A Tragic Vision for a New Millenium: The Contemporary Relevance of Albert Camus
Celebrating individuality, our age invites us to express our feelings and realize our goals. It promotes happiness, while seeking to accommodate traditional moral values. But the focus on personal existence only makes the realization of death's inevitability more threatening. Torn between an outmoded religious tradition and a secular world on the ascendency, our celebration of individual satisfaction only makes more poignant the need for precisely that religious consolation that public life increasingly denies. The remarkable phenomena of fundamentalist religious revival in an age that makes its existence so anachronistic is only thus made intelligible.
Central to this condition Albert Camus found the "death of god:" the realization, sometimes only subliminally, that, in Nietzsche's words, the "Christian god has ceased to be believable," at least for intelligent humans marked by the spirit of modernity. After 350 years of continual social transformations under the push of industrialization, capitalism, world-wide social revolutions, and the development of modern science, what reasonably remains of the traditional faith in divine transcendence and providential design except a deep-felt, almost "ontological" yearning for transcendent meaning?
Individuals must now confront the meaning of their lives without the assured aid of transcendent purpose and direction, while the daily effort to make "both ends meet" condemns most to a life of "repetition," a la Kierkegaard, under the rule of habit and social conformity. The more we struggle to achieve individuality, the more desperate the effort to liberate ourself from the sway of social conformity and ritual, and the more poignant our inevitable confrontation with death.
Westerners have come to need and expect life to have a meaning that transcends it, for which our present experience no longer offers grounds. The resulting sense of absence profoundly marks the contemporary world. The absurd is but a modern version of the tragic vision of the Greeks. Collectively we are cosmic aliens: self-conscious beings without knowledge of any world-transcending purpose and fated to die. The challenge of modernity is that of trying to live and create "without the aid of eternal values which are absent or distorted in contemporary Europe."
But if the "absurd" defines the contemporary world for Camus, it was never treated by him as a conclusion, only "a point of departure." Rather, he sought to dramatize the root experiences of the West in order to find the path to a rebirth of human living a "renaissance" in the life of the average person. Thus his concern for community, to be realized in a "dialogic civilization" rooted in the neighborhood and work place.
Confronted with the theoretical problem posed by the absence of absolute values, and the historical problems posed by contemporary social movements, Camus focused on the possibility of developing guides to humane conduct in a world without transcendence. Not a matter of high culture and the arts, however, but of the transformation of the quality of daily life, the renaissance he envisioned involved the creation of a civilization in which ordinary working people could find dignity and self-respect, in which their personal integrity would be respected, and they would find a meaningful place in a living community of human beings collectively participating in the determination of their destiny. Historical realities made this task urgent.
Catalyzed into action by the desperate plight of the people of Western Europe, not to speak of the suffering of the Third World, including his native Algeria, Camus was appalled by the totalitarian direction of revolutionary movements. Where could the oppressed look for assistance if not to the movements of revolt? If these inevitably turned into instruments of a new and even more fearful oppression, what would prevent despair and hopelessness from setting in? If rebellion attested to the human beings refusal to submit to exploitation and dehumanization, what led these noble movements in the defense of human dignity to such ignominious ends? Was the source intrinsic to the initial rebellious outrage? Or was it remediable? Zeroing in on a messianic nostalgia he detected lurking at the core of Western rebellions, he saw them fueled by an often unexpressed need to replace the failed vertical transcendence of Judeo-Christianity with a new horizontal transcendence that brooked no opposition.
But moral conduct cannot be grounded absolutely. The experience of revolt was an historical expression of the human being's determined need even to risk his or her life to achieve that minimal dignity and self-respect without which life would be felt as not worth living. Revolt is a response to a felt outrage in which the rebel draws a line, and says this far, but no further. In so doing (s)he makes appeal to justice without which life is felt to be intolerable. At least implicitly, a universal value is at stake and the rebel is committed to its universal extension. The justification of rebellion is thus, at least implicitly, a universal claim to respect and a defense of the dignity of all human beings. It points to an implicit community of human beings in a universe indifferent to us, offering a potential framework for moral conduct.
That we are "in the same boat" on "spaceship Earth" confronting an inevitable death in a Universe without purpose or design that cares not for human destiny defines our common condition. The factual commonness of our situation as finite beings fated to die outlines an implicit human community that offers the possibility of providing a framework and some direction and limits to moral conduct. Such is the message of The Plague, and the basis of Camus' critique of the death sentence. But humans desire, in fact, demand, that their life have a meaning that transcends it. By testifying to this need, rebellion "offers the promise of a value" that still remains to be positively defined, theoretically developed, and concretely realized. Hence the pathology of rebellion is a vital threat to the possibility of sustaining meaning.
The centrality of rebellion as an expression of the human being's demand for meaning makes a critique of rebellion's transgressions all the more imperative. If rebellion offers the hope of a value, how can we account for its leading to oppression, terror, and totalitarianism? The Rebel is an effort to diagnose a way of thinking that has led rebellious thought from its initial generous impulses down the path of destruction, thus undermining one of the few sources of hope in our post Christian world. Camus' effort is essentially therapeutic. To diagnose the sources of this intellectual ailment, in order to liberate our rebellious outrage and return it to the service of that renaissance of which we have such a need.
The ground of any meaningful development of rebellion must be the implicit community of humans for whom value is demanded. Here is the crux of Camus' critique of "legitimate murder", including capital punishment, which has led him mistakenly to be defined as a pacifist. Self-defense is justified, both individually and collectively, but pre-meditated or logical murder in the service of any cause whatsoever is not. It undermines the one undeniable community of humans confronting the universe, destroying the grounds of the possibility of coherent social values. We may kill if we are directly threatened and killing is required to survive. But once we have captured the antagonist, to rationally execute the death sentence excludes ourself as well as the other from the realm of the human, an exclusion that could only be justified from a transcendent perspective that of a god, for example that is, of necessity, denied to us. It can thus only be a usurpation that divides humanity, undercutting the possibility of building a sustaining human community in a non-human universe.
Rebellious thought has all too often become a victim of "human pride." Pursuing Judeo-Christian themes, much Western thought has sought to replace a failed religious transcendent with a Rationalistic alternative, a reasoned vision of a salvific future to which all must be subjugated. The "astonishing history of European pride" offers an explanation of the excesses of western revolutions. But utopia is an illusion, whether in the service of religious or rational mythology. If rebellion is justified by the generous impulses through which it gives expression and voice to the human need for dignity, it destroys itself by the effort to impose any particular expression of human dignity upon others. What unites is the commonality of our natural condition, not the imposition of a particular vision.
Rebellion, as the response of human beings to injustice, draws a line. It demands an end to oppression, and seeks to transform in a revolutionary manner, if necessary the conditions that gave rise to it. No essential conflict between rebellion and revolution need exist for Camus. Nor is there any requirement that revolutions always be non-violent. Violence is always an internal diremption of the potential human community. But non-violence is often only the acquiescence in the oppressive violence of the other, sealing, at least for the time being, the oppression of whole communities. A necessary misfortune, violence can thus be a legitimate instrument of individual or collective self-defense, though never a morally defensible vehicle of revenge or satisfaction. It must be kept to the minimum necessary consistent with its defensive mission. Calculated violence is always a sign and symptom of dehumanization.
Claims to exclusive possession of the truth prepare the ground for oppression, blocking rebellion's dialogic development and freezing the future. Disagreements then become grounds for ideological combat, and dialogue degenerates into warfare. Camus' efforts during the tortuous struggles of the Algerian civil war take their meaning here. Seeking to defend the lives of those condemned to death on both sides he strove to find common ground where dialogue might begin: "to save the bodies" in order to open up space for the mutual recognition of each other's humanity. Only then might the construction of community begin.
Needless to say, he failed. And this failure may tell us something about the limits of his political thought, namely, his inadequate grasp of embedded structures of power and domination; as well as his inability to adequately appreciate the depths of cultural differences and deep rooted psychic antagonisms, and the basically different perspectives of non-European peoples. But it also suggests his roots in the tradition of Western humanism and his abiding commitment to dialogue and community as the path for concrete and relative human salvation in this world without transcendent significance.
Revolt and revolution have thus been falsely seen as polarized for Camus. Their opposition, rather than being necessary and celebrated, as has been claimed by both right and left wing detractors, is the death of both of them. For rebellion testifies to the human beings incessant demand for dignity and self-respect, and refusal to submit to oppression and degradation. But rebellion is a vain yearning if it does not give birth to a revolutionary development in which the structures of exploitation are transformed. The revolutionary transformation of society, on the other hand, only promises further and even greater humiliation if it is not guided by the spirit and concerns of rebellion. For what can be the justification of revolution if not its bringing into being a social order rooted in personal and communal liberty, that institutionalizes human dignity and mutual self-respect? Thus the essential unity of rebellion and revolution.
Neither is Camus a pacifist, though he seriously questions the moral foundations of revolutionary action. He rejected any theory that argued that the ends justify the means. There are no transcendent ends. All ends are visions of transformed futures which themselves will simply be means for further action. If the ends justify the means, what then can justify the ends? His answer is the means because they are simply more proximate ends in the service of a transformed quality of life that must always be lived concretely in the temporally unfolding present, ever confronted with injustice and exploitation, envisioning a transformed future that action may aspire to bring into being.
Faced with the collapse of communism and the apparent triumph of capitalist democracy, Camus' cautionary sensitivity and cultural diagnosis take on renewed significance. What are the concerns that ought to guide our efforts? And what are the pitfalls to be weary of? By what vision and toward what end ought we to move? Clearly no blueprint here. But a conceptual frame through which events and strategies need to be filtered.
At first, no messianism and salvific univocal strategy. As creatures of time, history does not come to an end, and social policies do not solve human concerns and problems. None are guaranteed of success, and no success is permanent. Any single path can become destructive if it is imposed by force.
If god is not a player in contemporary events, then none can be absolutely assured of the rightness of their strategy or direction. We are all in it together, without guarantees or finality but with a common need of finding, if not a common path, at least a set of paths that leaves room for others also to proceed or to meander. Hence the need for freedom in the flow of communication and information; but also, for the resources and channels that assist people's individual and collective mutual self empowerment. Freedom of speech needs be more than simply a negative freedom, being viewed as a precondition of a viable and humane social order.
Positive freedom of speech is an expression of a metaphysical vision of democracy rooted in respect for the value of the human person. Democracy expresses this deeper commitment to the resolution of differences by way of dialogue and debate, rather than by resort to force. Dialogue is inevitably open-ended and continually revisable. It is the mutual temporal elaboration of perspectives. An ongoing and unending means, it is as important as the specific ends to which it leads. The ends may well justify the means, but in the long run only the means can justify the ends because, in a world shorn of the messianic, the only temporally elaborated ends of continual importance are the recurrent means through which we are sustained and developed. No specific forms should be fetishized, whether political or economic. Each community must be sensitive and responsive to the historical particularities of cultures, climates, and problems. Anything imposed upon a collectivity from without is oppressive even "democratic" forms found fruitful elsewhere.
This metaphysic of persons grounds democracy, itself sustaining a positive conception of free speech. Means and ends are reciprocally determining and validating. Liberty is the precondition of any justice worthy of the name, but is itself only a hypocritical illusion apart from the just distribution of resources that empowers. Justice cannot be granted to one or many, without its being a dependent gift for a indigent recipient. Justice must be the expression of the free exercise of individual and group choices though those may be proposed at the expense of others. Politics is not something that is ever solved, or finished. It is the pervasive and enduring condition of social life through time. No wonder, the centrality of democracy.
No wonder, also, that vast disparities of resources are incompatible both with democracy and with respect for human dignity. A society that measures people's worth by their marketability reduces humans to products, and destroys its own justification which can only be the quality of life of those human beings.
As empowerment requires comparable resources, it also requires a sustaining social network. Respect for local community as well as for dignified workplace conditions require controls on and limits to the power of large private and government bureaucracies.
Camus thus envisioned a society in which liberty and justice are treated as complimentary, not opposites. Liberty as the continual capacity to live out our hope and realize our possibilities; and justice as the equitable distribution of the resources and opportunities that make effective liberty possible. There is no absolute utopia, or messianic vision that will save us. Rather there are "relative utopias" that eschew didactic attachment to any precise specification of the ideal society, but commit themselves to an open-ended process of human persons exercising their freedom in dialogic collaboration. This democratic vision is not of a specific form of government, but of a process of collective self-definition and development rooted in maximum worker and community self-management. It is a metaphysical ideal that addresses the ontological demand for dignity that gave birth to rebellion.
Almost alone among traditional intellectuals, Camus remained tied by sensitivity and vision to his working class origins. His values drew more from the communal experiences of college soccer than from the theoretical speculations of our greatest writers. The egalitarian collective effort of the Workers Theater, where stars did not take bows after performances and everyone pitched in with the staging, suggested to him the outlines of a truly just society. Similarly, he sought to share the collective tasks of journalism as editor of Combat, while treating the production crew with the respect and responsibility appropriate to its contribution and dignity. Hierarchy was no longer to be a matter of status and deference, but of function and quality of performance. And decisions were to be made by the involved collective, respecting the dignity and legitimate interests of all participants.
While not despising the arts of "high culture" though always quite uncomfortable with their mores the renaissance always meant for Camus the qualitative transformation of daily life, the creation of dialogic communities at work and at home that gave voice and sustenance to the struggles for dignity of ordinary people. He continued to believe that only when the dignity of the worker and the respect for intelligence are accorded their rightful place can human existence hope to realize its highest ideals, and our life find the collective meaning and purpose that alone can truly sustain us in the face of an infinite and indifferent universe.