Sisyphus Myth Redefined: Richard Taylor’s “The Meaning of Life”
The ancient myth of Sisyphus is a paradigm of a meaningless life featuring pointlessness and futility. However, Richard Taylor gives this myth a twist, interpreting it from a new angle. He argues that Sisyphus’ life can have meaning on the condition that he has a “strange and irrational impulse “to roll stones, however bizarre this impulse may be. Also, if the stones rolling back from the mountaintop can be used to build a beautiful temple, then, Sisyphus’ labor doesn’t come to nothing. Like the glimmering light in the darkness of human existence, Taylor’s viewpoints provide an existentialist leap for those suffering from the meaninglessness of their life.
Sisyphus Myth: Paradigm of Meaninglessness
The ancient myth of Sisyphus provides a perfect image of meaninglessness. Betraying the secret of gods to humans, Sisyphus is condemned to roll a stone to the top of a hill. Upon reaching the mountaintop, the stone immediately rolls down to the bottom of the hill. Thus, Sisyphus has to repeat the labor, with the stone pushed up and down the hill forever. In this picture, we see the common fate of all living creatures---the futility of all the strife and labor: “it really culminates in nothing, that each of these cycles, so filled with toil, is to be followed only by more of the same. The point of any living thing’s life is, evidently, nothing but life itself” (Taylor, 2010, p.26). In human existence, so many labors or tasks do culminate in nothing but repeat themselves endlessly. We are Sisyphus: “We do achieve things---we scale our towers and raise our stones to the hilltop---but every such accomplishment fades, providing only an occasion for renewed labors of the same kind” (Taylor, 2010, p.28). Even though we can build a temple out of the stones, the temple will crumble, leaving only pieces of relics for the future generation to ponder or bemoan. Each of our achievements is comparable to the moment when Sisyphus rolls a stone to the mountaintop. The task done, another one begins. And our achievement, petty or grand, will someday fade into dust or just be wiped out of history without leaving any traces. Seen in this perspective, our existence is meaningless with its futility. But the futility is just where meaning comes out of.
Twist of Sisyphus Myth: Out of Meaninglessness Arises Meaning
The “endless pointlessness” of Sisyphus’ labor can be endowed with a certain meaning through the state of mind and feeling with which such labors are undertaken. So Taylor (2010) argues: “We noted that if Sisyphus had a keen and unappeasable desire to be doing just what he found himself doing, then, although his life would in no way be changed, it would nevertheless have a certain meaning for him” (p.28). Sisyphus’ desire to roll stones may be a perverse impulse, but who doesn’t have a unique obsession like his? Each of us has a compulsive impulse to roll our stones. No sooner has a stone been rolled up to the mountaintop than we are restless to roll up another one. The seeming curse can be changed into a blessing, though, if we have the Zen consciousness as mentioned by Taylor (2010): “You no longer drew your first breath than you responded to the will that was in you to live. You no longer ask whether it will be worthwhile, or whether anything of significance will come of it, than the worms and the birds. The point of living is simply to be living, in the manner that it is your nature to be living” (p.29-30). The attentiveness of living in the present is the Zen attitude, which bestows meaning from within our heart. It corresponds to the existentialist leap perceived by David Schmidtz (2010):
An incurable pessimist might say that it is not possible to enjoy that which is pointless. But a Zen optimist rightly could respond: we can’t enjoy what we insist on seeing as pointless. Part of what makes life meaningful is that we are able to treat it as meaningful. We are able and willing to make that existentialist leap (p.102)
Granted the fact that our labors come to nothing, what counts is that we begin a new task with a willing and earnest heart. As long as we treasure the moments when we roll our stones uphill, the problem of meaninglessness vanishes. The point is not that the stones or the temple built out of them can be everlasting. The point is the momentary satisfaction of our inner compulsion to fight off the curse of infinite boredom, which is the feature of heaven. Even if life is futile, we can still value it and endow the endless labor with meaning. As Joske claims, “the futility of human life does not warrant too profound a pessimism. An activity may be valuable even though not fully meaningful, and we have seen Sisyphus would have frustrated the gods if he could have given worth to his eternal task” (p.63). Indeed, it’s much better to start a new bubble, enjoy the moment when it arises, and finally lament its temporary existence than sit in boredom to gaze at the beautiful temple which leaves no room for improvement. Mr. Stevens, a perfect representative of English butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, highlights the essential meaning of Sisyphus myth redefined in modern philosophical discourse when he looks back on his life: “What is the point in worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one’s life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy” (244).
Joske, W. D. (2010) Philosophy and the Meaning of Life. In David Benatar (Ed.), Life, Death & Meaning (pp. 51-92). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. (Original work published 1974)
Schmidtz, David. (2010). The Meanings of Life. In David Benatar (Ed.), Life, Death & Meaning (pp. 93-115). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. (Original work published 2002)
Taylor, R. (2010). The Meaning of Life. In David Benatar (Ed.), Life, Death & Meaning (pp. 21-30). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. (Original work published 2000)