Albert Camus, Nobel laureate, resistance fighter and humanitarian, was one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. He is of great importance for me and the way that my ideas and perceptions have been shaped throughout my adult life, and he has made a profound and lasting contribution to the modern understanding of the human condition in terms of basic personal ethical responsibility and broader social relations. His long novel The Plague is one of the great modern stories which explores what it means to be a thinking, feeling human being in times of suffering and oppression, and shows through character development and story arc the meaning of life from a humanitarian viewpoint. In a time when the world was polarized into different camps, Camus emphasized the inherent value of human freedom and conscious choice and shared existential issues. He also spoke and worked against totalitarian regimes and criticized or rejected their proponents in the free societies, such as the Marxist Jean-Paul Sartre. Camus represented and embodied what is called “The Engaged Man”.
Albert Camus can be put in the same category as Dr. Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein, and the Dalai Lama as one of the great voices for hope and a commitment to humanity which is both broad and deep. Like the group mentioned earlier, he represents and teaches a kind of universal responsibility. His words and actions show people a real alternative to one-party totalitarianism, blind religious belief, mere nihilism and unevolved personal self-obsession. For Camus it is not about belief or dogma, it’s not about “god” or money, it’s about freedom and responsibility, which we must engage no matter what our path in life. This is based on the fact that we are all humans and we must learn to live with ourselves and with others. The point is to live life consciously, to live as human life matters, no matter if it is our own or that of others. Camus stressed that slavery and coercion, lies and propaganda, had to be rejected on all levels for people to become authentic, conscious and ultimately free. This simple idea is the most important stepping-stone to a more human world and to more broad-based cooperation between the peoples of the world. Ultimately that is what matters.
Albert Camus is one of the main influences on my understanding of what it means to be a human being, this is still true some 15 years later. The Plague was the first book that I read of his during highschool, and it still keeps popping up in my everyday life and struggles as a guide to help me remain on the path of wisdom and compassion. The Plague is a long book about struggle and suffering, it is true, but that’s what life is, both for those who do not care for others, and for those who do. The question is how each of us faces struggle and suffering, alone or together. The answer Camus gives is that we have to give a damn. If I could sum up my meditation practice in a nutshell, I think that I would sum it up the same way, “just give a damn and you will be more present and compassionate towards yourself and others”.
Another point that I find is crucial in Camus’ philosophy is that we can be neither victim or executioner in life, and to be someone who stands fast in the middle, someone who strongly works for balance on our long road to freedom. Our past is not a binding condition nor is it our potential. We can re-choose to awaken to our own shared humanity, which is indeed no different from awakening to ourselves and our own hopes and our own lives. For better or worse, probably both, we are all in this together. Camus will always be a friend that I travel this path with, his words and actions will always remind me to give a damn and to share my humanity with the people that surround me. I am forever indebted for how his writings have changed me, and I will always consider Camus to be one of my closest and dearest friends, even though we have never met in the flesh.
I leave you with his essay Neither Victims Nor Executioners, it was a series of essays by Albert Camus that were serialized in Combat, the daily newspaper of the French Resistance, in November 1946. In the essays he discusses violence and murder and the impact these have on those that perpetrate, suffer and observe them.
NEITHER VICTIMS NOR EXECUTIONERS by Albert Camus
Yes, we must raise our voices. Up to this point, I have refrained from appealing to emotion. We are being torn apart by a logic of history which we have elaborated in every detail–a net which threatens to strangle us.
It is not emotion which can cut through the web of a logic which has gone to irrational lengths, but only reason which can meet logic on its own ground. But I should not want to leave the impression… that any program for the future can get along without our powers of love and indignation.
I am well aware that it takes a powerful prime mover to get men into motion and that it is hard to throw one’s self into a struggle whose objectives are so modest and where hope has only a rational basis– and hardly even that. But the problem is not how to carry men away; it is essential, on the contrary, that they not be carried away but rather that they be made to understand clearly what they are doing.
To save what can be saved so as to open up some kind of future–that is the prime mover, the passion and the sacrifice that is required. It demands only that we reflect and then decide, clearly, whether humanity’s lot must be made still more miserable in order to achieve far-off and shadowy ends, whether we should accept a world bristling with arms where brother kills brother; or whether, on the contrary, we should avoid bloodshed and misery as much as possible so that we give a chance for survival to later generations better equipped than we are.
For my part, I am fairly sure that I have made the choice. And, having chosen, I think that I must speak out, that I must state that I will never again be one of those, whoever they be, who compromise with murder, and that I must take the consequences of such a decision. The thing is done, and that is as far as I can go at present….
However, I want to make clear the spirit in which this article is written. We are asked to love or to hate such and such a country and such and such a people. But some of us feel too strongly our common humanity to make such a choice.
Those who really love the Russian people, in gratitude for what they have never ceased to be–that world leaven which Tolstoy and Gorky speak of–do not wish for them success in power politics, but rather want to spare them, after the ordeals of the past, a new and even more terrible bloodletting. So, too, with the American people, and with the peoples of unhappy Europe.
This is the kind of elementary truth we are likely to forget amidst the furious passions of our time. Yes, it is fear and silence and the spiritual isolation they cause that must be fought today. And it is sociability and the universal inter- communication of men that must be defended. Slavery, injustice, and lies destroy this intercourse and forbid this sociability; and so we must reject them.
But these evils are today the very stuff of history, so that many consider them necessary evils. It is true that we cannot “escape history,” since we are in it up to our necks. But one may propose to fight within history to preserve from history that part of man which is not its proper province. That is all I have to say here.
The “point” of this article may be summed up as follows: Modern nations are driven by powerful forces along the roads of power and domination. I will not say that these forces should be furthered or that they should be obstructed. They hardly need our help and, for the moment, they laugh at attempts to hinder them. They will, then, continue.
But I will ask only this simple question: What if these forces wind up in a dead end, what if that logic of history on which so many now rely turns out to be a will o’ the wisp? What if, despite two or three world wars, despite the sacrifice of several generations and a whole system of values, our grandchildren–supposing they survive– find themselves no closer to a world society?
It may well be that the survivors of such an experience will be too weak to understand their own sufferings. Since these forces are working themselves out and since it is inevitable that they continue to do so,there is no reason why some of us should not take on the job of keeping alive, through the apocalyptic historical vista that stretches before us, a modest thoughtfulness which, without pretending to solve everything, will constantly be prepared to give some human meaning to everyday life.
The essential thing is that people should carefully weight the price they must pay…. All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice.
After that, we can distinguish those who accept the consequences of being murderers themselves or the accomplices of murderers, and those who refuse to do so with all their force and being. Since this terrible dividing line does actually exist, it will be a gain if it be clearly marked.
Over the expanse of five continents throughout the coming years an endless struggle is going to be pursued between violence and friendly persuasion, a struggle in which, granted, the former has a thousand times the chances of success than that of the latter. But I have always held that, if he who bases his hopes on human nature is a fool, he who gives up in the face of circumstances is a coward. And henceforth, the only honorable course will be to stake everything on a formidable gamble: that words are more powerful than munitions.
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