In this episode, we go into "The Myth of Sisyphus" by Albert Camus, formulate an alternative modern punishment to Sisyphus' boulder-rolling that I think is even worse, and examine how we can attempt to find meaning in an inherently meaningless world.

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Timestamps:

  • 0:00 - Introduction and analysis of the Sisyphus myth
  • 16:40 - A 21st century alternative to Sisyphus
  • 20:29 - The metaphysics of death
  • 30:05 - Albert Camus on the absurdity of life
  • 36:10 - The hierarchy of needs
  • 41:32 - Albert Camus on seeking meaning and purpose
  • 46:20 - Kierkegaard's leap of faith
  • 50:55 - Accepting the absurd condition
  • 56:08 - On living a joyous life

Food for thought:

I'd love to read your responses to these questions in the comments below.

  1. Which of the four formulations of the Sisyphus myth presented here do you think would be the worst punishment? Why?
  2. Which life would you find more meaningful? Sisyphus rolling a boulder up a hill for eternity, or the life of a simulated being living inside of a computer simulation?

Recap:

  • First, we jump straight into an analysis of the Sisyphus myth, starting with the ancient Greek primary sources about this myth from Ovid's Metamorphosis and Homer's Odyssey.
  • We consider four different formulations of the Sisyphus myth and question which would be worse:
  1. Sisyphus rolls a boulder up a hill, and each time he reaches the top, it topples over and rolls back down to the bottom of the hill. He must repeat this for eternity.
  2. Sisyphus rolls a boulder up a hill, never reaching the top. At some point, the boulder becomes too heavy and rolls back down to the bottom of the hill. He must repeat this futile attempt for eternity.
  3. Sisyphus rolls an infinite number of boulders up a hill for all of eternity. Each time he places a boulder on the top of the hill, he marches back to the bottom and gets a new boulder from an infinitely large pile. With each completion of this task, the hill gets higher and higher with new boulders.
  4. Sisyphus rolls the same boulder up an infinite hill with no beginning and no end. He can never reach the top because it's always infinitely far away; and if he loses his grip on the boulder, it only rolls partially down the hill before coming to a rest (there's no bottom for it to roll to).
  • We settle on Option #3 as being the worst possible punishment, and also one which most closely mirrors the modern world as we know it (and this modern need for perpetual progress, even if the end goal is an illusion).
  • We formulate a 21st century alternative to the Sisyphus myth. In this alternative, we create a simulated reality that's indistinguishable from our real world, and create a simulated being within this reality: this is our Sisyphus. The punishment for this simulated Sisyphus is that at every waking moment of their life, they remain fully conscious of the fact that they are a simulated being living inside of a computer simulation. The key difference is that our simulated Sisyphus lives a mortal life and is even capable of voluntarily choosing to end their own existence (unlike the mythological version).
  • We then discuss the metaphysics of death and how the inevitability of death is what gives our lives meaning. From here, we jump into Albert Camus' essay The Myth of Sisyphus and examine what it means to live an absurd life. Camus starts this essay off with the following quote:
"Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy." [1]
  • Camus then describes how we first come about questioning the meaning of life:
"Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm—this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement." [1]
  • It is from here that Camus says we first begin to recognize what he terms "the absurd," which is the term he uses for our struggle to find meaning in what is an inherently meaningless world—this condition is itself absurd:
"The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. This must not be forgotten. This must be clung to because the whole consequence of a life can depend on it." [1]
  • This is followed up with a brief discussion of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. The higher we go up this needs ladder, the more we begin to feel the absurd in our daily lives.
  • Next, we discuss the possibility of seeking meaning in this inherently meaningless world of ours. Camus analyzes Kierkegaard's absurd "leap of faith" where he chooses to believe in God even though he concedes that reason alone cannot tell us anything about God—that faith is only possible by abandoning reason, and this is our leap. Kierkegaard positions this leap of faith as central to finding meaning in what would otherwise appear a meaningless existence (that is, if we rely on reason alone).
  • Camus says that Kierkegaard's leap of faith is an evasion from the truth about the absurd condition:
"At a certain point on his path the absurd man is tempted. History is not lacking in either religions or prophets, even without gods. He is asked to leap. All he can reply is that he doesn’t fully understand, that it is not obvious." [1]
  • Camus argues that the truest life we can live is one in which we're constantly aware of the absurd, of our inevitable death in this meaningless world. Instead of turning away from this reality and taking a leap of faith, he urges us to remain on this precipice: remain perched on the ledge above the chasm, fully accepting that life itself is absurd and not shying away from this truth.
  • From here, Camus says we have what he terms "absurd freedom." Rather than giving up our lives or taking a leap of faith, he urges us to lean into this absurd condition, and to lead into the fact of our inevitable deaths. He says we can draw three conclusions that can guide us in this absurd reality: revolt, freedom, and passion.
"Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death—and I refuse suicide. [1]
  • By revolt, Camus means that we revolt against the absurd, against the meaninglessness of life and that we refuse death. By freedom, he means that we are free from faith and other imposed meanings—instead, we are free to be our own meaning makers. And by passion, he means that we must live with a lust for life in this absurd freedom we find ourselves in—rather than wishing things were different and that some objective meaning could be found, we embrace this absurdity and attempt to live our lives as fully as possible.
  • We conclude this episode of the podcast with some thoughts on philosophy itself as being a Sisyphean task.

Works Cited:

  1. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus. Translated by Justin O'Brien. Vintage International 2018. Original text published in French in 1942.
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyous Science, passages 124 & 125 (pp. 141-142). Translated by R. Kevin Hill. Penguin Classics 2019. Original text published in German in 1882; 2nd expanded edition in 1887.

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