The Struggle of Sisyphus: Absurdity and Ethics in the work of Albert Camus
Kem Stone - July 2006
The need for an ethical system by which to determine our actions is central to our lives, and fulfilling that need
became Camus’ lifelong devotion.  Because of our freedom, we are constantly forced to choose one path or
another, and our moral beliefs provide us with guidelines for choosing the right path.  When we do anything, we
need a
reason for doing it.  But Camus forces us to recognise that there is no real to choose one action over
another.  Without God to justify our actions, we are left with only ourselves, and complete responsibility for all
that we do.  Camus wants us to acknowledge this, and in
The Myth of Sisyphus he urges us select our own
values.  But how can we use nothing but our own self-selected values to justify our actions when they are so
ephemeral and imperfect?  Unfortunately, we have no choice but to do so.  We are slaves to our freedom, and we
must have justifications for our actions, so we continue reforming our system of values even though we may be
aware that it will always be doomed to imperfection.

This is perhaps Camus’ most valuable insight.  It is the essence of the absurd man, a role that Camus
takes on in his career.  Like Sisyphus rolling his rock up the hill, Camus attempts to create an ethical system that
works in an absurd world by using his own value judgments to guide him.  Yet such a task is impossible for him or
anyone else precisely because our own value judgments are subject to change.  With
The Stranger he rolls the
rock to the summit and proclaims that none are guilty.  War and turmoil cause him to waver in this belief and the
rock breaks free and rolls back down the hill.  With
The Plague and The Rebel he tries to roll the rock up the hill
once again in an attempt to find a basis for condemning murder.  Eventually he reaches the summit again with
and proclaims that all are guilty.  Given enough time, this rock might have fallen as well, and a new moral
outlook would have emerged.

Camus shares this fate with all of us.  With every attempt we make at attributing any sort of order to the universe,
not only moral order but any possible order by which to explain the world, we are pushing our rock further up the
hill.  We may devise an entire philosophical system, roll the rock all the way to the top of the summit, but our task
is never completed.  Eventually the conclusions we have reached are shaken and destroyed, and the stone again
rolls down the hill and renders all we have done meaningless.  It is at this moment that we are most aware of the
absurdity of our fate.  We see with complete clarity that in spite of all our efforts we have accomplished nothing
and that all our future efforts will amount to nothing as well.

The absurdity of this condition became all too real when Camus’ life and career were tragically cut short with a
car accident that took his life on January 3, 1960 (Kamber, 6).  We will never know how many unanswered
questions might have been answered had he more time to develop his ideas, but we are left with the enduring
legacy of a man devoted to solving one of philosophy’s most difficult problems.  Shortly after his death, Sartre put
aside his grudge against Camus and wrote an obituary highlighting what was praiseworthy and important in his

    He represented in our time the latest example of that long line of moralistes whose works constitute
    perhaps the most original element in French letters.  His obstinate humanism, narrow and pure,
    austere and sensual, waged and uncertain war against the massive and formless events of the time.  
    But on the other hand through his dogged rejections he reaffirmed, at the heart of our epoch, against
    the Machiavellians and against the Idol of realism, the existence of the moral issue.  (Sartre, CCE,

The affirmation of the moral issue is what remains just as relevant today as it was in Camus’ time and will remain
so as long as humanity occupies the world.  In spite of the transient nature of morality, it is our responsibility to
select the values we are to live by.  That is the curse of freedom.  But it is also a blessing, as without values
imposed on us by a cruel God or oppressive government, we are free to live our lives however we choose, to
become the absurd man as described in
The Myth of Sisyphus and live without appeal to anything beyond our
own natures.  Any life we choose can be the right one, as long as we live according to what we personally
consider right.  However, as we learn from
Caligula there is a limit to this freedom—it can not come at another’s

But why must our freedom be limited to those actions which do not harm others?  Camus only
felt that this was
wrong, a belief that was strengthened during the German occupation and which he expresses with fierce
conviction in
Letters to a German Friend.  That we must struggle against this type of evil when we are
confronted by it is the heart of the message in
The Plague and it finally finds its justification in The Rebel, when
we learn that values arise from rebellion, and they must be fought for if they are to survive.  The value of freedom
must be upheld at any costs, including one’s own life.

But why is freedom so important?  Camus’ answer is far simpler than the question: because we have chosen to
endow it with importance.  Freedom, happiness, and dignity are values that Camus advances not in the name of
some eternal force that requires us to fight for them, but because he believes these are necessary to human
fulfillment, a value he considers of the utmost importance.  He never claims that human fulfillment is
good, but merely that human beings tend to desire fulfilling lives, and therefore we ought to select the values that
help contribute to fulfillment.  Most importantly, he leaves the decision up to us.

Which brings us to a final, unspoken value that underlies every aspect of Camus’ message, even throughout its
many changes—truth.  Though he never explicitly states it, truth is the one value that Camus implicitly appeals to
throughout his career.  If he had believed that happiness was more important than truth, he may have embraced
Christianity simply for the peace of mind it provides.  Instead Camus recognises that no answers to the mysteries
of existence are definitive, and concludes that life is absurd.  If he had wanted to justify the values he considers
superior without worrying about truth, he could appeal to divinity in order to do so.  But instead he works only
within the framework of the absurd, acknowledging that values come only from ourselves and are not built in to
the fabric of reality.

And so it seems that we are left without much to go on by way of ethically justifying our actions.  There is no
concrete system to appeal to for making moral decisions, but merely the assertion that we must select our own
values and the suggestion that we ought to select those that contribute to human fulfillment.  But why should we
think this insufficient?  If we must live in a world where nothing can be answered with absolute certainty, why not
accept that we can not have absolute justification for our values as well?  We have come farther than nihilism, as
we can embrace certain principles and judge actions accordingly, and our only cost is an unwavering commitment
to the truth.

While we decide our own course and make judgments regarding the decisions of others, we must always
acknowledge that our judgments have their basis in no reality beyond our own mind.  What we decide is the right
course for us one day may be the wrong course the next day; the qualities we found praiseworthy and admirable
in our companions yesterday we may find contemptible tomorrow.  Rather than search for an infallible ethical
system, we must accept that no such system can be found.  Rather than desperately trying to find a way to keep
Sisyphus’ rock fixed at the summit of the mountain, we ought to remain lucid of the fact that the rock will always
fall back, and every conclusion we reach will have to be continuously reexamined.  When the rock breaks free
and rolls back down the mountain, what choice do we have—we who are forced to live out this absurd fate of
constantly attempting to bring reason into a world devoid of it—what choice do we have but to follow the
example of Camus and Sisyphus, smile at the gentle indifference of the world and return to the bottom of the hill to
begin our task once again?