The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus: Book Overview

What’s Albert Camus’s philosophy? Why does he think that life is worth living—despite its absurdity?

In his 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus describes his philosophy of the absurd. In spite of life’s absurdity, he believes that we should continue to live and try to derive as much fulfillment as we can from our brief existence.

Continue reading for an overview of this classic work.

Overview of The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus

In his definitive philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus—a French Algerian philosopher and journalist—argues that human existence is fundamentally absurd. That’s because the human drive for purpose and meaning is at odds with the reality that death is inevitable and humanity is cosmically insignificant. Despite this absurdity and the anguish that many people feel when confronted with it, Camus believes that life is still worth living and that going through life with full knowledge of the absurd is the only way to live honestly. 

(Shortform note: Camus studied philosophy in the 1930s, and The Myth of Sisyphus is built on the philosophical theories of existentialism, metaphysics, and phenomenology. Some scholars have suggested that the Nazi occupation of France from 1940-44, which began shortly after Camus moved to Paris, was also a major influence on the text. Biographer Robert Zaretsky claims that Camus was reacting to a world defined by violence, nihilism, and meaninglessness, but that The Myth of Sisyphus nevertheless argues that life is worth the struggle. Camus’s decision to join the French Resistance in 1943 can be seen as his expression of this argument.)

Camus takes Sisyphus—a Greek mythological figure who was condemned to spend eternity rolling a boulder up a hill—as the quintessential symbol of life’s absurdity. Sisyphus is dedicated to a futile, meaningless task, but Camus believes that he is happy just to be alive. Life is worth any suffering, and living honestly requires embracing the absurd: living even knowing that life is just a series of experiences that will inevitably end, with no guarantee of an afterlife or deeper meaning. Some people avoid acknowledging these aspects through religious belief or reject life entirely through suicide, but Camus argues that these attempts to flee the absurd are motivated by fear and are ultimately less fulfilling than living an absurd life.

We’ll split Camus’s argument into three parts: Defining the Absurd, which describes Camus’s theory of existence; Negative Responses to the Absurd, which covers Camus’s critiques of other existentialist writers and his argument against suicide; and finally, Living an Absurd Life, in which Camus explains how to live with the knowledge of the absurd and provides examples of absurdist characters in literature.

Defining the Absurd

Camus begins his argument with the claim that both the universe and death are unknowable. Theories of existence—such as the belief that God provides life and an afterlife, that there’s a cosmic purpose to human existence which we may realize through our actions, or that death is the end of consciousness and life has no inherent meaning—are just theories, unprovable within the limits of human experience. Despite this, Camus argues that humans have an innate need to believe that our lives have purpose and that there’s continued existence after death, to the point that our inability to definitively answer these questions torments us. This contradiction between our needs and our reality is what Camus calls the absurd.

Many people become aware of the absurd nature of their existence during their lives. Camus describes this as the sense of dread, terror, and frustration people may feel once they realize that someday they’ll die and be forgotten by others—if not immediately, then on the massive timescale of the universe. Faced with the inevitability of this oblivion, people wake up to the ridiculousness of their everyday routines and become alienated from their old belief systems. Everything in their lives—relationships, personal or career achievements, religion, and so on—suddenly seems irrelevant in the face of the absurd.

According to Camus, there are three possible responses to being confronted with the absurd. The first is to deny it by seeking philosophical or religious justifications for living that promise either an afterlife or a sense of purpose; Camus considers this philosophical rejection to be self-delusion. The second response is to commit suicide, escaping the suffering of an absurd existence by rejecting life itself. The third response, which is the only one Camus supports, is to commit to living an absurd life. This means continuing to live even with the pain of knowing that life is finite and possibly meaningless. Camus describes this as both living without hope and living in a state of permanent rebellion.

Negative Responses to the Absurd

Recognizing the absurd is frightening and upsetting, and Camus argues that both negative responses to it—philosophical rejection and suicide—attempt to escape these emotions by providing answers for what’s unknowable and breaking down the contradictory relationship at the absurd’s heart. Philosophical rejection denies the premise that life is finite and possibly meaningless, while suicide denies the premise that the human desire for eternity and meaning is innate. Camus believes that both responses are a form of self-delusion that fail to offer a convincing alternative—logically or emotionally—to the truth of the absurd. 

Philosophical Rejection

When giving examples of thinkers who recognized the absurd only to run from it, Camus points to two existentialists he admires, novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Both men ultimately turned to Christianity to satisfy their need for meaning and emotional catharsis, and Camus argues that, in doing so, they compromised their rationality.

Dostoyevsky’s fiction frequently deals with amoral characters and pointless suffering, and Camus draws attention to one particular character, Kirilov, who commits suicide after declaring that there’s no God and that a life without God isn’t worth living. However, many of Dostoyevsky’s novels end with his protagonists being redeemed by faith, finding that their mental and physical suffering is alleviated once they accept Christian forgiveness and the promise of life after death. In his nonfiction work Diary of a Writer, Dostoyevsky argues that humanity’s need for God in order to be happy demonstrates that faith is essential to existence, and thus God must exist. Camus dismisses this as circular logic.

Kierkegaard similarly treats Christianity as the answer to life’s suffering and argues that it requires a leap of faith, in which people abandon their rationality in order to embrace the personal, emotional truth of God. Without making this leap, people are doomed to the anxiety and angst (in Kierkegaard’s words) brought on by recognition of the absurd. Camus claims that this argument tries to diminish the absurd’s power by equating irrationality with God. Kierkegaard’s framing suggests that while God is unknowable, he is also benevolent, meaning that mortality and death shouldn’t be feared even if they can’t be understood.

Camus speaks more positively about the work of existentialist philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche, whom he believes accurately describe aspects of the absurd without proposing “solutions” for it. While Heidegger describes the pain of living in a world where death is inevitable, Nietzsche describes the pleasure that comes from living even in a world with no obvious purpose or meaning. However, Camus argues that both descriptions are merely starting points in the development of an absurd philosophy since they don’t address the question of how to live an absurd life.


Camus notes that suicide is a much less common response to the absurd than philosophical rejection. He argues that this isn’t because there’s no rational argument to be made for suicide, but because most people value their lives too highly to give them up, even in the face of life’s meaninglessness. The desire to live is itself absurd since everyone will eventually die no matter what they do, but it’s also an undeniably powerful motivator—people will make almost any sacrifice, even denouncing their own deeply held beliefs, in order to continue living.

Camus observes that, while many philosophers have considered the question of whether life is worth living and some even defended suicide as a valid answer, almost none followed their logic to the point of death. Though suicides can be ideologically motivated, as in the case of political or protest suicides, most are emotionally motivated—the person is overwhelmed by feelings of despair or hopelessness, which can have any number of causes. For his part, Camus considers whether suicide is an appropriate reaction to the absurd, but ultimately concludes that it isn’t, as it’s another attempt to escape the absurd rather than cope with it.

Living an Absurd Life

Though Camus dismisses attempts to define the meaning of life, particularly religious ones, he also believes that life is the only thing that matters, as it’s the means by which you experience consciousness, pleasure, and growth. Life may be given by a benevolent God, or it may lack any deeper meaning; either way, you should attempt to get as much out of it as you can before your inevitable death. Camus describes this as an eternal struggle for freedom, with every person rebelling against the unknowability of the universe. Though this rebellion will fail, he argues that it makes you stronger, more intelligent, and more appreciative of your experiences.

Getting the most out of life means living in the present and seeking out as many fulfilling experiences as possible. This doesn’t require you to constantly pursue new, exotic, or extreme experiences, but to take an interest in the world around you at all times and to make choices without being concerned with artificial limitations on behavior, such as morality or social stigmas. Camus argues that you should “feel” your life as intensely as if you’d been condemned to death the next day, and this one was the last you’d ever have—especially since, in a sense, everyone is condemned to death.

Sisyphus as the Absurd Man

Camus describes the Greek mythological figure of Sisyphus as the perfect example of an absurd figure; for crimes he committed in life, the gods condemned Sisyphus to spend eternity in the underworld pushing a massive boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down again as soon as he reached the top. His commitment to this futile task, repeated over and over, represents everyday life, as people strive for meaning or for an escape from death that they can never achieve. Sisyphus himself represents the drive to live since he was known for his defiance of death—different versions of the myth have him tricking or trapping Hades, the God of the Dead, in order to escape temporarily back to the surface—which still couldn’t save him from it.

Though Sisyphus is generally invoked as an example of divine punishment or torture, Camus believes that Sisyphus is happy despite his fate. He’s alive—in the sense that he still has a consciousness, even though he no longer has access to the world of the living—and he has a task to commit himself to, even if that task can never be completed. He continues to experience the world and to draw pleasure and strength from it. Camus argues that, like Sisyphus, a person committed to the absurd must dedicate themselves to being fully present for every second of life. Life’s value doesn’t come from the promise of eternity, or from any external source, but is self-evident.

Additional Examples

Camus ends the essay by providing further examples of absurd figures in fiction and the arts, particularly in the work of novelist Franz Kafka. Kafka’s protagonists struggle to survive in hostile worlds with authoritarian, incomprehensible rules, whether this means Josef of The Trial being sentenced to execution for an unknown crime or K. of The Castle spending years trying and failing to gain entrance to the titular seat of government. Despite their frustration and suffering, Kafka’s characters cling to life—going to work and building relationships with the untrustworthy figures around them—even as their expulsion from the world (via exile or death) seems inevitable.

Speaking generally, Camus describes artists of every type as absurd, and he describes creative work as an inherently absurd venture; dedicating your life to making something that is, like yourself, temporary and doomed to be forgotten. He draws particular attention to stage actors, who take on entire other identities for a few hours at a time but have no physical record of their performances. Though art is a way of rebelling against and coping with the absurd—reflecting one’s reality back at others for a chance at self-expression and commiseration—it can’t grant true immortality to its artist, or alleviate the struggle of living an absurd life.

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus: Book Overview

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

One thought on “The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus: Book Overview

  • January 8, 2024 at 11:50 am

    Camus Sisyphus is worth reading. I’m 78 years old. When I was 14 and delivering newspapers a Brittanica salesman convinced me to buy The Great Books of the Western World. I spent my newspaper money on those books. I have been reading these 50 plus volumes for over 50 years. To me all the authors are speaking to me and trying to express their thoughts and feelings some from centuries ago.
    Seeking truth and understanding have been my goal since I can remember. I was an alter boy with my cousin during the 1950’s. My cousin was abused by the priest unknown to me at the time. Later at the funeral of my cousins mother I was told by my cousin of the abuse he suffered. As an adult the realization of the absurd was no longer an abstraction. Camus suffered the historical pain of WWII. I was born in 1945 in time to experience during my life the stark exposure of truths about the church, our government’s atrocities towards first peoples and enslaved Americans. The struggle goes on. People of virtue like George Washington and imperfect people Iike Jefferson need to look in the mirror and at least admit to themselves the reality if our existence.


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