Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus

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Gary Childress
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Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus

Post by Gary Childress » Wed Feb 12, 2020 11:19 am

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O my soul, do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible.
- Pindar, Pythian iii [from Camus' foreward]



This is a thread for posting comments and questions pertaining to a reading of Albert Camus', The Myth of Sisyphus. Feel free to join along in this reading endeavor if you wish. Fellow travelers are welcome! Or if you have constructive comments or questions to help with the reading, please also feel free to post them here.

There 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. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards

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Immanuel Can
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Re: Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus

Post by Immanuel Can » Wed Feb 12, 2020 6:06 pm

There 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. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards
It's interesting that Camus begins with such a note of absolute despair.

To get to the point of considering suicide, one has to be pretty far gone; but to get to the point at which suicide seems the BEST option, and one needs a reason NOT to kill oneself, is surely a step much farther. And he takes for granted that any really deep-thinking person is already at this point, and needs some really astute thinking not to "take a stab"at it (to coin a phrase).

So Camus's first problem is at the presumptive level. He's presumed that the default setting of the philosopher is despair, and the logic of despair is suicide.

Do you think he's right?

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Re: Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus

Post by Gary Childress » Wed Feb 12, 2020 8:37 pm

Immanuel Can wrote:
Wed Feb 12, 2020 6:06 pm
There 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. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards
It's interesting that Camus begins with such a note of absolute despair.
In the Preface he claims that the work was written 15 years ago in 1940 "amid the French and European disaster" and that, "After 15 years I have progressed beyond several of the positions which are set down here; but I have remained faithful, it seems to me, to the exigency which prompted them."

So he wrote it in the early years of Europe's darkest hours. I can't help but think "despair" would be a very appropriate reaction and much of what he says still probably pertains to many people today who experience or have experienced despair in their lives, I think. Kierkegaard was also very big on the topic of despair or "the sickness unto death," I believe he called it. So far I think Camus is "right" in so far as he says many things that seem congruent to me with despair as I've experienced it.

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Re: Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus

Post by Immanuel Can » Wed Feb 12, 2020 8:49 pm

Gary Childress wrote:
Wed Feb 12, 2020 8:37 pm
Kierkegaard was very big on the topic of despair or "the sickness unto death," I believe he called it.
Yes. But while Kierkegaard saw despair as a sort of illness of the maladjusted soul, he also saw it as quite curable. The despair was not a product, for Kierkegaard, of a long, hard look at the truth, but of the hopelessness of trying to find self-awareness by all the wrong routes. The cure was to seek the right route.

In other words, for Kierkegaard, despair was unrealistic, a product of failing to face reality as-it-really-is. For Camus, despair is the automatic default of a man who has looked at the true nature of reality -- it's realistic. And the best Camus can offer is that while the despair is entirely realistic and unavoidable (save for those who commit what he calls "intellectual suicide"), he tries to offer us a different perspective on the same horrid (or "absurd") realities.

So my question would be, "Is it really inevitable that a person who thinks deeply about the nature of things, and sees them as they really are, is going to be brought to the edge of needing a reason not to kill himself?" :shock:

That's really an extreme position that Camus is taking.

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Re: Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus

Post by Gary Childress » Wed Feb 12, 2020 8:56 pm

Immanuel Can wrote:
Wed Feb 12, 2020 8:49 pm
So my question would be, "Is it really inevitable that a person who thinks deeply about the nature of things, and sees them as they really are, is going to be brought to the edge of needing a reason not to kill himself?" :shock:

That's really an extreme position that Camus is taking.
1940 was an extremely despairing time. A lot of thinkers got very pessimistic during and after that, for good reason it seems to me.

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Re: Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus

Post by Nick_A » Wed Feb 12, 2020 9:32 pm

Simone Weil, I maintain this now, is the only great spirit of our times and I hope that those who realize this have enough modesty to not try to appropriate her overwhelming witnessing.

For my part, I would be satisfied if one could say that in my place, with the humble means at my disposal, I served to make known and disseminate her work whose full impact we have yet to measure.

Albert Camus
A letter to Simone Weil's mother, written in 1951
Albert Camus raises some deeply human questions Maybe her individuality and dedication to truth offered something of an extraordinary understanding humanity as a whole rejects?

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Immanuel Can
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Re: Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus

Post by Immanuel Can » Wed Feb 12, 2020 10:37 pm

Gary Childress wrote:
Wed Feb 12, 2020 8:56 pm
Immanuel Can wrote:
Wed Feb 12, 2020 8:49 pm
So my question would be, "Is it really inevitable that a person who thinks deeply about the nature of things, and sees them as they really are, is going to be brought to the edge of needing a reason not to kill himself?" :shock:

That's really an extreme position that Camus is taking.
1940 was an extremely despairing time. A lot of thinkers got very pessimistic during and after that, for good reason it seems to me.
Perhaps so. Perhaps we could say he lived in a glum time.

But if that's the case, then would your supposition be that Camus would be much more optimistic now, were he alive, than he was then? Or would he still be arguing that considering suicide was the default condition of the philosophically awake person?

My sense is that Camus wants not simply to talk about the 1940s, but about the human condition in general. Perhaps we could say "only the modern human condition." But perhaps not. His solutions don't seem to be keyed to his time period. Had they been, I'd would expect him to say something, like, "We've got to win this war, then things will be better." That would make sense. All the stuff about the guy with the rock...that looks like he's aiming to speak more universally, don't you think?

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Re: Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus

Post by Nick_A » Thu Feb 13, 2020 12:39 am

Immanuel Can wrote:
Wed Feb 12, 2020 10:37 pm
Gary Childress wrote:
Wed Feb 12, 2020 8:56 pm
Immanuel Can wrote:
Wed Feb 12, 2020 8:49 pm
So my question would be, "Is it really inevitable that a person who thinks deeply about the nature of things, and sees them as they really are, is going to be brought to the edge of needing a reason not to kill himself?" :shock:

That's really an extreme position that Camus is taking.
1940 was an extremely despairing time. A lot of thinkers got very pessimistic during and after that, for good reason it seems to me.
Perhaps so. Perhaps we could say he lived in a glum time.

But if that's the case, then would your supposition be that Camus would be much more optimistic now, were he alive, than he was then? Or would he still be arguing that considering suicide was the default condition of the philosophically awake person?

My sense is that Camus wants not simply to talk about the 1940s, but about the human condition in general. Perhaps we could say "only the modern human condition." But perhaps not. His solutions don't seem to be keyed to his time period. Had they been, I'd would expect him to say something, like, "We've got to win this war, then things will be better." That would make sense. All the stuff about the guy with the rock...that looks like he's aiming to speak more universally, don't you think?

Gary, the whole idea of Sissyphus eternally pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it fall down again suggests an eternal condition with suicide as a logical altenative. We become more aware of it as the cycles of life move from desirable into undesirable, My question is if it is an eternal condition for society as a whole or is it possible for individuals to escape it? If Simone in her own way lived a life dedicated to the truth of the human condition as opposed to justifying it, is it any wonder why he wouldn't consider her as he did.

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Re: Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus

Post by Immanuel Can » Thu Feb 13, 2020 5:49 am

Nick_A wrote:
Thu Feb 13, 2020 12:39 am
Simone
Oh gosh, Nick.

Don't you have any thoughts that aren't about Simone Weil?

Just marry the girl, and get it over with. Nobody else wants to know.

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Re: Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus

Post by Gary Childress » Thu Feb 13, 2020 7:52 am

Immanuel Can wrote:
Wed Feb 12, 2020 10:37 pm
Gary Childress wrote:
Wed Feb 12, 2020 8:56 pm
Immanuel Can wrote:
Wed Feb 12, 2020 8:49 pm
So my question would be, "Is it really inevitable that a person who thinks deeply about the nature of things, and sees them as they really are, is going to be brought to the edge of needing a reason not to kill himself?" :shock:

That's really an extreme position that Camus is taking.
1940 was an extremely despairing time. A lot of thinkers got very pessimistic during and after that, for good reason it seems to me.
Perhaps so. Perhaps we could say he lived in a glum time.

But if that's the case, then would your supposition be that Camus would be much more optimistic now, were he alive, than he was then? Or would he still be arguing that considering suicide was the default condition of the philosophically awake person?

My sense is that Camus wants not simply to talk about the 1940s, but about the human condition in general. Perhaps we could say "only the modern human condition." But perhaps not. His solutions don't seem to be keyed to his time period. Had they been, I'd would expect him to say something, like, "We've got to win this war, then things will be better." That would make sense. All the stuff about the guy with the rock...that looks like he's aiming to speak more universally, don't you think?
I think you are right, it is an extreme position but I think sometimes meditating on the extreme can be instructive to who we are when push comes to shove. If Camus were magically teleported into the early 21st century then maybe He might view things differently, or maybe not, I don't know.

As far as whether he is right or wrong in saying that suicide is "THE one truly serious philosophical problem", I think it's maybe a little bit like trying to determine if the statement "green is a pretty color" is "right" or "wrong". It's perhaps more like a matter of opinion coming from a particular perspective and what not. Personally, I agree that suicide is probably the most serious philosophical problem. As Camus seems to indicate most other things are of lesser importance, I think because they don't have quite the same existential (life or death) importance. If a person is contemplating suicide then I think, yes, that is a VERY serious thing. I agree with Camus in that respect.

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Re: Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus

Post by Immanuel Can » Thu Feb 13, 2020 2:03 pm

Gary Childress wrote:
Thu Feb 13, 2020 7:52 am
As far as whether he is right or wrong in saying that suicide is "THE one truly serious philosophical problem", I think it's maybe a little bit like trying to determine if the statement "green is a pretty color" is "right" or "wrong". It's perhaps more like a matter of opinion coming from a particular perspective and what not.
My thought would be that he is trying to imply more than merely that lots of serious-minded people have a desire to die (if that's even true -- which I would question, but is possible). I think he's trying to say that the "finding/getting a meaning to life" question is the basic one, and this is just his rather graphic and dramatic way of trying to make that point.

I think that he's arguing that the circumstances of a person (his "rock," if you will) cannot be exchanged -- it is what it is -- but that the sufferer's attitude to the circumstances (making it "his rock") might provide a sense of meaning not inherently apparent in the circumstances. He's saying that a person who cannot make any meaning out of the circumstances may well see no option but to kill himself; but if he manages to make a meaning out of his circumstances, maybe he can be transformed into "the absurd hero" in his own estimation, and then not want to kill himself.

Does that sound right?

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Re: Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus

Post by Gary Childress » Thu Feb 13, 2020 4:06 pm

Immanuel Can wrote:
Thu Feb 13, 2020 2:03 pm
Gary Childress wrote:
Thu Feb 13, 2020 7:52 am
As far as whether he is right or wrong in saying that suicide is "THE one truly serious philosophical problem", I think it's maybe a little bit like trying to determine if the statement "green is a pretty color" is "right" or "wrong". It's perhaps more like a matter of opinion coming from a particular perspective and what not.
My thought would be that he is trying to imply more than merely that lots of serious-minded people have a desire to die (if that's even true -- which I would question, but is possible). I think he's trying to say that the "finding/getting a meaning to life" question is the basic one, and this is just his rather graphic and dramatic way of trying to make that point.

I think that he's arguing that the circumstances of a person (his "rock," if you will) cannot be exchanged -- it is what it is -- but that the sufferer's attitude to the circumstances (making it "his rock") might provide a sense of meaning not inherently apparent in the circumstances. He's saying that a person who cannot make any meaning out of the circumstances may well see no option but to kill himself; but if he manages to make a meaning out of his circumstances, maybe he can be transformed into "the absurd hero" in his own estimation, and then not want to kill himself.

Does that sound right?
I don't know if he's necessarily saying that "lot's of serious-minded people have a desire to die". I tend to think he's speaking for himself and his own existence (what he experiences in what he perceives to be an absurd world), and not trying to speak for others, at least I wouldn't think so.

I mean, I can say the world is an absurd place and I'm sure many would disagree but that might be my apprehension. Other people can think what they want. I can't convince them and I'm not sure I would want to. If someone else doesn't think the world is absurd, then good for them.

In a sense, it is maybe my boulder to roll up that hill and maybe not someone else's. I'm simply reporting my perception and experience coming from my particular circumstance. Others don't have to agree because they may be having a wonderful time in life. I'm not aware that Martin Heidegger ever dwelled on suicide. He's a contemporary of Camus' and was very esteemed by many French thinkers. I'm sure Camus was aware of that. What Heidegger thinks and how Heidegger reacts is his business.
Last edited by Gary Childress on Thu Feb 13, 2020 4:19 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus

Post by Immanuel Can » Thu Feb 13, 2020 4:18 pm

Gary Childress wrote:
Thu Feb 13, 2020 4:06 pm
I don't know if he's necessarily saying that "lot's of serious-minded people have a desire to die". I tend to think he's speaking for himself and his own existence (what he experiences in what he perceives to be an absurd world), and not trying to speak for others, at least I wouldn't think so.
Well, he's certainly speaking TO others, with a view to some experience he thinks they share with him.

I mean, why else do you write a book? If you want just to emote, you can always go off and scream your angst to the wilderness, and then come home and nobody's the wiser. But if you write a book, you're trying to tell the world something you think they're going to have reason to think is right, right?

Camus published. He put this out there.
I mean, I can say the world is an absurd place and I'm sure many would disagree but that might be my apprehension. Other people can think what they want. I can't convince them and I'm not sure I would want to.
I think maybe you're not embracing the full sense of what Camus means by "absurd," Gary.

Very clearly he means much more than that life feels absurd to some people. Rather, he's talking about the deep nature of how things really are, if you think about them realistically...or so he thinks. He supposes that the thoughtful person will, at end, believe both that life is meaningless inherently, but that people cannot endure life without meaning. And the dialectic between those two "facts," as he sees them, he calls "the absurd."

His claim there is ontological, not merely emotional. He thinks "absurd" is how things really are, not just how some people feel about them.

If he does not mean that, then his whole argument becomes pretty trivial. It reduces to "some people (plausibly incorrect or mentally ill ones) merely feel that life is absurd, and others (plausibly better-balanced ones) really think not."

I don't think that's a serious enough starting point to launch his argument, do you?

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Re: Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus

Post by Gary Childress » Thu Feb 13, 2020 4:25 pm

Immanuel Can wrote:
Thu Feb 13, 2020 4:18 pm
Gary Childress wrote:
Thu Feb 13, 2020 4:06 pm
I don't know if he's necessarily saying that "lot's of serious-minded people have a desire to die". I tend to think he's speaking for himself and his own existence (what he experiences in what he perceives to be an absurd world), and not trying to speak for others, at least I wouldn't think so.
Well, he's certainly speaking TO others, with a view to some experience he thinks they share with him.

I mean, why else do you write a book? If you want just to emote, you can always go off and scream your angst to the wilderness, and then come home and nobody's the wiser. But if you write a book, you're trying to tell the world something you think they're going to have reason to think is right, right?

Camus published. He put this out there.
I mean, I can say the world is an absurd place and I'm sure many would disagree but that might be my apprehension. Other people can think what they want. I can't convince them and I'm not sure I would want to.
I think maybe you're not embracing the full sense of what Camus means by "absurd," Gary.

Very clearly he means much more than that life feels absurd to some people. Rather, he's talking about the deep nature of how things really are, if you think about them realistically...or so he thinks. He supposes that the thoughtful person will, at end, believe both that life is meaningless inherently, but that people cannot endure life without meaning. And the dialectic between those two "facts," as he sees them, he calls "the absurd."

His claim there is ontological, not merely emotional. He thinks "absurd" is how things really are, not just how some people feel about them.

If he does not mean that, then his whole argument becomes pretty trivial. It reduces to "some people (plausibly incorrect or mentally ill ones) merely feel that life is absurd, and others (plausibly better-balanced ones) really think not."

I don't think that's a serious enough starting point to launch his argument, do you?
People are allowed to express themselves in writing to others. If they perceive the world a certain way, then they are allowed to write about it. Others can agree or not. Do you think Camus should have simply shut up (not exposed his feelings) and suffered in silence?

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Re: Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus

Post by Immanuel Can » Thu Feb 13, 2020 4:46 pm

Gary Childress wrote:
Thu Feb 13, 2020 4:25 pm
People are allowed to express themselves in writing to others. If they perceive the world a certain way, then they are allowed to write about it. Others can agree or not. Do you think Camus should have simply shut up (not exposed his feelings) and suffered in silence?
Heck, no.

But I don't think he was merely asking for pity, either. I think he was aiming at rational sympathy, which is considerably more.

I think what he wanted was not for people merely to say, "Poor Albert; his life seems so hard to him," but rather to say, "What Albert says is well put; it's what I have always felt, in my deepest suspicions, but never been able to put so succinctly and accurately."

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