Camus’ mortality lives on
Happy Birthday, Camus!
Thursday, Nov. 7, was the 100th birthday of Albert Camus, one of the most profound writers of the 20th Century. He is also one of the two great moralists of the century: He wrote about our philosophical side, while George Orwell discussed our political side.
During World War II, Camus was a member of the French Resistance. In 1957, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature for, “Clear-sighted earnestness [that] illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.” He died in a car crash in 1960 at only 46 years old.
Most people know him from his novella “The Stranger.” It’s commonly assigned in literature classes. But his whole body of work creates a philosophy that initially seems depressing but ultimately celebrates the human struggle.
Camus was an atheist and defined his attitude toward the universe by its indifference. Most philosophy we read is dry, abstract and technical, but Camus was always more interested in the human element. He said we constantly look for meaning from the universe, but the universe refuses to respond. He calls this unreasonable expectation, “The Absurd.”
Think of the Biblical Job. His wife, children, friends, farm animals and crops are all dead by plague. He cries out for an explanation, but this time, instead of God’s voice, the only response is silence. There is no justification.
Or consider Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot.” The two main characters are waiting for Godot to arrive. They don’t know who he is or why he’s so important, but they feel they must wait. Godot never arrives, but they have nothing else to do. That unfulfilled anticipation is Camus’s Absurd.
In light of this, Camus searched for a purpose for life, eventually arguing that we have to live with the uneasy tension that we may never have a definite meaning. But the key is that we have to keep searching and questioning. The struggle itself — to define who we are, to rebel against unjust authority — is what creates that meaning.
Camus himself always fought for causes. He resisted the Nazis in France, opposed the spread of communism (which caused philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to end their friendship), and even spoke out against the atomic bombings of Japan. Camus never took sides. He always tried to cut through the issues to their moral core.
Camus compared us to Sisyphus from Greek myths. Sisyphus is condemned to fail at rolling a boulder uphill, but his will to continue becomes who he is. Camus concludes, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
This is why he’s so fascinating a writer. He doesn’t rely on God as an easy out to his issues. He isn’t even sure that there are solid answers. But to him, that isn’t the point. Life itself is his starting principle, and in a century with unprecedented mechanical slaughter, he wanted to re-establish that central fact.
It’s a philosophy of perseverance. No matter what happens, bear down and keep moving forward. It’s not necessarily shiny and happy all the way. It admits hardships and doesn’t promise a happy ending. But the key fact is that we never give up.
My favorite quote by Camus is from “The Rebel,” and I think it sums up his idea of life as a struggle that must be fought: “We all carry within us our places of exile, our crimes and our ravages. But our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to fight them in ourselves and in others.”