The Plague: Camus' and My Philosophy

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My favorite reading in SLE was Camus’ The Stranger.  The protagonist, Meursault, is very similar to me in many ways.  He has seen what the existentialists call “the absurd” – the idea that, unless you believe in religion or a substitute (like nationalism, fascism, capitalism, Marxism, etc), there is no way to say that there is any absolute Truth or value, and in the current historical moment, even if people claim to believe in those things, most are just going through the motions.  In other words, “the absurd” is the idea that there is no absolute meaning to life.  The universe is cold.

The key difference is that, while both Meursault and I have seen the absurd, Meursault, until the very end, acts like an emo nihilist whereas I act more like a Quaker with zeal.  Meursault sees a cold universe and lives coldly.  I see a cold universe and try to bring warmth to it.  That is why Camus didn’t like being called an existentialist.  He agrees with Sartre on the absurd – that is, that the universe is cold – but Camus puts the emphasis on the idea that people don’t need a warm universe to behave warm themselves.  No absolute values doesn’t mean no values.  In the SLE discussion section that we had after reading, that was more or less my take on the book.  Meursault’s dispassionateness is his tragic flaw, and the answer is compassion.  The section leader, Greg Watkins, recommended that I read Camus’ The Plague, a book that he wrote after The Stranger that more strongly develops those ideas of compassion.

 

June 19, I finished reading The Plague.  If you’re interested in learning what my philosophy looks like, The Plague is the most eloquent elaboration of my philosophy that I have ever seen.  It is easily my favorite book.

In The Plague, the town of Oran gets the Plague and is quarantined.  The book is about the group of people who fight it. 

There are many works that include a self referential element – writers writing about the role of art, the artist, and the masterpiece – but The Plague was the first book I have read where I felt the description of the artist was both honest and successful.  Camus describes the artist as doing their tireless work and duty to simultaneously tell the dirty truth and leave the reader to have hope that their duty will be meaningful and that love and community are possible.  The final page alone made me cry more than any book before ever has.  It was beautiful and inspiring.  It was honest.  As I neared the end of the book, what I had already read was so revalationary that I doubted Camus’ ability to create a meaningful conclusion.  But it was perfect.

 

The same values that I described in an artist were the important parts of the book.  This is my favorite book because it provides such a compelling defense of those values that I don’t believe in but yet I zeal with (as I discussed in “Radical Responsibility”): Truth, Compassion / Sympathy, Duty, Hope, Community, Love, and Honor / Fidelity / Respect.  Like Arendt, Camus sets a high bar for the everyday person.  It is insufficient to simply do no harm.  Every person has a natural duty to their community.  Fulfilling that duty doesn’t make a person a saint; it just makes them human.

 

Most important, for me, was Camus’ discussion of Duty.  Every person has a duty to do good, but then there is the problem of the absurd.  There is no earthly reward for doing your duty.  There is no heavenly reward for doing your duty.  You will never be done with your duty; you will never win.  But you still must do your duty.  There are no objective values, so there can be no justification for this (any rigorous philosophy needs axioms just as much as it needs theorems).  But you still must do your duty.  Camus writes:

“It comes to this […] what interests me is learning how to become a saint.”

“But you don’t believe in God.”

“Exactly!  Can one be a saint without God? – that’s the problem, in fact the only problem, I’m up against today.”

At that point, the rest of philosophy is secondary, for Duty is the only pragmatic or moral philosophy.  “There lay certitude; there, in the daily round.  All the rest hung on mere threads and trivial contingencies; you couldn’t waste your time on it.  The thing was to do your job as it should be done” (41).  There is enough in the command “Do Good” to last a lifetime.

This duty must be unflinching.  In the face of bureaucracy, doubt, or the name of Truth, a person must invoke duty.  Nothing more, nothing less.  When the doctors are discussing whether or not plague has broken out, Rieux declares that identifying it as plague or not is the wrong question.  “You’re stating the problem wrongly.  It’s not a question of the term I use; it’s a question of time […] It doesn’t matter to me […] how you phrase it.  My point is that we should not act as if there were no likelihood that half the population would be wiped out; for then it would be” (50-51). 

Regarding the tension between Duty and Truth: it is not so much that duty denies Truth, but rather a recognition that there are stories more important than the one regarded as Truth.  Unflinchingly telling the story of your duty is the most important truth even if, in the face of someone else’s Truth, your truth is the simple declaration “In this respect they were wrong, and their views obviously called for revision” (23).  There is no use for the so called Truths in which “something is held back” (12).  Then, the ‘Truth’ is just an abstraction away from reality.  Seeing death doesn’t show you the Truth without complete empathy and sympathy for the person in suffering: “they had never had to witness over so long a period the death-throes of an innocent child” (214).  In other words, the truth in duty is more significant than all other truths because it recognizes the ugly parts of the world and leads to new understandings.  “No, Father.  I’ve a very different idea of love.  And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture” (218).

In order to care for the living, duty must look forward rather than dwelling on past indiscretions (56).  Duty knows no price (10), but it does know community (20).  Duty even means abandoning humanity in order to truly serve others (68-9, 76-7), even though that abstracts the individual away from something precious.  Most people do need human warmth (56) and love (8; 14; 18).  Living in a world of tragedy, that is hard, but it just tells of the need for hope (37; 59-60, 74).  Thus, at the same time as living dutifully, even if that must be without humanity, the guiding force has to be living with compassion, sympathy, and empathy (46).

 

This all comes together in what the narrator claims is the central theme of the book.  The narrator “resolved to compile this chronicle” to do his duty in speaking in favor of the plague-stricken people and to give a memorial of the injustice, but also “to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in [people] than to despise” (308).  That was the most beautiful part of the book.  The narrator says the same thing within the first few pages, but I wasn’t yet ready to accept such simple words. 

I wanted to believe in it then, but it was too important to take lightly.  That statement is the most important claim in every anti-totalitarian philosophy.  The problem with totalitarian regimes is the problem of evil.  There have been plenty of good tyrants who brought infrastructure and industry to their citizens and who would have won the popular vote if there were an election.  But sometimes evil happens, and then you have Nazi Germany.  With anti-totalitarian politics, it’s the opposite.  The problem of good: in a democracy, power is less centralized, but there is no authority to trust and noone authoritative enough to charismatically declare that we must all fight the good fight.  No Crusades, but no Savior.  There may be less evil, but is it worth the sacrifice if it means that there would be less good?

Essential to the question of duty is if that duty is enough.  Without some kernel of good essential to human beings, duty would not be enough.  But as long as human nature is something to believe in, then duty is enough.  If there is that kernel of good, then every scientific discovery, every opportunity, and every trial is also good because I can trust in humanity to do the right thing.  When I think about how to treat others, I don’t have to worry about whether they are a good person or not.  I categorically believe in treating others with compassion because there is good in people, so even though I might end up helping a Hitler, on the whole I will be doing good.

That’s the problem with postmodern philosophy.  It argues that there is no human nature.  Without that nature, we can’t say that people are, on the whole, good.  In that philosophy, nonviolence is not enough, and neither is common decency.  Drastic and totalitarian action would be necessary to secure the good.  Liberal Democracy would not be the end of history as Francis Fukuyama argued (“The End of History and the Last Man”; speaking of which, he’s coming to Stanford in 2010).  Without someone to show that people are decent, there is no reason to trust in the Truth and hope that, given the facts, people will tend to vote the right way.

And that is what Camus does.  The world isn’t perfect; there is pestilence; some people are evil.  Those things will always be true.  But nevertheless, there is more to admire than to despise, and that’s enough reason to fight the good fight

 

Rating: 
5.00 / 5

Quarter:

Experience Type:

Experience Date: 
Saturday, June 20, 2009