Written by Justin Pastrano
Graphic by Asiyah Saeed.
Trigger Warning: I have every intention of being sensitive towards those who have been affected by suicide. This is a profound issue in our society that should be discussed. The target audience here is not for those who may be experiencing these issues. The Myth of Sisyphus has an emphasis on the meaning of life; we are discussing our relationship to the world and why it may cause us to commit suicide. I understand Camus’ work to reject suicide and promote the enjoyment of life. This essay is not meant for people who may be contemplating suicide or have a history of mental illness. If that is the case, I highly recommend consulting professional help or calling the Emergency Crisis Hotline at 800-273-8255. They are available 24/7, speak several languages, and are qualified to help.
The Myth of Sisyphus is about the state of suicide in our world. Philosopher Albert Camus believes suicide is when one believes a painful life is not worth living. This premise comes from the idea that there is nothing to ease this suffering and many have proposed ideas about why we live in spite of such emotionally damaging experiences. For example, the religious have God to explain suffering as part of a plan to make living worth something. Moreover, there are also people whose purpose is to help or protect others; we have a worldview that provides us with a sense of meaning. If these worldviews vanish and there is no reason to suffer, then why would we continue to live?
Has our worldview become invalidated? This is of course up to the individual, but for those considering suicide it must have. Suicide is a reaction to the destruction of beliefs (religion, nationalism, family, etc.) that give our lives purpose and when these systems have vanished the absurd makes itself known. The absurd is a term used by Camus to describe the world without meaning and its relationship to you; the absurd is a world without a defined meaning, purpose, or rationale to its innerworkings. The absurd is the world when we no longer believe our worldviews and its feeling is the anxiety that comes with suddenly realizing that meaning must be recovered or hope will be lost. There is a struggle during this recovery that requires us to reason what must keep us alive and this struggle to understand can “stifle our hopes” and give way to suicide (pg.18).
There have been various literary characters who have accepted the absurd. Camus describes the character Kirillov from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons who kills himself after he loses faith in God. Camus thought that suicide here was an attempt to “become God” in a broad sense; killing himself provided meaning because it was a rejection of the absurd (pg. 106). Rejecting the absurd this way is saying that suicide is the only meaningful action because there is no reason to live. There is no meaning in living, but there is in rejecting the absurd. The reason is that being alive is living with the absurd; living is a confrontation between man and his meaningless place in the world. Suicide is a form of revolting against a meaningless life and Kirillov kills himself because revolting is to reject the idea that there is no meaning in a meaningless world. Why would one have to commit suicide to be God? There is a logical error in believing that God creates meaning and trying to find meaning by revolting against the system that says nothing is meaningful. Camus writes that this form of revolt is wrong because it is “acceptance [of the absurd] in its extreme”(pg.54). The absurd does not affirm truth, so suicide cannot be a valid form of finding meaning. Suicide is the acceptence of the claim that life is meaningless. To commit suicide means to accept the absurd; rebelling through suicide is not possible if suicide is acceptance. Rebelling is the attempt to find a reason for doing something at all and that reason cannot be found in accepting the system that says no meaning exists. Camus thinks that the only actual revolt against the absurd is to live and seek things the absurd implies have no meaning; rejection by living is the only form of valid philosophical revolt.
Camus thought that the best response to the absurd was analogous to Sisyphus’ situation. Sisyphus was doomed by the Gods to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity only for it to roll down at the peak. This is like how we are tied to our identity because we must struggle to maintain what we’ve been given. If suicide is not a logical revolt and living is, then we are like Sisyphus in that we must live. Enduring the meaninglessness and suffering is our boulder that we cannot escape because our condition is that we are fated to live with the recognition that we have to reject suicide. How are we supposed to live and continue suffering? Camus wants us to imagine ourselves as “Absurd Heroes” who take pride in the struggle for more (pg.120). Our condition is that we will continue to search for meaning without validation. However, Camus thought that there was a victory in Sisyphus’ choice to try again. Absurd heroes approach the meaningless with the intent to make something more out of life, but not with the intention of success. How is it then that this struggle is justified? Camus thought that the struggle itself was enough to provide motivation to live: “we must imagine Sisyphus happy”(pg.123). If we are by reason supposed to live, then we should find joy in our tasks because revolting against the absurd would be to reject that our actions must provide us with fulfillment to justify living. Thus to live without meaning and enjoy life is true revolt.
A common reply to Camus’ absurd hero is to reject this intuitive understanding of effort to live. For example, people with trigeminal neuralgia suffer from a compression of the nerve in the face by an artery. It has been dubbed the “suicide disease” (University of Rochester) since a quarter of those diagnosed commit suicide. The pain is one of the worst things a human can experience and it can happen over twenty times a day. Yet, there are some with the disease that carry on and pursue goals despite it (various people living full lives). Sisyphus recognizes that his feelings do not come from the absurd. Kirillov’s error was basing the meaning for his life in the absurd in some facet, but to understand that the meaning is ingrained among absurdity is to embrace what good life does have to offer. The state of meaning in life has nothing to do with whether life is worth living. If we imagine Sisyphus with a smile, then we can envision that we may still find joy in the other aspects of life—philosophy may just not provide a clear sense of purpose. Just because philosophy cannot ascribe meaning does not mean that feelings and experiences are invalidated. Humans should live because they can endure the absurd; life can still be enjoyed even if there is no meaning to it. I believe a fine example of heroism is to be found with those who suffer from trigeminal neuralgia. If they can still enjoy life, then I will do the best to enjoy mine.
Aronson, Ronald. “Albert Camus.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 10 Apr. 2017, plato.stanford.edu/entries/camus/#HapFacOneFat.
Camus, A., & O’Brien, J. (2018). The myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage International.
“Trigeminal Neuralgia.” Trigeminal Neuralgia – Conditions – For Patients – UR Neurosurgery – University of Rochester Medical Center