In college Camus absorbed Kierkegaard, who, after Augustine, was probably the single greatest Christian influence on his thought. He also studied Schopenhauer and Nietzsche—undoubtedly the two writers who did the most to set him on his own path of defiant pessimism and atheism. Other notable influences include not only the major modern philosophers from the academic curriculum—from Descartes and Spinoza to Bergson—but also, and just as importantly, philosophical writers like Stendhal, Melville, Dostoyevsky, and Kafka.
Here he unfolds what is essentially a hedonistic, indeed almost primitivistic, celebration of nature and the life of the senses. In the Romantic poetic tradition of writers like Rilke and Wallace Stevens, he offers a forceful rejection of all hereafters and an emphatic embrace of the here and now.
There is no salvation, he argues, no transcendence; there is only the enjoyment of consciousness and natural being. One life, this life, is enough. Sky and sea, mountain and desert, have their own beauty and magnificence and constitute a sufficient heaven. In the first place, the Camus of Nuptials is still a young man of twenty-five, aflame with youthful joie de vivre.
He favors a life of impulse and daring as it was honored and practiced in both Romantic literature and in the streets of Belcourt. Recently married and divorced, raised in poverty and in close quarters, beset with health problems, this young man develops an understandable passion for clear air, open space, colorful dreams, panoramic vistas, and the breath-taking prospects and challenges of the larger world.
Consequently, the Camus of the period is a decidedly different writer from the Camus who will ascend the dais at Stockholm nearly twenty years later. The young Camus is more of a sensualist and pleasure-seeker, more of a dandy and aesthete, than the more hardened and austere figure who will endure the Occupation while serving in the French underground. He is a writer passionate in his conviction that life ought to be lived vividly and intensely—indeed rebelliously to use the term that will take on increasing importance in his thought.
He is also a writer attracted to causes, though he is not yet the author who will become world-famous for his moral seriousness and passionate commitment to justice and freedom. All of which is understandable. After all, the Camus of the middle s had not yet witnessed and absorbed the shattering spectacle and disillusioning effects of the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Fascism, Hitlerism, and Stalinism, the coming into being of total war and weapons of mass destruction, and the terrible reign of genocide and terror that would characterize the period It is proudly and inconsolably pessimistic, but not in a polemical or overbearing way.
It is unbending, hardheaded, determinedly skeptical. It is tolerant and respectful of world religious creeds, but at the same time wholly unsympathetic to them. In the end it is an affirmative philosophy that accepts and approves, and in its own way blesses, our dreadful mortality and our fundamental isolation in the world. Regardless of whether he is producing drama, fiction, or non-fiction, Camus in his mature writings nearly always takes up and re-explores the same basic philosophical issues.
These recurrent topoi constitute the key components of his thought. They include themes like the Absurd, alienation, suicide, and rebellion that almost automatically come to mind whenever his name is mentioned. Hence any summary of his place in modern philosophy would be incomplete without at least a brief discussion of these ideas and how they fit together to form a distinctive and original world-view.
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What then is meant by the notion of the Absurd? Although that perception is certainly consistent with his formula. Instead, as he emphasizes and tries to make clear, the Absurd expresses a fundamental disharmony, a tragic incompatibility, in our existence. So here we are: poor creatures desperately seeking hope and meaning in a hopeless, meaningless world. It arises from the human demand for clarity and transcendence on the one hand and a cosmos that offers nothing of the kind on the other. Such is our fate: we inhabit a world that is indifferent to our sufferings and deaf to our protests.
Two of these he condemns as evasions, and the other he puts forward as a proper solution. The first choice is blunt and simple: physical suicide. If we decide that a life without some essential purpose or meaning is not worth living, we can simply choose to kill ourselves. Camus rejects this choice as cowardly. In his terms it is a repudiation or renunciation of life, not a true revolt. The second choice is the religious solution of positing a transcendent world of solace and meaning beyond the Absurd.
In effect, instead of removing himself from the absurd confrontation of self and world like the physical suicide, the religious believer simply removes the offending world and replaces it, via a kind of metaphysical abracadabra, with a more agreeable alternative. Since the Absurd in his view is an unavoidable, indeed defining, characteristic of the human condition, the only proper response to it is full, unflinching, courageous acceptance. Doomed to eternal labor at his rock, fully conscious of the essential hopelessness of his plight, Sisyphus nevertheless pushes on.
Kafka and Existentialism
In doing so he becomes for Camus a superb icon of the spirit of revolt and of the human condition. To rise each day to fight a battle you know you cannot win, and to do this with wit, grace, compassion for others, and even a sense of mission, is to face the Absurd in a spirit of true heroism. Over the course of his career, Camus examines the Absurd from multiple perspectives and through the eyes of many different characters—from the mad Caligula, who is obsessed with the problem, to the strangely aloof and yet simultaneously self-absorbed Meursault, who seems indifferent to it even as he exemplifies and is finally victimized by it.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus traces it in specific characters of legend and literature Don Juan, Ivan Karamazov and also in certain character types the Actor, the Conqueror , all of who may be understood as in some way a version or manifestation of Sisyphus, the archetypal absurd hero. For Kierkegaard, however, the Absurd describes not an essential and universal human condition, but the special condition and nature of religious faith—a paradoxical state in which matters of will and perception that are objectively impossible can nevertheless be ultimately true.
What is revolt? Simply defined, it is the Sisyphean spirit of defiance in the face of the Absurd. More technically and less metaphorically, it is a spirit of opposition against any perceived unfairness, oppression, or indignity in the human condition. In fact Camus argues at considerable length to show that an act of conscientious revolt is ultimately far more than just an individual gesture or an act of solitary protest. Indeed for him it was more like a fundamental article of his humanist faith. In any case it represents one of the core principles of his ethics and is one of the tenets that sets his philosophy apart from existentialism.
True revolt, then, is performed not just for the self but also in solidarity with and out of compassion for others. And for this reason, Camus is led to conclude that revolt too has its limits.
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If it begins with and necessarily involves a recognition of human community and a common human dignity, it cannot, without betraying its own true character, treat others as if they were lacking in that dignity or not a part of that community. Meursault, the laconic narrator of The Stranger , is the most obvious example.
He seems to observe everything, even his own behavior, from an outside perspective. Like an anthropologist, he records his observations with clinical detachment at the same time that he is warily observed by the community around him.
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Camus came by this perspective naturally. This outside view, the perspective of the exile, became his characteristic stance as a writer. Throughout his writing career, Camus showed a deep interest in questions of guilt and innocence. Once again Meursault in The Stranger provides a striking example. Is he legally innocent of the murder he is charged with? Or is he technically guilty? On the one hand, there seems to have been no conscious intention behind his action. Indeed the killing takes place almost as if by accident, with Meursault in a kind of absent-minded daze, distracted by the sun.
From this point of view, his crime seems surreal and his trial and subsequent conviction a travesty. The significantly named Jean-Baptiste Clamence a voice in the wilderness calling for clemency and forgiveness is tortured by guilt in the wake of a seemingly casual incident. While strolling home one drizzly November evening, he shows little concern and almost no emotional reaction at all to the suicidal plunge of a young woman into the Seine. But afterwards the incident begins to gnaw at him, and eventually he comes to view his inaction as typical of a long pattern of personal vanity and as a colossal failure of human sympathy on his part.
Wracked by remorse and self-loathing, he gradually descends into a figurative hell. In the final sections of the novel, amid distinctly Christian imagery and symbolism, he declares his crucial insight that, despite our pretensions to righteousness, we are all guilty. Hence no human being has the right to pass final moral judgment on another.
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In a final twist, Clamence asserts that his acid self-portrait is also a mirror for his contemporaries. Hence his confession is also an accusation—not only of his nameless companion who serves as the mute auditor for his monologue but ultimately of the hypocrite lecteur as well. At heart a nature-worshipper, and by instinct a skeptic and non-believer, Camus nevertheless retained a lifelong interest and respect for Christian philosophy and literature.
In particular, he seems to have recognized St. Augustine and Kierkegaard as intellectual kinsmen and writers with whom he shared a common passion for controversy, literary flourish, self-scrutiny, and self-dramatization. Christian images, symbols, and allusions abound in all his work probably more so than in the writing of any other avowed atheist in modern literature , and Christian themes—judgment, forgiveness, despair, sacrifice, passion, and so forth—permeate the novels. Meursault and Clamence, it is worth noting, are presented not just as sinners, devils, and outcasts, but in several instances explicitly, and not entirely ironically, as Christ figures.
Meanwhile alongside and against this leitmotif of Christian images and themes, Camus sets the main components of his essentially pagan worldview. Like Nietzsche, he maintains a special admiration for Greek heroic values and pessimism and for classical virtues like courage and honor. What might be termed Romantic values also merit particular esteem within his philosophy: passion, absorption in pure being, an appreciation for and indeed a willingness to revel in raw sensory experience, the glory of the moment, the beauty of the world.
Can an absurd world have intrinsic value? Is authentic pessimism compatible with the view that there is an essential dignity to human life? They are almost a hallmark of his philosophical style. Oracular and high-flown, they clearly have more rhetorical force than logical potency. Surprisingly, the sentiment here, a commonplace of the Enlightenment and of traditional liberalism, is much closer in spirit to the exuberant secular humanism of the Italian Renaissance than to the agnostic skepticism of contemporary post-modernism.
A primary theme of early twentieth-century European literature and critical thought is the rise of modern mass civilization and its suffocating effects of alienation and dehumanization. This became a pervasive theme by the time Camus was establishing his literary reputation. Anxiety over the fate of Western culture, already intense, escalated to apocalyptic levels with the sudden emergence of fascism, totalitarianism, and new technologies of coercion and death. He responded to the occasion with typical force and eloquence.
Even his concept of the Absurd becomes multiplied by a social and economic world in which meaningless routines and mind-numbing repetitions predominate. The drudgery of Sisyphus is mirrored and amplified in the assembly line, the business office, the government bureau, and especially in the penal colony and concentration camp. In line with this theme, the ever-ambiguous Meursault in The Stranger can be understood as both a depressing manifestation of the newly emerging mass personality that is, as a figure devoid of basic human feelings and passions and, conversely, as a lone hold-out, a last remaining specimen of the old Romanticism—and hence a figure who is viewed as both dangerous and alien by the robotic majority.
Similarly, The Plague can be interpreted, on at least one level, as an allegory in which humanity must be preserved from the fatal pestilence of mass culture, which converts formerly free, autonomous, independent-minded human beings into a soulless new species.