The Single Philosophy Book That Changed My Life

Lasting inspiration from a 20th century classic

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash

I believe there comes a point in all of our lives when we begin to wonder exactly what we’re supposed to be doing here.

I remember being about fifteen years old and walking around the suburban neighbourhood where I grew up, looking at the waxed cars on the driveways and the neatly mowed lawns with neatly trimmed hedges.

And I remember being overcome with a deep sense of confusion — as well as hostility. Was this it — my fifteen-year-old self asked? Was this my life’s purpose? To own a shiny car and cut my grass at the weekends?

Not long after, I ventured into the philosophy section of my school library for the first time. I say “section” but it really only consisted of a single shelf of books. Not knowing anything about philosophy, I chose something from the Greek portion of the shelf, something about logic and morality.

I felt pleased with myself for opening the pages of a genuine philosophy book, but if truth be told, the exact meaning of the text completely eluded me. I had to wait at least another three or four years before I came upon a philosophy book that actually spoke to me, that actually made me think differently about the world and my place in it, that — and I don’t mean to sound like I’m exaggerating — actually changed my life.

Recognition of absurdity

The reason that Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus changed my life was because it allowed me to see my senses and my imagination — my conscious mind — as being at the very heart of the possibility of meaning behind my life.

I first came across The Myth of Sisyphus when I was at university. I’d chosen to study philosophy and was midway through a module on Kantian Ethics when, a little bored with the distinctions between analytic and synthetic propositions, I went roaming into the Existentialist section of the department’s book collection.

The first thing that impressed me about The Myth of Sisyphus was the way it captured my own vaguely-observed sense of confusion at life. It didn’t try to tell me how to be less confused, but rather it described what the confusion felt like. Camus’ word for this was absurdity. “At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.”

“It happens that the stage-sets collapse. Rising, tram, four hours in the office or factory, meal, tram, four hours of work, meal, sleep and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the same rhythm — this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.”

The fulcrum of The Myth of Sisyphus tilts on the idea that human existence has an absurd quality at its core: that we try our best to gain a foothold on the world, working hard, educating ourselves, having families, adopting personas, falling in love and building our lives, and yet despite our best efforts we can’t be sure that any of it has any meaning. One day we wonder ‘Why?’

Camus compared this predicament to that of the mythological character Sisyphus, who was sentenced by the gods to roll a rock to the top of a mountain, only for the rock to slip back down to the foot of the mountain ready for the next day’s labour. “If this myth is tragic,” Camus wrote, “that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?”

Is life worth it?

Camus begins his book with the question that any sensible person might ask of Sisyphus, namely, Why does he carry on? If his life is so absurd, why not kill himself?

Camus writes, “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Yet the wider point of the essay is not to tell us whether our own lives are in fact worth living, or to flatter the reader into feeling better about themselves, but instead to get inside the particular qualities of “the absurd”.

In our daily lives we find ourselves in a perpetual panic over money and time, status, friends, train connections, haircuts, rent, essential oils, ripe avocados, phone signal loss, fashion, bad mirrors, good photos, old age, white teeth, bad weather, gluten.

We panic over all these things. Then at a certain moment, perhaps exhausted by the effort, we wonder what the hell we’re doing. It took me some time to understand that what makes life absurd is not the fact that everything is meaninglessness, but the chronic inability to know one way or the other.

Camus wrote, “Allowance must be made for those who, without concluding, continue questioning.”

A bright conclusion

The ultimate purpose of The Myth of Sisyphus is to ponder the conditions by which a life, however absurd, can be made tolerable… perhaps even happy.

For this, Camus dwells on the figure of Sisyphus pushing his rock.

“Nothing is told to us about Sisyphus in the underworld. [..] One sees merely the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it and push it up a slope a hundred times over; one sees the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass.”

Camus suggests that it is through the direct contemplation of his predicament that Sisyphus can find some contentment. His fate may be torturous and life-numbing, but if he can assert himself as fully conscious of his effort, then he finds he can carry on.

“All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing, likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torture, silences all the idols.”

We are the author’s of our own lives

I always appreciated how Camus offered meaningfulness as something that can be created from one’s circumstance rather than suffocated by them. In other words, that significance in one’s life can be self-generated despite hardship and routine, and that we can all be author’s of our own sense of purpose.

Like many self-help books, The Myth of Sisyphus describes contentment as something that can be attained from within. There is, however, a simple and crucial difference. For Camus, contentment is a uniquely personal sensation. As such, it can’t be thought of in terms of outward status or signs, which by definition are judged and measured by public consent. It is not to be achieved as such; rather it is to be created, imagined and enriched by personal (and largely private) invention.

In these circumstances, according to Existentialist philosophers like Camus, we must look to ourselves for our values, for they are in us and are expressed directly in our actions, even in our sense of play.

“Like great works,” wrote Camus, “deep feelings always mean more than they are conscious of saying. […] A man defines himself by his make-believe as well as by his sincere impulses. There is thus a lower key of feelings, inaccessible in the heart but partially disclosed by the acts they imply and the attitudes of mind they assume.”

In short, we are never trapped by our conditions. To pose an objective account of a person’s circumstances will only capture the outward truths; it will not describe how things are for the person themselves, inwardly. The subjective experience is always unfinished — always emerging, as it were, in the light of new stimulus, of memory and imagination.

Afterword

Camus wrote his essay The Myth of Sisyphus when he was a young man — it was published in 1942 when he was just 29 years old. It was also the same year he published his novel The Stranger.

I suspect that some people reading the text from a 21st century point of view may find the style obscure, written in a prose that is at times florid and poetic — perhaps even verging on the pretentious. It may smack some readers as evidence of youthful exuberance or else a self-conscious effort to impress.

None of this worries me. In fact, Camus’ high-ideals as a writer and a philosopher were an inspiration to me. The complex prose and the range of literary references throughout the book, from Dostoevsky to Kafka, added to the character of the text — which above all else, broke me free from the habits of daily routine and asked me to think afresh about the deep fabric of my life.

Image for post
Image for post

Would you like to get…

A free guide to the Essential Styles in Western Art History, plus updates and exclusive news about me and my writing? Download here.

Christopher P Jones is a writer and artist. He blogs about culture, art and life at his website.

Written by

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings” https://books2read.com/u/bw7vNY

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store