On meaning and the myth of Sisyphus

"What makes a life meaningful?" This is the kind of philosophical question that people have attempted to answer for millennia, with limited success. Here’s my amateurish attempt at exploring the answer.

Consider the myth of Sisyphus:

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the king of Ephyra.

He was famous for being deceitful and enraging the Gods. He once betrayed Zeus, who sent Thanatos (representing death) to chain him. But Sisyphus slyly figured out how the chains worked and chained Thanatos instead.

Eventually, Hades punished him for cheating death by forcing him to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down every time it neared the top, repeating this action for eternity.

At first glance, this may seem like a peculiar tale about the Ancient Greeks and their numerous gods. But on further inspection, there are thought-provoking concepts about meaning and value that merit consideration.

Contemporary French philosopher Albert Camus compared Sisyphus' situation of pushing a boulder to the pointlessness of human life. We work, earn money, eat food, and then repeat the same cycle until we die. Of course, this is a gross simplification, but there is an element of truth to it, as the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed. Millions of Americans voluntarily quit their jobs in the years following the pandemic. While there are many reasons for this trend, one common factor is the long-lasting dissatisfaction among workers.

We can hypothesize that what makes something meaningful is that it is fulfilling to the person in question. This position is known as internalism.

Let's tweak the story of Sisyphus to test this idea. What if Sisyphus found deep fulfillment in the act of rolling the boulder up the hill, to the point where it became all-consuming for him? Would this make his life more meaningful?

It seems like something is still missing. If the feeling of subjective fulfillment is enough for a life to be considered meaningful, then we'd have to concede that even [insert your favorite psychopathic dictator] lived a meaningful life. Putin's war on Ukraine may matter to him personally, but it's hard to justify his life as meaningful.

Let's try another version of the story. What if Sisyphus' seemingly purposeless efforts were actually generating electricity for his kingdom, without his knowledge?

We could argue that his life has meaning because his efforts were objectively valuable to others. This is the position of externalism.

Once again, this seems incomplete to me. Regardless of what you may think of Sisyphus, if his efforts brought no direct fulfillment to him, pushing boulders up a hill would still seem exactly as pointless to him as in the scenario in which he serves no greater purpose.

I have personal experience with this type of situation. From quitting jobs to leaving the startup I co-founded, every career-changing decision I’ve made shared one thing in common: a lack of personal fulfillment even when I created external value through the organizations I was involved with. Sometimes this misalignment existed from the start, while other times it emerged over time as the organization evolved.

Perhaps a meaningful life is not an either-or choice between subjective fulfillment and objective value, but rather a combination of the two. People whose lives are perceived as meaningful tend to display characteristics of both the internalist and externalist perspectives.

Have I sufficiently answered the question I opened this post with? Definitely not. But it does raise more questions (like the ones below) to explore in future posts, which I consider a win.

How can we define objective value? Can values truly be objective? What’s the relationship between meaning and time i.e. permanence or a lack thereof?