The Value of Labor and the Myth of Sisyphus
Rick Garlikov

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a brilliant rascal who sometimes played tricks on the gods to get what he wanted.  He even used trickery to avoid death.  Finally the gods had enough and condemned Sisyphus to eternal hard labor -- his punishment: rolling a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down to the bottom each time he finally gets it to the top.  It was intended to be not only difficult labor, but frustratingly futile, unrewarding, repetitive labor.  The toil of Sisyphus is a metaphor for all difficult and repetitive labor that is frustrating and unrewarding. 

The 1957 Nobel laureate for literature Albert Camus wrote in a brief essay "The Myth of Sisyphus" (1940) that Sisyphus' fate and his endless toil is not futile.  He says: "If the descent [i.e., Sisyphus' returning to the bottom of the mountain to start pushing the rock upward all over again] is sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy." And "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." 

In spite of Camus' words, the punishing labor of Sisyphus seems horrendous.  That is why it was given, and that is why the myth has such power.  Or is Camus right that there can be nobility or redemption, or grounds for satisfaction, even "happiness", in such futile labor? 

I believe Camus focused on only part of the characteristics of the labor of Sisyphus. There are at least five characteristics of Sisyphus' task, and I want to distinguish between attributes which might be redemptive, noble, or joyous, and those which are not.  Rolling the rock eternally up the hill only to have it return each time you reach the summit for you to do it all over again is 1) repetitive, 2) futile, 3) temporary, and 4) laborious, and 5) worthless in a way that is separate from its being repetitive, futile, laborious, and temporary. 

I have written elsewhere that impermanence does not erase value.  Making someone happy or providing solace for someone in despair, even if it is only temporary is still a worthwhile act. Creating or saving a life that will someday die is not a worthless or meaningless act.  Even if all we do in the lifetime of civilization collapses into a universal blackhole or relative pinpoint of incredibly dense mass, our accomplishments are what they were, even if they do not remain in the memory of an omniscient God but dissolve entirely into the metaphysics of empty time.  That something happened and meant anything at all is important, regardless of how long it lasts.  All joys in life are temporary, but they are joys nevertheless, and they are most important.  A joyous life is better than a joyless one, even though both come to an end.  So I have no quarrel with Camus about the fact that Sisyphus' success at reaching the summit with the boulder is merely temporary.  Sisyphus can rejoice in that success each time simply because he achieves it, regardless of how long the achievement lasts. 

And the fact that he has to do it all over again does not diminish its value or his happiness, because there are many things we do repeatedly to obtain joy or satisfaction, and we do not lament having to do so. Repeated joy or repeated success is not a source of frustration or futility. Sex, for instance.  Good food.  Convivial companionship.  Humor.  Restful sleep. Breathing. Excitement.  Anticipation. Games and sports.  There is nothing about simply having to repeat something that necessarily makes it bad or that makes it not worth doing any of the times or all of the times.  The fact that Sisyphus has to push the rock up the mountain repeatedly is not what makes it a bad task. 

The effort is laborious; the rock is huge and heavy, and Sisyphus has to work very hard to achieve the summit.  But the work is possible, and it is not harmful.  Much work that is difficult is worthwhile and often success at a difficult task is far sweeter than success at an easy one.  There is nothing about hard work in itself that is frustrating or futile or even punishing.  So Camus is still on safe ground in imagining at least the possibility that Sisyphus is happy each time he succeeds, even as he starts back down the mountain to retrieve the rock to begin again. 

Now futility is normally, perhaps even always, disappointing, but futility is the failure to reach a goal.  Sisyphus fails to get the rock to the top of the mountain permanently, but he never fails to get the rock to the top of the mountain.  His effort is only to be considered futile if the goal is permanence.  Insofar as his task is not to keep the rock at the pinnacle, but merely to get it there, his efforts are not futile. In fact as often as he has to repeat the task he achieves success and his effort is rewarded, not frustrated. 

Moreover, if we once again look at what is in some sense metaphysically important, it is important in life that we try to do what is right, not just that we succeed.  We cannot control our destiny, but we can control our deserts, and we do that by always trying to do what is right and what is best.  Attempts may be futile, but making the attempt is never futile, for it determines and simultaneously rewards our character. 

In all these ways, Camus is on safe ground in being able to imagine that Sisyphus is happy. 

But there is one remaining attribute of Sisyphus' labor, and I see no way to imagine it produces happiness, nobility, or redemption.  It has nothing to do with the repetiveness of the act, its difficulty, the brevity of its achievement, or its potential futility.  It is that the act of rolling this boulder up this hill serves no useful purpose other than to punish Sisyphus.  It is meaningless to move this rock to the top of this hill otherwise. There is no merit in getting the rock to the summit.  The task is a worthless one.  The achievement is an achievement in name only.  It accomplishes nothing but getting the rock from here to there.  Even if the task of Sisyphus were merely to get this rock up this hill one time, whatever amount of time he spends doing it, whether long or short, is time squandered from how he better could have spent it doing something worthwhile and useful.  Even if it were to make him stronger, he would have been better off becoming stronger by doing strenuous work that was actually useful. 

As a metaphor for frustrating and futile labor, the point of this being a punishment for Sisyphus is that it an eternal waste of time and energy. That it is repetitive makes it frustrating because it is the repetition of something boring and useless.  That it is laborious is only bad because it is a strenuous effort to achieve something of no real value.  It does not really matter that it is temporary, for even if it were permanent, Sisyphus would not be able to take pride in the fact that he has simply changed the position of a rock, a piece of furniture in the universe.  Moving the rock makes a difference in the universe, but a difference that is without distinction, without merit, without benefit.  Sisyphus has added no value to the universe by taking the rock from the bottom of the hill to its crest.  His crowning victory each time is an empty one, not because it does not last, but because it accomplishes nothing of value.  His work, his success, his effort is all in vain because the task is worthless. 

Not all work is noble.  What is noble is to be striving toward the best we can accomplish, not toward just any accomplishment for its own sake.  Even if you do well at something that is somewhat worthwhile, if there is something else you should have been doing that was more worthwhile, or that better set the stage for a lifetime of more worthwhile contributions you could have made, you have not done the most valuable act you could have.  You have somewhat wasted your time.  To spend time doing something of absolutely no value is to waste your time and that part of your life. 

Of course, sometimes we need to do less worthwhile acts in order to be able to do other more worthwhile acts.  Eating, sleeping, vacationing or taking breaks may be unproductive and not particularly gratifying in themselves (for some people) but may be necessary in order for one to have the energy and focus to do what is worthwhile and satisfying.  Sometimes we have to work at less productive work in order to be able to have the resources, such as financial resources, to do more worthwhile things. That is a sad and inefficiently wasteful situation, but a bearable one.  However, Sisyphus does not even have that luxury.  He always and only pushes the rock up the hill.  His chore is not a means to another end.  Pushing the rock is all he does and all he gets to do.  It is his only act. And it has absolutely no intrinsic or extrinsic value for him. It is a totally useless and meaningless act, and it is all he gets to do.  That is why this punishment is so terrible. 

Perhaps, of course, he could be hearing or composing music, conceiving poetry, retrieving happy memories, dreaming hopeful dreams,  creating wondrous fiction, or solving deep theoretical physics or philosophical problems in his head while he is pushing the rock, but the myth does not seem to offer that possibility; and even if it did, he has no one to share his answers with and cannot even stop to write them down.  The punishment would not be so bad if he is able to think and if he enjoys thinking and is able to come to some interesting insights or pleasant thoughts.    But that is not part of the myth, and perhaps the toil of the rock is so demanding that it precludes even thinking.  Being able to think and do something worthwhile while doing the otherwise worthless task of moving the rock would allow for redemption and nobility and would take the sting out of the punishment.  If thinking is impossible though because of the intensity of the toil or because Sisyphus is constitutionally not capable of it, or if thinking is unhelpful because Sisyphus is constitutionally not satisfied by it, then we are back to the totally meaningless and unredemptive nature of his work and his continued existence. 

Aristotle said that happiness is an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence.  I would add it is also an activity of the soul in the pursuit of excellence.  Sisyphus however is not pursuing excellence.  He is merely performing a task.  And not all tasks are in conformity with, or the pursuit of, excellence. 

It is the total lack of value of what Sisyphus has to work so hard to achieve that makes his punishment so horrific.  It is not because his labor is merely arduous and eternal, but because it is arduous and eternally pointless, that he must suffer from doing it.  One cannot imagine him happy unless one foolishly imagines him, or imagines him foolish.  As a metaphor for part of the human condition and the plight of some people -- even those often considered most successful because we mistakenly think change is progress or that there are no hollow victories -- the myth of Sisyphus is a sad commentary.  The work of far too many people has been, and continues to be, pushing a rock up a hill merely to change its location.