Some of the stories from classical Greek philosophy and mythology leave me with a lingering sense of philosophical angst. In an earlier article, I wrote about how Plato’s allegory of the cave always makes me self-conscious of whether I have adequately tested my beliefs and overall world-and-life view. It’s difficult to shake the image of sitting in a dark cave while looking at shadows on the wall. But, then, maybe everyone should be so bothered concerning the truthfulness of their deepest beliefs.
Another Greek tale that continues to stimulate my thinking is the story of Sisyphus. Charged by Zeus with great evil and treachery, Sisyphus is condemned to the task of rolling a large boulder up a hill only to then see it roll back down and to repeat this arduous undertaking forever. Sisyphus is destined to work everlastingly for no results, forever engaged in boring, and pointless labor that only repeats itself.
A Sisyphean Existence
Journalist and atheist philosopher Albert Camus (1913–1960) wrote a book entitled The Myth of Sisyphus in which he proposed that Sisyphus is a type of absurd hero. Camus states that what we want from the universe is in direct conflict with what we get from the universe. We want the universe to make sense and to give us a meaningful and purposeful life—yet the universe is cold, impersonal, and offers only purposeless insignificance. Thus, there is no objective rational meaning to the cosmos and therefore no ultimate purpose to life itself. Camus’ stark philosophical pessimism came out of a Europe that had been ravaged by two world wars and then faced the insecurities of the Cold War era. His father had been killed in World War I and Camus himself had served in the French resistance during World War II.
Given this spirit of hopelessness, what are our philosophical options in life? Camus proposes that we can take three possible paths:
- Leap of Faith: Human beings can place their trust in God and live out their existence clinging to a subjective religious hope.
- End it All: Some may decide to not bother with the purposeless motions of existence and instead commit suicide.
- Accept the Absurd: Some may choose to live with a contented acceptance of life’s utter purposelessness.
Camus states that the third option is viable and is reflected in the example of Sisyphus as an absurd hero. This monumental path calls for a revolt of the inner self against the absurdity of life. It requires people to accept a radical freedom in choosing to struggle against meaninglessness. And it presupposes a passion to live out a rich and unique life in spite of the wall of absurdity.
Camus says that such an existence involves dealing with only the particulars of life for universals are reserved for an objective meaningful existence. This third path represents a philosophy of “absurdism” that battles against nihilism.
While Camus’ approach to dealing with life touches similar bases as prior atheists like Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean Paul Sartre, there is a report that Camus may have actually been considering adopting Christianity.1 A minister friend reported that Camus showed interest in the Christian philosophy of St. Augustine whom he had studied along with the Platonic philosopher Plotinus earlier in his academic career. According to the clergyman friend, Camus had also inquired about being baptized. Unfortunately, Camus was killed in an automobile crash not long after.
Undoubtedly Camus was familiar with St. Augustine’s most famous line from his classic book Confessions:
Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you….The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.2
Living in a fallen human condition out of sync with God, others, and oneself can seem an absurd existence. Imagine the soul sorrow of a meaningless existence where death might be the preferred option. But St. Augustine contrasts how even physical death is fundamentally changed in light of the historic Christian faith, “I was born into this life which leads to death—or should I say, this death which leads to life?”3
- See Howard Mumma, Albert Camus and the Minister (MA: Paraclete Press, 2000).
- Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1992), bk. 1, 1.
- Ibid, bk. 1, 6.