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Summary

Sisyphus is probably more famous for his punishment in the underworld than for what he
did in his life. According to the Greek myth, Sisyphus is condemned to roll a rock up to the
top of a mountain, only to have the rock roll back down to the bottom every time he reaches
the top. The gods were wise, Camus suggests, in perceiving that an eternity of futile labor is
a hideous punishment.

There are a number of storiesones which are not mutually exclusivethat explain how
Sisyphus came to earn his punishment in the underworld. According to one story, Zeus
carried off Aegina, a mortal woman who was the daughter of Asopus. Sisyphus witnessed
this kidnapping in his home city of Corinth. Sisyphus agreed to inform Asopus as to who had
kidnapped Aegina if Asopus would give the citadel at Corinth a fresh-water spring. In
making this deal and bearing witness against Zeus, Sisyphus earned the wrath of the gods
while earning earthly wealth and happiness for himself and his people.

Another story tells how Sisyphus enchained the spirit of Death, so that during Death's
imprisonment, no human being died. Naturally, when the gods freed Death, his first victim
was Sisyphus. It is also said that Sisyphus told his wife not to offer any of the traditional
burial rites when he died. When he arrived in the underworld, he complained to Hades that
his wife had not observed these rites and was granted permission to return to earth to
chastise her. Once granted this second lease on life, Sisyphus refused to return to the
underworld, and lived to a ripe old age before returning to the underworld a second time to
endure his eternal punishment.

Camus identifies Sisyphus as the archetypal absurd hero, both for his behavior on earth
and for his punishment in the underworld. He displays scorn for the gods, a hatred of death,
and a passion for life. His punishment is to endure an eternity of hopeless struggle.

We are not told how Sisyphus endures his punishment in the underworld: that much is left
to our imagination. What fascinates Camus is Sisyphus's state of mind in that moment after
the rock rolls away from him at the top of the mountain. As he heads down the mountain,
briefly free from his labor, he is conscious, aware of the absurdity of his fate. His fate can
only be considered tragic because he understands it and has no hope for reprieve. At the
same time, the lucidity he achieves with this understanding also places him above his fate.
Camus suggests that Sisyphus might even approach his task with joy. The moments of
sorrow or melancholy come when he looks back at the world he's left behind, or when he
hopes or wishes for happiness. When Sisyphus accepts his fate, however, the sorrow and
melancholy of it vanish. Camus suggests that acknowledging "crushing truths" like the
eternity and futility of his fate is enough to render them less crushing. He refers to Oedipus,
who, having suffered so much, is able to "conclude that all is well."

Happiness and the absurd are closely linked, suggests Camus. They are both connected to
the discovery that our world and our fate is our own, that there is no hope and that our life is
purely what we make of it. As he descends the mountain, Sisyphus is totally aware of his
fate. Camus concludes: "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

Analysis

Camus has argued that the absurd hero sees life as a constant struggle, without hope. Any
attempt to deny or avoid the struggle and the hopelessness that define our lives is an
attempt to escape from this absurd contradiction. Camus's single requirement for the absurd
man is that he live with full awareness of the absurdity of his position. While Sisyphus is
pushing his rock up the mountain, there is nothing for him but toil and struggle. But in those
moments where Sisyphus descends the mountain free from his burden, he is aware. He
knows that he will struggle forever and he knows that this struggle will get him nowhere.
This awareness is precisely the same awareness that an absurd man has in this life. So
long as Sisyphus is aware, his fate is no different and no worse than our lot in life.

We react to Sisyphus's fate with horror because we see its futility and hopelessness. Of
course, the central argument of this essay is that life itself is a futile struggle devoid of hope.
However, Camus also suggests that this fate is only horrible if we continue to hope, if we
think that there is something more that is worth aiming for. Our fate only seems horrible
when we place it in contrast with something that would seem preferable. If we accept that
there is no preferable alternative, then we can accept our fate without horror. Only then,
Camus suggests, can we fully appreciate life, because we are accepting it without
reservations. Therefore, Sisyphus is above his fate precisely because he has accepted it.
His punishment is only horrible if he can hope or dream for something better. If he does not
hope, the gods have nothing to punish him with.
The theory of tragedy is a vast and complicated subject beyond the scope of this
commentary, but a brief discussion of Camus's angle on tragedy may be valuable. Camus
tells us that the moment Sisyphus becomes aware of his fate, his fate becomes tragic. He
also alludes to Oedipus, who becomes a tragic figure only when he becomes aware that he
has killed his father and married his mother. He also remarks that both Sisyphus and
Oedipus are ultimately happy, that they "conclude that all is well." Tragedy, Camus seems to
be suggesting, is not pessimistic. On the contrary, it represents the greatest triumph we are
capable of as human beings. So long as Sisyphus and Oedipus continue to hope and to
deceive themselves, they are not heroic. With tragic recognition comes a full
acknowledgment of our fate and our limitations, and with that acknowledgment comes an
acceptance of who we are and what we are capable of. Tragic fate only seems horrible in
contrast to the hope for something more. In accepting their fate, Sisyphus and Oedipus
have abandoned hope, and so their fate does not seem horrible to them. On the contrary,
they have finally found the only genuine happiness.

Camus concludes his essay by arguing that happiness and absurd awareness are
intimately connected. We can only be truly happy, he suggests, when we accept our life and
our fate as entirely our ownas the only thing we have and as the only thing we will ever
be. The final sentence reads: "One must imagine Sisyphus happy." But why must we
imagine Sisyphus happy? Camus's wording suggests that we have no choice in the matter.
But is there an alternative? Sisyphus is the absurd hero, the man who loved life so much
that he has been condemned to an eternity of futile and hopeless labor. And yet he is above
that fate precisely because he is aware of it. If Sisyphus is not happy in this awareness,
then absurd awareness does not bring happiness. It would then follow that happiness is
only possible if we evade absurd awareness, if we leap into hope or faith.

If the leap into hope or faith represents an attempt to escape from the reality of our fate, and
if happiness is only possible through such a leap, then happiness would essentially be an
escape. Life itself would be inherently unhappy and happiness would be a sham born out of
denial. We must imagine Sisyphus happy if we want to believe in genuine happiness.
Though this is the last sentence of the essay, we might see it as the initial premise that
starts Camus's reasoning. Because Camus essentially believes in the idea that individual
human experience is the only thing that is real, if he wants to show that happiness is real he
must show that individual humans can truly be happy based on their experiences, not on
their denial of experience. If happiness is real, we must be able to find happiness without
relying on hope, faith, or anything else that goes beyond immediate experience. The Myth
of Sisyphus is essentially an elaborate attempt to show that this is possible, and it
concludes with its starting premise: if genuine happiness is possible, then Sisyphus must be
happy.

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Sisyphus was the mythical founder and first king of Corinth. He was a cunning trickster, known for his
abilities to decieve gods and humans alike. He was also known as a murderer in his own kingdom, as he
would often entertain himself by killing travellers to his city.

Sisyphus also reported that Zeus had abducted the nymph Aegina to Aegina's father, Asopus.

Sisyphus was condemned to Tartarus, the deepest, darkest reality beneath the Underworld, by Zeus. There,
he managed to fool Thnatos, the dmon responsible for death. Sisyphus asked Thnatos to try out his
chains to show him how they worked, and when he did, Sisyphus secured him in place.

The consequence of the inprisonment of Thnatos was that mortals could no longer die. This obviously upset
the normal order of things, and especially upset Ares, god of war, who could not enjoy his battles when the
men he defeated did not die. Ares intervened and released Thnatos.

Sisyphus was deemed guilty of hubris in his belief that he could outsmart the gods, and that he had
betrayed Zeus' secret as if it were his place to be involved in the affairs of a god. As punishment, he was
condemned to spend eternity rolling a boulder up a hill. Each time the boulder would near the summit, it
would roll back down to the bottom. Sisyphus would then be forced to repeat his task.

Note: French writer Albert Camus compares Sisyphus' punishment to the absurdity of the human
condition in his essay, The Myth of Sisyphs. He famously concludes that despite (or because of)
his eternal frustration, One must imagine Sisyphus happy.