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Albert Camus, 1913-60

Here is an old article from my world history website, macrohistory.com.

During World War II, Albert Camus was one of those on the side of resistance to the German occupation. Following Germany's conquest the French were divided, as they had been before the war. Passions were high. Many continued to see the old war hero Marshall Pétain as a great man, while Pétain sided with Hitler's anti-Semitism and anti-Communism.

On 15 December 1941, Camus witnessed the execution of Gabriel Péri, a prominent French Communist journalist and politician, which, according to Camus, crystallized his revolt against the Germans. Camus was in his late twenties and, like Péri, a journalist. He went "underground" and began writing for the anti-occupation journal Combat.

His writing in Combat encouraged commitment against what he saw as evil. By 1944, Germany was striking out with desperation against its enemies in France. In March, 1944, Camus wrote:

Don't say "'this doesn't concern me." Take note. On January 29, in Malleval in the Isère, a whole village was burned by the Germans on the mere suspicion that compulsory labor holdouts might have taken refuge there. Twelve houses were completely destroyed, even bodies discovered, fifteen men arrested. On December 18 at Chaveroche in Corrèze, five kilometers from Ussel, where a German officer was wounded in murky circumstances, five hostages were shot and two farms put to the torch. On February 4 in Grole, in the Aine, Germans, after failing to find the holdouts they were searching for, shot the mayor and two leading citizens. These dead Frenchmen were people who might have said, "This doesn't concern me." But the Germans decided that it did concern them, and on that day they demonstrated that it concerned all of us. (Underground No.55)

Camus also wrote:

We notice that everywhere, together with freedom, justice is profaned.

Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children.

It is better to suffer certain injustices than to commit them, even to win wars.

Don't walk in front of me, I may not follow. Don't walk behind me, I may not lead. Walk beside me and be my friend.

I shall tell you a great secret, my friend. Do not wait for the last judgment, it takes place every day.

In his "Letter to a German Friend" he wrote against the idea of my country right or wrong:

There are means that cannot be excused. And I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice. I don't want just any greatness for it, particularly a greatness born of blood and falsehood. I want to keep it alive by keeping justice alive.

During the war, Camus also wrote The Stranger, a work of fiction whose main character, Meursault, kills an Arab man. Camus expresses two values: thinking and accepting responsibility for what one does. It is only when Meursault is on trial and faces execution that he becomes contemplative. Facing execution, Meursault refuses to take refuge in religion. He accepts responsibility for his actions and his punishment as a consequence of those actions.

During the war, Camus explained his philosophy in an essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. He wrote:

I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living (what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying). I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.

The mind's first step is to distinguish what is true from what is false.

Camus described life as basically absurd but that it is for us to make something of it. That we eventually die is an absurdity, he believed. Camus saw Sisyphus as a hero who hates death. Sisyphus defies the gods and puts Death in chains so that no human need die. The gods punish Sisyphus: he has to push a rock up a mountain only to see it roll down again. When Sisyphus is marching down the mountain to start anew he becomes conscious of his wretched condition, and this for Camus is Sisyphus' tragic moment. Sisyphus realizes the absurdity of his situation but continues the eternal sequence of pushing the rock up the hill to have it roll down again. To this, Camus adds:

But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises the rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Life, believed Camus, was worth living despite the absurdity. Does realization of the absurd require suicide? Camus answers: "No. It requires revolt." Camus believed in engaging and enjoying life, including sports. Camus had been a passionate football (soccer) player, and he had passionate attachments to women. He added:

If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.

Camus believed that there was more to admire in humans than to despise. He addressed what some people called "the silence of God," and various Christian intellectuals praised him for it while reminding their fellow Christians how difficult it was to be a good Christian.

Camus wrote nothing that suggests that he believed art or music should be absurd. He was not into Dada. Camus did not advocate absurdity. He did not celebrate it. He merely described it. But not everybody had the ability to merge philosophically an awareness of the absurdity of life with the belief that life was worth living and that there were human values that should be upheld. In an essay "The Rebel," written in 1951, he complained that his whole life was devoted to opposing the philosophy of nihilism while still delving into his belief in individual freedom. He described how, for some, metaphysical collapse often ended in total negation and a victory for nihilism, characterized by hatred, pathological destruction, violence and death.

In an interview in 1945, Camus rejected any ideological associations: "No," he said, "I am not an existentialist." (Les Nouvelles litteraires, 15 November 1945)

Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. In January 1960, at the age of 47, he died as a passenger in a car being driven at an absurd but joyful speed.

Copyright © 2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.