In the pantheon of the myths of the ancient Greeks, Sisyphus stands tall as one of the few characters known to the average guy on the street who was not a god or even a demi-god. Sisyphus was a mere human; albeit a king so hardly just the average guy on the street himself. And yet there is within the character of Sisyphus something that the average person can relate to far more strongly than there is any relation to most humans from those ancient myths who also happened to be of royal lineage.
Perhaps it is the rebellious spirit at work behind the particularly deceitful nature of Sisyphus that connects him across the millennia to modern society. He seems not just less than a god—which he is—but also less than a king—which he isn’t. Whatever the cause for the average-joe connection with this king of ancient Greek myth, perhaps what really allows people of all strata throughout those millennia to find common ground with Sisyphus more than is typically found with the other gods, demi-gods and royalty is that singular punishment.
What more appropriate punishment could retain such an elevated degree of relevance than being subjected to pushing a rock up a hill only to have to watch it roll back down upon you, forcing the entire process to begin anew and end exactly the same…ad infinitum. Whether in pre-Christian eras, the Middle Ages, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution or tomorrow, the punishment of Sisyphus works as a metaphor for almost every conception of labor ever devised: pointless, despairing and monotonous. In his landmark existential essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus proceeds to disentangle from Homeric legend the precise conditions that led to such an extraordinarily resonant if undeniably excessive punishment.
One of the various versions of the myths related to the punishment of Sisyphus posits the king as a certified rager against the machine. Sisyphus does not just rebel, he rebels against the gods! Entities capable of annihilating you in a second after just a second’s consideration. Why a rebel? Because Sisyphus dared to commit the ultimate sin that can be taken against the Man even when the Man is a god. He simply did not take them seriously. Certainly not as seriously as the gods took themselves and, by extension, expected mere mortal to take them.
Alternatively, there is the story of how Sisyphus actually managed to capture Death himself and hold him hostage in chains. In this story, Pluto doles out the punitive action against Sisyphus. When you are working out a brand new philosophy that goes something like existentialism as Camus was doing, the sweet smell of synchronicity permeates the room you are in when you realize that in Sisyphus you have found an existing character who literally denies death. The denial of death that results in punishment by the fates is quite simply a metaphor for the existential man that cannot possibly be improved upon.
Any common existentialist could have realized and appreciated that synchronicity. What makes Camus the existentialist writer to end all existentialist is when he takes the story of Sisyphus to the next level and chooses as the crucial moment in the king’s punishment not when the rock begins to roll back upon him for the zillionth time, but the moment after…when Sisyphus accepts that he must go after the rock and try, vainly as always, to push it to top of the hill and then up over it. For Camus, that twinkling of acceptance becomes the dawning of existentialist consciousness.
Every person must find themselves within a whisker of the summit of accomplishment when they are overcome by the awareness that transforms into a horrifying realization that no matter what lies just over that summit....we are every one of us doomed to failure in the sense that death comes to the maiden and death comes for the archbishop and death is an inevitable conclusion to all those in between. Sisyphus, like man, is rebellious but immobilized and it is those moments of eloquent cognizance that he finally achieves transcendence over the gods. Ultimately Camus perceives in Sisyphus an illustration not of unrelenting, irresistible and perpetual drudgery, but an ecstatic being cherishing an awareness that his fate is his own. He and he alone can regulate the essence of existence. Camus concludes his essay with Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain, equipped to endure the agonizingly otiose exercise of rolling the rock up a hill once again. Camus doesn't view Sisyphus as persecuted and rebuked, but as happy and fulfilled. Happy because he has discovered the secret to life: "The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart."