Sisyphus was the first king in Corinth, Greece, and also the father of Odysseus. But it’s hard to call him an exemplary hero. In revenge he seduced his brother’s daughter (and had two children with her), treated the gods lightly (divulged their secrets), broke a vow (to return to the underworld), bound Death – and was deservedly punished for it.
The gods condemned Sisyphus to roll the boulder to the top of the mountain, but the rock always slipped just below him and fell back into the valley. Sisyphus started over and over with no hope of ever getting his boulder to the top.
The gods believed that there was no worse punishment than just such a senseless activity.
His lot became a symbol for useless, numbing and hopeless work.
But why do pedagogues of the humanities and social sciences consider their work with students to be dull and useless? University teachers usually talk about educating young people as a beautiful, meaningful and energizing activity…
That boulder, a paper one at that, was not an apt symbol of today’s situation.
After all, doctoral students, associate professors and professors at some faculties are “just” protesting against the fact that they are not paid enough. Just as they are convinced of the insufficient remuneration of nurses in the regions, social service workers, overworked people at the counters of employment offices, some policemen, firefighters, non-pedagogical workers in regional education, administrative forces in the courts and, in fact, in every field there are groups that are really poorly paid.
And then there’s The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. In an essay from 1942, the French writer, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, interprets Sisyphus differently for the 20th century: “Just trying to get to the top is enough to fill the human heart. We must imagine that Sisyphus is happy.’
Philosopher Camus, who did not consider himself a philosopher, examines Sisyphus’ reasoning as the boulder slides down again and he descends to the foot of the mountain. “I imagine the man,” writes Camus, “as he descends with a heavy but balanced step toward torments whose end he cannot see… Crushing truths disappear as soon as we recognize them… Therein lies all the quiet joy of Sisyphus. His destiny belongs to him. His boulder is his business.’
Even a boulder in the life of ordinary people is never at the top of the mountain, this is not the punishment of King Sisyphus, but the fate of all mortals.
Could the Minister of Education (professor of international law) or Prime Minister (professor of political science) remind our modern Sisyphus of these lines from the Myth of Sisyphus: “If we are to believe Homer, Sisyphus was an extremely wise and judicious mortal. However, according to another tradition, he was more inclined towards robbery. I see no contradiction in that.’
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