Albert Camus, the Plague, and Belief in God
Life in the midst of Covid seems like a good time to revisit Albert Camus’ The Plague, his fictional account of life in an Algerian city overrun by the bubonic plague in the 1940’s. Sometimes read as an allegory of the German occupation of France (the German occupiers were called the peste brune, the brown plague), it’s not a very good political metaphor. But it’s a great account of what it would mean to live a good life without believing in God.
A common argument in favor of religion is that it gives meaning to life. Without belief in God, there can be no meaning, and hence no firm basis for morality. I don’t think it’s true. God doesn’t give life meaning. It is we who use the presumption of his existence to give life meaning. Which at least suggests that creative humans might find other ways to give life meaning.
Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, is his most serious philosophical work about life in the absence of belief.* But it is The Plague that tells us what that life without religious belief would look like at its best.
Slowly, and then in mounting numbers, rats come out of hiding and die on the streets, in stairwells, hallways, just about everywhere. Soon people start falling sick. The first thing the plague brought to Oran was exile. The city was quarantined. But by exile Camus means something more than that. He means the feeling that neither the earth nor the universe is home to man. They just are. If there are other sources of belonging, humans must find them.
Love is the primary consolation, and perhaps readers will consider it odd to regard The Plague as a love story, but it is. There is nothing worse, says Rieux, than to be separated from one’s beloved. Death, unending separation, is the worst. Rambert, a journalist, would violate the quarantine and slip back into Algiers to be with his beloved. “Maybe I’m all wrong in putting love first,” he says to Rieux (p 163). No, replies Rieux, you are never wrong to put love first.
Rieux and Rambert are both wrong. Rambert is talking about Eros. Agape, the love of one’s neighbor, is the love at issue here: how we care for others in the midst of a plague. But if Rieux is wrong in what he says, he is not wrong about what he does. Neither is Tarrou, who remains in Oran.
He [Rieux] deliberately took the side of the victim and wanted to meet others, his fellow-citizens, on the basis of the only certainties they all have in common, which are love, suffering and exile. Thus, there is not one of the anxieties of his fellows that he did not share and no situation that was not also his own. (pp 301-302)
Do these values depend in belief in God? They may, but for Rieux they stem from a sense of communion with others. That, it seems, is his highest value.
If this is so, then how does one act?
One takes the side of the victim in almost every quarrel.
One fights against nature as one finds it. “Anyhow, in this respect Rieux believed himself to be on the right road — in fighting against creation as he found it.” (p 127) The world was not made for the sake of the human being. Humans must struggle collectively to make this world a decent place to live.
One must be endlessly careful not to infect others. Tarrou, Rieux’s friend, says
we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him. What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest—health, integrity, purity (if you like )—is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention. And it needs tremendous will-power, a never-ending tension of the mind, to avoid such lapses. (p 253)
Tarrou is not just talking about disease. He is talking about infecting others with hatred, malice, and carelessly held beliefs. Tarrou continues, “all I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.” (p 254) Sometimes it seems as if Tarrou and Rieux are twins.
Parasitic on religion?
Certainly, a religious person could hold all that Rieux and Tarrou hold. Theirs is no Nietzschean ethic of the superman. The question is whether the beliefs of Rieux and Tarrou depend on an ethic laid down by Judeo-Christianity, and now separated from its source. The beliefs remain. The religion they are based on is dying or only lightly held in the West.
There is a historical and a philosophical answer to this question. The content of the beliefs of Rieux and Tarrou depend on Judeo-Christianity, including that of subduing nature to man’s purposes (Genesis 1:28). That’s the historical answer. But most often this question is addressed as a philosophical one, and that’s certainly the way Camus addresses it.
The absurd, or life without appeal
Camus argues that the ethic of Rieux is a virile (remember, he’s writing in a different era) confrontation with an absurd world. By “absurd” he means a world that is not made to man’s measure. A world that cares nothing for our suffering, a world in which we are condemned to live in exile.
I said that the world is absurd, but I was too hasty. This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said . . . . The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (Sisyphus, p 28)
Much Western philosophy, and Søren Kierkegaard is exemplary, seeks to find in this absurdity grounds for faith. Since our situation is absurd, I may leap to faith, abandoning reason and common sense along the way. “In his failure,” says Kierkegaard, “the believer finds his triumph.” (Sisyphus, p 38)
There is something remarkably simple and straightforward about Camus. I will believe only in what I see, only what I know, only what resists me. In a surprising sense he comes closer to the Anglo-American than the Continental tradition in philosophy.
I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms. What I touch, what resists me—that is what I understand. (Sisyphus, p 51)
All we can know is what it takes to live a good human life in this world now, and Rieux and Tarrou exemplify it.
Who says it’s a good human life? We do. And what do we say to those who recommend a life of exploitation, self-indulgence, and carelessness? We say they are mistaken about what makes a good life; they have mistaken feeling good for a good life, and in the end they will have neither. For human beings are made so that what makes most of us satisfied is also what makes us decent people to live with.
Sure, not just individuals, but whole societies, maybe even whole historical eras, can get it wrong. Humans tend to favor their own at the expense of others. But that doesn’t make it right.
What’s God got to do with it?
God doesn’t exist to make life meaningful. God doesn’t exist to make my values right. We tell stories about God because narrative is the most compelling form humans have found to make sense of their lives. The Judeo-Christian tradition is a great story. I would say it makes life more beautiful and more interesting, better befitting the richness of the human unconscious, store of worlds about worlds. But it is not the only story.
Another story, preferred by Camus, is the story of revolt.
One of the only coherent philosophical positions is thus revolt. It is a constant confrontation between man and his own obscurity. . . .That revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life. To a man devoid of blinders, there is no finer sight than that of the intelligence at grips with a reality that transcends it. (Sisyphus, pp 54-55)
A reality that will forever transcend it.
Wholeness, salvation, and a home in the kingdom of God. Or revolt, that refuses to accept what it cannot understand. These are choices about the meaning of life. I prefer the first because I think the world is more than we can imagine. But I respect the second.**
* I refer to the first 69 pages of the book titled The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. It contains Camus’ philosophical argument in defense of a meaningful life in an absurd world.
** In another post I discuss whether Camus wanted to be secretly baptized.
Albert Camus, The Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert. Vintage/Random House, 1972 [original 1947]. All page references are to this book unless otherwise noted.
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and other Essays, translated by Justin O’Brien. Vintage/Random House, 1991. [original 1955].
Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Princeton University Press, 1992.