Camus, Albert (1913–1960)

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Albert Camus, the French novelist and essayist, was born in Mondovi, Algeria, and was educated at the University of Algiers. From 1934 to 1939 he was active writing and producing plays for a theater group he had founded in Algiers. About the same time he began his career as a journalist, and in 1940 he moved to Paris. During the German occupation of France, Camus was active in the resistance movement, and after the liberation of Paris he became the editor of the previously clandestine newspaper Combat. His literary fame dates from the publication in 1942 of his first novel, L'étranger (The Stranger ), and an essay titled Le mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus ). During the immediate postwar period Camus was deeply involved in political activity, and his name was for a time closely associated with that of Jean-Paul Sartre and with the existentialist movement. In 1947 he published a second major novel, La peste (The Plague ), and, in 1951, L'homme revolté (The Rebel ), an essay on the idea of revolt. The latter book provoked a bitter controversy between Camus and Sartre, which ended with a severance of relations between them. In 1957 Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. His last major work was La chute (The Fall ), a novel that appeared in 1956. In 1960 Camus was killed in an automobile accident.

Although Camus studied philosophy for a number of years at the University of Algiers, he was not a philosopher in any technical or academic sense. Nevertheless, virtually all his literary work was deeply influenced by philosophical ideas, and in two major essays, The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel, he undertook a more or less systematic exposition and defense of the moral attitudes that had in each case found expression in his novels and plays. The Myth of Sisyphus can thus be regarded as in some sense a philosophical commentary on The Stranger, and The Rebel has clear affinities with The Plague. There can be no doubt that there are profound differences between the views set forth in these two essays. Camus's philosophical career was essentially a movement away from the nihilism of The Myth of Sisyphus toward the humanism of The Rebel. Ideas that had been present in his work from the beginning, in one form or another, were to retain their place there; but he progressively revised his views of their relative importance within the moral life.

Although Camus's name is often associated with contemporary European phenomenology and existentialism, there is no evidence that he was ever deeply influenced by, or very much interested in, the doctrines of Edmund Husserl or Martin Heidegger or even Sartre; and on occasion he expressed himself as having distinct reservations with respect to existentialism as a philosophy. In fact, his philosophical thought was formed on much more traditional models. His deepest interest was in those great figures in the Western philosophical traditionamong them Socrates, Blaise Pascal, Benedict de Spinoza, and Friedrich Nietzschewhose lives and personalities were all reflected in their philosophizing. If he came, as he did, to reject the exaggerated claims that philosophers have made for human reason and subscribed to many of the criticisms that contemporary existentialists have made of the classical tradition, he continued to regard the striving of the great thinkers of the past to achieve a total conception of reality and of the human relation to the world as reflecting one of the deepest human aspirations and to view its inevitable failure as marking a crisis in man's relation to himself.

On the other hand, Camus does not appear to have had any theoretical interest in the analysis of philosophical problems. His interest in philosophy was almost exclusively moral in character; when he had come to the conclusion that none of the speculative systems of the past could provide any positive guidance for human life or any guarantee of the validity of human values, he found himself in the situation that he describes in The Myth of Sisyphus. This essay is ostensibly a consideration of the problem of suicide, which Camus describes as the only serious philosophical problem. The question he asks is whether it makes any sense to go on living once the meaninglessness of human life is fully understood and assimilated. Camus gives a number of somewhat different formulations of what this meaninglessness or "absurdity" comprises. At bottom, it is the failure of the world to satisfy the human demand that it provide a basis for human valuesfor our personal ideals and for our judgments of right and wrong.

It is very important for an understanding of Camus's point of view to see how closely he thought ordinary moral attitudes are dependent upon metaphysical belief in some kind of congruence between human values and the nature of reality. The external supports on which the validity of moral distinctions rested in the past were, of course, primarily religious in character; but Camus held, as do many others, that with the decline of religious belief in the modern period a number of secular religionsin particular, Hegelian and Marxist historicismhave attempted to tie values to reality by means of a postulated schedule of historical development that guarantees their eventual realization. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus presupposes, without very much argument, that none of these interpretations of reality as value-supporting can survive critical scrutiny; the tenability of any purposive or evaluative attitude on the part of human beingsthe only moral beingsis thus called into question. It is this isolation of the human being as an evaluative and purposive being in a world that affords no support to such attitudes that Camus calls the absurdity of the human condition.

Camus maintained that suicide cannot be regarded as an adequate response to the experience of absurdity. The reason he gives is that suicide deals with absurdity simply by suppressing one of the two polesthe human being and the "world"that together produce the tension described above. Suicide is thus an admission of incapacity, and such an admission is inconsistent with that human pride to which Camus openly appeals. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that "there is nothing equal to the spectacle of human pride." Only by going on living in the face of their own absurdity can human beings achieve their full stature. For Camus, as for Nietzsche, whose influence at this stage of Camus's thought is very marked, the conscious espousal of the metaphysical arbitrariness of human purpose and action transforms nihilism from a passive despair into a way of revolting against and transcending the world's indifference to man.

It is evident that in The Myth of Sisyphus Camus believed that absurdity, in the sense of recognition and acceptance of the fact that there are no metaphysically guaranteed directives for conduct, could by itself generate a positive ethic. In particular, the ideal of human fraternity was connected with Camus's heroic nihilism on the grounds that to accept oneself as the sole guarantor of one's own values would necessarily involve accepting a principle of respect for other human beings. It is here, however, that Camus encountered a very serious difficulty. He found it necessary to show by means of examples just what the specific implications for conduct of his doctrine of absurdity are and also make it plausible that these implications are consistent with the humanistic ideal to which he as an individual is clearly devoted. In The Myth of Sisyphus, however, the specimens that are offered of the mode of life appropriate to the "absurd" man bear only a rather remote affinity to that ideal or, for that matter, to any general social ethic. Camus did not demonstrate satisfactorily either that the kind of life that followed from an acceptance of nihilism bore any clear relation to his own moral ideals or that a life dedicated to these ideals could be adequately motivated by an acceptance of absurdity.

What is clear is that Camus, from the beginning, regarded certain responses to absurdity as morally unacceptable. In his "Letters to a German Friend" (19431944), he interpreted Nazism as one reaction to the very nihilistic vision of the world that he himself had come to accept. He then went on to condemn it in the severest terms for its denial of human fraternity. Even at this stage in the development of his thought, Camus insisted that an authentic revolt against the human condition had to be a revolt in the name of the solidarity of man with man.

In the character of Meursault, the "hero" of The Stranger, this tension between Camus's nihilistic vision and his ethical demands becomes particularly clear. Meursault is presented as a man characterized by the moral equivalent of achromatic vision. Although he is not at all given to philosophical reflection, he views the whole conventional human apparatus of moral distinctions, of justice and of guilt, as a kind of senseless rigmarole with no basis in reality. He stands, in fact, outside the whole moral world in a peculiar state that Camus describes as "innocence," apparently because in a world that affords no transcendental sanction for human judgments of right and wrong there can be no real guilt. His relationship to his mother and to his mistress are devoid of feeling, and he eventually kills an Arab for no particular reason. But at the very end of the novel, after Meursault, facing execution, has burst into a rage against a priest who tries to persuade him to accept the reality of his guilt and the possibility of redemption, there is a long semipoetic passage in which he declares his love of the world and its sensuous immediacy and speaks tenderly and almost lovingly of his fellow men and of their common fate, which he shares. As a number of critics have noted, there is nothing in the novel that prepares one for this passage. Camus, however, clearly wishes to persuade us that these two aspects of Meursault's character are not just consistent but intimately related to one another; but again he experienced difficulty in showing how a positive ethic of human fraternity can be generated by a nihilistic attitude toward all values.

There can be little doubt that in the years immediately following the publication of The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus Camus substantially revised his view of the moral significance of value-nihilism. Increasingly, it was the injustice and cruelty of man to man that aroused Camus to action; by comparison with the hideous but remediable evils of human society, the cosmic injustice of the human condition seems to have lost some of its obsessive hold on his mind. Like many of the existentialists, Camus still tried to present these two revoltsthe revolt against the human condition and the revolt against human injusticeas essentially continuous with one another. Nevertheless, he came to feel that the relationship between these two revolts had been misconceived and that this misconception was at the heart of twentieth-century totalitarianism, to which he was as resolutely opposed in its communistic as in its Nazi version. Camus gradually came to believe that the reason for the extraordinary miscarriage of the Soviet revolution was that the revolutionary tradition had its roots in a revolt against the human condition as such, and that such a revolt can never lead to human fraternity but leads instead to a new enslavement of man by man. This radical revision of his earlier views found its full expression in Camus's second main philosophical essay, The Rebel.

The Rebel begins with a consideration of the problem of murder or, more exactly, with the problem of political justification for the killing of human beings. For Camus, political action is essentially violent revolt, and it thus inescapably raises the question of whether one has the right to take the life of another human being. Camus's answer is that taking a human life is inconsistent with true revolt since, as he now makes clear, that revolt involves the implicit assertion of a supraindividual value, the value of human life. It is not altogether clear how this rejection of violence is to be interpreted, but it is interesting to note the approval that Camus expresses in his play The Just (1950) of the Russian terrorist Kaliaev who murders the Grand Duke Serge but insists that he himself pay for his act with his life in order to affirm the moral inadmissibility of murder. In any case, the revolt that Camus still advocates in The Rebel is presented there as ethically inspired from its inception. He rejects, however, what he now calls "metaphysical revolt," which he sees as a radical refusal of the human condition as such, resulting either in suicide or in a demonic attempt to depose God and remake the world in the image of man. Its deepest motive is not a love for humankind but a desire to destroy the world as it is. The order it attempts to impose on the new world it constructs is informed by no ethically creative principle because, as Camus now declares, nihilism can yield no such principle. A nightmare state of power for power's sake is the ultimate fruit of metaphysical revolt.

In order to substantiate this thesis, Camus reviews the intellectual history of the past two hundred years and discusses in detail a number of poets, philosophers, and practicing revolutionaries whom he regards as the chief fomentors of metaphysical revolt. Among them are the Marquis de Sade, Max Stirner, Nietzsche, le Comte de Lautréamont, Baron de Saint-Just, and Sergei Nechaiev, to mention only a few. G. W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx are assigned a central role in the construction of a view of history and of the state that exempts man from all moral controls and that proposes as the only valid ideal man's total mastery of his own fate. The two political revolutions that Camus thinks were inspired by the ethos of metaphysical revolt are the French and the Russian, although the Nazi "revolution" represents some of the same tendencies in even purer form. Camus considers none of the modern revolutions that did not eventuate in political terrorism, and he makes no attempt to evaluate or even consider other kinds of explanation of the revolutions that he does discuss. As many critics have remarked, the apocalyptic character of the historical tableau that he presents is in good part due to a principle of selection that seems to reflect a personal predilection for extreme or crisis situations rather than any objective assessment of the real influence that the representatives of metaphysical revolt may have had on the course of events.

Camus's novel The Plague, which appeared four years before The Rebel, gives clear indications of his reevaluation of nihilism. The plague that descends on Oran symbolizes not just the Nazi occupation of France or even totalitarianism as a political system but all of the many forms that injustice and inhumanity can assume. A variety of reactions to this "plague" is presented; but it is Dr. Rieux, the organizer of the "sanitation squads" that fight the plague, who represents Camus's ideal of moral action. Rieux is not inspired by any dream of a total conquest of evil. Instead, his conception of himself is modest and limited; throughout the struggle he retains his sense of humanity and his capacity for love and for happiness. The doctor is in fact what many have said Camus aspired to be, a kind of "saint without a God."

If The Rebel and The Plague representas they seem to doCamus's mature position, it would appear that this position differs from traditional nonreligious humanism mainly by virtue of the terminology of revolt that Camus retained even after he had so thoroughly moralized his conception of revolt as to make most of the normal connotations of that term inapposite. As he himself says in The Rebel, the true significance of nihilism is negative; it clears the ground for new construction but by itself provides no principle of action. As such it survives in Camus's view of the moral world mainly as a prophylactic against the kind of mystification, religious or metaphysical, by which a man tries to rid himself of his radical contingency and confer upon himself a cosmic status that makes it easier for him to be a human being. Camus was a pitiless critic of all such forms of shamming, and he was convinced that their general tendency was to enable their practitioners to evade the responsibility that goes with moral self-ownership and to confirm them in their inhumanity to their fellow men. Nihilism would seem, in Camus's final view, to be a kind of immunizing experience, although one with very considerable dangers of its own, by virtue of which one is enabled to grasp the ideal of human fraternity in its pure form without the entanglements of ideology and doctrine by which it has so often been disfigured. Camus's attitude toward life is thus, at bottom, simply a stubborn moral integrity and a deep sympathy with his fellow men, to which the somewhat meretricious rhetoric of revolt adds very little. At the same time, however, it must be conceded that the absence or unavailability of absolute values, whatever these might be, remains for Camus anything but trivial, and it pervades the atmosphere of the humanistic ethic that he erected in their place.

The work of Camus's last years reinforces one's impression that an essentially nonmetaphysical and strongly moralistic humanism was his final view of life. He drew away more and more from direct political action; his refusal to side unambiguously with the Algerian rebels brought him the bitter reproaches of many former associates, among them Sartre. In 1960 in Réflexions sur la peine capitale ("Reflections on the Guillotine"), Camus argued that society does not have the right to put its criminals to death, and one wonders in what circumstances Camus would have regarded war as morally defensible. Finally, in The Fall, he seems to have abandoned political and social action entirely in favor of a conception of evil that no longer situates it in unjust social institutions or in the terms on which man is permitted to exist but in the very heart of man himself. The protagonist, Clamence, is a man whose interior corruptness is concealed from the worldand for a long time from himselfby a life of philanthropy and active sympathy for his fellow men. He is, in fact, a sort of monster whose ultimate self-knowledge leads him to create a sense of guilt and unworthiness in others by advertising his own corruption. In this way he again feeds his obsessive need for superiority, which was the real motive of his earlier philanthropy. It is not justifiable to impute the unrelieved pessimism of this novel to Camus personally, or to suggest, as some have, that he had accepted the doctrine of original sin; but there can be little doubt that his treatment of the character of Clamence is indicative of a further shift in the locus of the struggle between good and evil. The shift, broadly speaking, is one that emphasizes our inner complicity with evil and our lack of the kind of innocence that Camus had always claimed for humanity. Whether this strain would have been developed further in Camus's thought if he had lived longer is a question to which there can be no answer.

See also Ethics, History of; Existentialism; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Heidegger, Martin; Humanism; Husserl, Edmund; Life, Meaning and Value of; Literature, Philosophy of; Marx, Karl; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Nihilism; Pascal, Blaise; Phenomenology; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Socrates, Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Stirner, Max; Suicide.


works by camus

L'etranger. Paris: Gallimard, 1942. Translated by S. Gilbert as The Stranger. New York: Knopf, 1946.

Le mythe de Sisyphe. Paris: Gallimard, 1942. Translated by J. O'Brien as The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Knopf, 1955.

Lettres à un ami allemand. Paris: Gallimard, 1945. Translated by J. O'Brien as "Letters to a German Friend," in Resistance, Rebellion and Death. New York: Knopf, 1961.

La peste. Paris: Gallimard, 1947. Translated by S. Gilbert as The Plague. New York: Knopf, 1948.

Les justes. Paris: Gallimard, 1950. Translated by S. Gilbert as "The Just." In Caligula and Three Other Plays. New York: Knopf, 1958.

L'homme revolté. Paris: Gallimard, 1951. Translated by A. Bower as The Rebel. New York: Knopf, 1954.

La chute. Paris: Gallimard, 1956. Translated by J. O'Brien as The Fall. New York: Knopf, 1957.

Réflexions sur la peine capitale. Paris, 1960. Translated by J. O'Brien as "Reflections on the Guillotine." In Resistance, Rebellion and Death. New York: Knopf, 1961.

Carnets. Paris: Gallimard, 1962. Translated by P. Thody as Notebooks 193542. New York: Knopf, 1963.


Lebesque, Morvan. Portrait of Camus: An Illustrated Biography. New York: Herder and Herder, 1971. Originally published in French, 1963.

Lottman, Herbert R. Albert Camus: A Biography. New York: Doubleday, 1979.

Todd, Oliver. Albert Camus. A Life. New York: Knopf, 1997.

critical studies of camus

Brée, G. Camus. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1959.

Cruickshank, J. Albert Camus and the Literature of Revolt. London: Oxford University Press, 1959. Contains a detailed bibliography.

Knapp, Bettina L., ed. Critical Essays on Albert Camus. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1988.

McBride, Joseph. Albert Camus: Philosopher and Littérateur. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Rhein, Philip H. Albert Camus. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Sprintzen, David. Camus: A Critical Examination. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

Thody, P. Albert Camus: A Study of His Work. London: Hamilton, 1957.

Frederick A. Olafson (1967)

Bibliography updated by Thomas Nenon (2005)