Stoicism: Day 25 – Stoicism, the Absurd, and the Myth of Sisyphus

In the Myth of Sisyphus, Sisyphus attempts to make man immortal by chaining up Death in defiance of the Gods. Death is eventually freed, and as a punishment, Sisyphus is condemned to push a giant rock up a mountain for eternity. At the top of the mountain, the rock will roll down hill and he will have to repeat the process….forever.

Albert Camus wrote this essay to point out the absurdity of life. At some point you may feel like most of the things you do are pointless. This is what Camus calls “the absurd.” Just re-watch Office Space and you will understand what Camus was trying to say.

Camus proposed a three-step process for revolting against the absurdity and meaninglessness of the world:

First, you must acknowledge the absurdity. When Sisyphus is rolling the rock up the mountain, he realizes the whole thing is pointless. It has no value.

Second, you must accept the absurdity of the world. You must understand that you cannot change the absurdity of the world, just as Sisyphus realized that rolling the rock up the mountain for eternity was his fate. There was nothing he could do.

Third, you must accomplish the revolt internally. Because you cannot change the external circumstances of your fate, you must change your mind. Though Sisyphus was condemned to pointlessly rolling a rock up a mountain, the gods did not control how he thought or felt about it. It is an act of rebellion and heroism to be happy while enduring your punishment.

This has some striking parallels to Stoicism.

Acknowledging and accepting absurdity is very similar to internalizing the dichotomy of control. Understanding that you cannot control the external world and desiring only that which is in your control is the key to maintaining tranquility. By living “according to nature” in spite of absurd, external circumstances, the Stoic is, in a sense, revolting.

Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long of a long one. If it his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned to you. To choose it is another’s. – Epictetus

Sometimes, when I drive to work and I drinking my coffee, a feeling of absurdity overtakes me. I watch people trying to make their way through traffic and imagining that they’re worrying about all the things they need to get done today and then I just feel….irrelevant, and relieved. It makes me smile.  Then I pull into the company parking lot and begin my day.

The reason it is such a relief, to feel like my life doesn’t matter, is that it takes away the burden of accomplishing things that you may or may not be able to accomplish! We’ve been so steeped in the dogma of accomplishment that sometimes it feels as if we were Atlas himself! To experience those moments of insignificance and absurdity is like experiencing a sort of freedom. To realize that I am responsible only for playing the role I’ve been assigned is liberating, and like Sisyphus, makes me feel happy.

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. – Albert Camus

Perhaps we should be more like Sisyphus, a true Stoic.

  • Pat McDonald

    Dale mate, slowly working my way through all your posts, but I just wanted to take a moment to stop and say wow this blog is genuinely one of the best things I have ever read! Thanks mate, keep up the good work

    • Thanks Pat! I appreciate it.

  • Stoicly speaking, should Sisyphus simply rebel or try to engage in his punishment more virtuously?

    • Fun question!

      I think the two options to come to mind are

      1. Attempt to rebel, be detached from outcome of rebellion
      2. Accept that he can’t change his situation, rebel mentally and learn to savor his punishment (accept it virtuously)

      What are your thoughts?

      • I guess the question for Sisyphus is what is the virtuous action to take. I think the rebellion is Camus’ creation.

        Did he have remorse or believe his action that led to the punishment was correct?

        • Not sure. I’d have to reread the story.