“The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.” So begins existentialist philosopher Albert Camus’ famous essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. But what kind of man was Sisyphus? What did he do to incur the gods’ wrath? Accounts differ.
According to Camus, Homer described Sisyphus as “the wisest and most prudent of mortals.” Other translations of The Iliad use “wiliest.” While the connotations of these two descriptions differ vastly, Sisyphus was at the very least intelligent. The king of Corinth, Sisyphus once offered to help the river-god Asopus find his lost daughter in exchange for a spring of fresh water for his kingdom. Unfortunately, Zeus himself had absconded with Asopus’ daughter, and after Sisyphus led Asopus to her rescue, Zeus sent his brother Hades to bring Sisyphus to his death. But Sisyphus tricked the god of the underworld and held him captive so that no mortal could die. When Ares, god of war, finally rescued Hades and Sisyphus perished, he asked his wife to forgo the traditional funeral rites. Because such an oversight was considered extremely impious in the Greek tradition, Sisyphus convinced Hades to let him go back to Earth to correct this error., Yet Sisyphus had no intention of returning to the underworld once his task was complete, and he lived for many more years before Hades tracked him down and sentenced him to the stone.
Sisyphus was hardly a common sinner. Descriptions of his mortal exploits indicate he was a clever man who was good to his kingdom, loved life and desired to remain on Earth for as long as possible. And for this spirit the gods condemned him to the most rote and eternally frustrating task in the afterlife. The man who lived to cheat death did merely die; he was sentenced to an endless existence of reiteration, which the gods must have considered the exact opposite of the pleasures he found in life.
The nature of Sisyphus’ torture lies in this endless repetition. Each time he reaches the top of the mountain, the stone falls back to the bottom again. He must push it up the mountain not once, not twice, but over and over again for all eternity. Sisyphus’ bane is his consciousness. He recognizes the nature of his fate. He knows the toll the last trip took on his body and his will, the toll each previous trip took, and he knows he will have to go through it all again. The parallels here to everyday human life are obvious if we view life as a series of tasks to be completed, obstacles to be conquered. But there is no hope of succeeding finally and absolutely in life, just as Sisyphus cannot escape his punishment. There is always another task, another obstacle, and a human lifetime is no match cosmically for time and mortality.
Yet Camus reminds us that “there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” Once Sisyphus comes to grips with the inevitability of his lot, he regains a modicum of control. The rock sits before him. He can drive it up the mountain once again. The gods who put him there cease to matter. The task is in his power to complete. Each successful trip up the mountain is a victory. Each restart at the bottom is an opportunity. Therefore, Camus concludes, “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” For Sisyphus, each step upward, each successful ascent, is another triumph over his fatigue, over the gods and over his past, and these cumulative victories are enough for his happiness.
For me, it is essential to the power of the myth that Sisyphus’ challenge is physical. The choice is certainly a reflection of the era of the story’s original telling (after all, this is the same culture that gave us the Olympics), but the ancient Greeks were not short on great thinkers either (see Aesop, Archimedes, Aristotle, Democritus, Euclid, Hippocrates, Homer, Plato, Pythagoras, Socrates, Sophocles and Zeno for starters). But consider the diminished impact of the following revision of the story: