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The Myth of Sisyphus

Albert Camus

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Context

Albert Camus (1913–1960) is not a philosopher so much as a novelist with a strong philosophical bent. He is most famous for his novels of ideas, such as The Stranger and The Plague, both of which are set in the arid landscape of his native Algeria.

Camus studied philosophy at the University of Algiers, which brought him into contact with two of the major branches of twentieth century philosophy: existentialism and phenomenology. Existentialism arises from an awareness that there is no pre-ordained meaning or order in the universe and that we must take responsibility for determining the meaning and order we are to give to our lives. Camus is particularly interested in religious existentialists, such as Kierkegaard (though such a label is not entirely fair to Kierkegard), who conclude that there is no meaning to be found in human experience, and that this necessitates a "leap of faith" that places an irrational and blind faith in God.

Phenomenology, as advocated by Edmund Husserl, confines itself to observing and describing our own consciousness without drawing any conclusions regarding causes or connections. Like existentialism, phenomenology influenced Camus by its effort to construct a worldview that does not assume that there is some sort of rational structure to the universe that the human mind can apprehend.

This idea—that the universe has a rational structure that the mind can apprehend—characterizes an older trend in European philosophy called "rationalism." Rationalism traces its roots to Rene Descartes and to the birth of modern philosophy. Most of twentieth century European philosophy has been a direct reaction to this older tradition, a reactionary attempt to explore the possibility that the universe has no rational structure for the mind to apprehend.

Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus around the same time he wrote his first novel, The Stranger, at the beginning of World War II. Camus was working for the French Resistance in Paris at this time, far from his native Algeria. While it is never wise to reduce ideas to their autobiographical background, the circumstances in which this essay was written can help us understand its tone. The metaphor of exile that Camus uses to describe the human predicament and the sense that life is a meaningless and futile struggle both make a great deal of sense coming from a man, far from his home, who was struggling against a seemingly omnipotent and senselessly brutal regime.

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