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The Myth of Sisyphus

Albert Camus

Study Questions

Themes of the Absurd in The Stranger

Review Quiz

What does Camus mean by "the absurd" and "the feeling of absurdity"? How is the concept of the absurd used over the course of the essay?

The concept of the absurd is born from what Camus sees as a fundamental contradiction in the human condition. On the one hand, we live with an inborn desire to find some sort of unity or reason in the universe. This desire to make sense of the universe makes us believe in a meaningful life or in God. On the other hand, the universe gives us no reason to believe that it contains any kind of reason or unity. Though we generally live with a sense of purpose born from our desire for unity, we may occasionally be struck by how senseless everything seems. We may see people riding up an escalator and imagine them as mindless robots, or we might look at a tree and see simply a "thing" that is not part of an ordered or natural universe. This feeling that strikes us occasionally is the feeling of absurdity, the awareness of the contradictory universe in which we live. The absurd man is someone who lives with the feeling of absurdity, who consciously maintains his awareness of the senselessness of everything around him.

What is "rationalism"? How does Camus reject it? Why does he reject it?

Rationalism, as it is used in this essay, is the belief that human reason can make sense of the universe. This is the hallmark of the great philosophical system builders who believe that they can find a reasonable explanation for everything that happens in life. Camus is vehemently opposed to this notion, suggesting that life is fundamentally absurd and that we cannot find any rational order in the universe. Though he rehearses a few arguments against rationalism, Camus never seems to enter into a philosophical debate with rationalist philosophy. His rejection of rationalism seems to be born more from a deep-set conviction than from a reasoned argument. Camus is interested in whether we can live only with what we are certain of, and with what we find in this life. Because we cannot be certain that the universe has a coherent order, and because a full understanding of this order is beyond our abilities as human beings, Camus rejects rationalism. He does not say that rationalism is wrong so much as he says that it is something he wants to do without.

Camus purports to be examining a certain stance that we can take toward the world rather than advancing his own philosophical position. As such, he would deny that his essay contains any metaphysical assertions. Are there any moments where you think Camus sneaks in some metaphysical assumptions? If so, how do they affect the course of his discussion?

Camus never gives any good reasons for adopting the position he does, or at least none that stand up as sound philosophical arguments. They seem born more of a profound conviction than of a reasoned position. This in itself is not a bad thing. It simply means that he is committed to approaching his subject from a psychological rather than from a metaphysical angle. One of the primary problems with The Myth of Sisyphus, however, is that Camus seems unaware that he needs to choose between philosophy and descriptive psychology. He does not seem interested in arguing philosophically at length, but he often comes quite close to adopting a contestable philosophical position. This is particularly so in his assertion that the absurd is our fundamental relationship with the universe and that the two truths of the absurd (that we desire unity and that the world gives us none) are the only two that we can know with certainty. If nothing else, this conception of knowledge is born from a rationalist background that sees knowledge as something apprehended by reason alone, unaided by the senses. An empiricist might argue that we can know plenty else besides: we can know what we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell, for instance, far better than we can know whether or not the universe has meaning. Camus never really considers the empirical position since it is outside the tradition he is working within, but he also doesn't seem to consider that an empiricist—or even a rationalist—response to his position is worth confronting. He does not have to consider possible counter-arguments if his position is not a philosophical one. However, when he starts discussing what we can know, what our fundamental relationship with the universe is, and certain truths that we are aware of, he begins to edge toward a philosophical position that needs to be defended far better than it is.

What is absurd freedom? How does it differ from the kind of freedom we experience in ordinary life?

Discuss how the figures of the seducer, the actor, the conqueror, and the writer exemplify Camus's principles of revolt, freedom, and passion.

Why does Camus see creation as the ultimate absurd act?

Camus suggests that the absurd life is a kind of mime, where the absurd man is constantly aware that he is simply playing out a role. How is it that living out a mime can be living life to its fullest?

Discuss the way the themes of this essay are played out in The Stranger.

Why does Camus consider Sisyphus a tragic hero? How does the myth of Sisyphus relate to what you know about Greek tragedy?

Camus frequently uses the word "logic" and talks often about the ordinary and the everyday. How do these themes relate to the central concept of the absurd?

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