Albert Camus has always fascinated me as a philosopher, more so now that the conflict between Islam and the West has brought the Algerian conflict of the 1960s in such a vivid light with rediscoveries of films as The Battle of Algiers (1966) and the film Of Gods and Men (2010) concerning the monks at Tibhirine in the late 1990s.
Camus was shaped by many events, most notably his involvement in the French resistance as well as his Algerian pied-noir background. Much of this informed his concept of the absurdity of human existence…
It’s no secret that we live in a nihilist age. The advent of “modern man” in the sense that Romano Guardini has predicted his rise in The End of the Modern World and Pope Francis’ repeated remarks on Guardini’s insights — mostly ignored by the Western media in their coverage of Francis’ latest encyclical, Laudato Si — has completely ravaged the idea of Western civilization. We are faced with cultural absurdities of our own, nevermind the individual absurdity Camus identifies in The Stranger and Myths of Sisyphus.
In fact, the cries for recognition are no better found than in the rise of new media, blogs, publications, books, and so forth. The scholar lives a thousands lives, so the saying goes, and the opportunities to make one’s mark on the world — to eat a peach and disturb the universe — are profound in the face of Camus’ absurdity. Yet mankind remains dissatisfied.
This crisis of the absurd finds no greater doctor than Francis himself, as he writes in Laudato Si paraphrasing Guardini:
Modern anthropocentrism has paradoxically ended up prizing technical thought over reality, since “the technological mind sees nature as an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere ‘given’, as an object of utility, as raw material to be hammered into useful shape; it views the cosmos similarly as a mere ‘space’ into which objects can be thrown with complete indifference”.
Modern “mass man” in Guardini’s eyes has arrogated the position of knowledge over self, and the power to alter nature to suit his needs. Ergo, an anthropomorphic (sic) sense of superiority evolves — a condition where spirit overruns nature, where history becomes a great progressive unfolding of things which must be.
It is interesting enough that the ISI version of the Guardini’s Modern World is gifted with a forward from none other than Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen, who wrote a marvelous tract on abandonment and suffering entitled Into Your Hands, Father which has been a tremendous source of consolation over the last few years.
In it, Fr. Stinissen offers what has to be the most astute summation of why Camus’ absurdity must be challenged in the interior life, taking aim the approach of indifference in the space where Camus seemingly abandons hope and leads to a certain nonchalance regarding God:
In some way all people are God’s servants. All serve the same end. The irony of fate, or better said, God’s humor, arranges that those who resist him most often serve him best. In many lives of the saints, we read about some difficult or even evil person who provides the amount of persecution that seems necessary to make someone a saint. But a characteristic of heaven is its universal gratitude. There everyone is grateful, both t to those who showed him love on earth and to those who were his persecutors. Everything did his part, willingly or unwillingly, to realize God’s plan.
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Setting aside Fr. Stinissen for just a moment, now is probably a good time to link Camus’ idea of the absurd with the nihilism of today.
Camus’ idea of the absurd is very straightforward: mankind’s individual search for meaning on one hand against the cold, unrelenting meaninglessness of a vast universe. It is in effect the very opposite of Guardini’s observations that ancient man could look to the stars above him and see the firmament of heaven — Camus’s looks above and sees the world in the way his Enlightenment fathers would have seen it: a starry sky above him and a moral law within him.
Guardini correctly sees Camus as separating personality from existence, breaking off the spiritual from the natural. It is this ennui is what drives Camus’ individual towards the abyss of the absurd, with three potential solutions: a confession of this meaninglessness and a path to suicide, the “leap of faith” where religion or ideology give meaning to craft a better world — Guardini’s great fear — or lastly that one recognize the absurdity of existence.
Camus’ absurd man “silences all the idols” and makes the commitment to “live without appeal” in the face of absurdity. Morality is ultimately traded for integrity. Indeed, Camus’ absurd man draws some parallels to Guardini’s future man in response to the challenge of “mass man” — the modern nihilist:
The modern mind took culture to be a “natural” thing. We know, of course, that culture is not natural in any real sense; indeed, true culture rests upon the ability of the human spirit both to distinguish itself from and to stand opposite to the natural order of things surrounding it.
From this perspective, Francis’ call for a path away from consumerism and towards a more modest existence is not an anti-capitalist screed in the slightest. Far from it, Francis is demanding a re-ordering of society, away from the anthropomorphic absurdities of the age — one that quibbles over every difference but cares about nothing — into a society that passes over differences but emphasizes a deep and abiding charity towards all. It is, in short, an existence that presses on the present rather than the past or the future.
This silencing of the idols is a difficult task in today’s age where everything is offensive, and moreover, where society is conditioned to reward outrage far beyond reason — once again illustrating the triumph of spirit over nature, existentialism over existence. Stefan Collini (of London Review of Books fame) recently tackled this problem in a short manifesto entitled That’s Offensive: Criticism, Identity, and Respect, and the moral claims being made by those seeking to trump argumentation with offense:
[T]he claim to find something offensive says more than you dislike it or find your feelings hurt by it. It suggests, first, that your beliefs, not just your feelings, are intimately involved; second, that, on the evidence, you do have a case that others will find appropriate or persuasive; and third, that it is about something generally acknowledged to be significant. Moreover, responding with “I find that very offensive” is trying not just to disallow a comment but to put the speaker in the wrong. This is one of the ways in which it differs from a response such as, “No, I don’t agree with that explanation for the following reasons…” which neither disallows the comment nor puts the speaker in the wrong. And for this reason the claim to find something offensive always risks seeming self-righteous: it raises the moral stakes and asserts one’s own greater moral seriousness.
Such is the path of emotivism in the triumph over logic. The line reminds one of Aldasair McIntyre’s observations in After Virture (1981) where he remarks:
What is the key to the social content of emotivism? It is the fact that emotivism entails the obliteration of any genuine distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations. Consider the contrast between, for example, Kantian ethics and emotivism on this point. For Kant — and a parallel point could be made about many earlier moral philosophers — the difference between a human relationship uninformed by morality and one so informed is precisely the difference between one in which each person treat the other primarily as a means to his or her ends and one in which one treats each other as an end.
If one allows for a moment that claiming offense rather than evaluating claims is a form of cheating (or of “emotivism”) in the face of free thought and free speech, one only needs to return to the observations of Mr. Collini for the antidote, should this, ironically, offend:
[I]n those societies where relatively free public discussion is not just permitted but is protected by law, we should resist any temptation to equate offence with harm. If an action or statement canbe shown to harm someone else, then there is a prima facie case for considering the use of legal sanctions to prevent it (only a ‘prima facie’ case because in many circumstances other considerations may trump this argument in practice). If an action or statement merely offends someone else, there is no such prima facie case. For the law to be mobilized, the offensiveness has to be of such a fundamental kind and attended with so many other damaging social consequences — and that damage demonstrable to others than those who claim to suffer from it — that it comes to be counted as a form of harm. Offending someone’s beliefs, no matter how central they think those beliefs are to their identity, does not constitute the kind of harm the law can rightly be used to prevent.
In such ways is “mass man” ultimately brought to heel. Mass man requires the legion of idols to solicit offense without an iota of charity. Future man must reject the impulse to offense and discover the humanity in the Other. Mass man continues to indulge in the Sisyphean task of rolling the rock back up the mountain; future man leaves the rock where it is.
This approach of “living without appeal” is the most intriguing concept of Camus’ existentialism — the trade of morality for integrity being perhaps the most enduring and yet for the Catholic phenomenologist the most dangerous concept embedded within. Yet what grounds and saves Camus’ thought is the appeal to beauty. What degrades it is the rejection of hope as a sort of retrenchment against realism and a return to the circular trap of the absurd.
Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote his magisterial tract The Revolt of the Masses in 1932, and his opening lines regarding American culture are perhaps the most damning and liberating phrases in all of 20th century philosophy:
The same thing is happening in other orders, particularly in the intellectual. I may be mistaken, but the present-day writer, when he takes his pen in hand to treat a subject which he has studied deeply, has to bear in mind that the average reader, who has never concerned himself with this subject, if he reads does so with the view, not of learning something from the writer, but rather, of pronouncing judgment on him when he is not in agreement with the commonplaces that the said reader carries in his head. If the individuals who make up the mass believed themselves specially qualified, it would be a case merely of personal error, not a sociological subversion. The characteristic of the hours is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will. As they say in the United States, “to be different is to be indecent.” The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select. Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated.
Ortega wrote this in 1932, mind you — before the advent of National Socialism and before the rise of Francisco Franco and the Spanish republicans qua communists in Spain.
Both Ortega and Guardini remark on the “mass man” and his ability to crush. Collini offers an antidote to the problem Ortega outlines in a nihilist age, i.e. how to disable the narcissist claiming offense at anything smacking of critique, though Ortega — I believe — rightly argues that in an era of hyperdemocracy, dissent and freedom of thought are at a distinct disadvantage to the mass leveling and imposition of the commons, our reason kneeling at the altar of others’ appetites. Ortega reminds us:
Why should he listen if he has within him all that is necessary? There is no reason now for listening, but rather for judging, pronouncing, deciding.
If it feels familiar, it is perhaps because no other 20th century philosopher identified the problems of the early 21st century so well. The problems, Ortega correctly perceives, are no longer ones of left and right, but of up and down — of black and green.
This raises an interesting question as to freedom contra equality. Ortega and Guardini both point towards the leveling mass man attempts to accomplish in the effort to recraft the world in its own image, mass man having both the self-awareness and the self-mastery of doing precisely this sort of refashioning. Camus would prize this freedom above any pretense to equality (as demonstrated in The Stranger). Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn mused on this precise topic in his now-rarely quoted Liberty and Equality (1952):
Whereas greed, pride and arrogance are at the base of unjust discrimination, the driving motor of the egalitarian and identitarian trends is envy, jealousy and fear. Nature (i.e. the absence of human intervention) is anything but egalitarian; if we want to establish a complete plain we have to blast the mountains away and fill in the valleys; equality thus presupposes the continuous intervention of force which, as a principle, is opposed to freedom. Liberty and equality are in essence contradictory.
The element of force combined with the great leveling of society is precisely the fear of the Founding Fathers. Not an argument for monarchy as Keuhnelt-Leddihn would have asked for, but neither a call for some sort of old Southern aristocracy. Rather, the path forward — away from mass man and towards the future man of Guardini and Camus — may very well have been excavated in the mid-20th century by another rarely remarked upon scholar of Southern identity and agrarian politics: Richard Weaver.
The evolution of Southern thought in the aftermath of the Civil War is a sort of anti-history most would prefer to ignore (or in the tradition of Collini above, claim offense at the very idea rather than grapple with the tradition).
Yet the Southern tradition deserves a more critical review. Weaver offers a brief review in one of his Southern essays entitled “Agrarianism in Exile” and found in Weaver’s Southern Essays (1950):
Indeed, it was the First World War which gave the South an opportunity to break out of a vicious cycle in which it had long moved. Its young men had attended the poverty-ridden institutions of their own section, or they had gone North to school, where things were not unnaturally predicated on the assumptions of Northern civilization. This great upheaval and its aftermath caused numbers of them to spend periods abroad.
Now when these provincials traveled to Europe and began to look around them, they were not a little interested to discover the same kind of environment they had left behind. Not exactly, of course, but the y saw a deep-rooted organic society, held together by non-empirical bonds, and expressing in its structure a certain differentiation of calling. A suspicion began to dawn that the society they had grown up with in the South was in the main tradition of Western European civilization. It was the North and not the South which represented an aberration from a historic culture, and which therefore had to assume the burden of proof. It appeared as broadly true, as one of them was later to remark, that the notorious conservationism of the South was but the European character of its institutions.
One can find the seeds of Guardini’s call for a more modest living, or for Pope Francis’ call for a rejection of consumerism and materialism, in Weaver’s observations on agrarian thought becoming commoditized into a mere -ism or ideology:
It would be too much to claim that these poets, scholars, and teachers of doctrine were typical of the people whose spokesmen they desired to be. Or at the very most, they were typical in one way, but in another they were growing estranged. For as soon as the agrarian anywhere adds, or allows to be added, the –ism, he is preparing the way for his own exile. We are simply confronted with different planes of human consciousness. Every –ism is an intellectual manufacture; it has, in all sobriety, little relation to the people who till the soil for a living. These do not understand a language of such abstraction. Whatever it is they have, they arrive at by a different route. “Would I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self-contained.” The man who is capable of this elegant rumination, though he go and station himself among the animals, will never live as one. His very capacity for the reflective sentiment disqualifies him. After man has attained a certain stage of intellectual awareness, this power of reflection cannot be given up. The Agrarian intellectualized himself enough to make a case for agrarian living. In doing so, he was ceasing to be native. (emphasis added)
“It is a tenet of agrarian thinking that flesh and blood cannot contend of against steel, and today the humanist is ringed with steel,” warns Weaver. Yet Weaver points towards other civilizations that have been brought low only to rise again through the culture of her poets, writers, artists, and legends.
There is another country which, like the American South, is “backward,” religious, agrarian, mythopoeic. One needs only to look at its brilliant modern renascence to learn that its literary and philosophical sons fared little better than the disinherited of whom we speak. They were a group of men who saw a peculiar chance for Ireland in its very legacy, just as the Agrarians had seen one for the ex-Confederacy in its surviving values. And they had much to work with: a fierce spirit of nationalism, a distinct language, and an ancient literature.
Weaver naturally is not making the argument for a resurrection of the Old South, but he does make an interesting case for her virtues, specifically those of a culture and civilization that rejects materialist ethics and mass consumerism in favor of the beautiful, lasting, and true.
Herein lies the tension between Camus’ embracing of absurdity and Weaver’s admonishment that once the intellectual Rubicon is crossed, one cannot go back. One Southern poet touches on an answer… though it might not be a universal resolution:
So this is General Order No. 10:
To fight along the old interior lines
Of Christendom, crossing all departments
(Pace, Jeff!), arts, letters, economics,
Theology restored, recalling Stark Young
Who said that of the South what matters most
Is that to which the South itself belongs
However distantly — the universe
Of Dante, Aquinas, Aristotle,
With Mary at the center of the Rose,
The flowering womb of all things ever made.
Through these in some humility we’ll grow
True stewards of the world our fathers left
Inhabited by powers, devoting lives
To regimental memoirs, re-enactments,
Parish histories, family trees, extracting
Universals from the local and the known,
Shoring the barrier isles, reclaiming thus
From highest tides of Chaos and the Gulf
The unsurrendered ground, our proper home.
David Middleton’s For the Agrarians (1991) is a masterful poem, and I am ever thankful that I was introduced. Such thoughts resonate, not necessarily because they speak to my Virginian inclinations, but because they found root in a sentiment expressed many months before I was introduced to Middleton’s poetry:
28. The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community. While certainly not the only institution which evangelizes, if the parish proves capable of self-renewal and constant adaptivity, it continues to be “the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters”. This presumes that it really is in contact with the homes and the lives of its people, and does not become a useless structure out of touch with people or a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few. The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration. In all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers. It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a centre of constant missionary outreach. We must admit, though, that the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people, to make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented.
29. Other Church institutions, basic communities and small communities, movements, and forms of association are a source of enrichment for the Church, raised up by the Spirit for evangelizing different areas and sectors. Frequently they bring a new evangelizing fervour and a new capacity for dialogue with the world whereby the Church is renewed. But it will prove beneficial for them not to lose contact with the rich reality of the local parish and to participate readily in the overall pastoral activity of the particular Church. This kind of integration will prevent them from concentrating only on part of the Gospel or the Church, or becoming nomads without roots.
Between Middleton’s unsurrendered ground and Weaver’s admonishment to avoid the siren song of ideology lies the “Franciscan Option” that stands in contrast to the “Benedict Option” that seems to have become the path of agrarianism, but never that of the agrarian.
Camus’ embrace of the absurd finds common cause with Guardini’s future man. It is an existence which Ortega’s mass man is challenged by Collini’s admonishment to emphasize critical thought above the emotive, and McIntyre’s driving the stake in the heart of emotivism as a cheat; the great thief of the Western intellectual tradition. Weaver’s agrarian third way becomes a clear path for a future that puts Laudato Si in a light that, hopefully, makes more sense:
We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build…. Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology “know full well that it moves forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race”, that “in the most radical sense of the term power is its motive – a lordship over all”…. Yet we can once more broaden our vision. We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology; we can put it at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral….
An authentic humanity, calling for a new synthesis, seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door. Will the promise last, in spite of everything, with all that is authentic rising up in stubborn resistance?
There is also the fact that people no longer seem to believe in a happy future; they no longer have blind trust in a better tomorrow based on the present state of the world and our technical abilities. There is a growing awareness that scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history, a growing sense that the way to a better future lies elsewhere. This is not to reject the possibilities which technology continues to offer us. But humanity has changed profoundly, and the accumulation of constant novelties exalts a superficiality which pulls us in one direction. It becomes difficult to pause and recover depth in life. If architecture reflects the spirit of an age, our megastructures and drab apartment blocks express the spirit of globalized technology, where a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony. Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this, and continue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything. Otherwise we would simply legitimate the present situation and need new forms of escapism to help us endure the emptiness.
All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution. Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes. Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur. (emphasis added)
Paras. 106-114 of Laudato Si encapsulate the challenge of mass man and the Franciscan path of “living without appeal” — and certainly put into stark opposition the idea that materialism is a virtue.
Certainly, Camus would argue that the human need for recognition will not be found in a Sisyphean chase for material goods or wealth. Weaver would point towards what preserves in the end: arts, culture, poetry, music, the beautiful and true.
A proper synthesis of what Pope Francis expresses is that — much as Camus intones — there is no proper morality without integrity, and there is no integrity without embracing the absurdity of human existence. The saints would have termed this as humility.
Others might term it as something else — conscience. To give this a proper Southern conclusion, one need point no further than Harper Lee’s recently published Go Set a Watchman (2015), where I will freely quote the moral of the story:
You’d eventually figure this out for yourself, but let me speed it up for you. You’ve had a busy day. It’s bearable, Jean Louise, because you are your own person now. It’s rather complicated, and I don’t want you to fall into the tiresome error of being conceited about your complexes — you’d bore us for the rest of our lives with that, so we’ll keep away from it. Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.
Thus the agrarian principle of the South still shines through, the examples of our grandfathers and Atticus Finch, the musty smell of wooden pews at church and vacation bible school, heavy summer air and old lights hung from brick courthouse complexes, miles of cornfields or cattle, trees… trees… trees… not phones and text messages and hours in front of a computer tapping away at social media, decrying the latest outrage of the month, nay week.
Every man is indeed his own watchman. Whether or not our individual consciences acclimate in time to rescue the collective culture remains to be seen.