Camus’ Plague

The Plague by Albert CamusA colleague and friend has recently suggested starting a reading group on Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague. Perhaps the timing is a little too obvious, but the Plague still speaks to us today.

I read the book a long time ago—probably in my early twenties. It was actually one of the first books I read when I switched from being an architectural drafter to enrolling in a philosophy program at the University of California-Davis. I remember reading it out loud to myself, perhaps because I was so captivated by it. The copy I owned was published by Vintage International, and it had this memorable cover illustration of a pool of blood draining in what appears to be a shower stall.

“Matter in Spontaneous Motion” : Naturalism

But before one reads Camus, there are several preliminary questions one must keep in mind. There are deep and complicated layers of naturalism and nihilism in Camus’ existential thought. Indeed, Camus was responding to the problems posed by naturalism and nihilism. In naturalism, for instance, the basic idea is that prime reality is nothing more than matter in motion. Matter is all there is. The cosmos exists as a uniformity of cause and effect. In this way the system is closed. An older version looked at humanity as “machines.” Today we might simply called ourselves complex “organisms,” subject to chemical and physical laws. While we are still learning about these laws, the “naturalist” is certain at least about one thing: death is extinction. The Humanist Manifesto, for example, states it plainly:

“As far as we know, the total personality is a function of the biological organism transacting in a social and cultural context. There is no credible evidence that life survives the death of the body.”

Similarly, British philosopher Bertrand Russell claimed that

“man is the produce of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving ; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.”

Perhaps more positively, naturalism does encourage us examine the universe through the methods of science. We have indeed made great technological progress. But science, some naturalists maintain, can also help us better understand morality and the human experience. As French naturalist Baron D’Holbach put it in the eighteenth century,

“To discover the true principles of morality, men have no need of theology, of revelation, or of gods; they need only common sense. They have only to commune with themselves, to reflect upon their own nature, to consult their visible interests, to consider the objects of society and the individuals who compose it, and they will easily perceive that virtue is advantageous, and vice disadvantageous, to such beings as themselves. Let us persuade them to be just, beneficent, moderate, sociable, not because such conduct is demanded by the gods, but because it is a pleasure to men. Let us advise them to abstain from vice and crime, not because they will be punished in the other world, but because they will suffer for it in this.”

But with naturalism, history has no overarching purpose. There is no goal. There is no end.

“42” : Nihilism

As a consequence of these views, another view emerged that Camus was particularly concerned about. The rise of naturalism left many in despair and anxiety. If there is no overarching purpose, what is the point? Samuel Beckett’s play Breath perfectly illustrates the hopelessness of a life without purpose. Another example, perhaps more amusing (but not really) is Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The enormous computer “Deep Thought,” after seven and a half million years of calculation, provides an answer to the “Ultimate Question of Life.” The answer is 42. The most rational object in the universe has given an absurd answer to an absurd question.

Beckett, Adams, and others (like Franz Kafka, Joseph Heller, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr., e.g.) reveal (and perhaps revel in) a life without purpose and without meaning. For them, the rationalism of the enlightenment was a ruse. The results of reason did not bring assurance or comfort. The closed universe was confining, and the notion of death as extinction psychologically disturbing. We are but a mere speck in a seemingly endless and meaningless universe. Freedom was an illusion. As Friedrich Nietzsche put it, “the acting man is caught in his illusion of volition.” He adds, “the acting man’s delusion about himself, his assumption that free will exists, is also part of the calculating mechanism.” In short, all activity is predetermined. In such a closed system, freedom is simply a determinacy unrecognized. The notion of chance doesn’t help. In fact it may be even more terrifyingly absurd. Chance, after all, is causeless, purposeless, directionless. In this sense, consciousness itself is capricious. Charles Darwin himself once said:

“The horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust the conviction of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

The biologist J. B. S. Haldane similarly wondered:

“If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motion of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms”

In short, I cannot even trust my own thoughts. Thus morality itself is on shaky grounds. To quote Nietzsche again:

“Morality is only an interpretation of certain phenomena, more precisely a misinterpretation. Moral judgement belongs, as does religious judgement, to a level of ignorance at which even the concept of the real, the distinction between the real and the imaginary, is lacking: so that at such a level “truth” denotes nothing but things which we today call “imaginings.” To this extent moral judgement is never to be taken literally: as such it never contains anything but nonsense.”

There is a great scene in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963) in which he seems to parody religion. “In the beginning” he wrote,

God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness. And God said, “Let Us make creatures out of mud, so mud can see what We have done ” And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man Mud as man alone could speak God leaned close as mud as man sat up, looked around and spoke Man blinked “What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely “Everything must have a purpose?” asked God “Certainly,” said man “Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God And he went away.

But this is not a parody on religion so much as a satirical account of naturalism. We have been thrown up by an impersonal universe. With a cosmos that has no meaning, we must manufacture it for ourselves.

Camus’ Escape

And here is where Camus comes into play. In 1950 he wrote that “I have sought only for the means to transcend nihilism.” His novel, The Plague, is one such attempt to escape or transcend the absurd. His was an atheistic existentialism, though. There is a theistic variety which I will mention in a following post. As our reading group meets to discuss each part of The Plague, I will jot down the main ideas and share them here.


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