The Myth of Sisyphus: Renaissance Theories of Human Perfectibility
Elliott M. Simon

About the Author:
Elliott M. Simon received his BA at Washington University, St. Louis, and his MA and PhD at the University of Michigan. He teaches English literature in the Department of English at the University of Haifa, and has taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Oranim College, and as a visiting professor at Northwestern University and at Montaigne University (Bordeaux III). He is a specialist in Renaissance studies.




The myth of Sisyphus symbolizes the archetypal process of becoming without the consolation of absolute achievement. It is both a poignant reflection of the human condition and a prominent framing text for classical, medieval, and renaissance theories of human perfectibility. In this unique reading of the myth through classical philosophies, pagan and Christian religious doctrines, and medieval and renaissance literature, we see Sisyphus, “the most cunning of human beings,” attempting to transcend his imperfections empowered by his imagination to renew his faith in the infinite potentialities of human excellence.

The Sisyphean archetype is at the center of renaissance theories of human perfectibility via the transcendent powers of love. The human process of loving God, an ideal of beauty and virtue, or even one’s self, emphasizes the magnificence of the lover’s unrequited labor rather than an achieved union. This idealization of process over achievement is manifest in the hero’s quest for a transcendent glory through chivalry, courtly love, and martial power in which heroic action is always frustrated by its elusive transcendent value. Sisyphus’ contrary powers of excellence and inadequacies constituting his humanity are forever renewed in the eternal present of his cyclical labor.

ISBN 978-0-8386-4116-3

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