It’s been a busy first week here in Cardiff. Mushroom-picking, market-hopping, Greek-nighting, poker-dealing, date-walking, theatre-laughing, frisbee-throwing and, of course, play-writing. I might have ended up lying in bed with a pulled hamstring, but it’s been a well-worthwhile week of most living.
Camus would be proud.
In The Myth of Sisyphus (a shortish treatise that I’ve written about before), Albert Camus wrote:
what counts is not the best living but the most living
As an absurdist, Camus found it impossible to pin down a single ‘correct’ way to live. To summarise his philosophy:
- Humans like us are desperate to find meaning in our lives, to give us a clear direction, to tell us the right thing to do.
- Unfortunately, the Universe doesn’t give a shit. There is no ‘right thing’ to do with our lives. No right and no wrong. Else how could the supposedly ‘best lived’ lives of the ancient Greeks (think the honourable blood-feuds of Achilles) follow a code of living so starkly different to the code followed by the supposedly ‘best lived’ lives of today (think the rapacious avarice of Jeff Bezos)?
- Without rules, life, therefore, is absurd. So, rather than struggle with the wretched task of perfecting our ‘best lives’, the logical response to existence is to pack our brief conscious flowering with as much experience as possible. Ergo: choose most living over best living.
Camus uses the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus to illustrate the logic of absurdity.
According to legend, Sisyphus had a persistent habit of irritating the gods. After escaping the Underworld not once but twice, Sisyphus was eventually brought to justice and sentenced to spend eternity pushing a heavy boulder up a steep mountain.
Shortly before Sisyphus reaches the summit, however, the enchanted boulder slips from his grasp and rolls right back down to the bottom, where the whole charade resets and resumes. Forever and ever. If the myth is to be believed, Sisyphus is still out there today, shoulder to boulder.
In terms of frustratingly thankless tasks, Sisyphus’ punishment is right up there with discussing historiography with a Mormon elder, but Camus had a different take.
Camus argues that it wouldn’t take too many mountain reps for Sisyphus to realise he is being pranked by the gods. Knowledge of his eternal fate matures into acceptance and, far from being a source of despair, Sisyphus’ acceptance of the absurdity of his unique struggle becomes meaningful.
Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory.
Human life, for Camus, is as absurd as Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill for eternity. Once we accept that inherent absurdity, our struggles are no longer so desperate. They can become joyful.
The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
You might think that this is a bit extreme, but Camus’s theoretical musings are paralleled in the couldn’t-be-more-practical experience of Holocaust-surviving psychiatrist Viktor Frankl.
In Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankl writes:
If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. … The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails … gives him ample opportunity … to add a deeper meaning to his life.
Of course, acceptance of the struggle is only the beginning. Atop this foundation, both Camus and Frankl build the possibility for lives rich in more traditional human virtues, such as creativity, love and frisbee.
But such most living begins with the acceptance of the absurdity of best living, so let’s join Sisyphus at the bottom of the mountain, put shoulder to boulder, and laugh.