The Meaning of Life for Sisyphus

In pursuit of my travail intellectuel, I stumbled on a thought experiment proposed by Richard Taylor regarding an old crowd favourite, Sisyphus.

Of course, Albert Camus had famously published his Myth of Sisyphus essay (PDF), portraying his life as analogous to the workaday human, absurdly plodding through existence like rinse and repeat clockwork—same gig on a different day.

Given my perspective on human agency and the causa sui argument, I felt commenting on Taylor’s essay, The Meaning of Life (PDF) would be apt.

The story of Sisyphus finds the namesake character, fated by the gods to each day push a stone up a hill only for it to roll back down for him to push it back up every day ad infinitum. Camus leaves us with the prompt, ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy’. But must we.?

As Taylor puts it,

Sisyphus, it will be remembered, betrayed divine secrets to mortals, and for this he was condemned by the gods to roll a stone to the top of a hill, the stone then immediately to roll back down, again to be pushed to the top by Sisyphus, to roll down once more, and so on again and again, forever. Now in this we have the picture of meaningless, pointless toil, of a meaningless existence that is absolutely never redeemed.

Taylor wants us to consider an amended Sisyphus. He writes,

Let us suppose that the gods, while condemning Sisyphus to the fate just described, at the same time, as an afterthought, waxed perversely merciful by implanting in him a strange and irrational impulse; namely, a compulsive impulse to roll stones.

This significantly alters the dynamic. In the scenario, Sisyphus is not toiling; rather, he is pursuing his passion—following his heart. This is the athlete, artist, politician, or mass murderer following their passion. In fact, one might say that he is being his authentic self. He has no control over his self or his desire to roll stones, but he is in his element.

Taylor’s ultimate point is that in either case, the life of Sisyphus is just as devoid of meaning. Ostensibly, nothing can provide meaning. The best one can do is to have the perception of meaning. He writes,

Sisyphus’ existence would have meaning if there were some point to his labors, if his efforts ever culminated in something that was not just an occasion for fresh labors of the same kind. But that is precisely the meaning it lacks.

Although we cannot control what is within, contentment and happiness derive from perception. As we might be reminded by the quip attributed to Schopenhauer,

We can want what we will,
but we can’t will what we will.

In the end, Taylor wants us to know that nothing out there can make us happy.

The meaning of life is from within us, it is not bestowed from without, and it far exceeds in both its beauty and permanence any heaven of which men have ever dreamed or yearned for.

I’ve subsequently read some critiques of Taylor’s position, but I don’t want to take the time to rejoin them. Suffice it to say that I find them to be weak and wanting.

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