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Monday, November 04, 2013

The Sisyphus Defense

People v. Sisyphus

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the king of Corinth who offended the gods and was punished by being forced for eternity to push an enormous boulder up a hill. When he approached the apex and the successful end of his task, the boulder would roll down the hill to the bottom, requiring Sisyphus to begin again. And again. In an endless loop. 

The image has sparked the imagination of artists and philosophers throughout the ages, because it seems to speak some universal truth about the human condition. How many people can identify with the sense that their lives are wasted in “an eternity of useless efforts and unending frustration.”

While this phrase describes how we defense lawyers often feel about our careers, it is not all grim and depressing. Our forte is the ability to construct arguments for our clients no matter how daunting the task appears. If we apply that talent and skill to this problem, we should be able to retrieve some sort of positive lesson from the facts.

Fortunately, there does exist in literature a formidable argument that we can adopt. Albert Camus, the French writer known as for his novels “The Stranger” and “The Plague,” wrote an essay titled “The Myth of Sisyphus.” 

Camus, an impoverished tubercular pied-noir (the French pejorative term for a white Algerian), stopped working as a journalist when the Germans occupied France. He wrote for the Resistance and wrote his books which could only be published after the Liberation. With Jean Paul Sartre he became known for his philosophical writing after the war, popularized as “Existentialism,” which was misunderstood as defining a uniformly bleak outlook on life (not unlike the pop perversion of Einstein’s theories as “Everything is relative” or “Social Darwinism” defining the goal of life as “survival of the fittest” ). 

Camus argued that the human condition is basically “absurd” because we live in the certainty that we will all die. That this is so means absolutely nothing to the universe, rather it is part of the cold calculus of nature. Sensing this, some conclude that the logical response is suicide, because life is meaningless. Others turn to religion for succor, imagining an afterlife with rewards or punishment.

Camus espoused a third argument: embracing the absurdity of existence and living life fully in the face of it. Even if your life is like that of Sisyphus.

He argued that Sisyphus was not to be pitied, but was a heroic figure, to be envied. 

His famous dictum is:

“The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” 

All of this of course is difficult if not impossible for our profession. In Law, we are committed to the idea that disputes can be settled by evidence, proof. The word “reason” and its corollaries “reasonable” “rationality” as in reasonable cause, reasonable doubt . . . are achievable real goals. 

We are always fighting against arbitrary, illogical conclusions based on prejudice rather than provable facts. 

Camus as philosopher held that the world was inherently “unreasonable,” and “unknowable.” The absurdity rose from the sentimental romantic striving for meaning and hope for a better life even though, no matter how hard we fight, our lives are finite. We all end the same way. 

“But for Camus, it was Sisyphus’s scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life in the face of a futile struggle that illustrated his essential point: man knows himself to be the master of his days.” 
Camus and the post war philosophers were certainly influenced by their experiences under Nazi domination. For that generation, it would be hard for anyone with eyes to maintain an optimistic outlook about the human condition. Who lived or died depended on luck, an arbitrary calculus that jettisoned reason for hate and a twisted philosophy of genocide and Gotterdammerung

Yet, Camus himself did not sit by and accept the fate of defeat. He actively fought — with words and action — against the evil of collaboration and tyranny. After the war, Camus at first felt the strong emotions of rage against the holocaust and urged “justice without mercy” for collaborators and Nazi war criminals. But after the frenzy of arbitrary trials resulted in executions of some 10,000 supposed collaborators, he changed his mind and became an opponent of capital punishment, writing a famous essay, “Reflections on the Guillotine” (1957) which led a movement which eventually was adopted by France. 

1 comment:

  1. Mort,

    Reading your essay, I am reminded of Victor Frankl's book, "Man's Search for Meaning". The belief that each individual creates meaning through action, and that the conscious choice of actions manifests life values important to the actor, is, as I have come to understand it, a common element of Camus's, Sartre's and Frankl's existentialism. That shared understanding of the making of an individual identity denies power to Decarte's pronouncement, "I think, therefore I am," and insists that a person exists in action, not thought. Thought is an internal process that guides action, but without action Decarte exists only as a dry seed carried on a wind, a possibility or basket of possibilities sitting on a dusty shelf in a warehouse, an illusion of identity screened upon the human capacity for abstract thought.

    Sisyphus is happy because he exits in action. He has consciously chosen an action - repeatedly pushing a bolder up a mountain - which manifests some value important to him. And while the meaning created by that action can be debated by others, there can be no doubt that Sisyphus, a person with an identity, exists. Would Sisyphus exist as an individual if he never went beyond thinking about pushing the stone?

    So we, as criminal defense attorneys, create our individual identities, in part, by repeatedly doing something the meaning of which is open to debate by others. Our choosing to do this, and the further choices of actions with which we carry out that first decision, manifests values which are important to us, regardless of whether the boulder rolls back upon us. If nothing else, our actions on the mountainside will give people in the future a clearer path to the top.

    In friendship,