Linking to Camus

When I began to know Sartre, I was tempted also to include his contemporary and occasional associate/adversary (depending upon who you believe) also. The popular existentialism embodied by the work of Sartre and Camus (who often declined the label of existentialist anyway) without doubt affected the way societies thought about themselves and provoked numerous others to question their being, perhaps in as radical a way as the enlightenment had caused people to replace blind faith with rational thought. However, I realised that it was because Camus was revered more as an author than a philosopher that meant I could not include him as direct influence on my thinking about lifelong learning – in the same way that I could not include Charles Dickens, although both luminaries of literature are equally valid as social commentators and geniuses of expression.

I seek to partly right the apparent omission through a few comments about Albert Camus, an author who died suddenly in a car crash in 1960, in his mid-40s. Biographical studies seem to agree that he was a far more likeable personality than Sartre, with conspiracy theories abounding as he had been at times an opponent of both capitalism and communism. What does emerge, however, in his writings, is a plethora of quotable passages that illustrate the absurd, detached and naturalism associated with their author.

Camus’ central character of Meursault in l’Etranger (1942) is condemned to death for shooting a knife-wielding arab, (after preventing another from carrying out a shooting) yet we are led to empathise with his situation in the world. He is disconnected, yet not totally bereft of conscience – he still feels something concerning his dead mother eventually, but he does not accept that remorse or confession will do anything to improve his state, and he does not see any reason in what he sees as meaningless convention. The novel, however, brings the human condition into question through the indifference of its ‘hero’. The countering of the chaplain’s efforts to make him renounce his atheism have left plenty for secularists to plunder.

I actually linked to this tendency through searching for material on ‘liberal education’ – one of the central themes of lifelong learning. A. C. Grayling states that it is superior to religion in promoting potential moral values: “Education in literature, history, and appreciation of the arts opens the possibility for us to live more reflectively and knowledgeably, especially about the nature and variety of human experience. That in turn increases our capacity for understanding others better, so that we can treat them with respect and sympathy, however different their outlook on life.” Arguing the atheist cause, Grayling also quotes Camus before examining intellectuals: “An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.” In the context of a broad meaning to the idea of a ‘liberal education’, we are given a quote from an author who was more concerned with being a social realist than a believer in anything. He was, however, allegedly prepared to concede that certain things were better not left to chance, as some oft-quoted words attributed to Camus (but I cam not so sure) say: “I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn’t, than live my life as if there isn’t and die to find out there is.” This quote is used by both atheisits and religious believers for their own purposes. Aside from Camus’ own personality, his affiliations and connections, we are, indeed, left with so many other quotables which we can play with for all manner of purposes.

Here, then is a selection of other useful and versatile Camus snippets to have fun with …

  • A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession.
  • After all manner of professors have done their best for us, the place we are to get knowledge is in books. The true university of these days is a collection of books.
  • Alas, after a certain age every man is responsible for his face.
  • All modern revolutions have ended in a reinforcement of the power of the State.
  • At 30 a man should know himself like the palm of his hand, know the exact number of his defects and qualities, know how far he can go, foretell his failures – be what he is. And, above all, accept these things.
  • What is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?
  • By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more.
  • Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.
  • Every revolutionary ends up either by becoming an oppressor or a heretic.
  • In order to exist just once in the world, it is necessary never again to exist.
  • In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.
  • It is not your paintings I like, it is your painting.
  • The society based on production is only productive, not creative.
  • We continue to shape our personality all our life. If we knew ourselves perfectly, we should die.
  • You cannot create experience. You must undergo it.

Grayling, A.C. (2004) Life, Sex, and Ideas: The Good Life Without God, Oxford University Press