknowledge his triumph.
I in no way intend to diminish intellectual accomplishments. The genius of Leonardo da Vinci, Marie Curie and Albert Einstein is undisputed. But Camus’ Sisyphus demonstrates the psychological power of physical accomplishment. Because of the physical, tangible, definite nature of Sisyphus’ task, “his fate belongs to him.”  Each summit of the mountain is a victory of Sisyphus’ own making. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy” because he has the power to conquer adversity time and time again. Imagine what he could accomplish (physically, intellectually or otherwise) were he not condemned to his rock. Would anyone doubt him any achievement to which he set his will?
At its foundation, The Myth of Sisyphus is an argument against suicide. For Camus, “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”  If life is hopeless and agonizing is one morally justified in taking one’s own life? Camus says no. The Myth of Sisyphus, as a defense of that view, is an essay about a moral choice represented by the image of ceaseless physical toil. It teaches the power and the morality of exercising one’s free will to overcome a physical challenge. And though Camus’ argument applies to any obstacles encountered in the course of our lives, it is the physical nature of Sisyphus’ challenge that makes this myth so inspiring. In the coming months, I will delve more deeply into the connections between physical action and morality. Camus gets us off to a good start here as we prepare to climb that mountain.
- Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. New York: Vintage International, 1991, p. 119.
- Ibid, p. 119.
- Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: The Penguin Group, 1991.
- D’aulaire, Ingri and Edgar Parin. Book of Greek Myths. New York: Dell Publishing, 1992, p. 126-127.
- Ibid, p. 127.
- Pinsent, John. Greek Mythology. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1982.
- Camus, p. 121.
- Ibid, p. 123.
- Ibid, p. 123.
- Ibid, p. 3.