The 12+12 Books of Christmas #10

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The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus famously begins with the words: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Most know the myth, but here’s Camus take on it anyway:

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.

You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero […] as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.

If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. 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. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.

Life is alternate work and rest for almost all of us, but it is only when at rest that we see the absurdity of our daily lives and the ultimate pointlessness of our existence. Whether you are an artist whose task is to make people feel something or a factory worker screwing on widgets to whatnots, you know all this when you sit back and think about your life. Much of philosophy is mere sublimation after Camus’ point is fully grasped.

If our lives are fundamentally pointless, can they be worth living? Sure they can. We are told that eventually the universe will spread out to empty infinite space, cool and become absolutely devoid of life. This does not concern us. The planet will suffer the heat death when our sun explodes in about five billion years. This does not concern us either, because we lack the capacity to comprehend how our lives fit into such a long timespan. The planet is undergoing global warming which might wipe us out. That does concern us and on the level of the planet and a few thousand years, we can spot trouble. My point is that our lives are scalable to the extent that the destruction of the final meaning of our existence in disenchanted modernity is really not that big of a deal.

So what’s the meaning of life, then? I don’t know about you, but I think it involves taking care of those around you, being a good person, and occasionally reading a good book. As for work, I’ve always found Buckminster Fuller’s take on the subject provocative:

We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.

He was no hippie, although he might here sound like one. Neither am I, but in our world of plenty, work in the sense Fuller outlines it is no longer important. It is something to pass the time, sure, but not something that defines you as a worthy or unworthy human being. We have seen the return of right-wing neo-conservative values in Europe. These used to work when we had a different kind of economy based on scarcity. That has gone away, so pasting similar values onto our culture now seems backwards, old-fashioned and outright malicious. Those who support such values want to be gods to our Sisyphus. I suggest we refuse our punishment.

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