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Albert Camus

Here is a paper I wrote this summer on Albert Camus:

Albert Camus is the father of twentieth century Absurdism. His philosophy is to be distinguished from that of Nihilism and Existentialism. It is illustrated by his works of fiction and clarified in his essays. This position contributed significantly to the history of ideas. However, a Christian critique will prove it to be more dangerous to faith than a ‘handmaiden’, as other philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle have proven for the Church. Its application to the Church will be found in the self-reflection it affords, exposing the weaknesses traditional Christianity can easily fall into.

Albert Camus was born on November 7th, 1913, in Mondavi, Algeria. His half-deaf mother was of Spanish descent and his father was a farmer of French descent. When his father died in World War I, the Battle of Marne, 1914, Catherine Camus raised Albert with the help of her mother, having only been married for five years. Camus, consequently, remained almost completely ignorant of his father throughout his life, with the exception of a few hints from relatives.

Fatherless Camus consequently grew up in abject poverty. He did not have running water, electricity, or gas where he lived. His busy mother working multiple maid jobs had no time or sense to think beyond survival, and so left him almost completely bankrupt with regard to Religion, Philosophy, and High Culture. The only value he witnessed by them was courage in a cruel world.

The most important figure in Camus’ history was Louis Germain.Were it not for the intervention of this elementary school teacher who noticed his intellectual gifts, Camus may have never entered high school, the university, or any white collar career whatsoever. In order to help his mother and extended family survive, they had wanted him to immediately contribute to the household’s earnings, but this teacher insisted that Camus would succeed at the Lycee, and eventually compensate their sacrifice with his achievements in academics.

Camus left behind the world of poverty upon entrance into the academic world. There he found the chance to compete with the middle and upper class without reference to his economic status. His intellectual talent proved significant among his peers, as well as his ability to play soccer during recess. However, this was partly hampered at the University of Algiers, where gaining tuberculosis required him to study part-time and quit soccer altogether.

This medical condition continued to plague him much of his life, but it did not prevent him from graduating with a MA, working numerous odd jobs, and eventually making a name for himself in the world of literature and philosophy. It was a report on human rights violations in Algeria against Muslims that first gained him the spotlight, and his contribution to the position of Absurdism in Philosophy through novels, plays, and essays that established him forever in the History of Thought.

Absurdism is often associated with Nihilism and Existentialism. Nihilism, most famously purported by Nietzsche, denies that there is any meaning whatsoever, either objective or subjective. While one can seek it with all their might, either by finding it or creating it, in the end that too is meaningless. However, noting the situation of things, it is better for one to live in opposition to those who would impose their meaning on one’s self than to be directed by the ‘herd’ or a tyrant.

Existentialism is more optimistic than this. From a Theistic standpoint, a century prior, Kierkegaard asserted the fact that there was a conflict between the human longing for meaning and the Absurd world around us. Reason could not escape this. In the history of Philosophy nothing has successfully ‘saved’ man from this dilemma. However, for the religious, one can make a ‘leap of faith’ and so link their ‘crisis’ to the objective reality of God. This is ultimately subjective, but one can still say in Him meaning can be found.

Camus’ contemporary Sartre asserted that Existentialism was a form of Humanism. His was an atheistic form. Meaning could in fact be had, but not through a ‘leap of faith’. There was no objective meaning, but through the subjective creation of values, there could be in fact meaning. Happiness, in the end, was creating this value system for one’s self and authentically living it out.

Absurdism fits within this grouping of philosophies in its recognition of the human dilemma. Unlike Nihilism, it refuses to deny the possibility of either objective and subjective meaning. Unlike Existentialism, it also denies one’s access to either. There is a tension in having both the possible realities of both objective and subjective meaning, and the impossibility of ever fully attaining to the certain knowledge of either. This is why rather than a pursuit, creation, or denial of meaning, a resignation towards this situation is considered the enlightened state of man. This is rebellion against the state of affairs, where rather than be naively pessimistic or optimistic, one faces the facts in their entirety and lives completely conscious of it from day to day.

Camus’ Absurdist Philosophy can be seen as an integration of his life and thought in his novels: A Happy Death, The Stranger, The Fall, and The First Man.

A Happy Death was his first novel, though published posthumously. Meurseault, the protagonist, embodies Camus in various ways. First, Meursault is a combination of ‘mer’ and ‘sol’, the ‘sea’ and ‘sun’ which granted him great comfort in his youth. Second, Meursault enjoyed the pleasures of female company. Camus was unfaithful to both his first and second wife --numerous times, and was outspoken on the constraint of marriage. Third, Meursault had a lung disease. Camus contracted tuberculosis in his youth and never fully recovered.

Camus begins the story with Meursault killing a crippled friend. This choice frees his friend from a shameful existence and grants him the friend’s wealth. In his newfound financial freedom he finds every endeavor to result in nothing solid. That is, until one evening, after a daring swim, he finds himself dying from his lung disease. In the process of death he faces it fully without fear and there finds happiness in full. The world is Absurd, but by facing it headlong, rather than escaping it in pleasures, Camus believed one could find peace.

In the Stranger, his first published novel, Camus uses the same name Meursault from A Happy Death. There are similar parallels of enjoying the sun, sea, and women. However, in this story it begins with the death of his mother. “Mamman died today”. The protagonist feels nothing. As events unfold, such as his a friend asking him to write an indecent letter to their mistress, his girlfriend proposing -- to which he is entirely indifferent, and agrees to -- and his killing of an Arab and subsequent imprisonment and trial, there is merely an abiding consciousness. There is no value placed on anything, but merely an enduring facing of the Absurd. Even the temptation of religious hope is presented in the evangelism of his lawyer, but is boldly evaded to the point of engaging his death sentence without reluctance.

The Fall’s protagonist begins with an invitation from Jean-Baptiste Clamence to carry on a discussion with the reader at the bar Mexico City, in Amsterdam. This Parisien lawyer reveals that while he is a lawyer for the helpless widow and orphan, he has found himself to be a complete hypocrite. He had been playing the role of the humanitarian, all the while having no real heart for the needy.

“But on the bridges of Paris, I too, learned that I was afraid of freedom. So hurray for the master, whoever he may be, to take the place of heaven’s law,” said Clamence. This work parallels Camus’ disgust with judgment, in whatever form it took. He wanted all people to be free. Especially from threats such as the death penalty. The one major influence his father held on him was his father’s reported disgust with a witnessed execution prior to this birth. Camus himself witnessed one and felt the same resulting sickness. He also was an avid proponent of doing away with the death penalty, somewhat symbolic of his desire that people be treated with tolerance, especially since those who judge are all worthy of judgment themselves.

When Camus died in his fatal car crash of 1960 he had left an incomplete manuscript behind. This was The First Man, an autobiographic novel in which most of the characters and events have complete parallels to his own life. It is here more than in any other work of his fiction where he shows that his own life was Absurd and he had to face it with courage in order to find happiness. There was no escape to be sought, only daring resignation.

Camus’ Absurdist Philosophy can also be seen as evolving in his collection of essays: The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel. In the Myth of Sisyphus the basic philosophical question, “Why not suicide?” is answered. If the majority of one’s existence is nothingness, and a day or decade merely delays the inevitable, in an Absurd world where no answers can be found, it seems highly implausible for anyone to suggest life’s continuance. This, however, is exactly what Camus does.

He begins his work by admitting the differences among Existentialists, and uniting them in the single admission that the Metaphysical is beyond us. We can do nothing in this world with grounded, objective meaning. Rather than let this faze us, to push us into despair, we should rationally choose to embrace a hope-less world without feeling hopeless. We should rebel. We find ourself in the very act of accepting that we can’t be found.

It follows from this that Camus can assert “The struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” For he is arguing that the individual can transcend his Fate, his co-existence with the Absurd, not by suicide or delusional religion -- as he would consider it -- but by embracing it. The rock which Sisyphus endlessly returns to the top of the hill should not be avoided, but happily lifted. In fact, the aspect of enlightenment, of knowing that it could not be otherwise, gives the element of pride. There is honor, and therefore happiness, in conforming completely to the situation man finds himself in.

The Rebel maintains his basic Epistemology rooted in unattainable Metaphysics. However, instead of the individual finding inner peace, this essay’s concern is finding it among one’s fellow man. “I rebel--therefore we exist.”

This rebellion involves valuing one’s own life, the essential component for an individual’s participation in the Absurd, and consequently, the support of all life. To the extent that people are granted existence they are able to co-exist and share in the suffering of standing firm, face to face, as brothers defiant of the human condition.

This rebellion goes beyond a mere affirmation of life and the Absurd. It seeks to conquer the answers that seek to divert it. It strives to live in complete freedom where nothing stands in the way from a conscious awareness of life as it actually is. In Camus’ day this would be Christianity, or maybe Islam.

It could however apply to any assertion of a metaphysically dogmatic answer. This is the likely reason that Sagi’s Albert Camus and the Philosophy of the Absurd was a bestseller in Israel where daily many face seemingly Absurd tragedies with the ‘temptation’ to hope in the God of Judaism.

World War II set Camus back. His high idealism of a community breaking free from the longing for escape or delusion was crushed with the reality of human wickedness. This re-evaluation of his push for solidarity was dealt with in the aforementioned novel The Fall. In the end, the Absurdist may very well face the Absurd alone, which in fact is the situation each man finds himself in his death, even if it is simultaneously experienced with a group of other men.

In Christianity, the Creation, Fall, and Redemption narrative sheds light on where Absurdist philosophy approaches the truth, but in the end falls short. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. He created man on the sixth day as a son, representing his rule over the visible creation: plants, animals, and the land. All things were ‘very good’. There was happiness, the joy of union between God and man, man and wife, and man and Nature. Perfect order persisted, and the longings of the human heart were completely met in the paradise of Eden.

This was the state of things prior to the advent of Satan. When the Devil entered man’s history, an alternative view to accepting one’s position in life was presented. The suggestion of rebelling agains the Creator, insisting on equality, and in essence, supremacy, was the key to life rather than faith and obedience was given to the woman. Rather than oppose this folly, the man joined her and ruined the human race. The result was God’s curse on man, woman, and the whole of Creation. From then on death in all its forms became ubiquitous: aging, sickness, and violence.

Absurdist philosophy recognizes to some extent the Creation and Fall of man. It notes the longing for meaning which is frustrated by the current order of things. It teaches that we would like to know God and have a world of order rather than the confusion and emptiness of the Absurd.

In great contrast it refuses to acknowledge any guilt for the condition man finds himself in. There is no Original Sin. There is no Curse. Rather, man in his innocence finds himself cut off from the Metaphysical, ie. God, and faces the Absurd, ie. the Curse as part of the natural human condition.

In Christianity Redemption is initially announced to Adam as coming in the form of a ‘seed of the woman’. This Savior will overcome the serpent who deceived mankind. As the Revelation of God unfolds in the Christian Scriptures it is clarified how man comes to receive this salvation by a confession of one’s helpless state before God as a rightfully cursed debtor. Apart from God’s will to provide an atonement, the Curse will remain, both in this life and the next; with the Savior, ‘in Christ’, forgiveness of sins is found and the ultimate restoration of all things is granted, from the restoration of the body to the complete renovation of Creation. God promises to do away with the Curse, the Absurd, if man will only trust Him now, and persevere through this momentary affliction man calls ‘his life’.

Absurdism, rejecting Original Sin and the Curse, likewise rejects Redemption. Not only is there no salvation from the Jews, Jesus Christ the Messiah, God has not spoken to Moses, or anyone for that matter. The World is completely silent with regard to Religion. The Absurdist discredits, by his assumption of Metaphysics, that there in fact can be no voice from Heaven. Man must remain in the position of complete confusion about suffering from birth to death.

Idolatry of the Absurd prevents contrition and yearning for the forgiveness of sins. There is no recognized Curse to humble us before a holy God. It hardens the heart. It rejects the voice of God completely. It also ‘grants‘ what man wants above all things in his sinful condition: autonomy. Naturally, Camus wanted above all things freedom, even at the cost of Eternal Life. He was willing to walk in darkness if it meant the chance to be a pitiable god for the course of a very fleeting life.

It must also be said that Albert Camus and Absurdism are incredibly relevant to the Contemporary Church. There are three major applications that can be found for the general ministry of the Church in the area of the Diaconate, Apologetics, and Servanthood.

“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart.”

Camus faced what many Christians want to ignore. In many ways he was consistent with his philosophy, having courage to face this world of affliction -- especially that which was most pronounced in the history of the world by the invention of modern weaponry, both in his own life and in the world around him. He didn’t merely stand up to face it either, but did what he could to help others as well. His was not an Ivory Tower philosophy.

The Church should be even more inclined and courageous to face suffering. She has the best example in Christ, as well as the power of the Holy Spirit. Most importantly, a sure hope of Eternal Life which renders the Absurd obsolete -- for the “Meaning” has become Incarnate, died for our sins, and rose again in history. Along with informed preaching, a deeper compassion should exis, resulting in a revived universal Diaconate that is zealously committed to caring for the needs of this world.

There are many who concede to Absurdism’s assumption of Metaphysics without a second thought. They’ve never heard that Christianity is rooted in actual history and offers more than mere subjective consolation. The Church should take note of this claim and compassionately claim the foundation of the Good News, that there is more than merely wishful thinking involved in her ministry. A robust Apologetics is needful for the Modern man.

Lastly, tyranny is seen in the cruelty of Christian husbands, Christian parents, etc. Wherever the Church stands, Modern man should see its very opposite -- not ‘lording’ authority, but using it to serve. To free people up, not to take advantage of them. While man should never be completely free from judgment, there is a level to which the Absurdist is right to demand. With loving leadership, the World will see how reactionary she is, and by God’s grace be led to confess her sins, repent, and believe the Gospel.

Sources:
The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus
The Rebel, Camus
The Fall, Camus
The Stranger, Camus
A Happy Death, Camus
The First Man, Camus
Albert Camus and the Philosophy of the Absurd, Abraham Sagi
The Bible

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