I read someone use the term "Sisyphean achievement", and I wasn't sure what that meant so I found what "Sisyphean" means in modern language: "(of a task) such that it can never be completed."

Thus I thought maybe the person wanted to sound fancy and misused the word. However, a Google search shows up with books and other works using the term "Sisyphean achievement".

And so my questions are, I) Isn't "Sisyphean achievement" a contradiction? and if not, II) What does it actually mean?

  • Hi Esteban, can you include one or two of the usages you found? Context is always helpful. :-) – Hellion Nov 9 '17 at 18:26
  • It's usually Sisyphean achievement, but I think asking whether that collocation is a contradiction / oxymoron just looks like an opinion-based peeve. – FumbleFingers Nov 9 '17 at 18:27
  • @FumbleFingers, you're right, got a typo on my question--fixed it. And those were the examples I was looking at. – Esteban Nov 9 '17 at 18:39
  • And I guess part of my question is also if this collocation is "correct" grammar, or it's using some sort of Poetic license to make it work. Either way, I'm not sure what it's trying to say? Maybe just.. an achievement that was difficult to obtain?? – Esteban Nov 9 '17 at 18:44
  • 1
    This sounds more like a philosophical question than one about English. – Davo Nov 10 '17 at 12:49

I'll take a shot at answering your question.

Isn't "Sisyphean achievement" a contradiction?

No. Sisyphus was punished by repeatedly having to roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again as soon as he had pushed it to the summit. The key is that he did succeed in bringing the boulder to the summit. But then it promptly rolled back down. So although his achievement was extremely brief, it was still an achievement.

I compare it to building an elaborate sandcastle on a beach, knowing that when the tide comes in, your work will be undone.

  • That's an angle I hadn't considered. But I don't know if it's because there's different versions of the mythology, but it seems that there's a version where the rock rolled down just before it reached the top. But I like your analysis, even though it adds to my uncertainty on what the authors are trying to say with that collocation! haha – Esteban Nov 9 '17 at 22:08
  • I didn't know that, @esteban. I researched and found this. Encyclopedia Britannica says he did reach the top britannica.com/topic/Sisyphus So does Albert Camus in his Le Mythe de Sisyphe essay. However, the actual translatation I saw reads, "...(He would) thrust the stone toward the crest of a hill, but as often as he was about to heave it over the top, the weight would turn it back, and then down again to the plain would come rolling the ruthless stone." You can take that both ways. He almost reached the top, or he DID reach it but could not get the rock to the other side. – Headblender Nov 10 '17 at 17:29

In the article The Triple Talaq Judgement: A Sisyphean Achievement, Libertatem Magazine critiqued a ruling by the Supreme Court of India as:

But in essence, it is an equivalent of Sisyphean’s [sic] progress where there is no real progress in the jurisprudence.

Triple Taleq, according to Wikipedia:

..allows any Muslim man to legally divorce his wife by stating the word talaq (the Arabic word for "divorce") three times in oral, written, or more recently electronic form.

The conclusion of the critique in the first link was:

Though the practice of Triple Talaq has been set aside, all the judges fail to take notice or even address the colossal issue of gender discrimination. Unlike the popular perception, this case insufficiently moves in the direction of achieving gender justice. Unlike a frog leap, it has advanced only a step in that direction.

Thus, in this article, a Sisyphean achievement meant a judicial ruling that seemed much more important than it was: it did not address the underlying problem.

A more homely example would be of raking leaves (which I am in the middle of). You have achieved, with much effort, a leaf-free lawn, and you admire your lawn and bask in the glow of your achievement -- but the underlying problem is that you have deciduous trees and it will all have to be done again next year.


Sisyphus made short-term progress, but failed to make long-term progress.

I propose that a "Sisyphean achievement" is a valid description for racking up minor victories without making meaningful progress toward the actual long-term goal.

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