This category of entries to nicomachus.net is a collection of notes I’ve taken in the course of my study of the Algerian philosopher Albert Camus. For years I’ve debated whether I should compile these notes into a more systematic essay on Camus. Such an essay would cover, among other topics, his moral theory; his political involvement in war-time and post-war Europe; an analysis of (what I believe to be) the dialectical structure of his writings; discussion of the influence of ancient Greek texts on his philosophical development; the complicated role that pacifism played in his life; and an interpretation of what he means by “happiness” in A Happy Death and The Stranger. These topics, though, cover far more than will fit into one essay — maybe that’s why I haven’t been able to write it. My notes are a place to begin.
I’ve chosen to publish these notes (to the extent that posting on a web site is publishing anything) because sharing them requires me to organize them a little more than the current mess they’re in. I’ve chosen to publish them here because this blog is where I write most often. It is a medium that is ready and waiting for my entries, and blogs do not demand polish (at least not as much polish as a publishing house). Hopefully, the process of organizing and publishing the notes here will result in a more formal analysis… or two, or three.
Originally, I took these notes in a literary journal — a sketch book for jotting down ideas for future writing projects. Much of the other topics on which I’ve written in the journal has been polished and turned into essays. Mostly these works were written to satisfy the hunger of professors of philosophy, though I can’t really say how satisfying to chew on were the arguments contained in them. Writing papers that don’t satisfy is difficult. It bores the writer as well as the reader. But that’s what academia is all about… writing papers that conform someone else’s standards, on someone else’s schedule, on topics that someone else says they care about. In Walden, Henry David Thoreau argued that “there are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.” Thoreau’s words couldn’t be more relevant today. These notes on Camus are in their current unfinished state primarily because all but one of the many professors of philosophy with whom I’ve worked discouraged me from engaging Camus’ works. Camus, in their eyes, made no meaningful contributions to academic philosophy.
Which brings me to why I care enough to study and write about Camus in the first place. I have to agree with my former professors. Camus’ works are no model systematic body of thought, nor did he adhere to the 20th century’s rigorous standards of logical analysis. The analysis in his essays is amateurish — confused at best. Yet they are unquestionably thought- and feeling-provoking. And more importantly, he chose to express his most philosophical thoughts through literature rather than through the traditional analytic essay. It was to his plays, short stories, and especially his novels that Camus devoted most of his attention. He had a remarkable gift of creativity and an uncanny talent for describing feelings of confusion and despair. He was trained in ancient Greek philosophy, and (I think) because of this he was more concerned with living a life of principle than with defining principles.
Thoreau goes on to lament that it was once admirable to live a life according to principles, but that something has changed. Thoreau was sensitive to the professional, academic demands on philosophers and recognized that living according to such demands replaces the philosophical life with the professional one. “To be a philosopher,” he writes, “is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”
To Thoreau and to you, gentle readers, I submit the life of Albert Camus. I argue that Camus lived as a philosopher more than he wrote as one, and that is perhaps because he lived as a philosopher more than he tried to write as one. I admire Camus for many reasons: I admire his ability to remain committed to moral principles despite being admittedly confused by the intellectual arguments that support (or don’t) those principles. I admire his outspoken stance against the death penalty and the eloquence with which he treated the subject. I admire the way he lived up to his own challenge to artists: to be responsibly engaged socially and politically, not just artistically. I admire the way he spoke through the medium he was most comfortable with. A creative one. He wrote analytic arguments, often at the request of others, but he is not remembered for them. He is remembered because he found his muse and he followed his heart.