University of St Martin - Fall, 2006 - PHIL232

Monday, Oct. 2 - Suicide (1)

Midterm Essay
Monday, Sept. 4 - What is philosophy?
Wednesday, Sept. 6 - Aristotle (1)
Monday, Sept. 11 - Aristotle (2)
Wednesday, Sept. 13 - Aristotle (3)
Monday, Sept. 18 - Nietzsche (1)
Wednesday, Sept. 20 - Nietzsche (2)
Monday, Sept. 26 - Abortion (1)
Wednesday, Sept. 28 - Abortion (2)
Excursus 1: Historical overview
Excursus 2: Abortion in Judaism and Christianity
Excursus 3: Abortion in Islam
Excursus 4: Pro-choice argument
Monday, Oct. 2 - Suicide (1)
Wednesday, Oct 4 - Revision
Monday, Oct 16 - Suicide (2)
Wednesday, Oct 18 - Paradigm shifts
Monday, Oct 23 - Brave New World (1)
Wednesday, Oct 25 - Philosophical Anthropology (1)
Monday, Oct 30 - Sexual History of the USA
Wednesday, Nov 1 - Philosophical Anthropology (2)
Monday, Nov 6 - Race, death, tragedy, and bad faith
Wednesday, Nov 8 - Race, Biology, and Culture
Monday, Nov 13 - Racism and culture
Wednesday, Nov 15 - Existentialism
Monday, Nov 20 - Political Obligation, Moral Duty, and Punishment
Wednesday, Nov 22 - Kant and Moral Obligation
Monday, Nov 27 - War and Peace
Wednesday, Nov 29 - Non-Western Philosophies (1)
Monday, Dec 4 - Non-Western Philosophies (2)
Wednesday, Dec 6 - The End
Final Paper

Text: Albert Camus, “An Absurd Reasoning,” in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. New York: Vintage International, 1991.


Background information:

Albert Camus (pronounced [albɛʁ kamu]) (November 7, 1913January 4, 1960) was a French author and philosopher. Though often associated with the school of existentialism, Camus preferred to be known as a man and a thinker, rather than as a member of a school or ideology; he preferred persons over ideas. In an interview in 1945, Camus rejected any ideological associations: "No, I am not an existentialist. Sartre and I are always surprised to see our names linked...."" (Les Nouvelles litteraires, November 15, 1945).

Camus was the second youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature (after Rudyard Kipling) when he received the award in 1957. He is also the shortest-lived of any literature laureate to date, having died in a car crash three years after receiving the award.

Summary of Absurdism

Many writers have written on the Absurd, each with his or her own interpretation of what the Absurd actually is and their own ideas on the importance of the Absurd. For example, Sartre recognizes the absurdity of individual experience, while Kierkegaard explains that the absurdity of certain religious truths prevent us from reaching God rationally. Camus was not the originator of Absurdism and regretted the continued reference to him as a philosopher of the absurd. He shows less and less interest in the Absurd shortly after publishing Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus). To distinguish Camus's ideas of the Absurd from those of other philosophers, people sometimes refer to the Paradox of the Absurd, when referring to Camus's Absurd.

His early thoughts on the Absurd appeared in his first collection of essays, L'Envers et l'endroit (The Two Sides Of The Coin) in 1937. Absurd themes appeared with more sophistication in his second collection of essays, Noces (Nuptials), in 1938. In these essays Camus does not offer a philosophical account of the Absurd, or even a definition; rather he reflects on the experience of the Absurd. In 1942 he published the story of a man living an Absurd life as L'Étranger (The Stranger/The Outsider), and in the same year released Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus), a literary essay on the Absurd. He had also written a play about a Roman Emperor, Caligula, pursuing an Absurd logic. However, the play was not performed until 1945. The turning point in Camus's attitude to the Absurd occurs in a collection of letters to a fictitious German friend, published in the newspaper Combat.

Camus' ideas on the Absurd

In his essays Camus presented the reader with dualisms: Happiness and sadness, dark and light, life and death, etc. He wanted us to face up to the fact that happiness is fleeting and that we are mortal. He did this not to be morbid, but so we can love life and enjoy our happiness when it occurs. In Le Mythe, this dualism became a paradox: We value our lives and existence so greatly, but at the same time we know we will eventually die, and ultimately our endeavours are meaningless. Whilst we can live with a dualism (I can accept periods of unhappiness, because I know I will also experience happiness to come), we cannot live with the paradox (I think my life is of great importance, but I also think it is meaningless). In Le Mythe, Camus was interested in how we experience the Absurd and how we live with it. Our life must have meaning for us to value it. If we accept that life has no meaning and therefore no value, should we kill ourselves?

Meursault, the Absurdist hero of L'Étranger, is a murderer who is executed for his crime. Caligula ends up admitting his Absurd logic was wrong and is killed by an assassination he has deliberately brought about. However, Camus, while obviously suggesting that Caligula's Absurd reasoning is wrong, exalts Meursault as the only Messiah we deserve. Le Mythe de Sisyphe raises questions it cannot satisfactorily answer.

Camus' work on the Absurd was intended to promote a public debate. His various offerings entice us to think about the Absurd and offer our own contribution. Concepts such as cooperation, joint effort and solidarity are of key importance to Camus. In the essay Enigma, Camus expressed his frustration at being labeled a philosopher of the absurd. None of his previous work was intended to be a definitive account of his thoughts on the Absurd, although the Le Mythe de Sisyphe is often mistaken as such.

Camus made a significant contribution to our understanding of the Absurd, but was not himself an Absurdist. "If nothing had any meaning, you would be right. But there is something that still has a meaning." Second Letter to a German Friend, December 1943.

Opposition to totalitarianism

Through out his life, Camus spoke out against and actively opposed totalitarianism in its many forms, be it German fascism or the total revolutionary philosophy of radical Marxism. Early on, Camus was active within the French Resistance to the German occupation of France during World War II, even directing the famous Resistance journal, Combat. On the French collaboration with Nazi occupiers he wrote:

Now the only moral value is courage, which is useful here for judging the puppets and chatterboxes who pretend to speak in the name of the people...

Camus' well known falling out with Sartre is linked to this opposition to totalitarianism. Camus detected a reflexive totalitarianism in the mass politics espoused by Sartre in the name of radical Marxism. This was apparent in his work L'Homme Révolté (The Rebel) which was an assault not only on the Soviet police state, but questioned the very nature of mass revolutionary politics. Camus continued to speak out against the atrocities of the Soviet Union, a sentiment captured in his 1957 speech commemorating the anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, an uprising crushed in a bloody assault by the Red Army:

There are already too many dead on the field, and we cannot be generous with any but our own blood. The blood of Hungary has re-emerged too precious to Europe and to freedom for us not to be jealous of it to the last drop.

But I am not one of those who think that there can be a compromise, even one made with resignation, even provisional, with a regime of terror which has as much right to call itself socialist as the executioners of the Inquisition had to call themselves Christians.

And on this anniversary of liberty, I hope with all my heart that the silent resistance of the people of Hungary will endure, will grow stronger, and, reinforced by all the voices which we can raise on their behalf, will induce unanimous international opinion to boycott their oppressors.


The Myth of Sisyphus


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.

If one believes Homer, Sisyphus was the wisest and most prudent of mortals. According to another tradition, however, he was disposed to practice the profession of highwayman. I see no contradiction in this. Opinions differ as to the reasons why he became the futile laborer of the underworld. To begin with, he is accused of a certain levity in regard to the gods. He stole their secrets. Aegina, the daughter of Aesopus, was carried off by Jupiter. The father was shocked by that disappearance and complained to Sisyphus. He, who knew of the abduction, offered to tell about it on condition that Aesopus would give water to the citadel of Corinth. To the celestial thunderbolts he preferred the benediction of water. He was punished for this in the underworld. Homer tells us also that Sisyphus had put Death in chains. Pluto could not endure the sight of his deserted, silent empire. He dispatched the god of war, who liberated Death from the hands of the conqueror.

It is said also that Sisyphus, being near to death, rashly wanted to test his wife's love. He ordered her to cast his unburied body into the middle of the public square. Sisyphus woke up in the underworld. And there, annoyed by an obedience so contrary to human love, he obtained from Pluto permission to return to earth in order to chastise his wife. But when he had seen again the face of this world, enjoyed water and sun, warm stones and the sea, he no longer wanted to go back to the infernal darkness. Recalls, signs of anger, warnings were of no avail. Many years more he lived facing the curve of the gulf, the sparkling sea, and the smiles of the earth. A decree of the gods was necessary. Mercury came and seized the impudent man by the collar and, snatching him from his joys, led him forcibly back to the underworld, where his rock was ready for him.

You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the aburd hero. He is,as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth. Nothing is told us about Sisyphus in the underworld. Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them. As for this myth, one sees merely the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it and push it up a slope a hundred times over; one sees the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched, the wholly human security of two earth-clotted hands. At the very end of his long effort measured by skyless space and time without depth, the purpose is achieved. Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward that lower world whence he will have to push it up again toward the summit. He goes back down to the plain. It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.

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 in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it 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 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.

If the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy. This word is not too much. Again I fancy Sisyphus returning toward his rock, and th sorrow was in the beginning. When the images of earth cling too tightly to memory, when the call of happiness becomes too insistent, it happens that melancholy rises in man's heart: this is the rock's victory, this is the rock itself. The boundless grief is too heavy to bear. These are our nights of Gethsemane. But crushing truths perish from being acknowledged. Thus, Oedipus at the outset obeys fate without knowing it. But from the moment he knows, his tragedy begins. Yet at the same time, blind and desperate, he realizes that the only bond linking him to the world is the cool hand of a girl. Then a tremendous remark rings out: "Despite so many ordeals, my advanced age and the nobility of my soul make me conclude that all is well." Sophocles' Oedipus, like Dostoevsky's Kirilov, thus gives the recipe for the absurd victory. Ancient wisdom confirms modern heroism.

One does not discover the absurd without attempting to write a manual of happiness. "What! by such narrow ways--?" There is but one world, however. Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable. It would be a mistake to say that happiness necessarily springs from the absurd discovery. It happens as well that the feeling of the absurd springs from happiness. "I conclude that all is well," says Oedipus, and that remark is sacred. It echoes in the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, has not been, exhausted. It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile sufferings. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men.

All Sisyphus' silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. there is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that silent pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory's eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

What is it about your life that resembles Sisyphus' plight? What is your relationship to your rock? Is the struggle itself enough for you? Would you describe pushing a rock up a hill heaven, hell, or something in between? How does this story relate to Sartre's ideas about man's fate, Plato's universe, Christian faith and the teachings of Jesus? Which is worse, Dante's Inferno or the eternal struggle of Sisyphus?



The Myth and Camus

The Sisyphus of Greek mythology was cursed to roll a boulder up to the peak of a mountain for all eternity.

The Myth of Sisyphus is an extended essay by Albert Camus, published originally in French in 1942 as Le Mythe de Sisyphe, and published in English in 1955. The essay's title comes from a story from Greek mythology. In the essay, Camus discusses the question of suicide and the value of life, using the myth of Sisyphus as a metaphor for life itself. In doing so he introduces the philosophy of the absurd, which holds that our lives are meaningless and have no values other than those we create. Given such a futile world, he asks, what is the alternative to suicide?

Sisyphus was a character in Greek mythology who was lauded as one of the cleverest, yet most devious men in history, with a propensity for flouting the traditions of Greek hospitality by murdering his guests. He was eventually condemned after deceiving first Death himself and then Hades, Lord of the Underworld, in order to escape his inevitable demise. As punishment for his audacity, he was sentenced to be blinded and to perpetually roll a giant boulder up a mountain to the peak, only to have it inevitably roll back down the mountain into the valley.

Camus develops the idea of the "absurd man", the man who is periodically conscious of the ultimate futility of life. The lingering memory of this realization forms a basis for perception without the unjustified infusion of meaning. This notion directly opposes the idea of faith which is characteristic of most religions. The search for truth is seen as futile, as modes of perception are constantly changing due to fluctuation of their axioms, which may be manifest as a consistent set of beliefs directly conflicting with those once thought irrefutable. Drawing on numerous philosophical and literary sources, and particularly Fyodor Dostoevsky, Camus describes the historical development of absurd awareness and concludes that Sisyphus is the ultimate absurd hero.

Camus presents Sisyphus's ceaseless and pointless toil as a metaphor for modern lives spent working at futile jobs in factories and offices. "The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious."

A major difference between Sartre and Camus is that the latter suggests that some things and situations are out of human control (for example, death), whilst the former believes everything can be changed and manipulated, regardless of the situation or individual.


To think about       

"Any society that values creativity also needs to enable criticism. If we cannot question the way we are doing things and thinking about things at present, it will not occur to us that they could be thought of or done differently. (...) So philosophy is important partly because cultural criticism is so important."

CHRISTENSON, Tom (2001). Wonder and Critical Reflection. An invitation to Philosophy, p. 37. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc.


This page was updated on Nov 21, 2006
at 10.00 PM St Martin Time (-4 UT)