Humanity Is Defiance
By Gabriel Blanchard
Athwart the apparent bleakness of his worldview, the humanism and the humanity of Camus stand bright and clear.
Born in 1913, Albert Camus was part of the great intellectual foment that took place in Europe in the early to middle twentieth century. Philosophy, anthropology, fiction, and the newly invented art of filmmaking all saw fresh, exciting developments; France, and especially her capital, attracted a substantial community of expatriate writers, such as Nikolai Berdyaev, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and James Baldwin. In particular, the early to middle twentieth centuries saw the full flowering of Existentialism, adumbrated by Kierkegaard nearly a century before: this is characterized the study of or reflection upon human experiences like freedom to define our identities and values, authenticity versus self-deceit, and our dread (or in Danish, angst) in the face of our limitless responsibility for our choices.
Camus, though sharing certain key themes with Existentialism, firmly rejected the label as a description of his own philosophy. A committed atheist, he was especially critical of Existentialism’s religious roots—a sentiment which may strike us as odd today, since many Existentialists are and have been atheists like himself, but at the time, the influence of figures like Kierkegaard (a devout if iconoclastic Lutheran) and Lev Shestov (a Jewish author deeply influenced by Dostoevsky) was perhaps more keenly felt.
Camus described himself instead as an Absurdist. “The Absurd” indicated the meaninglessness or pointlessness of human life. Man, though a rational animal, finds himself adrift in an irrational world. Rather than collapse in nihilistic despair, however, Camus recommended an acceptance of the absurd as the condition of human life, combined with a determination to live precisely as a human, i.e., according to human values and not the irrationality of the universe. He considered his thought to continue that of classical Greece and Enlightenment moralists.
This sentiment of humane revolt animated three of the great political causes of Camus’ life. The first, which ultimately propelled him into the other two, was his uneasy relationship with Communism. Many Marxists at the time accepted the leadership of Stalin and the USSR, but there were also unorthodox Marxists and other leftists who were suspicious of, or even hostile to, the repressive authoritarianism of the Soviets. Camus belonged to this group of sympathizers, and belonged to the French wing of the Communist Party for only a year due to his dissident tendencies; both in his lifetime and since, he has often been classified as an anarchist. However, like many contemporary leftists, he participated in the French Resistance in the 1940s: he was the editor-in-chief of the underground newspaper Combat, which had been banned by the Nazis, and composed the collection Lettres à un Ami Allemande (“Letters to a German Friend,” typically known in English under the title Resistance, Rebellion, and Death) to promote the anti-totalitarian cause. Thirdly, both during and after World War Two, Camus supported the cause of Algerian independence from France. He had reservations about the Algerian Revolution of 1954-1962, partly because of his strong belief in using nonviolent means for political change as far as possible; but he acknowledged the abuses of French colonialism, and called for statecraft to be guided by morality rather than expediency.
Turning to Camus’ writings, it would be all but impossible to cover them all adequately in such a brief format. We will therefore address just three of his most famous works: his novels L’Étranger (“The Stranger” or “The Outsider”) and La Peste (“The Plague”), and his celebrated essay The Myth of Sisyphus.
The Stranger recounts the last few weeks of a man called Meursault. At the beginning of the story, he learns of his mother’s death, but shows no emotional response to it. He is equally indifferent when his boss suggests that he move from Algiers to Paris, and when his lover suggests that they marry—he is willing to fall in with their desires but has none of his own. During a visit to a friend, he kills a man, yet even this seems to involve no particular feelings on Meursault’s part. His only passionate reaction in the whole story comes when the prison chaplain tries to awaken him to some recognition of God: infuriated by the chaplain’s attitude, he tells him that nothing matters because all of us live under a sentence of death no matter what we do. Having chased the priest out, Meursault thinks about the parallels between his own situation and that of his mother, dying by inches in a nursing home; with this reflection, he decides that he is and has always been happy. Though it seems rather out-of-character, The Stranger is among Camus’ most recognized works, and was well-received even from its first publication.
His later novel The Plague is less bizarre, and lines up rather more clearly with his stated philosophy. The Algerian city of Oran is struck by an outbreak of bubonic plague, and the place is quarantined. The story follows a group of volunteers who fight the disease. These include Dr. Bernard Rieux, who unemotionally considers it his duty as a physician; the public-spirited Jean Tarrou, who comes up with the idea to organize volunteer teams to help, rather than waiting for the authorities to act; and Fr. Paneloux, a respected Jesuit who preaches that the plague is a test of faith that Christians must accept and embrace as God’s will. Of these, only Dr. Rieux sees the end of the outbreak. Tarrou is one of the last victims, putting up a spirited fight. Meanwhile, Fr. Paneloux is stricken with an illness whose symptoms do not match that of the plague, but he chooses to accept whatever God wills rather than seeking a doctor, and dies of his illness; Dr. Rieux records him as a “doubtful case” of death by plague. The story is regarded by some as a coded depiction of the French Resistance against the Nazis. Unsurprisingly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, La Peste enjoyed a great surge in popularity.
Last and most prominent, we may take Camus’ 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus. He here proposes that the most serious and even the only question in philosophy is “Should I commit suicide?”—since, put another way, this is simply the question of whether life is worth living. More specifically, is life worth living in the face of “the Absurd,” the meaningless irrationality of the universe? Yes, the Frenchman answers. Consider Sisyphus: for mocking the gods and nearly circumventing death, he was condemned to strive forever in Hades to roll a boulder to the top of a hill, only for it to escape his grip and roll all the way back down every time he nearly reaches the summit. What does Sisyphus feel as he goes back down the hill to fetch the boulder? Camus argues that in this moment, he is triumphant—though he has no hope, “there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” Sisyphus is, in fact, happy, because even if he can never accomplish his task, neither can the gods defeat him by making him give up. He finds contentment in his refusal to surrender to the absurd situation in which he finds himself, and in this, Camus says, we see the fullest reality of the human condition.
Gabriel Blanchard is a proud uncle, a freelance author, and the editor-at-large for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like these profiles of The Thousand and One Nights and Willa Cather, or these discussions of the histories of ideas and the state. And be sure to tune in to our podcast, Anchored.
Published on 15th August, 2022. Page image of Sisyphus (1920) by Franz von Stuck.