Two Myths of Sisyphus
[We present below a preliminary translation of an ancient Greek manuscript, recently discovered by Dr. __________, containing two variations on the myth of Sisyphus. The document is in fragments, with gaps at the beginning and partway through.Editors]
… [Upon] his capture, Sisyphus was brought before the council of the gods, who were informed of all his crimes. After withdrawing from the chamber for many hours, they returned to sentence Sisyphus to his fate. He was doomed to roll a rock up a hill, watch it roll back to its starting place, and begin again, and to repeat this for all eternity. He would do this alone, without the comfort of company, in perpetual dark. He would not need sleep, food, or drink, and so would not receive any break from his labor; and unlike the other souls in Hades he would remain as lucid as in life. As they departed the chamber, the gods congratulated one another on this judgment, on the absurdity and pointlessness of the existence they had prepared for Sisyphus. Even Zeus and Athena, the most exacting, agreed that the punishment was fair.
And so Sisyphus's labors began. He was transported to his hill and his rock. Immediately he felt in his heart an anxious command to push the rock up the hill, and he began at once. With effort he could move it, but he had to keep pushing up the slope to stop it from rolling back [End Page 440] down. When he had nearly reached the top, the slope grew steeper, and the rock slipped from his grasp and rolled past him all the way down to the bottom. Still anxious, he hurried down to try again. Yet the next time ended no differently. Every attempt he made ended in failure. Sometimes he stumbled. Sometimes the slope was too steep or he was too weak. Sometimes a pain in his back or his legs made him lose his grip. He was always tired, though he did not need sleep. He was glad that no sun beat upon his back, but the continual dark hid whatever view could be had from the heights of the hill.
Years passed in this way. He lost count of how many attempts he had made. As he toiled he thought about his punishment. One puzzle was why he kept pushing the rock. He was completely alone. No guards kept him at his task. He did not want to do what he was doing, he did not enjoy it, he did not find any satisfaction the further he pushed the rock. He thought that if he ever did get the rock to the top of the hill, the accomplishment would mean nothing to him. But if he resolved to rest or walk away from the hill, the command he felt in his heart immediately brought him back to the stone. It was his duty, something he must do, even if it was not his desire. Maybe the gods gave him this heart of his as part of the sentence.
He understood the gods' intentions for his punishment. It was to be pointless, meaningless, absurd. There was no reason for the rock to be on top of the hill. No good would be served by it. Sisyphus had been given a nearly godlike existence, able to live forever untroubled by the ordinary demands of mortal bodies, but he would devote it to this hard, futile labor.
Yet, remembering his crimes, he came to see the gods' judgment as fair. His crimes were unforgivable, and he looked upon them now as the worst possible fruit of his self-regard. What he had done was wrong, and the gods' punishment was right. As this reflection deepened within him, he saw that his labor proved the gods' fairness and their love of justice, even though none but they and he knew his fate. The gods wanted the reality of justice, not the mere appearance of it. He grew to admire them, to feel that they were right to punish him as they did. And he saw that the eternity of his punishment was not a further blow but a reward, for his labor would make plain the gods' justice, forever and ever, to the gods who remembered, if to no one else. As he once more put his shoulder against the stone, Sisyphus smiled.
[There is a break in the manuscript, which resumes with the section below, evidently a different telling of the myth.] [End Page 441]
… [Due to the gods' punishment] Sisyphus could no longer sleep, and thus he could not dream, but once, on his long walk down the hill, he sank into something like a dream. In this reverie he came upon a group of philosophers. To his surprise he found that they were talking about him. He thought he must be imagining it, because as far as he knew word of his fate had not returned to the living world. But the discussion seemed real, and he listened.
One philosopher, C., handsome and dignified, with a trace of North Africa in his speech, maintained that Sisyphus's labor exemplifies the absurd. He is condemned to an arduous, never-ending task with no point and no value. But Sisyphus is a human being, and as such he demands meaning from his world, though the world gives him none back. If he were a machine or an animal, he could roll the rock up the hill forever without caring or complaining one bit. Sisyphus is too lucid for that. He must keep asking why he has to do this, and he must keep pondering the silence that returns. This is why Sisyphus in his punishment expresses the absurdity not just of his own fate but of all human life. We all demand meaning from a meaningless world. Yet as long as Sisyphus demands meaning and keeps the question alive, he shows his true dignity, indeed, his superiority to the indifferent world around him. Sisyphus, then, is our champion, our hero, our guide.
Another philosopher, T., stood up to answer his friend. Sisyphus, listening, could not place his accent, and he noted with surprise a honeycomb in this philosopher's hands. What strikes us about Sisyphus's punishment, T. said, is its ceaselessness. Sisyphus rolls the rock up, it rolls back down, he rolls it up, it rolls back down, he rolls it up, again and again, without end. Nothing is ever completed, nothing is ever accomplished. But is this not our fate as well? We eat and satisfy our hunger, but in a while we have to eat again, and again. We earn our wage, but then we spend it, and we have to work again. Our lives consist of activities that we repeat forever. Each generation hands its life on to the next, and they repeat the same round of pointless activities. Sisyphus shows us the meaninglessness of anyone's life, considered from someone else's point of view. But imagine that Sisyphus loves rolling his rock. Suppose he were drugged or enchanted by the gods, and he enjoys nothing more than the strain and struggle of pushing his rock up the slope. Then, for him, nothing could be better. Sisyphus would be doing exactly what he wants to do. He shows us that meaning in life [End Page 442] is found here, in living and acting according to your deepest desires, and not in its few, short-lived accomplishments. Sisyphus shows us the meaning and the meaninglessness of human life, both at once.
The others broke out with objections and criticisms, but the reverie faded as Sisyphus approached the bottom of the hill. It was just a waking dream, he thought. No one knew about his fate down here. He was alone. Yet he found himself thinking over what the philosophers had said. True, he found no meaning in this punishment. It was just the same thing over and over, with no progress or result. He did not enjoy it, as the second philosopher imagined he might, but he saw that if he did he would have an enviable life. He was amused by the thought that philosophers could see him this way, as a kind of symbol or totem, or even an artist, performing on the hill. He had not thought that his punishment could concern anyone other than himself. But here were these philosophers, chewing over the meaning of his labor. Could the gods have let his fate be known for just this reason? Gods, philosophers, people: they needed him to keep going, to keep being this sign. As he neared the rock, Sisyphus smiled.1
1. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O'Brien (New York: Knopf, 1955); Richard Taylor, "The Meaning of Life," in The Meaning of Life: A Reader, 3rd ed., ed. E.D. Klemke and Steven M. Cahn (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 134–42. I borrow the image of Sisyphus smiling from Rachel Silverbloom, "Sisyphus Smiles: Finding Happiness in the Absurd," unpublished undergraduate thesis (New Paltz: State University of New York at New Paltz, 2014).