A curious thing about the legacy of the Algerian-born French writer Albert Camus, whose centennial is November 7, is that, even though he was not in any formal sense a philosopher, he left a deep and lasting philosophical imprint on those of us who read him at an early age. We saw great explanatory power in his ideas and we seized on them to use in our conversations with the world.
Why were we so personally touched by Camus? Elizabeth Hawes, a recent biographer of the Nobel laureate in literature, allows how she felt from the first “a spiritual bond” with him. Friends of mine still speak openly of their “love” of Camus. Does anyone speak of a love of Jean-Paul Sartre? Or Martin Heidegger? I feel an intense gratitude to Camus for giving me the language to express a few basic truths on which to base a life.
It starts with the novels. Like most readers, I began with The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall—and loved them all. As I look back now, I see that although the novels did indeed carry a characterization of his philosophy—Camus said that “all the great novelists are philosophical novelists”—they were not the fulcrum of his philosophical influence. It was the essays that provided the explicit ideas and language we needed to fashion a worldview.
When I began reading Camus in my late teens and 20s, we were being told that the unexamined life was not worth living. Like many others of my age, I had developed serious doubts about the plausibility of the faith I was brought up to believe in—for me, Catholicism. My friends and I sought something more credible. But we were by no means sure of ourselves. The power of authority was strong. Religion offered the security of belonging, the inherent power of belief. And what about the issue of meaning? That was critical. A life without meaning was a life without consequence, a pointless interlude between two black holes in the universe, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Enter Camus and his book-length essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus wrote it when he was also in his 20s, at a time when he was asking the same basic questions, confronting not just the irrationality of life and the silence of the world, but also the specter of his own death from tuberculosis, first in Algeria at age 17, later while convalescing in a French sanitarium. He was 29 years old when Sisyphus was published in Paris in 1942.
The opening lines begin with what Camus called the first and most urgent of questions: If the world has no meaning, why live? If life is pointless, why not end it? Logic would favor suicide. Or so it would seem. But Camus quickly points out that absence of meaning is not why people commit suicide. People who commit suicide already have meaning in their lives. What they don’t have is a life. They commit suicide because they have no dignity, no self-respect, no pleasure, no honor, no value. They are checkmated in humiliation, without the minimal elements of a satisfactory existence.
Camus concludes with a startling statement: “Life will be lived all the better if it has no meaning.” The idea stops us on the page; we have to think about that. Camus is saying, by inference, that the things that make our life worth living are in our own hands. Forget about God. What people need is not an abstract benediction but concrete means to live with dignity and self-respect.
Camus’ idea is not particularly profound, but he states it with a compelling lucidity and force. Unlike most philosophical insights, which slip from our grasp even as we grip to hold on, the Camus observation sticks. What Camus did was give us a language to express what our experience in life had already prepared us to accept; he gave coherence to those inchoate ideas and unspoken assumptions that were roiling deep and unspoken in our minds.
This is not to devalue the brilliance of Camus. He made connections we could never make. He wrote with an audacity that moved us. He had a talent for aphorism that could endow an abstract observation with the delight of an epiphany (“I want to liberate my universe of its phantoms and to people it solely with flesh-and-blood truths whose presence I cannot deny”).
Sisyphus, the first of Camus’ two greatest essays, included practically all the major ideas that he would elaborate over his lifetime. It made Camus famous, however, for his delineation of the absurd. He, more than anyone else, brought the concept into the consciousness of the world. Camus was branded by the absurd. Of course he didn’t originate the idea—it came out of a long heritage of existential thought—but he seized upon it and described in brilliant detail how absurdity pervaded our lives at every level.
It’s worth remembering that Camus meant something quite different from what the vast majority of people thought he was saying about the nature of absurdity. For him, the absurd was not something ludicrous or preposterous; the absurd was a confrontation between our deep-seated desire to know and an irrational world that defied knowing—in his words, “the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart” versus “the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle.”
Camus pried open the doors of perception: we began to see more clearly the nature of our own curiosity, how we are driven instinctively to expand the limits of our knowledge, to search avidly for a wider and wider grasp of the world, as if there were an absolute truth lurking somewhere, probably in a book, waiting to be discovered. We began to see through our innate naïveté to a more sobering realization that frustration is the human condition—there is no one truth, only many truths. Camus legitimizes us. We may wince to acknowledge that we are not endowed with the capacity to find an ultimate answer, that certain things are beyond our reach, but we are also reassured that our experience is universal, not a cause for despair: Quite the reverse, it is fruitful and full of passion.
We discover that being loyal to the truth means being loyal to oneself, and being loyal to oneself, the ultimate consolation in life, gives rise to an unspoken sense of pride and dignity—a hard-won self-esteem that comes unbidden from taking the more rigorous but truer path. By refusing to turn away from the absurd we are able, by a mere act of consciousness, to transmogrify the question of death into an inspiration to live.
Thus we are entranced by Camus’ concept of the absurd. But it is still an observation. We prick up our ears when Camus declares in Sisyphus that the absurd is not a conclusion but a point of departure. It’s not just a diagnosis; it’s also a prescription. A prescription to what?
To revolt, to rebel. Just as the absurd calls upon us to face the truth, the truth calls upon us to rebel. Camus insists in The Rebel that revolt is the only coherent philosophical position in the face of a pitiless absurdity. “Rebellion is born of the spectacle of irrationality confronted with an unjust and incomprehensible condition.” Therefore rebellion demands that the outrage be ended. It gains impetus in the struggle.
The Rebel, which elaborates this theme of revolt, was his second most influential book-length essay, first published in France in 1951, six years before he received the Nobel Prize. In Sisyphus he gave us a worldview; in The Rebel he reveals a philosophy of politics.
Camus believes “defiance in rebellion” restores majesty to life. Majesty, because behind each act of rebellion, he says, lies “a strange form of love.” Every act of rebellion tacitly acknowledges a positive value—to rebel against the government is to acknowledge that government has value. For many of us this idea was a discovery. Rebellion is not a negation but a positive assertion. It is a positive assertion for life, for human dignity, for respect, for justice.
But rebellion, Camus writes, is not revolution. Rebellion brings to light limits, moderation, mesure. Rebellion is at odds with the excess of revolution. “The only system of thought which is faithful to its origins: thought that recognizes its limits,” he asserts. Revolution treats people as a means to an end; rebellion treats people as an end in itself. Revolution is top-down; rebellion is bottom-up. Revolution leads to terror; rebellion underscores the value of dignity in each individual, everywhere. Revolution is inspired by resentment, rebellion by love.
As a result, Camus writes, when virtue “separate[s] itself from reality,” it becomes evil; when people profess absolute innocence and divine inspiration they become dangerous. They become agents of the violent excess we see in eternal adolescence, in contrast to the virile strength of moderation.
I pay homage, then, to Camus on his centennial. More than any other writer, he enables us to expand our consciousness of freedom, to appreciate more fully the sanctity of life, and to recognize the honor of revolt in the face of cruelty and injustice.