The Philosophy and politics of albert camus

Posted by Bijaya Biswal
November 8, 2017

NOTE: This post has been self-published by the author. Anyone can write on Youth Ki Awaaz.

In certain situations, replying “nothing” when asked what one is thinking about may be pretense in a man. Those who are loved are well aware of this. But if that reply is sincere, if it symbolizes that odd state of soul in which the void becomes eloquent, in which the chain of daily gestures is broken, in which the heart vainly seeks the link that will connect it again, then it is as it were the first sign of absurdity.

– Albert Camus

We live in a world where the state of humanity could have put Descartes’ theory to shame. In the 1982 classic, Blade Runner, a robot resents his nearing death by reminiscing how everything he has experienced and seen will be reduced to dust, as if his lifetime left behind no significant value. As if he had never lived at all.The advantage or disadvantage of “thinking” that used to be characteristic of solely humans has lost meaning as humans are getting more mechanical while robots, more cognitive such that soon there will be a time, when humans fail the Turing test. Our histories are wrecked under the weight of a thousand unforgivable genocides and our future is a Schrodinger’s tunnel with a light at the end which has every possibility to be a nuclear war.

For this world battered down by a human crisis, Albert Camus is an outsider.
He is the Sisyphus, who derived meaning even in the impossible and cursed act of rolling a rock to the top of a hill despite knowing that it would inevitably hurl down again. It would be an understatement to shrink his philosophy to be contained within the fathomable walls of existentialism. He is an absurdist; he finds purpose while embracing death with a bare breast. He carries the philosophical question of suicide on his shoulders while having a freedom fighter’s rebellious heart that has never known quitting. He loves life while knowing it’s just another plague. The Myth of Sisyphus begins with the quote, “O my soul do not aspire to immortal life but exhaust the limits of the possible”, hence summarizing his philosophy in a sentence. He reminds time and again, “The final conclusion of the absurdist protest is, in fact, the rejection of suicide and persistence in that hopeless encounter between human questioning and the silence of the universe”. Reflecting his thoughts even in the fiction he wrote,“I love life – that’s my real weakness. I love it so much that I am incapable of imagining what is not life”, from The Fall.

In a way, absurdism is every layman’s way of life. Our myth and beliefs, our self imposition of religion and theism, our constant struggle to make relationships long-term and permanent, our affinity towards art; all is but an evidence and manifestation of our fear of death and loneliness. “The certainty of a God giving a meaning to life far surpasses in attractiveness the ability to behave badly with impunity” according to Camus. His revered idol Chestov said, “The only true solution is precisely where human judgement sees no solution, Otherwise what need would we have of God? We turn towards God only to obtain the impossible. As for the possible, men suffice”. Dostoevksy’s novel Demons which Camus adapted into a play justified Dostoevsky’s theism in a way that his nihilistic and absurdist soul was stripped naked, “My friends, God is necessary for me if only because he is the one being who can be loved eternally. Therefore God must exist but I know that he does not and cannot exist. Don’t you understand that a man with these two thoughts cannot go on living?” Camus loved theater because he thought art could personify our internal conflict in form of flesh. He seconded the eponymous protagonist of Hamlet, “The play’s the thing wherein I will catch the conscience of the king”. He did not believe that love had to last long to prove that its strong, that the constancy of its source would validate its purity. He redefined the whole concept of polyamory wondering “Why should it be essential to love rarely in order to love much?” He decoded even the absurdism of science, deconstructing its monumental image built on the bricks and cement of reason and logic by excavating its foundation.

“At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multicolored universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know”.

Albert Camus did not let his philosophy stick to paper and preaching. Just like he believed defying the urge of suicide would be the ultimate rebellion against the mortality of human life, he advocated co-existing freedom and harmony. He materialized into political terms, this metaphysical rebellion in which man protests against his condition. In a conference in support of the workers riots in East-Berlin (June 1953), he said,”When a worker, somewhere in the world, raises his bare fists in front of a tank and shouts that he is not slave, what are we then if we remain indifferent ?”He was a socialist, like Sartre, but unlike him, did not believe in revolutionary violence. They bonded strongly over their philosophical and political approaches but soon a rift led to the souring of their friendship because Sartre believed in radical freedom and hence thought the killing which came with communism was justified. While Camus did not encourage killing just for the sake of an ideal. He thought, “Claiming the unity of the human condition, it is a force of life, not of death. Its most profound logic is not the logic of destruction; it is the logic of creation”.They also had issues in their personal life when Sartre’s long term girlfriend and the intellectual feminist Simone de Beauvoir asked Camus out. The issue was not her asking, but Camus’ rejection of her offer. When Camus died , many years later Sartre said in contemplation, “Probably he was my last friend”.

Albert Camus detested absolute freedom since that would mean, one man’s freedom hampering another’s.

“Absolute freedom mocks at justice. Absolute justice denies freedom. To be fruitful, the two ideas must find their limits in each other. No man considers that his condition is free if it is not at the same time just, nor just unless it is free. Freedom, precisely, cannot even be imagined without the power of saying clearly what is just and what is unjust, of claiming all existence in the name of a small part of existence which refuses to die.”

In his essay “Reflections on the Guillotine”, he opposed death penalty.

“Society does not believe in the exemplary value of death penalty, that it talks about. Or else it would have exhibit the heads.Society would give executions the benefit of publicity it generally uses for national bond issues or new brands of drinks.Statistics drawn up at the beginning of the century in England show that out of 250 who were hanged, 170 had previously attended/witnessed one or more executions. Showing, fear of death is indeed a fact but however great it may be, has never sufficed to quell human passions.
Death penalty is a form of retaliation. Retaliation is related to nature and instinct, not to law. Law, by definition, cannot obtain the same rules as nature”.

Having lost a father to the World War 2 and raised by a handicapped mother who lived in the vulnerable Algiers where the French persecuted Arabs and other indigenous inhabitants, he had seen the repercussions of war closely and spoke against Hegel’s interpretation of history being the eventual and progressive drift of mankind towards a definitive goal of universal peace which would mean all wars and genocides were warranted and serving the purpose. His beautiful speech “The Human Crisis” that he delivered in the United States, still strikes the chords of my heart. It reveals that he must be one of the rare philosophers that human species has ever seen, who cared to combine rationalism and reason, with empathy and humanity. Following is a small part from it,

I would like to illustrate through 4 short stories about a time the world is beginning to forget, but which still burns in our hearts.

  1. In an apartment building occupied by the Gestapo in a European capital, 2 accused men, still bleeding, find themselves tied up after a night of investigation. The concierge of the building begins her careful household chores in good spirit since she probably just finished breakfast. Reproached by one of the tortured men, she replies indignantly, “I never interfere with my tenants business.”
  2. In Leon, one of my comrades is dragged from his cell for a 3rd round of questioning. Since his ears have been badly torn during a previous session, he is wearing a bandage around his head. The German officer who interrogates him is the same man who conducted the previous sessions. And yet he asks him, with an air of affectionate concern, “How are your ears doing?”
  3. In Greece, after an underground resistance operation, a German officer prepares the executions of 3 brothers he has taken as hostages. Their old mother throws herself at his feet and he agrees to save one of them. But only at the condition that she designate which one. She chooses the oldest because he has a family, but her choice condemns the 2 others. Just as the German officer intended.
  4. A group of deported women, including one of our comrades, is repatriated to France by way of Switzerland. As soon as they enter Swiss territory, they notice a funeral taking place. And the mere sight of this spectacle sets of their hysterical laughter. “That’s how the dead are treated here!” they say.

I’ve chosen these stories because they allow me to respond with something other than a conventional yes,to the question “Is there a human crisis?”They allow me to reply just as the men I was speaking about replied, “Yes. there is a human crisis because in today’s world we can contemplate the death or the torture of a human being with a feeling of indifference, friendly concern, scientific interest, or simple passivity.”


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