Thursday, September 21, 2023

Albert Camus: The Philosopher Who Resisted Despair

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In March 1946, French philosopher and novelist Albert Camus sailed across the Atlantic to deliver a speech at Columbia University. It was his first and only trip to America. Camus had achieved worldwide fame with the publication of his 1942 novel, The stranger, and his status as an artist and member of the French Resistance had grown considerably over the course of the war.

The Nazis had been defeated the year before and it was believed that some sort of final victory over fascism had been won. But in his speech, Camus did not abide by that sentiment. The philosopher, who was expected to speak about French theater and philosophy, lingered on the pathologies that Nazism produced. He went on to argue that the post-war world had fallen into complacency. The war was over, but a certain kind of plague persisted:

Contemporary man increasingly tends to place an abstract and complex machinery between himself and nature that drives him into solitude. … With so much paper, so many offices and officials, we are creating a world in which the human warmth has disappeared. Where no one can get in touch with anyone else except through a maze of what we call formalities.

The point of the lecture was to say that the entire Western world lived in a civilization that elevated abstraction over experience—ultimately removing people from the reality of human suffering.

I doubt Camus would change his attitude if he gave that speech today. The world of 2022 is different from the world of Nazi barbarity that Camus reacted to, but it’s not as different as we’d hope. A great power in Europe is trying to conquer a weaker power, driven by some claim to historical greatness and an idea of ​​its geopolitical primacy. It’s hard to look at the images of bombed apartment buildings and mass graves in Ukraine and not think of Europe in the aftermath of World War II.

Camus’ earlier work, when he wrote books like The stranger and The Myth of Sisyphusused to be more about the strangeness of the human experience. But his body of work took a turn when he witnessed the horrors of war, drawing his attention to the ways in which people justify violence and lawlessness. Indeed, Camus’ entire philosophy became a response to human cruelty, which is what makes him such an essential voice at this historic moment.

Against abstraction

Camus was one of the intellectual stars of mid-century Paris. But unlike contemporaries like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, he was always an outsider. Almost everyone in that milieu went to one of the elite universities, such as the Sorbonne or the École Normale Supérieure. Camus grew up in a working-class neighborhood in French Algeria and attended a public university.

He grew up as a French citizen in Algeria, where most of the inhabitants were native Arabs and Berbers who had lived there centuries before the French showed up. Living as a French citizen in a colonized state helped shape his philosophy and politics. He loved the French who were born in Algeria and found a home there, but he was also outraged by the treatment of Arabs and Berbers – hundreds of thousands of whom were killed by French troops and spent years condemning it as a young reporter for a left-wing newspaper.

The Algerian experience made Camus wary of either-or approaches to politics. After witnessing the extremism on both sides – the French occupiers and their Arab resistance fighters – and the cycles of violence and retaliation, he was determined to find space for dialogue, or at least set limits to killing.

No one, he insisted, had a monopoly on truth or justice. “I want Arab militants to maintain the justice of their cause by condemning the massacres of civilians, just as I want the French to protect their rights and their future by openly condemning the massacres of repression.” He was widely derided as moderate for this stance (even when he lobbied behind the scenes on behalf of countless political prisoners during Algeria’s war of independence). I’m not sure if Camus ever responded adequately to the criticism. The best he could say was that the goal was to stop the spiral of violence and retaliation and that meant condemning the kinds of tactics that made a solution impossible.

In the spring of 1940, shortly after Camus moved to Paris, the Germans invaded France. He tried to enlist in the military but was rejected due to an early bout of tuberculosis. Instead, he became editor of the French resistance newspaper Combat, producing some of his best works as a columnist there. It really is that period that crystallized so much of his thinking.

From the beginning of the war, Camus was concerned with the dangers of ideological politics and abstract ideals. “It was impossible,” he wrote, “to convince people who were doing these things not to do them because they were sure of themselves and because there is no way to get an abstraction or, to put it another way, the representative of an ideology.”

Here’s what he saw in Nazism: a political scourge that obeyed its own irreconcilable logic and destroyed the hosts—and everyone else. Beyond that specter, he sensed the looming struggle between capitalist and Marxist ideologies, both of which were based in their own way on indisputable ideas of progress.

After the war, Camus’s philosophical work became even more political. He published his book-length essay The Rebel in 1951, triggering his public fallout with Sartre. Camus condemned the excesses on both sides of the Cold War—a stance that alienated Marxists like Sartre—but he was always interested in closing the gap between theory and action:

The aim of this essay is to reconsider the reality of the present, which is a logical crime, and to examine closely the arguments by which it is justified. … You might think that a period in which seventy million people are uprooted, enslaved or killed over a period of fifty years should be condemned outright. But its guilt still needs to be understood.

The Rebel is a flawed book, and at times it feels too far removed from historical reality. But the book’s weaknesses reflect the doubts at the heart of Camus’s political philosophy. It was not about drawing some sort of moral equivalence between fascism and communism. It was an attempt to understand a peculiar form of nihilism that had come to dominate the 20th century.

For Camus, nihilism wasn’t so much about belief in nothing; it was about refusing to believe in the world as it is. And killing in the service of an idea is as nihilistic as believing that nothing is true and therefore everything is allowed.

The persistence of compassion

Camus thought of this human tendency toward nihilism when he spoke in Columbia in 1946. “Nihilism has been replaced by absolute rationalism,” Camus said, “and the results are the same in both cases.”

The result of Camus’ speech in Columbia was to dispel all fear about the atrocities of World War II and turn it into something of an ennoblement. It’s normal to feel outraged at such horror, but there was a glimmer of comfort here. Camus asks us to think about that common outcry, realize what it says about the value of human life, and commit to being a more engaged human being.

Camus’ 1947 novel The black Plague is all about our shared vulnerability to loss and suffering. Something like a pandemic is engulfing our lives and disrupting our reality. The routines, the diversions, the everyday comforts – it all explodes under the intensity of an emergency. Suddenly everyone is faced with the same situation and there is nothing for it but to resist. “I know it’s an absurd situation,” main character Rieux says at one point, “but we’re all involved in it and we have to accept it as it is.” The same goes for war (Camus himself insisted that the plague in the novel was an allegory for the Nazi occupation).

Camus has had a lot on my mind the last few months. The great irony of Putin’s war is that it seems to have reinforced what it was meant to destroy: the Ukrainian identity. In The RebelCamus says we can see the roots of human solidarity in times of crisis, when people have to resist what is happening, be it a biological plague or a military occupation. And when that happens, we look around us and see others doing the same. We see others saying “no” and “yes” at the same time – no to the destruction of human life, yes to the community that results from that refusal.

In the midst of the horror there is comfort – there is something very satisfying about doing things in the world with other people. The immediacy of a war or natural disaster collapses the barriers between us because it is so clear what needs to be done. And while nothing redeems a tragedy, there is at least some consolation in the solidarity that results.

The problem is that solidarity often slips into the mechanics of everyday life. But the empathy and love that fuel that desire to help in a crisis is a constant possibility. Camus thought this didn’t happen automatically – it was a choice we all had to make – and that we could bring the spirit of collective action to the post-crisis world. He also thought that dealing with other people, caring about other people, made us happy and thus was an antidote to despair.

What is striking about Camus is that he presents life itself as a kind of emergency in the sense that it could end at any moment. The decision to live in spite of that realization carries with it a moral obligation: to add nothing to the already arbitrary suffering in the world. If we see that principle being violated, we can renew our commitment to it.

The antidote to despair

Camus always said he was pessimistic about the human condition and optimistic about humanity. Maybe that’s a contradiction. But I always thought the deeper point was much simpler: We are born into a world that seems to have no purpose, which we know will end, and yet we go on living.

For Camus, that meant there is something in humanity that transcends the fact of our condition. That is the source of our collective dignity – and it is the part of humanity that must always be defended.

From a distance, this may all sound a bit abstract. What should the average person do about all the horrors in the world? You can look everywhere — from the conflicts in Ukraine and Yemen and Syria to the barbarity of mass shootings in places like Uvalde, Texas — and be shocked by the suffering, but you can’t help it.

That indignation you feel, however, is the spark of ordinary humanity that Camus always affirmed.

At the end of his speech, he told the audience that their job was to take that spark and commit to being a more attentive human being. That meant seeing people as people, not as abstractions or obstacles. It meant not letting our ideas about the world become more important than our experience of the world.

Camus always returned to the myth of Sisyphus as the model of human resistance. The problem wasn’t that Sisyphus had to roll his boulder up a hill forever; it’s that he had to roll it alone. His point was that we all roll our boulders up a hill, and that life makes the most sense when we push together.

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