Albert Camus: The philosopher who resisted despair

In March 1946, French philosopher and novelist Albert Camus crossed 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 stature as an artist and member of the French resistance had grown considerably during the war.

The Nazis had been defeated the previous year and it was believed that some sort of final victory over fascism had been won. But in his address, Camus did not oblige this feeling. The philosopher, who was to speak of French theater and philosophy, lingered on the pathologies that produced Nazism. He went further, claiming that the post-war world had fallen into complacency. The war was over but a certain kind of plague persisted:

Contemporary man tends more and more to put between him and nature an abstract and complex machinery which throws him into solitude. … With so much paper, so many offices and civil servants, we are creating a world in which human warmth has disappeared. Where no one can come into contact with anyone except through a maze of what we call formalities.

The point of the talk was to say that the entire Western world lived in a civilization that elevated abstractions above experience – which ultimately distanced people from the reality of human suffering.

I doubt that Camus would change his posture if he gave this speech today. The world of 2022 is different from the world of Nazi barbarism that Camus was reacting against, but it’s not as different as we hoped. A great power in Europe tries to conquer a weaker power motivated by a claim to historical greatness and a notion of its geopolitical primacy. It’s hard to look at the images of bombed-out apartment buildings and mass graves in Ukraine and not think of Europe in the aftermath of World War II.

Camus’ early work, when he was writing books like the stranger and The myth of Sisyphushas been more about the strangeness of the human experience. But his work took a turn when he witnessed the horrors of war, his attention fixed on how people justify violence and anarchy. Indeed, all of Camus’ philosophy has become a response to human brutality, and that’s what makes him such a vital 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 this milieu has gone to one of the elite universities, like 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 arrival of the French. 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 called Algeria home, but he was also outraged by the treatment of Arabs and Berbers, hundreds of thousands of whom were killed by French forces. and spent years condemning him as a young reporter for a leftist newspaper.

The Algerian experience made Camus wary of either approach to politics. Having witnessed extremism on both sides – the French occupiers and their Arab resisters – and the cycles of violence and reprisals, he was determined to find space for dialogue, or at least impose limits on the slaughter.

No one, he insisted, had a monopoly on truth or justice. “I want Arab activists to preserve 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 a moderate for this stance (even though he lobbied behind the scenes on behalf of countless political prisoners during Algeria’s war of independence). I’m not sure Camus ever had an adequate response to criticism. The best he could do was to say that the goal was to stop the spiral of violence and retaliation and that that meant condemning the kind of tactics that made resolution impossible.

In the spring of 1940, shortly after Camus moved to Paris, the Germans invaded France. He attempted to enlist in the army but was turned down due to onset of tuberculosis. He instead became editor of the French resistance newspaper, Combat, and produced some of his best work there as a columnist. It was really this period that crystallized much of his thinking.

From the start of the war, Camus was preoccupied with the vagaries of ideological politics and abstract ideals. “It was impossible,” he wrote, “to persuade people who did these things not to do them because they were sure of themselves and because there is no way of persuading an abstraction, or, for to put it another way, the representative of an ideology”.

This is what he saw in Nazism: a political scourge that obeyed its own relentless logic and destroyed hosts – and everyone else. Beyond this spectrum, he could sense the impending battle between capitalist and Marxist ideologies, which in their own way were based on unquestionable ideas of progress.

After the war, Camus’ philosophical work became even more political. He published his book-length essay The rebel in 1951, which precipitated his public falling out with Sartre. Camus condemned the excesses on both sides of the Cold War – a position that alienated Marxists like Sartre – but he was always interested in bridging the gap between theory and action:

The purpose of this essay is once again to confront the reality of the present, which is the logical crime, and to examine in detail the arguments that justify it. … One would think that a period which, in the space of fifty years, uproots, enslaves or kills seventy million human beings must be condemned from the outset. But his guilt has yet to be understood.

The rebel is a flawed book, and it sometimes feels too removed from historical realities. But the book’s weaknesses reflect the doubt at the heart of Camus’ political philosophy. It was not a question of establishing a sort of moral equivalence between fascism and communism. It was an attempt to understand a particular form of nihilism that had come to dominate the 20th century.

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

The persistence of compassion

This human tendency toward nihilism was on Camus’ mind when he spoke at Columbia in 1946. “Nihilism has been replaced by absolute rationalism,” Camus said, “and in both cases the results are the same. “

The result of Camus’ speech at Columbia was to take all the angst of the atrocities of World War II and turn it into something ennobling. It is natural to be outraged by such horror, but there was a shred of consolation there. Camus asks us to reflect on this common outrage, realize what it says about the value of human life, and commit to being a more engaged human being.

Camus’ 1947 novel Plague is all about our common vulnerability to loss and suffering. Something like a pandemic sweeps through our lives and disrupts our reality. The routines, the diversions, the daily comforts – everything explodes under the intensity of urgency. Suddenly, everyone is facing the same situation and there is nothing left to do but resist. “I know it’s an absurd situation,” protagonist Rieux says at one point, “but we’re all in on 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 of Nazi occupation).

Camus has been on my mind a lot over the past few months. The great irony of Putin’s war is that it seems to have strengthened what it was meant to destroy: Ukrainian identity. In The rebel, Camus says we can see the roots of human solidarity in times of crisis, when people have to resist what is happening, whether it is a biological plague or a military occupation. And when that happens, we look around and see others doing the same thing. We see others saying ‘no’ and ‘yes’ at the same time – no to the destruction of human life, yes to the community that emerges from this refusal.

In the midst of the horror is solace – there’s something deeply satisfying about doing things in the world with other people. The immediacy of war or natural disaster breaks down the barriers between us because it is so clear what needs to be done. And even if nothing redeems a tragedy, there is at least some comfort in the solidarity that emanates from it.

The problem is that solidarity often slips into the mechanics of everyday life. But the empathy and love that fuels this desire to help in a crisis is a constant possibility. Camus believed that this didn’t happen automatically – it was a choice we each had to make – and that we could carry the spirit of collective action into the post-crisis world. He also believed that acting with others, caring about others, made us happy and was therefore an antidote to despair.

What is striking about Camus is that he imagines life itself as a kind of emergency in the sense that it can end at any moment. The decision to live despite this realization carries a moral obligation: not to add to the already random suffering in the world. Seeing this principle violated is a way of renewing our commitment to it.

The antidote to despair

Camus always said he was pessimistic about the human condition and optimistic about humanity. It may be a contradiction. But I’ve always thought the deeper point was much simpler: we’re born into a world that seems to have no purpose, that we know will end, and yet we live on anyway.

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

This all might seem a bit abstract from a distance. What’s an average person supposed to do about all the horrors in the world? You can look anywhere – from the conflicts in Ukraine, Yemen and Syria to the barbarity of mass shootings in places like Uvalde, Texas – and be horrified by the suffering, but there’s nothing you can do about it.

This outrage you feel, however – it’s the spark of common humanity that Camus has 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 caring human being. It meant seeing people as persons, 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 a model of human mistrust. The problem wasn’t that Sisyphus had to roll his rock down a hill forever; is that he had to drive on his own. His point was that we all roll our rocks up a hill, and life is more meaningful when we push together.

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