Is Life’s Meaning to Be Found in the Myth of Sisyphus, Bunyan’s Pilgrim, Voltaire’s Candide, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Shakespeare’s Stage—or Something Else?

Albert Camus famously said that the first question of philosophy is suicide: is life’s game worth the candle? Camus thought that it was. Yes, the universe appears to be absurd (without meaning, unity, or purpose), and yes, Sisyphus was Camus’s chosen symbol for the human condition, but Camus also made this (surprising) claim concerning Sisyphus:

We must imagine Sisyphus happy.

This was Camus’s way of saying that even though our brief moments on the stage of life, pushing our individual rocks up our individual hills, can give no permanent or ultimate meaning, unity, or purpose to life, nevertheless, within our rebellion against the universe’s absurdity, we can be happy: our moral projects in solidarity with others (think of Camus’s The Plague ), as well as our chosen aesthetic and hedonistic projects, can, indeed, succeed in occupying us so that, even as we hurtle toward a dusty and permanent death in a universe going nowhere, we can experience fulfillment. And, of course, when we cease to see the point, we can always return again to the first question of philosophy, answer it differently, and off ourselves. But until we decide to do that, we must love Big Brother the rocks, embrace the rocks, and, like Sisyphus (?!), be happy!

Got it?

I’ve been reading Susan Wolf’s excellent little book, Meaning in Life and Why It Matters  (Princeton 2010), and in it she writes this (17):

The philosopher Richard Taylor . . . in a discussion of life’s absurdity, suggests a thought experiment according to which the gods take pity on Sisyphus and inject a substance in his veins that transforms him from someone for whom stone-rolling is nothing but a painful, arduous, and unwelcome chore to someone who loves stone-rolling more than anything else in the (after-)world. There is nothing the transformed Sisyphus would rather do than roll that stone. Stone-rolling, in other words, fulfills him. Sisyphus has found his passion (or perhaps his passion has found him), and he is pursuing it to his life’s content. The question is, what should we think of him? Has his life been transformed from horribly unfortunate to exceptionally good? Taylor thinks so, but some of us might disagree.

Ah, yes. Bring on the Huxlian soma. Better living (for Sisyphus) through chemistry. This little thought experiment gets right to the crux of the existential problem that atheists and agnostics (like myself) face: what makes for a good life in the absence of an orienting star? And can anyone, in the contingencies of his or her individual existence, say what is good for others? I, for example, like reading books, but another person might devote their energies, like the old painter in Amelie, to obsessively reproducing the same Renoir painting over and over again, year in and year out. 

Does the fact that I’m reading a variety of books while another, say, repeatedly copies by hand the same painting, make my life a more meaningful one—a less nonsensical one? In a universe absent direction, who arbitrates? And after Locke, is arbitration even desirable? (You do your thing, I do mine. You don’t interfere with me; I won’t interfere with you. In the absence of God, and after the Anglo-French Enlightenment, this is the best of all possible worlds, Candide.)

Now it’s hard to argue that the Anglo-French Enlightenment was a bad thing. Certainly, it is good fortune to live after Locke, Bacon, Voltaire, and Rousseau, and not prior to them. But there were charms to the old certitudes offered by a Platonic or Christian (“Platonism for the masses”) civilization, the most obvious being this: you knew your place. It was not your task to make order out of nothing. The order was already there. Your task—and it was your sole task—was to orient yourself to the absolute (however that was imagined). Happiness was a turning toward the ground of being, to God. It was not the Kantian imperative of the Enlightenment—“dare to know.” Instead, it was “dare to orient.” In other words, it was a call to turn, by faith, and walk in the way ordained for you by the guarantor of meaning, the creator of the universe. It was Bunyan’s pilgrim on a path to a city set on a hill, the New Jerusalem, that gave life its energy and optimism; it was not Voltaire’s Candide wandering contingently, and landing at last, old and ruined in body, in a private garden.  

But that is so yesterday, before the Enlightenment. That was an age of innocence. That was then, this is now.

To be a modern—that is, to be a secular modern—is different from being Bunyan’s Christian, or even the mythic Sisyphus. It is true that the mythic Sisyphus was doing a pointless task, but it was because he was not oriented to the ground of being. Conceivably, were Sisyphus set free, he could have turned to the ground of being—to the world established by his gods—and so found meaningful work, and happiness. Part of Sisyphus’s punishment was to be oriented toward the wrong ground: to have no meaningful work given to him by the gods. And so we secular moderns are worse off than Sisyphus. Because we have absented God from the equation, we cannot even imagine a better deal for ourselves. We are free to choose any rock in the Walmart, but none of them orient to the ground of being because, by our lights, there is no such ground. Our consumer goods, our work—whatever we choose, and however we choose to live—can have no ultimate object beyond ourselves.

Now maybe that’s enough. Maybe we must imagine ourselves happy, as Camus imagines Sisyphus happy. But it’s not hard to see why there are not more atheists and agnostics in the world, and why we live in a time of religious revival.

We atheists and agnostics are frightening to a lot of religious people, for we seem willing to accept, at face value, a very, very bad conclusion, and to live on the dust of a complaint: we appear to have been flung into a universe that is going nowhere and we can live with that. As unpalatable as this is, we face it squarely. We don’t retreat into innocence or nostalgia (becoming a religious Don Quixote, lost in a pre-Enlightenment era). We also don’t make the fideist faith move (“I believe that the universe possesses ultimate meaning, unity, and purpose against all appearances to the contrary”). And we don’t make the apologetic faith move (“I will strain the foot of all evidence into my preferred religious slipper”).

But since we refuse a Don Quixote-like return to innocence, or fideism, or rationalization (apologetics) for the absurd situation that we find ourselves in, a lot of religious people find us terrifying, or even disgusting (0r still worse, they might pity us).

And perhaps we ought to be objects of horror, disgust, and pity (because obviously we’re stuck).

Ironic isn’t it?

What shall we do? Will Durant, quoting somebody else (I don’t recall who), once wrote this:

Life is a comedy to those who think; a tragedy to those who feel.

So after the death of God, what’s really left for us? Shakespeare as secular scripture? Dancing? Monty Python? Howard Roark?

What for?

Aside from the myth of Sisyphus, one of Camus’s other favored metaphors was a Shakespearean one: the world as a stage. For the atheist and agnostic, Camus thought that the religious pilgrimage to the ground of being was for another era, and should be replaced with another metaphor: the stage and soon-to-be-drawing curtain.

Is Camus right? 

Is this what it means to be an agnostic or atheist in the 21st century?

Dance and make ’em laugh—or do something else—but the curtain draweth nigh.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Is Life’s Meaning to Be Found in the Myth of Sisyphus, Bunyan’s Pilgrim, Voltaire’s Candide, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Shakespeare’s Stage—or Something Else?

  1. Colin Hutton says:

    “… a lot of religious people find us terrifying, or even disgusting (0r still worse, they might pity us).”

    None of wants to be pitied by our peers or someone we admire or whose intellect we respect.
    I know a number of religious people who I like, but I can’t think of any who fall into the above group. That they might pity me on account of my atheism/agnosticism is a matter of complete indifference to me.

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