Covid and Camus

Albert Camus’ philosophy of the Absurd, in particular in his book The Myth of Sisyphus, challenges reason, logic, and rationality; describing our limits and understanding of the world as humans, and testing the laws of the philosophy itself as almost useless and negating. Camus was always asking the age old question: “What is the meaning of life?” 

If we knew the answer to that question, we’d know how to act. The question of acting is an ethical question. What should we do?

The traditional answers to these questions have, from millenia, come from religion. Religion tells us what we should do and why we should do it. We should not kill because we won’t go to heaven if we do. Answering these questions secularly becomes a bit more difficult. For Camus, it was ridiculous. How can we know what to do with any certainty when even the clearest questions have exceptions? 

“I shouldn’t kill? What about in the last resort? What about for protection? What about to save the lives of millions?”

Every single action is laden with these problems. Every decision could be the wrong one. Every movement has an infinity of alternatives. 

In every day life, we act through habit. We wake up, eat breakfast, go to work. We rarely have to think … really think. Only when we’re forced to do we ponder ethical problems. Heart attack? Global warming? Maybe I should take up cycling. Thought requires force. “Is my boss being unfair by requiring me to come into the office?” “Should I shut down my small business and lose my ability to live?” When we try to work through these problems, there’s often no right answer, only bad choices with limited information.

Decisions often have to be made with a gut feeling, not a rational confirmation. 

Camus writes, “The Absurd is lucid reason knowing its limits.”

For Camus, the absurdity of habit and the limits of any transcendental reason that’s illustrated by the image of Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to roll a boulder to the top of a hill only to have it roll back down again. In Sisyphus, Camus sees the human condition at its darkest. However, he highlights the moment when Sisyphus makes it back down to the bottom of the mountain toward the rock. It’s in this moment that Sisyphus is most aware, and most aware in the truth that everything becomes clear. We can acknowledge our fate and return to it anyway. Knowing that absolute truth is unavailable and being resolute anyway as a demand of being human. 

Camus writes that all of Sisyphus’ joy is containted therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols, we become most human and most free when we acknowledge this. We must live with an awareness of this absurdity. Risk being frozen and numb into an immobility. Fate is being able to act without being sure how to act. The important thing is not to be cured, but to live with one’s ailments. Life is unjust, incoherent, and reprehensible, and you must live anyway.

The question is not how to act, but to act. Until we solve these problems, like we have the injustices of the past, only inaction is immoral. Complacency and indifference are inexcuseable. The absurdity of enjoying the lack of clarity and acting any way that’s integral to the human condition.

Camus makes the case that rebellion is distinct from revolution. The rebel is not the revolutionary. The rebel, in fact, is a moderate. It’s somebody who insists, on the one hand, on telling that individual or that institution that “Here the line must be drawn. You cannot do this to me.”

Something worth highlighting, especially as we’re confronting our own pandemic, is that the plague in his novel The Plague, for Camus, dramatizes a permanent truth of our condition, which is that we’re all vulnerable to loss and suffering. No one escapes it. We’re all victims in that sense, and Camus thought we should always take the side of the victim. And if we were able to do that, then maybe we could build a real human community, or what Camus called an “earthly kingdom.”

There’s a moment in the The Plague where one character says to the other “Let’s take a moment off for friendship.” And they go for a swim in the Bay of Algiers, in the Mediterranean. And it’s silent. They don’t say a word to one another. And at a certain moment while they’re swimming, their strokes begin to synchronize. They mesh. And it’s one of the most extraordinary beautiful images in the novel. And perhaps by holding on to this image of just trying to synchronize our lives with one another in ways that speak to our shared humanity, our shared dangers, our shared aspirations, that would be a wonderful thing.

Albert Camus’s story reminds us of the enormous respect and admiration of the human spirit when a plague such as COVID-19 befalls us. There are many modern versions of the doctor in the story who have cared with the utmost professionalism and decency for those severely afflicted by this modern plague.

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