The Struggle of Sisyphus: Absurdity and Ethics in the work of Albert Camus
Absurdist Camus - Caligula
Kem Stone - July 2006
The idea of finding value in the face of absurdity is an ever-present theme in nearly all of Camus’ work, including
his 1938 play, Caligula. In this four-act drama, the infamous Roman Emperor Caligula becomes the embodiment
of the absurd. After the death of his sister and lover Drusilla, Caligula becomes obsessed with the idea of the
impossible. He comes to believe in one essential truth: “Men die; and they are not happy” (Camus, CTOP, 8).
This truth, which he sees as a conclusion of pure and simple logic, is something of which his subjects must be
educated. To do this, Caligula decrees that all Roman citizens must disinherit their children, leave all their money
to the State, and be executed. He orders a list to be drawn up fixing the order of their deaths, to be modified at
his fancy. In this way he will demonstrate the cruelty of life and the immanence of death, which can only be
remedied if the impossible becomes possible.
Before examining the philosophical import of this play, it should be noted that Camus himself did not intend for the
play to be read philosophically. In his introduction to a book compiling his dramatic work, Camus remarks that it
was not his intention to advance any philosophical position.
I look in vain for philosophy in these four acts. Or, if it exists, it stands on the level of this assertion
by the hero: ‘Men die; and they are not happy.’ A very modest ideology, as you see, which I have
the impression of sharing with Everyman. No, my ambition lay elsewhere. For the dramatist the
passion for the impossible is just as valid a subject for study as avarice of adultery. Showing it in all
its frenzy, illustrating the havoc it wreaks, bringing out its failure—such was my intention. And the
work must be judged thereon. (Camus, CTOP, vi)
Yet although Camus did not intend Caligula to be judged on these grounds, its themes are philosophical enough to
warrant such analysis.
Although neither Christ nor Christianity is ever referred to in Caligula, the influence of Gnosticism on Camus’
thinking is evident. Many early Christians of the Gnostic sects believed that the God of the Old Testament is a
different God than that spoken of by Christ. The God of Israel is merely the God of this Earth, his influence
limited to the world of mankind. The God of the New Testament, however, is of a much higher order—this is the
creator of all things, the Heavenly Father that Jesus refers to in his sermons.
As Paul Archambault has argued, Caligula can be read as a grotesque experiment in Gnosticism.
The higher reality for which the young emperor longs, ‘the impossible,’ ‘the moon,’ ‘eternal life,’ can
be identified with the realm of the superior God….By the same token, Caligula’s cruel and perverse
reign can be seen as an enactment, a magnification of the essential darkness of this world. (Kamber,
Whether or not this parallel is intentional on the part of Camus is up for debate, but there is evidence to support
Caligula could represent the God of the Old Testament, his obsession with the impossible an expression of the
frustration of this intermediate God, so close to Absolute Power but still hopelessly limited. While the superior
God creates and destroys all things including the inferior God himself, the latter God can do little more than
influence or destroy. Caligula exercises the greatest power he has—the power to kill. In the play’s final act,
Caligula turns his murderous gaze towards his own wife, Caesonia, and reveals his inner motivations:
I live, I kill, I exercise the rapturous power of a destroyer, compared with which the power of a
creator is merest child’s play. And this, this is happiness; this and nothing else—this intolerable
release, devastating scorn, blood, hatred all around me; the glorious isolation of a man who all his life
long nurses and gloats over the ineffable joy of the unpunished murderer; the ruthless logic that
crushes out human lives…that’s crushing yours out, Caesonia, so as to perfect at last the utter
loneliness that is my heart’s desire. (Camus, CTOP, 72)
The “utter loneliness” that Caligula speaks of could be the defining characteristic of the superior God. Indeed, to
be God is to be perfectly lonely—to be the only thing in existence is to be God.
An important aspect of Camus’ ideas is that one need not be an atheist to accept his claims. The Gnostic idea of
a lesser God in control of human beings while a superior, infinite, unknowable God rests at the heart of the
universe could be a way of reconciling Camus’ philosophy with theism. If this superior God exists, we can know
nothing about it—in transcending the world of our experience it must view us with divine indifference. Even if we
believed in the existence of such a God we would have to conclude with Camus that we cannot derive our values
from it and must find them within ourselves. The lesser God, however, is the God of religious doctrine and
therefore a part of the world itself. We may subject this God to moral judgment and even deny his existence.
Any attempt to know the superior God and derive a method of living from this knowledge would be like Caligula’
s strive for the impossible. Caligula, in his failure to reach the level of power that would allow him to achieve the
impossible, behaves like the inferior God and simply destroys without mercy. When we condemn Caligula for this
type of behaviour we are forced to condemn this God as well. Camus never wavers in his conviction that anything
responsible for unjust suffering is reprehensible, be it man or God.
If God does exist it may be the case that all suffering is just, but for those convinced of the absurdity of life, there
is no excuse for pain and misery. While Camus ultimately wants to show the positive side of absurdity, Caligula
expresses its negative aspects. Caligula’s assertion that men die and are not happy is an expression of the darker
side of the absurd. “Men die” expresses the idea that nothing has importance because eventually death will render
all our efforts fruitless. That men “are not happy” may be seen as an exaggeration when taken literally—usually
men are happy sometimes and unhappy others—but it really means that human happiness is fragile and
temporary. While we all continuously strive for happiness, it is little more than an emotional state bound to
disappear sooner or later. Even when we achieve what we work for or obtain what we desire, our satisfaction is
only temporary. We may want to say that someone living a good life filled with love and wealth is happy, but even
this person must eventually grow old and die (Kamber, 21). And in a life characterised by absurdity, this idea
could be enough to lead anyone to despair.
For the character of Cherea, the idea is terrible enough to motivate a fierce struggle against it. For the patricians it
is bad enough that they stand in line to be executed, but Cherea joins in their plot to assassinate Caligula for
Our deaths are only a side issue. He’s putting his power at the service of a loftier, deadlier passion;
and it imperils everything we hold most sacred. True, it’s not the first time Rome has seen a man
wielding unlimited power; but it’s the first time he sets no limit to his use of it, and counts mankind,
and the world we know, for nothing. That’s what appals me in Caligula; that’s what I want to fight.
To lose one’s life is no great matter; when the time comes I’ll have the courage to lose mine. But
what’s intolerable is to see one’s life being drained of meaning, to be told there’s no reason for
existing. A man can’t live without some reason for living. (Camus, CTOP, 21)
Cherea is less concerned with death than with the horror of a meaningless life. Caligula’s actions are detestable
not merely because he kills, but because he kills without reason. Cherea knows that people die without reason all
the time, but believes that life is absurd enough without Caligula adding to it.
Cherea’s sentiment is one of the central messages that can be found in Caligula. Even if we accept the absurd
we do not need to live by its conclusions. At the end of the third act, Cherea is confronted by Caligula, who
knows that he is involved in the plot to kill him and wants to know the reasons why. Cherea explains:
Because what I want is to live, and to be happy. Neither, to my mind, is possible if one pushes the
absurd to its logical conclusions. As you see, I’m quite an ordinary sort of man. True, there are
moments when, to feel free of them, I desire the death of those I love, or I hanker after women from
whom the ties of family or friendship debar me. Were logic everything, I’d kill or fornicate on such
occasions. But I consider that these passing fancies have no great importance. If everyone set to
gratifying them, the world would be impossible to live in, and happiness, too, would go by the
board. And these, I repeat, are the things that count, for me. (Camus, CTOP, 51)
Caligula believes that what he is doing is perfectly logical, and that Cherea as a man of intelligence ought to see
that. But Cherea rejects Caligula’s logic in favour of emotion. His own happiness is important to him, and
absurdity threatens that happiness. He does not feel that absurdity needs to be pushed to its logical conclusions
and that we can still choose our own values in spite of it. This is exactly the view put forward in The Myth of
Sisyphus—we can accept the absurdity of life without being crushed by it. Caligula, like the gods in the Greek
myth, drains life of meaning while Cherea, like Sisyphus, accepts this and chooses to continue anyway, deciding
that his happiness is reason enough.
The final act has Caligula murder his wife Caesonia in a desperate rage as he realises the error of his ways. His
deepest desires—freedom and the impossible, can not be reached through the absurd.
Yes, really, it’s quite simple. If I’d had the moon, if love were enough, all might have been different.
But where could I quench this thirst? What human heart, what god, would have for me the depth of
a great lake? There’s nothing in this world, or in the other, made to my stature. And yet I know,
and you, too, know that all I need is for the impossible to be. The impossible! I’ve searched for it
at the confines of the world, in the secret places of my heart. I’ve stretched out my hands; see, I
stretch out my hands, but it’s always you I find, you only, confronting me, and I’ve come to hate
you. I have chosen a wrong path, a path that leads to nothing. My freedom isn’t the right one….
Nothing, nothing yet. Oh, how oppressive is this darkness! (Camus, CTOP, 73)
Once Caligula has come face to face with his error, he is assassinated by Cherea and Scipio, thus ending the
tragedy. But what are we to make of this confession? Certainly, his quest for the impossible has failed and while
he may have demonstrated the absurdity of life to his subjects, they will surely return to their illusions after his
death (Kamber, 50). But what is meant by the declaration that his “freedom isn’t the right one”?
As the Emperor of Rome, Caligula is in fact the only free man in the Empire, as he is the only person who can
receive orders from no one. Yet his freedom is still limited by the laws of possibility. His desire is for freedom
without any limitations, but this impossible desire has become his downfall.
Vanquished, but not punished, he recognizes his error: he demanded the infinite from that absolute
finality which is death. What does he ask for? The impossible, the moon, ‘something which is mad
perhaps, but which is not of this world,’ and which he cannot make an attribute of his power.
Caligula must eradicate from his soul this desire which makes him dependent upon something he
cannot put into words. And it is precisely the one thing he cannot do. Therein lies his limitation,
therein lies his paradox. (Bespaloff, CCE, 103)
Caligula’s struggle with the absurd ends in the same defeat that all men are condemned to. He dies, and with him
all of his impossible aspirations. He tries to be God by taking the lives of his subjects, but when his own life is
taken he finds himself on equal footing with all those below him.
If Caligula contains any moral prescription, it is in avoiding the error made by its hero:
But, if his truth is to rebel against fate, his error lies in negating what binds him to mankind. One
cannot destroy everything without destroying oneself. This is why Caligula depopulates the world
around him and, faithful to his logic, does what is necessary to arm against him those who will
eventually kill him. Caligula is the story of a superior suicide. It is the story of the most human and
most tragic of errors. Unfaithful to mankind through fidelity to himself, Caligula accepts death
because he has understood that no one can save himself all alone and that one cannot be free at the
expense of others. (Camus, CTOP, vi)
One can never be free at another’s expense—the master is just as dependent on his slaves as the slave is
dependent on the master. Caligula kills his subjects and is in turn killed by them. In the end, the impossible
remains impossible and all are equally victims of the absurd. Camus’ message is once again to accept this
absurdity and rather than engage in a fruitless struggle against it by striving to be God, to live with it. Caligula’s is
the “wrong freedom” because he attempts to place himself above everything, which can’t be done. The “right
freedom” is that suggested by Cherea: the freedom to pursue happiness along with our fellow man. If we can live
by our own values and let others do the same, this freedom is possible, and it is only what is possible that we
should be concerned with.