Among the 20th century’s most important, interesting, challenging, inspirational, and individualistic philosopher’s was Albert Camus. He did not fit comfortably within Existentialism (calling himself a medieval absurdist), contemporary politics, or the American tendency to draw a clean division between the individual and the rest of our social world. This conference, co-sponsored by the IHS and Liberty Fund, will bring together advanced graduate students and faculty to explore the life and works of Camus and the impact his work did, could, and should have had on Classical Liberalism and the modern world. The conversation will be moderated by Chapman University Professor of Political Economy and Philosophy, Michael Moses, and it will be hosted in the DC area.
Albert Camus (1913–1960) was deeply concerned about exploring the nature and limits of liberty, a theme he pursued across his fiction, plays, essays, and editorials. Regardless of the genre, Camus identifies liberty with the act of rebellion. Revolt, which Camus distinguishes from revolution, occurs on the metaphysical and political planes. In the case of revolt, rebellion is spurred by our outrage over the world’s lack of transcendent significance, while political rebellion is our response to attacks against the dignity and autonomy of the individual. Not only does rebellion in either case express our rejection of absurdity and insistence upon our integrity and agency, but it also contains its own limits, thus separating the rebel from the revolutionary. For Camus, the belief in absolute truth, most often assuming the guise of history or reason, inspires the revolutionary and leads to tragic results. Belief in the partial and incremental nature of truth, on the other hand, directs the rebel and strengthens our sense of responsibility.
In this respect, Camus joins company with other critics of modernity who resist the siren call of ideological transcendence yet remain preoccupied by the proper understanding and defense of human liberty.
Session I: We Must Imagine Sisyphus Free: The Foundations of Camus’s Philosophy. This session explores the philosophical and historical foundations of Camus’s work with selections from his early essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” which explores the relationship between the absurd sense of life and imperative of individual liberty. The essay’s task is to examine humankind’s post-Enlightenment predicament of alienation, exile, and absurdity. According to Camus, the absurd occurs when we recognize “the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation and the uselessness of suffering.” How must we respond to this insight? What should we make of Camus’s provisional answer? Is his account of Sisyphus’s self-awareness, conscious struggle, and happiness convincing? Is this mere romantic longing or the beginning of a guide to political activity? Readings: Selections from Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays.
Session II: From Individual Liberty to Collective Action. Hailed by many as the greatest novel to issue from the Second World War, The Plague will help us track and discuss Camus’s evolving conceptions of liberty and responsibility. Readings include Parts I and II of the novel. Questions would be raised about the relation of the novel’s account of the outbreak of a plague in a French port city in Algeria to larger events in Europe and the rest of world. Does the metaphor of disease mark a refusal to criticize specific forms of modern tyranny? What about the response of the authorities to the outbreak of the plague? What about the dilemmas the characters face in dealing with the plague—what do they reveal about the modern predicament? What is the relationship of The Plague to Europe under occupation and totalitarianism? Readings: Selections from Camus’s The Plague.
Session III: Defining Liberty in Its Absence. In the third session, we will continue our discussion of The Plague. Parts III and IV of the novel develop Camus’s complex treatment of liberty. We will also discuss a few of the many essays and editorials Camus wrote during and immediately after World War II for the resistance newspaper Combat. We will read those editorials that deal specifically with the postwar purge of collaborators and his public debate with François Mauriac over the issues of freedom, justice, and mercy. How do the various characters who join forces to combat the plague reject fatalism and understand the demands and costs of liberty? In fact, do they even credit freely chosen actions with any degree of practical efficacy? For example, the struggle against the epidemic seems to have little impact on its rise and fall. Does a nation’s liberation entail exacting instances of exemplary justice? What choices can men freely make in an occupied nation? Readings: Selections from Camus’s The Plague and selected essays from Between Hell and Reason.
Session IV: Rebellion and Revolution. In The Rebel, Camus claims that rebellion affirms human dignity and avoids political commitment, while revolution seeks total transformation of society. Rebellion, unlike revolution, he argues, entails a kind of solidarity: thrown together in this “absurd” world, we share a common insistence upon meaning. What should we make of this distinction? Does Camus’s distinction resemble or differ in important respects from Max Weber’s contrast of the ethics of responsibility and ethics of conviction? How do the issues raised in The Rebel compare to similar dilemmas faced in The Plague? Readings: Selections from Camus’s The Rebel.
Session V: The Liberty to Act: Camus, Theater, and Freedom. The play The Just Assassins recreates the assassination of a Czarist official in 1905. The play’s tragic tension plays out between the two protagonists, Ivan Kaliayev and Stepan Fedorov. How successfully do the two characters embody the rebellious and revolutionary temperaments? Does the dramatic presentation of these qualities alter our appreciation of Camus’s treatment of these same issues in The Rebel? What should we make of Camus’s suggestion that tragedy not only exists in the confrontation between Kaliayev and Fedorov, but within Kaliayev, who is all too aware of the enormity of his decision to assassinate the official? Readings: Camus’s The Just Assassins.
Session VI: Liberty and Silence: Making Sense of Algeria. In the final session we will turn to the war in Algeria, which demanded of public figures the very sort of ethical choices that Camus seemed to condemn in his writings. These journalistic writings deal with his complicated, conflicted views of how the French and Algerian identities are connected. In addition, his short story “The Guest” explores some of the absurd situations created by colonial power and justice. How does this text confront the reader with the difficulties, if not impossibility, of political moderation? Does it cast light on Camus’s own tragic limits of action as an Algerian-born Frenchman? How does the short story “The Guest” comport with his account of Algeria and his other philosophical claims? Readings: Camus’s articles “Preface to Algerian Reports,” “Letter to an Algerian Militant,” “Appeal for a Civilian Truce,” and his story “The Guest.”
Readings are higher than standard guidelines in order to incorporate significant sections of Camus’s literary works, The Plague, in particular.
SESSION I: We Must Imagine Sisyphus Free: The Foundations of Camus’s Philosophy
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage International-Vintage Books, 1991. Page(s): 1-31, 47-65, and 119- 123.
— Here, Camus discusses the connection between the absurdity of life and suicide; awareness of the absurdity of life does not constitute escape or freedom. Camus points to the limits of rationalism. He observes that the existential attitude is philosophical suicide. There is discussion of Husserl and Kierkegaard. He confronts his desire for unity with the impossibility of reducing the world to a rational scheme, and he discusses consciousness and revolt. He meditates on freedom and eternity. He draws from the absurd three consequences: revolt, freedom, and passion. The last reading is Camus’s discussion of Sisyphus as epitomizing the human condition and the modern predicament.
SESSION II: From Individual Liberty to Collective Action
Camus, Albert. The Plague. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage International-Vintage Books, 1991. Page(s): 1-63, 67-74, 105-110, and 139-164.
— This is the novel that brought Camus international literary fame. This reading selection covers Parts I and II. The book is set in the French Algerian port city of Oran. The first part of the book deals with the initial outbreak of the plague and its diagnosis by a doctor. Naturally, the public authorities wish to explain the initial findings. As the evidence builds, there is still the tendency to downplay what is happening despite the increasing number of deaths. Finally, there is an acceptance of and a move to harsh public measures. The main character and narrator is Dr. Rieux. One of the key plot lines involves the Parisian journalist Raymond Rambert, who is visiting Oran for a story on the living conditions of Algerians. Once the plague breaks out, he attempts to escape the quarantined city though he is blocked by city officials. He even finds smugglers to help him, but in the end he changes his mind and decides to stay and help fight the plague.
SESSION III: Defining Liberty in Its Absence
Camus, Albert. The Plague. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage International-Vintage Books, 1991. Page(s): 167-185, 189-201, 258-265, and 293- 308.
— Dr. Rieux’s chronicle continues. The plague continues to spread, and the responses become quicker and harsher, lacking in even minimal ceremony. The description of the trapped populace is one of despondency, exile, and separation from the rest of humanity. It was noted that there was adaptation of the populace to these terrible conditions. The decisions and actions of Dr. Rieux and Rambert are explored.
Camus, Albert. Between Hell and Reason: Essays from the Resistance Newspaper Combat, 1944-1947. Translated by Alexandre de Gramont. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1991. Page(s): 66-73 and 100-105.
— These are selections from the French Resistance newspaper Combat written after the Allies had liberated Paris in August 1944. Themes discussed are the relationship between resistance and revolution, and the justice to which collaborators and traitors should be treated: whether they are owed mercy and charity.
SESSION IV: Rebellion and Revolution
Camus, Albert. The Rebel. Translated by Anthony Bower. New York: Vintage International-Vintage Books, 1991. Page(s): 3-22, 246-252, and 279-306.
— Here, Camus discusses the idea of being a rebel as distinctive to Western society—a society that has some ideal of equality that is somehow being denied or thwarted. He emphasizes that the idea of rebelling makes no sense in certain societies, that rebellion draws one out of solitude and into community. He discusses rebellion and revolution and has much that is positive to say about rebellion, but revolution leads to destructive nihilism. Revolution goes beyond rebellion and turns against rebellion and results in terror. Revolution assumes the absolute malleability of man. Rebellion and murder are considered. Again, Camus praises rebellion for being capable of founding a philosophy of limits.
SESSION V: The Liberty to Act: Camus, Theater, and Freedom
Camus, Albert. Caligula and Three Other Plays. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage Books, 1958. The Just Assassins. Page(s): 235-302.
— This play is based on the 1905 assassination of a Russian grand duke by the Socialist revolutionary Kaliayev. The initial assassination attempt is foiled when Kaliayev sees that innocent children will be killed. The successful assassination is carried out a couple days later, and Kaliayev is caught and hanged. The play considers the moral considerations in all of this. Kaliayev is criticized for having qualms for not carrying out the initial assassination attempt in the name of future generations. The theme of moral limits, and what happens when there are no limits, is explored.
SESSION VI: Liberty and Silence: Making Sense of Algeria
Camus, Albert. Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. Translated by Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage International-Vintage Books, 1995. “Preface to Algerian Reports,” “Letter to an Algerian Militant,” and “Appeal for a Civilian Truce.” Page(s): 111-142.
— These selections explore Camus’s complicated views on Algeria and the French occupation. On the one hand he disapproves of the French colonial rule in Algeria and decries the economic state of the native Algerians; on the other hand, he cannot be seen as an advocate of the French leaving Algeria, seeing the historical legacy and connection of the French and the Algerians and fearing for an even worse fate for the Algerians should the French leave.
Camus, Albert. Exile and the Kingdom. Translated by Carol Cosman. New York: Vintage International-Vintage Books, 2006. “The Guest.” Page(s): 67-86.
— This story is set in Algeria and involves a French school teacher who is given charge of an Arab prisoner to deliver him. The school teacher objects to this assignment but accepts it, hoping his prisoner will escape. His prisoner does not escape despite being given opportunities to do so.