Today marks sixty years since Albert Camus’s death in a car crash, aged 46. New information sourced from KGB archives suggests that the Algerian-French author, philosopher, dramatist and activist was assassinated on Soviet orders. If we know why the Nobel-Prize winning author of The Outsider, The Myth of Sisyphus, The Plague and The Rebel died, however, Camus’s own philosophy of life is less widely appreciated.
Due to the phenomenal success of The Outsider and The Myth of Sisyphus, published under the German occupation of Paris (1940-44), Camus was quickly touted an “existentialist” or “prophet of the absurd”. Yet Camus always rejected both labels. He would repeat that his formative philosophical and literary influences were the Greek poets and philosophers, hearkening back to his formative years in Algeria studying under Jean Grenier. Camus would also point to the decisive importance for him of his own experiences growing up poor but surrounded by sunlight; and as a young footballer whose youthful idylls were cut short when he was diagnosed with Tuberculosis at 17, and told by his physician that he may have only one week to live.
One needn’t be a Stoic to appreciate what a profound effect this latter experience had on Camus. The young man himself turned at this moment of crisis to Stoicism, reading Epictetus in the hospital as he convalesced.[i] Years later, confronting one of the many adversities that defined his life, he would cite Marcus Aurelius as a source of strength in his Notebooks:
‘Wherever it is possible to live, it is possible to live well.’ ‘What prevents a work being completed becomes the work itself.’ ‘What bars our way makes us travel along it.’
It is too much to say that Camus was a Stoic. Perhaps a neo- or para- Stoic is closer to the mark.[ii] It is anyway little known that Camus was one of the small number of 20th century philosophers of note to have been directly influenced by the ancient Graeco-Roman philosophy. At the same time, many of Camus’ own independently-developed ideas read as uncannily familiar and sympathetic to students of the Porch.
It is this little-remarked philosophical affinity that I want to explore here.
The Absurd and the Benign Indifference of Nature
Since Camus is so widely known for the idea of the absurd, we begin with this idea. People suppose Camus’s idea of the absurd to be an expression of chic Parisian despair at the godless meaninglessness of human life. Hence, they see his philosophy as wholly inconsistent with any ancient or premodern view of the world.
For Camus, though, the idea of the absurd involves the confrontation between our limited understanding and desire for unity and control, with a world which resists total human comprehension, in which innocents suffer, and in which death is an inevitable reality. The natural world seems not to have been created wholly to serve human goals, Camus contends. But this does not speak against a recognition of its larger worth and order.
On the contrary, Camus sees our sense of natural beauty as one of the ways in which people experience the absurd. Faced with a breathtaking landscape, Camus argues, the “inhuman” dimension of nature reveals itself to our contemplative regard. It is a matter of what his character Meursault calls nature’s “benign indifference,” facing imminent execution in The Outsider and gazing up at the stars. When we are moved by natural beauty, Camus writes, “the world evades us because it becomes itself again.” We now see it shorn of the “illusory meanings” with which our all-too-human preoccupations have clothed it; not as meaningless, but as operating according to its own logics (or Logos), greater and other than our petty concerns.[iii]
The very word “indifference”, so central to Camus’s thought, sounds very familiar to a Stoic audience. Stoics know that to hold that external things are “indifferent” in terms of their ability to “make us happy” (or “unhappy”) in no way licenses any kind of solipsistic or misanthropic withdrawal from engagement with the world. When one understands the larger order of nature, Marcus Aurelius claims, on the contrary, one can see beauty in the smallest things, like the broken crusts of baking bread or the gaping jaws of a wild beast. As Camus concurs, we are awakened to such beauty precisely when we cease to refer everything back to our own egos, but view them with a certain disinterestedness. “It is legitimate to glory in the diversity and quantity of experience,” Camus maintained, “only if one is completely disinterested in the object of one’s desires.”
Poverty, Sunshine, and Tuberculosis
As we mentioned above, Camus would always maintain that the bases of his philosophy lay more in his own specific experiences than in his formal education.[iv] Camus’ father died in the trenches in 1914, when Albert was only one. He was raised by his largely silent but devoted mother and his grandmother, in the sweltering heat of the poorest quartiers of French Algiers. Albert was the first of his family to go to high school, let alone university.
In truly Stoic fashion, however, Camus credited his childhood poverty with shaping his conceptions of happiness, life, and philosophy. Growing up poor, Camus claimed, enabled him to look down upon the riches that others envy and struggle for, as if these were the real bases of a good life. It made him see, as Epictetus would concur, that such goods are at most preferable to have or attain, and that their very absence can be a source of inner wealth.
“For me,” Camus echoes the old Stoic paradoxes, “the greatest luxury has coincided with a certain bareness”. When it is inner strength or virtue that is at issue, “the under-worker at the Post office can be the equivalent of the conqueror”, in his eyes. “What could a man want that is better than poverty?,” Camus asks his readers, quite seriously: “I do not say misery, any more than I mean the work without hope of the modern proletarian. But I do not see that one could desire more than poverty with an active leisure.”
The other experience which shaped the “royal privilege” (as Camus calls it) of this neo-Stoic disinterestedness towards external things is his lived experience of the imminence of death, because of the tuberculosis that continually dogged him throughout his short life. In a remarkable fragment from his Notebooks, Camus writes of a memento mori few of us, preferably, will have to entertain:
The sensation of death which from now on is so familiar to me … to have a foreboding of death simply at the sight of a pocket handkerchief filled with blood is to be effortlessly plunged back into time in the most breathtaking manner: it is the terror of becoming [italics added].
Once we understand Camus’ sense that he could quite literallydie at almost any moment, we comprehend the urgency of his repeated stress upon the importance of memento mori throughout his work, most famously in the idea of “absurd freedom” in The Myth of Sisyphus. “There is only one liberty: in coming to terms with death,” Camus reflects in his Notebooks, evoking Seneca’s famous maxim: “the person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”
But isn’t it a paradox for Camus to think that coming to terms with this inevitability is key to feeling truly free?, someone may ask. If it is, it is again a very Stoic kind of paradox. For Camus agrees with the Stoics that the “liberty” here is an inner affair. It comes from being free from worry about what after all cannot be controlled, our mortality, instead focusing on what we can alter or affect. As Camus enjoins himself in his Notebooks, always with his tuberculosis in mind: “The degradation involved in all forms of suffering. One must not give into emptiness. Try to conquer and ‘fulfil’ time. Time—don’t waste it.” Or again: “Don’t forget: illness and the decay it brings. There is not a minute to lose—which is perhaps the opposite of ‘we must hurry’.”
Self-Writing, Forgetfulness, and Paying Attention
Perhaps the most remarkable contrast between Camus’ neo-Stoicism and the academic, theoretical philosophy predominant in his (and our) times, lies in how Camus, like the Stoics, conceived of philosophy as an ongoing exercise in learning how better to live, and to die. The most remarkable source of testimony we have to Camus’ philosophical practice and self-conception is his extant Notebooks.[v]
The work of philosophy, for Camus as for the Stoics, involves trying constantly to have at hand (procheiron) one’s key ideas, faced with the challenges of existence. “The primary faculty of man is forgetfulness,” Camus laments. The force of habit and our immersion in a thousand distractions lulls the eye of our minds to sleep. The wonder of beauty, the fugacity of time, the unique value and dignity of others—all of these realities are easily “crowded out” by the demands and vexations of everyday life: “… as everything finally becomes a matter of habit, we can be certain that [even] great thoughts and great actions … become insignificant …” However, as a Camusian note from 1950 remarks, “with a strong memory, you can create a precocious experience.”[vi] What is at stake in this philosophical cultivation of memory is a kind of ascetism, albeit one pursued in the name of self-fulfilment, not monastic self-denial:
One single, unchanging subject for meditation. Reject everything else. Work continuously, at a definite time, with no falling off, etc. (Moral training and asceticism too). A single moment of weakness and everything collapses, both practice and theory.
Camus calls the ideal mode of mindful awareness such an asceticism can create “lucidity” (lucidité) or “clear-sightedness” (clairvoyance). And again, the way Camus describes its features sound familiar to modern practitioners of Stoicism.
Firstly, there is a cultivated attention to the present moment: “a continued presence of self with self . . . not happiness, but awareness”, as Camus says: “the present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul . . .” Happiness itself, Camus remarks, is “a long patience.”
Secondly, there is a sense of life as a gift, one meriting that gratitude writ so large in book I of Marcus’s Meditations, wherein the philosopher-emperor patiently recalls and thanks each person who benefited him in his formative years. So too, Camus will come to value above all a simple solidarity with others as amongst life’s greatest goods, given the realities of suffering, death, political polarisation and hatred: “now I have learned to expect less of [people] than they can give—a silent companionship. And their emotions, their friendship and noble gestures keep their full miraculous value in my eyes: wholly the fruit of grace.”
It is with such thoughts in view that we see why at the time of Camus’ death, he was working on a cycle of works led by The First Man exploring the different dimensions of love.
The 60th anniversary of Camus’ death falls at the beginning of another year, 2020, destined to be marked by division and acrimony. The solidarity between peoples which Camus dreamed of, a secular “kingdom of man” or cosmopolis, seems every bit as idealistic now as it did when he envisaged it in the 1940s. Different political actors have, and will continue, to claim Camus as one of their own, from conservatives to liberals and socialists: eloquent tribute to the power of his post-war political thinking and example. Other voices blame Camus for his failure to secure a civilian truce in the Algerian conflict, and his continuing inability to accept the need for the complete end of French Algeria, with resettlement of the pied noirs in continental France.
What we have aimed at here is to show how Camus, as well as a political thinker and actor, was also a philosopher in the ancient mould who conceived and tried to live an examined life profoundly close to, and influenced by, the model of the ancient Stoics: one characterised by inner discipline, attention to the present moment, openness to natural beauty, indifference towards externals, awareness of the limitations of human understanding and the inevitability of death, and a profound sense of sympathetic solidarity with others. This side of our political divisions, as Stoics or just as human beings, different readers can still find wisdom in Camus’s philosophy of life, as well as his thought and example, sixty years after his premature passing.
So, let me close in Camus’s own words, exhorting himself Stoically in his Notebooks in what became his final years, in words which can equally be read as exhortations to us all:
Remain close to the reality of beings and things. Return as often as possible to personal happiness … Recover energy—as the central force. Recognise the need for enemies. Love that they exist … Recover the greatest strength, not to dominate but to give.
[i] For a list of Camus’ references to the Stoics, see “Annex” in François Bousquet, Méditerranéen , Camus L ‘Ancien (Paris: Éditions Naaman, 1977), 112–113; on Camus’ reading of Epictetus in hospital, see the same text, page 35.
[ii] In what follows, we will opt for “neo-Stoic”, given the use of this term to describe earlier modern thinkers like Justus Lipsius who adapted Stoic principles whilst trying to reconcile them with other, independently-developed convictions and positions.
[iii] Readers unfamiliar with his work are referred particularly “Nuptials at Tipasa” (in Lyrical and Critical Essays, trans. P. Thody (New York: Vintage, 1970), as he describes visiting Roman ruins in Algeria with a lover and bathing in the Mediterranean. This piece, and Camus’ lyrical essays more widely, contain some of Camus’ most beautiful prose. Tellingly, in his 1936 thesis on Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism, it is again Marcus Aurelius who Camus cites to encapsulate the Greek attitude to existence with which he always identifies his own thought:
“Hellenism implies that man can be self-sufficient and that he has within himself the means to explain the universe and destiny … The line of their hills, or the run of a young man on a beach, provided them with the whole secret of the world. Their gospel said: our Kingdom is of this world. Think of Marcus Aurelius’s: ‘Everything is fitting for me, O Cosmos, which fits your purpose’.”
[iv] Camus’ lasting inability to “fit in” with the Parisian intellectual elites after 1941 looks back to his origins as a pied noir Algerian-Frenchman from the colonies. Sartre would raise this background against him in their spectacular public falling out after Camus’ 1951 anti-Stalinist work The Rebel.
[v] Commentators have wondered what to do with these fragmentary and aphoristic reflections, because so much of them is given over not to theoretical or literary developments, but to Camus’ own philosophical practice of trying to actualise, in life, his philosophical principles, just as Marcus Aurelius had done in his Meditations.
[vi] Camus responds in the imperative, echoing Marcus Aurelius’s many injunctions to himself in his Meditations to “remember!”: “Cultivate one’s memory, immediately.”
Matt Sharpe teaches philosophy at Deakin University, Australia. He is presently completing a book on the history of the idea of philosophy as a way of life, and is cotranslator of Pierre Hadot’s Selected Essays: Philosophy as Practice (Bloomsbury, 2020-in press).