Wednesday 29 November 2023

One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy: Encounters With the Absurd Man

The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
— Albert Camus

TW: Mention of suicide

A few weeks ago I completed thirty years’ continuous service at work. As l described at the time, “[t]he experience left me feeling demotivated. Demoralised. More than anything else, I felt sad. Thirty years working for essentially the same employer — and in essentially the same role — doesn’t feel much of an achievement to me. It feels like what happens when you never pushed yourself to find something better.” I used the word “pushed” in that final sentence without giving it much thought. It’s acquired greater significance in the period since, as I’ve pondered some of the questions my three decades of service brought up. Questions like what is my purpose? What am I supposed to be doing with my life? Is this all there is?

As age-old and ultimately unanswerable they may be, these are questions worthy of investigation. Last year I came across a series of video lectures by philosophy professor Jeffrey Kaplan. I was especially interested in those dealing with logical paradoxes, and matters of ethics. (I highly recommend Kaplan’s lecture on Peter Singer, Ordinary People Are Evil.) I began reading — or rather, listening and watching — more widely. Nihilism intrigued me, but felt too austere. Somewhere in my philosophical travels I came across Albert Camus and Absurdism. I moved on without fully engaging with either the man or his ideas, but the seed had been sown. I chanced on him again a few weeks ago, and something clicked into place. I’ve been exploring his writing and work in some detail since then.

I can’t give more than a superficial account of Camus and his ideas, but I’ll do my best to describe what I’ve learned and why I find his thinking so engaging. I’ve included links at the end of this piece for anyone who wants to find out more.

The Nature of the Absurd

We have an innate need to find meaning and value in our lives, but according to Camus, the search is futile because the universe itself is purposeless, meaningless, irrational, and utterly indifferent to our existence. Camus describes this as the paradox of the Absurd. I found a modern expression of this idea in a quotation by Richard Dawkins, from his book River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life.

In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

This resonates. The idea of a non-human meaning or purpose to the universe has never made sense to me. It simple is and it’s for us to ascribe a meaning to it if we wish. That doesn’t mean I always find it easy. I’ve never been suicidal, but I often feel unfulfilled and adrift. The following is drawn more or less at random from my personal journal.

Feeling flat. Not wanting to do anything special or different. What’s the point, really? What difference does it make what I do today?

I’m hardly unique in this. I talk regularly with people who share thoughts and feelings like these. Some border on hopelessness, despair, and suicidality. Some are the product of, or exacerbated by, anxiety, depression, trauma, or other conditions and life events. Camus’ assertion that there’s no ultimate meaning might appear unhelpful or even dangerous. To me, though, the logic of Absurdism is reassuring, even comforting. It assures me that these thoughts and feelings are neither wrong nor pathological. They’re the natural consequence of the situation in which we find ourselves. Camus describes three ways of responding to this existential challenge: philosophical suicide (faith or belief), physical suicide, and acceptance.


Not everyone agrees that the universe is chaotic and devoid of meaning, of course. I have friends who would count themselves as religious, spiritual, or both, and draw strength and purpose from their faith. I respect this as I respect them, but I’ve never felt my needs would be satisfied by adherence to any doctrinal system. I went to church in my teens, but since leaving home at eighteen I’ve only attended for weddings and funerals. The last occasion was my mother’s funeral in 2018. My father, at least occasionally, yearned to share my mother’s Christian faith, but it wasn’t in him and I respect him for that. The following is from an open letter I wrote to my father, many years after he died.

I know you didn’t share Mum’s religiosity. Her churchgoing. Her faith. I recall one conversation between you. You telling her you wished you could believe. It’s the one time you let the mask slip. The one time I remember seeing you cry.

In the end, my mother’s faith turned against her, twisted by doubt and mental illness into crippling guilt and despair from which she never recovered. For Camus, faith amounted to philosophical suicide. He saw it as an attempt to escape the dilemma by devoting oneself to a religion, cause, or movement that claims to provide the structure and meaning we seek. This seemed to him intellectually dishonest. I wish I had half the courage, wit, and erudition of such modern atheists as the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Stephen Fry, but I can use the voice and platform I have, and share what the Absurd means to me. In doing so, I’m discovering more about myself, my life, and my purpose. That feels important.

It’s worth saying that not all existentialists considered religion an invalid response to the crisis of meaninglessness. That includes Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, generally considered the first existentialist philosopher. Camus repudiated the label of existentialist, but is generally counted amongst their number.


The question of suicide is foundational for Camus. In the opening chapter of his book The Myth of Sisyphus, he declares “[t]here is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” I find something brutally refreshing in this. I’ve had many conversations with Fran and other friends about suicide and suicidal thinking. I’ve taken suicide awareness and prevention courses. Fran and I have a chapter on suicidality in our book. But I’ve never looked at suicide from a philosophical perspective before .

There was a time when I could discern a certain romantic tragedy in suicide born of extreme suffering. I remember being moved reading of the death by suicide of the English painter Dora Carrington in 1932 following the loss of her beloved friend Lytton Strachey. The final entry in her journal included the following couplet from Henry Wotton’s poem “Upon the Death of Sir Albert Morton’s Wife.”

He first deceased; she for a little tried | To live without him, liked it not, and died.

With hindsight and greater understanding, I focus much more on the loss her death represented for the people who loved her, yet were unable to help her survive the despair in which she found herself.

To be clear, Camus explicitly rejects the idea of taking one’s life as a legitimate response to the crisis of meaninglessness. He sees it as avoiding the paradox by taking oneself out of life altogether, rather than finding a solution to it. This counters any romanticisation of suicide, but there remains a danger in taking Camus’ views at face value. It would be easy to conclude that suicide is in some way cowardly or selfish; an easy way out for those unable or unwilling to challenge the Absurd in other ways. I don’t see it that way at all. I’ve read that for those bereaved by suicide no response or feelings are invalid, but I can’t agree with those who judge the actions of those they’ve lost as weak or selfish. I once told Fran that if she ever chose to leave, I would not hate her for it. That hasn’t changed.

Camus speaks about a certain kind of suicidality, but suicidal thinking, and suicide itself, are too deep, desperate, and messy to be fully explained or countered by any single philosophical theory. That said, I believe a wider awareness and understanding of philosophy would help address the loneliness and alienation many of us feel, especially when we’re unable or unwilling to subscribe to consensus views and attitudes. The breadth and variety of philosophical thought teaches us — teaches me — that there’s no one route to truth, and no single way of living genuinely. I find that profoundly validating. We’re not wrong or bad for thinking differently, seeing the world through our own eyes, or seeking meaning in ways that work for us.

Sisyphus and the Absurd Man

I mentioned Sisyphus earlier but who is he and what’s his relevance to Camus’ thinking? Sisyphus was the king of Ephyra (Corinth) in Greek mythology. As I expressed it recently to a friend, he was punished by the gods for being “a bit cheeky” — which is something of an understatement. His full story is worth reading, but it’s the nature of his final punishment that’s relevant here. In Camus’ words:

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 labour.

It’s not hard to see this as an analogy for the repetitive, tedious, and seemingly endless drudgery of modern life. It’s captured perfectly in a meme which began as a post on Twitter/X by Kramski.

I love how being an adult is just saying “But after this week things will slow down a bit again” to yourself until you die.

Sisyphus is the model for what Camus calls the Absurd Man; someone who exemplifies the appropriate response to the paradox of meaninglessness. The following summary is is taken from The Absurd Man by James Clark Ross.

The absurd man lives for his passions. He exists here and now, hoping for no more than what he’s been given. Though he abandons meaning, he is determined to live in the present and takes this perspective forward with him over the course of his life.

Yet the absurd man revolts against his very existence. He sees death as finality: there is no place for God. Nor is there any other source of intrinsic value to justify his existence in this world, nor a way to have consequence in another. The absurd man is torn from his urge to find unity.

But the absurd man is at least able to face the absurdity of his life squarely; for he accepts his own obscurity. In so doing, in renouncing the various falsities of hope, the absurd man finds freedom.

I find much here that reflects how I’ve lived my life. It makes sense to me. But what does it mean in practice? How is the Absurd Man — the Absurd Person — supposed to live?

Acceptance: The Third Way

Having set physical and philosophical suicide aside, what does Camus offer as a way through the dilemma of the Absurd? In a word, acceptance. Acceptance of the reality of the situation in which we find ourselves, and the determination to nevertheless live fully, relying on our courage, inventiveness and spirit to find a personal sense of meaning and purpose. Camus gives three examples of the Absurd Man, which he labels the lover, the actor, and the warrior, but it’s up to us to figure things out for ourselves. I recommend the excellent twenty minute video 7 Life Lessons from Albert Camus on the Philosophies for Life YouTube channel. It describes seven approaches to help us appreciate the Absurdity of life.

  1. Create your own meaning for life
  2. Don’t make happiness a distant goal
  3. Don’t be ignorant
  4. Be a rebel
  5. Spend time with yourself
  6. Be flexible
  7. Choose love

These are all important and I encourage you to watch the video in full, but I’ll touch on four that seem especially relevant to me: creating your own meaning, being a rebel, spending time with yourself, and not making happiness a distant goal. The quoted sentences are from the video narration.

Create your own meaning for life

No one is watching you. You are absolutely free to choose how your life will be.

I’ve written elsewhere about how important it is to acknowledge and celebrate our successes, whether or not they fit society’s model of what achievement should look like, or what others expect of us. Camus invites us to make our own choices about what matters for us, because ultimately no one and nothing else can do that for us.

Be a rebel

It’s important to know yourself in order to know when to rebel.

This can be interpreted in different ways, but essentially it means having the courage to say no when we need to. It’s about not accepting prescribed or expected norms if they don’t sit well with us. This could be seen as a rejection of morality and a licence to do anything we want to with no regard to other people, but Camus stresses the importance of balancing the freedom of being who you are with a strong sense of justice for others. The challenge is to act authentically rather than merely following the accepted or easy way. This means understanding who we actually are.

Spend time with yourself

Solitude makes it possible for you to meditate on the absurdity of life.

Time to myself has always been an important part of my life, whether it’s taking myself for a walk, meditating, keeping up with my diary as I’ve done every day for almost fifty years, or sitting in coffee shops to write my weekly blog post. The value of taking even short opportunities for solitude can’t be overstated. It’s in these moments that we can be most truly ourselves and explore our relationship with the Absurd.

I also spend a lot of time listening to and watching YouTube videos. I’m fascinated with cosmology and mathematics, especially anything to do with the scale and origins of the universe, incomprehensively large numbers such as Graham’s number and Tree 3, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, Turing machines, and Russell’s paradox. Topics such as these speak to me of the urgent and fascinating, yet ultimately pointless urge to seek for understanding.

Don’t make happiness a distant goal

The more we can enjoy the process of achieving our goals, the happier we become.

Many people live and work towards future goals, setting aside any appreciation of the journey they are on in getting there. This may not cause any issues with relatively short-term goals. We can press on through the hardship and drudgery until we get there. For longer term goals and aspirations, however, we miss out on so much if we fail to appreciate where we are along the way. A need to be always pushing on towards the next goal means we are never happy with where we are or what we have achieved. We probably all know someone who never seems content with what they have, but is always looking for the next experience, relationship, or acquisition, believing that then they will be happy and at peace. The way out of this dilemma is to learn to find value in the journey, worrying less about what we our journeying towards.

There are no goals or aspirations for Sisyphus. He knows he is condemned to push his boulder up the hill for eternity. Likewise, it sometimes seems to us that there’s no possibility of escape or change in our future, and we’re going to be stuck where we are forever. If we allow ourselves to be lost in the seeming impossibility of change, we can lose hope altogether. If we imagine our life will only have meaning if it changes in specific desired ways, we will be mired in despair. The lesson we can take from Sisyphus — at least as Camus’ presents him — is to become fully aware of the present moment and find happiness there. Find meaning there. As he writes in the closing lines of The Myth of Sisyphus, we must imagine Sisyphus happy.

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.

So, to return to the beginning of this piece and my reflections on my life so far, I’ll keep pushing on. Like Sisyphus I’ll make the most of each step along the way, allowing the struggle to fill my heart. In doing so, I can imagine myself happy.

Further Information

Existential Psychology: Camus (Eric Dodson lectures)

Albert Camus (Life and works)

7 Life Lessons from Albert Camus (video)

The Myth of Sisyphus (video)

The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (book)

The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (audio book)

The Stranger (video) 1967 film by Italian film director Luchino Visconti, based on Albert Camus’ 1942 novel The Stranger.


Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash. Sculpture by Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland in Frogner Park, Oslo.


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