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Existential Ethics & Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus

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  • 0:01 Mundane Tasks
  • 0:48 Who is Sisyphus
  • 1:54 Meaning in Life
  • 3:18 The Individual
  • 4:29 Existentialist Ethics
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, you'll consider why existentialists focus on the futile experiences of life. You'll gain insight into their thoughts on meaning and the role of the individual.

Mundane Tasks

Joshua works in a factory in the mid-twentieth century. He does the same thing, day in, day out, pressing a lever and then a button, only to repeat the process a few seconds later. His days feel boring and pointless. On top of that, his home is infested with bed bugs that keep returning no matter what he does to get rid of them. The guy just can't catch a break.

This lesson looks at how an existentialist perspective would shed light on Josh's situation. We'll focus on the essay The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. By the end, you'll also learn why Camus both is and isn't considered an existentialist philosopher.

Who is Sisyphus?

Many people can relate to Joshua. He's one example of a person who has found himself stuck in a loop of life that feels unfulfilling, to say the least. Like Joshua, the Greek mythological character of Sisyphus has a mundane task to do every day. In his case, he's been condemned by the gods for all eternity to push a heavy rock up a hill. Sounds fun, right?

What's worse, when the rock reaches the top, it always rolls back down and Sisyphus is forced to start from scratch and start rolling it back up again. How does Sisyphus spend his Saturday nights? Rolling the rock up the hill. Where will he be 50 years from now? Rolling the rock up the hill. You get the picture.

Albert Camus didn't invent the Sisyphus character. He borrowed the story from Greek mythology and used it in his own essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. The example helped him illustrate his thoughts on the plight of all human beings.

Meaning in Life

What value do you see in the lives of Joshua, toiling in mundane factory tasks, and Sisyphus, toiling on the hill? Some philosophers have viewed these types of scenarios as examples of the absurdity of life. Absurdity, from an existential point of view, is desiring to find meaning when there is no meaning to be found.

From this perspective, Joshua's experience in the factory is one of absurdity. He is alienated from the fruits of his labor and sees no real purpose in what he is doing. But in his essay on Sisyphus, Camus makes an interesting claim about our absurd hero who continues to push the rock up the hill over and over. He says one must imagine Sisyphus happy.

What? Happy? How is this possible? Wouldn't this absurd situation make anyone beyond miserable?

Camus suggests that Sisyphus can be happy because of his capacity to be free. He can be free not by escaping his task, but by accepting the absurdity of it. Once he knows he is in this situation where no meaning can be found, Sisyphus is freed to create his own meaning.

The Individual

How would an existentialist attitude help a man like Joshua, who is stuck in a factory job that bores him? Well, he'd first need to acknowledge that his situation is absurd. It's a futile existence, with little reward for his efforts and bed bugs to greet him when he gets home. Joshua can choose to let go of searching for meaning in this type of situation. He can stop asking, 'What is the point of this?'

That might sound a bit of a downer to an average person. Many of us struggle to understand what the meaning of our lives is. But existentialists might point out that once freed from the idea that life has a set meaning in and of itself, we can choose to find meaning where we can, from our own individual points of view.

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