We use cookies to give you the best experience possible. By continuing we’ll assume you’re on board with our cookie policy

Can Sisyphus Lead a Good Life

The whole doc is available only for registered users

A limited time offer! Get a custom sample essay written according to your requirements urgent 3h delivery guaranteed

Order Now

The question of happiness involves a multitude of theories. As a hotly debated topic in the realm of philosophy, there are several approaches to measuring happiness. Such approaches are based on either a subjective or objective viewing of life. Defining what constitutes a good life and determining its meaningfulness has proven controversial. Of relevance to this debate on happiness is the story of Sisyphus.

Can a person condemned to continuously roll a huge boulder up a mountain, only to have it roll back down, be said to lead a good life? This essay will use the objective view to illustrate that Sisyphus’ life does not fit within the definition of a good life and that it is meaningless. It will be argued that it is impossible for Sisyphus to lead a good life because of his continuous, futile task that voids his life of value.

Martha Nussbaum has developed a set of objective standards by which to measure a meaningful and good life. In contrast to the subjective view of well-being, which refers to how people experience the quality of their life and consists of elements of satisfaction and pleasure, Nussbaum focuses on Aristotle and Marx’s thinking as it relates to the concept of flourishing.

Nussbaum states, “The basic intuitive idea of my version of the capabilities approach is that we begin with a conception of the dignity of the human being, and of a life that is worthy of that dignity” (Nussbaum, 2006, p.74). According to Nussbaum’s capabilities approach, a good human life must include meaningful opportunities to rationally choose from as well as sound social relationships. She believes, “The core idea is that of the human being as a dignified free being who shapes his or her own life in cooperation and reciprocity with others, rather than being passively shaped or pushed around by the world…” (Nussbaum, 2006, p.72). In short, central to a good life is choice and interaction.

In the story of Sisyphus, it is apparent that he has no choice or interaction in relation to his punishment – the repeated task of rolling a huge boulder up a mountain. Sisyphus’ life fails to meet the threshold established in Nussbaum’s capabilities approach. Nussbaum theory is concerns the objective valuation of a good life. L.W. Sumner argues that happiness is subjective and that self-assessment is the most reliable measure of happiness because it must come from a personal stand point. However, Nussbaum’s capabilities approach sets a universal standard with a finite answer and is therefore subject to less doubt. Nussbaum established a non-exhaustive list of ten capabilities necessary to determine whether or not a person is living a good life (Nussbaum, 2006, p. 76-78).

The first is to live a normal life span. Sisyphus is to spend eternity carrying out his punishment and this is far beyond a normal life span. The second is bodily health. This includes adequate nourishment and shelter. It seems as though Sisyphus’ task is continuous, meaning he does not stop for nourishment or to rest under shelter. The third capability is that of bodily integrity which includes freedom of movement, security against assault and freedom of choice in respect to reproduction. Sisyphus’ movement is limited to travel up and down a single mountain. His freedom in this respect is very limited. Fourth, senses, imagination and thought means being able to use the human senses to the full extent.

Sisyphus’ repeated task is mundane and does not require much use of his imagination or human senses. The fifth concerns experiencing normal human emotions and having emotional attachment to others. Sisyphus’ life only includes a boulder and a mountain. There are no species for him to form emotional attachments to and no experiences to invoke human emotions. Practical reasoning is the sixth capability.

This includes the capacity to reflect on the planning of one’s good life. Sisyphus has been condemned to perform a single futile task; his life has already been planned by others. Seven is capabilities for affiliation. This includes both the ability to live with others and treat them compassionately and being treated as a dignified human being. Again, Sisyphus is the only one on his mountain and therefore his ability to live with others is moot. It is difficult to say that Sisyphus is being treated in a dignified manner.

To roll a huge boulder up a mountain only to have it roll right back almost makes a mockery of his efforts to get it to the top. To be subjected to this punishment does not dignify Sisyphus. Eight is living with other species; Sisyphus does not. Nine is the ability to laugh, play and enjoy recreational activities. Sisyphus has no time for this since his task is continuous. Finally, ten is control over one’s environment. Sisyphus has no control. He must remain on the mountain and perform his punishment and nothing else. Sisyphus’ life does not satisfy even a single one of Nussbaum’s capabilities and, therefore, it cannot be said that he has lead a good life.

Joel Feinberg adds an addendum to the story of Sisyphus and uses the subjective view to argue that he enjoys his life. He suggests that the gods, in an attempt to alleviate Sisyphus, altered his nature so that he would enjoy boulder-rolling. He becomes genuinely inclined to partake in this activity. His beliefs and emotions are clear and rational and they have drawn him to the idea that boulder-rolling will allow him to lead a good life, despite the insignificance and absurdity of the activity. Feinberg is of the opinion that, if a person enjoys the dominant activity in their life and it reflects their nature, then it must be judged favorably from a personal stand point.

Other opinions on its evaluation of good are irrelevant. He argues: “that my nature is eccentric, absurd, laughable, trivial, cosmically insignificant, is neither here nor there. Such as it is, it is my nature for better or worse. The self whose good is at issue is the self I am and not some other self I might have been” (Kekes, 2008, p.79). Accordingly, Sisyphus must see his life of endless boulder-rolling as good as this is the inclination of his nature. However, John Kekes argues that if the gods had not altered Sisyphus’ nature and if he could view his life in a realistic and coherent manner and in comparison to other possible lives then he would be able to see the true misery of boulder-rolling. He believes that Feinberg’s theory does not allow for admirable and deficient forms of enjoyment. He argues that we make judgments of value on the activities we partake in.

Can it really be argued that continuously rolling a boulder up a mountain is an admirable form of enjoyment? Kekes rightly states that while we cannot question whether or not someone genuinely enjoys their life, we can question its genuineness: “others with greater objectivity, deeper reflection and more extensive experience may reasonably dispute the genuineness of our enjoyment or whether we should enjoy what we genuinely enjoy” (Kekes, 2008, p. 82). Accordingly, while Sisyphus may believe that he is living a good life rolling a boulder, from an objective standpoint and in consideration of reality and rationality it cannot be determined that his life is, in fact, good.

Richard Taylor also suggests an attitude change in Sisyphus. Taylor discusses the idea of an implant is Sisyphus’ brain that creates a passionate urge to roll the boulder up the mountain. This would mean that Sisyphus’ continuous task would constantly satisfy his passionate urge, allowing him to enjoy his life. However, it is questionable whether or not this enjoyment is true. According to Kekes, an implant in Sisyphus’ brain would allow him to falsely enjoy his life. He describes Sisyphus’ enjoyment as “illusionary” (Kekes, 2008, p.77). Kekes argument is strong in its highlight of the difference between genuine enjoyment and illusionary enjoyment. He states that, “Sisyphus’ attitude to his life is not really his; it does not reflect his individual nature; it is the outcome of the implant that deceives Sisyphus and makes his miserable life falsely appear enjoyable” (Kekes, 2008, p.77).

A distinction between genuine and illusionary enjoyment is very important to determining whether or not Sisyphus can be said to have lead a good life. Kekes makes a very valid point when he explains the fact that Sisyphus’ device distorts his reality and coherence. If Sisyphus were made aware of other possible ways to live besides boulder-rolling he would question his preference to boulder-rolling, why he would find it more enjoyable to other possible lives and his attitude towards it (Kekes, 2008, p. 78).

Kekes concedes that the implant does allow to Sisyphus to believe that his life is good; but, because such a belief is false, he would be deprived of it by reality. While it may be kind to allow Sisyphus this belief, in respect of genuine enjoyment in life his subjective view is distorted and it cannot be said that he truly leads a good life. A false belief in a good life does not, in fact, make it a good life.

The meaning behind one’s life also contributes to the determination of a good life. In Albert Camus’ view there is a profound conflict between what we want from the universe and what we find in it. He believes that we will never find meaning in life unless we find it through God. However, Camus then suggests a third possibility: we accept the fact that the world in which we live has no meaning or purpose. According to Camus, Sisyphus is an Absurd hero. Camus argues that on Sisyphus’s decent down the mountain, he becomes conscious of his plight. Nonetheless, if Sisyphus were to accept his plight, its hopelessness and the idea that he is master of his own fate then he could find happiness. By accomplishing the feat of rolling the boulder to the top of the mountain, it can be said that he is living a good life, albeit meaningless.

However, Susan Wolf states that life can have meaning and that this is directly related to the question of a good life. Leading a good life includes leading one that is meaningful. Wolf believes that the value of the activity gives us reason to do them and to enjoy doing them. Wolf argues, “meaningfulness in life comes from loving something (or a number of things) worthy of love, and being able to engage it in some positive way” (Wolf, 2010, p. 26). Wolf’s theory includes a hybrid of subjective and objective viewing. There is an internal feeling of fulfillment from an activity as well as an external and independent viewing on the value and worth of that activity.

Meaningfulness matters to life because “one will be able to see oneself and one’s life as good, valuable and a rightful source of pride” (Wolf, 2010, p. 28). On this basis that life can have meaning, it cannot be argued that Sisyphus’ punishment is meaningful. Even if Sisyphus can find fulfillment from boulder-rolling, it cannot be argued that this activity has any value. It is a cyclical activity with no reason. To an independent person, there is nothing attractive in the endless struggle of boulder-rolling. Therefore, it cannot be said that Sisyphus’ life has any meaning and, in turn, that he is leading a good life.

In conclusion, Sisyphus’ life is devoid of enjoyment and meaning. It cannot satisfy Nussbaum’s list of capabilities nor can it be determined to have value or worth in line with Wolf’s theory. By taking an objective standpoint a more true, fair and realistic assessment of Sisyphus’ life can be made. Happiness may be a feeling but it involves an abundance of criteria in its measurement. To lead a good life one must not only employ certain internal attitudes but also meet certain external standards.

Camus, A. (1991). The myth of Sysiphus. New York: Vintage Books. Feinberg, J. (1994). Freedom and Fullfillment. New Jersy: Princeton University Press. Kekes, J. (2008). Enjoyment . New York: Oxford University Press. Nessbaum, M. (2006). Frontiers of Justice. Cambridge: Belknap Press. Richard, T. (1970). Good and Evil. New York: Mackmillian .

Sumner, L. (1996). Welfare, Happiness and Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press. Wolf, S. (2010). Meaning in Life. New Jersey : Princeton University Press.

Related Topics

We can write a custom essay

According to Your Specific Requirements

Order an essay
Materials Daily
100,000+ Subjects
2000+ Topics
Free Plagiarism
All Materials
are Cataloged Well

Sorry, but copying text is forbidden on this website. If you need this or any other sample, we can send it to you via email.

By clicking "SEND", you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy. We'll occasionally send you account related and promo emails.
Sorry, but only registered users have full access

How about getting this access

Your Answer Is Very Helpful For Us
Thank You A Lot!


Emma Taylor


Hi there!
Would you like to get such a paper?
How about getting a customized one?

Can't find What you were Looking for?

Get access to our huge, continuously updated knowledge base

The next update will be in:
14 : 59 : 59