Albert Camus was a 20th century French Algerian thinker who won the Nobel Prize for his literary works. These days it is his novel The Plague that has naturally been receiving attention. In this essay I instead consider what Camus’ philosophical classic, The Myth of Sisyphus, reveals about the status of our lives with COVID-19.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus addresses a cluster of philosophical questions about how to appraise our lives, including whether life is worth living, how life is absurd, and what could make life meaningful. Camus answers these questions by reflecting on the image of Sisyphus, a mythic figure from ancient Greece.
Sisyphus had treated some of the gods disrespectfully, and so Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, punished him by having him roll a heavy stone up a large hill for eternity. Every time Sisyphus got the rock to the top of the hill, it would roll back to the bottom, at which point Sisyphus would roll the rock back to the top, only to see it fall back down again, ad infinitum.
It is a classic image of an absurd and meaningless life. “Are our lives like that?” Camus and many philosophers after him have asked.
Well, many are now, if they weren’t before.
Life with coronavirus
I have sprayed disinfectant on my kitchen surfaces. My sink, refrigerator, stove, and dishwasher are apparently free of 99.9% of all known germs. After having put the disinfectant away, I use my kitchen as normal.
I later realise that the bottle of disinfectant itself was not disinfected. Plastic evidently retains coronavirus for up to three days, and I bought the bottle from the shop – and who knows who touched it there? – only yesterday.
I disinfect the entire kitchen again, now including the bottle of disinfectant.
I have told my children about the importance of social distancing, but allow the teenager to go and play catch with one friend at the park. After all, they need to be two metres away from each other to play.
Two other friends in the meantime text him, and then soon join him at the park. A thunderstorm unexpectedly comes, and, being considerate, he invites them all to his place nearby, while I’m out foraging for food. I arrive home to find four teenagers huddled together looking at a computer screen.
I again tell my children about the importance of social distancing.
While in the car at a stoplight, I have used wipes to clean off my radio knobs, gear shift, and steering wheel.
Then I realise that the wipe itself now has coronavirus on it, supposing the bug was in my car. And my hands have of course been holding the wipe.
I instinctively use another wipe on my hands again, but then see that this wipe, too, that I have been touching will now have coronavirus. Since the light has now turned green, I proceed to touch the steering wheel…
I have taken a bit of poetic licence with these vignettes, but I expect they ring true. Note that it is not merely at the individual level that one finds such patterns, but also at the social one:
It appears that after about six to ten weeks of lockdown, the coronavirus transmission rate plummets, to the point where the risk of infection becomes small. At that point governments naturally let people out of their homes, to resume normal life.
But it takes just a handful of pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic people from the outside to reintroduce coronavirus to a population that, after lockdown, lacks it. And we know how quickly and widely it spreads.
Once coronavirus has returned to our part of the world, our governments will again require us to enter lockdown for some months. Then we shall return to our fare of Friends reruns, stilted conversations on Zoom, and the dreaded question, “So, what’s for lunch?”. The expansion and contraction of social life could continue indefinitely.
Coronavirus and the meaning of life
One part of the problem with Sisyphus is that his life is repetitive. He just rolls a large stone.
Another part of his problem is that his life is pointless. He never achieves anything with his stone-rolling.
Yet another is that Sisyphus is compelled to roll the stone. Zeus has given him no other option.
And, then, Sisyphus is surely bored.
Unlike a large stone, coronavirus is very small, and yet our struggle against it is precisely a Sisyphean task: we have no choice but to push coronavirus away, doing so over and over again, having little hope of that making a real difference, and being far from enlivened by the process.
Coronavirus is a plague not merely on the happiness that comes with health and wealth, but also on the meaning in our lives, which is something different. An important question at this point, which I leave unanswered here, is how to deal with a loss of meaningfulness. I note only that the strategies will not be the same as improving lung function or diversifying portfolio assets.
Thaddeus Metz is distinguished professor of philosophy at University of Johannesburg