A Secular Saint: Albert Camus at 100

“November seventh is Camus’s feast day,” says Sister Helen Prejean, with impish irony, giving the agnostic French author a ring of sainthood.

“He taught us that Christians should get away from abstractions and confront the blood stained face of history—that we should speak out clearly,” says Prejean, who credits Camus’s essay “Reflections on the Guillotine,” as a major influence during her work on Dead Man Walking.

“The word is thickened,” she explains. “When I finished the first draft, my [Random House] editor Jason Epstein suggested I read Camus. I had read him in college, but going back to him substantiated what I was saying and gave me a new edge. Camus helped me to see how Christians—and my own self—were slack. He thickened my argument, deepened my understanding of how we can live, and be slack by not doing anything about the death penalty. It’s an issue of the poor and shows that to the extent we’re not involved with the poor, we go along with injustice. Camus was good because he’s so honest.”

Camus equated execution with revenge; he considered the long build up to the guillotine, France’s method of capital punishment, a form of torture. “To cut short the question of the law of retaliation,” he wrote “we must note that even in its primitive form it can operate only between two individuals of whom one is absolutely innocent, and the other absolutely guilty. The victim, to be sure, is innocent. But can the society that is supposed to represent the victim lay claim to innocence?”

Camus’s logic, Prejean wrote in her final draft, “is for me a moral compass on the issue of capital punishment. He wrote this essay in 1957 when the stench of Auschwitz was still in the air, and one of the cardinal points is that no government is ever innocent enough or wise enough or just enough to lay claim to so absolute a power as death.”       

A Writer to Love

On the 100th anniversary of Camus’s birth, his novels, essays and philosophical works enjoy an international following. A host of books about Camus this season enhance his status as one of the most widely taught writers of the 20th century. Susan Sontag may have said it best: “No modern writer I can think of, except Camus, has aroused love.”

Camus won the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature at age 44. He died in an automobile accident in France in 1960, not yet 47.       

Camus the nonbeliever wrote for a French society that was historically Catholic and much more religious than it is today. Camus gave a lecture at a Dominican monastery in 1948, putting the moral challenge of the time in these terms: “If not to reduce evil, at least not to add to it.”

“Camus commanded unusually respectful attention from Christian readers,” writes Robert Ellsberg in All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses of Our Time:     

Several of his works prompted anticipation of the author’s imminent conversion. His untimely death did nothing to silence the rumors that he had been secretly receiving instruction in the Catholic faith. All this was ironic tribute to a man whose philosophy began with the assumption that God does not exist...Despite his protests, many have suggested that Camus’s position was not so far removed from Christianity as he supposed. The number of those who serve Christ is not confined to self-professed Christians. Paradoxically, Camus served the Truth by keeping faith with his conscience and denying God.

Camus was a moralist who insisted that justice matters more than politics, that human need must confront “the unreasonable silence of the world,” as he wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus. Published in France in 1942, the book had a powerful appeal to readers living under the boot heel of the Nazi occupation, and marks a starting point, of sorts, in the evolution of Camus’s thinking on state-sponsored killing.

“There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide,” he wrote. “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

French Resistance leaders took elaborate steps to make sure couriers and planners did not have all the information on major operations, lest they be captured and put to torture. Some committed suicide to avoid torture.

In the title essay, Camus calls Sisyphus, “the wisest and prudent of morals”—as it were, an Everyman of the Resistance—condemned by the gods to push a stone up the hill, only to have it fall back each time he neared the plateau. The quest for moral truth, to restore peace, lay in the faith to keep pushing, again and again, regardless. “Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks,” wrote Camus. “The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Camus had grown up poor in Algiers, the capital of Algeria in North Africa, a French colonial department. Home was a small flat shared with a brother, austere grandmother, and his mother who was illiterate, nearly deaf and had withdrawn into a numbed silence after her husband’s death in World War I, when the boy was an infant. Camus carried a story from his mother of the father he never knew, witnessing a public execution before the war, going home, getting sick to the stomach.

Stranger in a Strange Land

Camus grew up among French colonial settlers, Muslims and Arabs; thanks to scholarships and mentors, he received a classical French education and graduated from university in Algiers. After early newspaper work in Algiers, his writing became more focused in his twenties in France. In 1942 he published The Stranger, the novel that put him on the literary map. As he worked on Sisyphus he wrote editorials for Combat, a clandestine newspaper during the Resistance.

Wartime activists put their lives at serious risk, transmitting information and supplies with the strategy of destroying Nazi transportation lines. Everything was preparatory to an Allied invasion. One of Combat’s printers was tortured by the Nazis, escaped and later shot himself when he was about to be re-captured, as Sean B. Carroll writes in Brave Genius (Crown), a well-textured history of Camus’s Resistance activities with the biologist Jacques Monod. Carroll quotes one of Camus’s unsigned editorials, as the war drew to a close: “The time is fast approaching when the people of this country will be judged not by their intentions but by their actions, and by the actions to which their words have committed them.”

When the Allies ended the German occupation and toppled the Vichy government in 1944, French officials began trying collaborators. Camus supported the execution of those found guilty of killing members of the Resistance. As the trials degenerated into purges, his views began to shift toward the position he would later articulate in “Reflections on the Guillotine.” As questions of justice and death bore down on Camus, the French novelist and Nobel laureate, François Mauriac, had a hand to play. As Robert Zaretsky writes in the superb new book, A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (Belknap/Harvard):

François Mauriac, whose resistance and literary credentials were equal to those of Camus, had already signed the petition [to prevent execution]. Devoutly Catholic, Mauriac had previously collided with Camus on the question of the purge. The older man insisted on the need for mercy and national reconciliation, while the young editor of Combat replied that national healing required a foundation built on implacable justice. When the trials had turned into sham events, however, Camus confessed in an editorial: “We now see M. Mauriac was right: we are going to need charity.”

A major turn in Camus’s journey toward the guillotine essay came in 1951 when he published The Rebel, which triggered one of the most spectacular literary battles in post-War Europe. The Nazi assault on European civilization had failed in the end; but Communism, for Camus, was just as morally blind. Marxist totalitarianism sacrificed justice as means to an end: the classless society. Camus' position drew the scorn of Jean-Paul Sartre, a committed Marxist, who published a long public letter attacking Camus himself as much as the book, throwing their friendship off the rails. But beneath the weight of ideology, Camus was struggling with meanings of justice.

His notion of the rebel, as one “who says no” to injustice, “but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation” was built on a moral bedrock. “Rebellion cannot exist without the feeling that somewhere, in some way, you are justified.” With a nod to Descartes, “Cogito, ergo sum: I think, therefor I am,” Camus writes: “In order to exist, man must rebel, but rebellion must respect the limits that it discovers in itself—limits where minds meet, and in meeting, begin to exist.”         

A Lonely Critic

By 1957, when he wrote “Reflections on the Guillotine,” Camus had taken a lonely position in refusing to take sides on the Algerian civil war. Denounced by Sartre and other former allies from the left for his unwillingness to endorse the National Liberation Front in Algeria as it sought independence, Camus was appalled by the front’s terror tactics. As he told a news conference in Stockholm, on receiving the Nobel: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”

He was just as appalled by the French military policy of torturing Algerian captives.

“The unpunished crime, according to the Greeks, infected the whole city,” he wrote in the guillotine essay. “But innocence condemned or crime too severely punished, in the long run, soils the city just as much. We know this, in France.”

The ethos of resistance that Sister Helen Prejean drew from Camus confronted “the supreme punishment [that] has always been, throughout the ages, a religious penalty,” he had written. “Inflicted in the name of the king, God’s representative on earth, or by priests or in the name of society considered as a sacred body, it denies, not human solidarity, but the guilty man’s membership in the divine community, the only thing that can give him life.”

In our day, as the power of the state supersedes religion in Western democracies, many parts of America cleave to the essence of religious penalty—an eye for an eye. State-sponsored killing has expanded to extra-judicial killing by the White House, using drones to wipe out suspected terrorists in faraway spots on the map of Islam, with innocent people in the environs written off as collateral damage.

In “Reflections on the Guillotine,” Camus wrote with the unerring precision of a prophet: “I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.”

Dudley Sharp
3 years 5 months ago
Jason, Always good to read your articles. Camus never made a convincing case that the death penalty was not justice, but was revenge. The clear reason for that is because it is, factually, false. The entire purpose of criminal justice systems was to remove revenge from the process and to introduce a regulated criminal justice system -- due process of law -- that, specifically, removes any of those directly affected from the crime, the victims, or their loved ones, from being fact finders in the cases. Camus, as all of us, know that. Camus' most famous death penalty quote, likely, is "what then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders,. . ." Camus made no legal or moral case that execution is murder, because he cannot, unless he equates innocent victims and their guilty tormentors or equates crime and punishment, something that Camus never did with any other sanction because, rationally, he cannot, just as he erred and failed to do so with the death penalty. These are things Camus could never do, based upon his attachment to justice and a rational understanding of it. Camus' anti death penalty teachings are remarkably weak and reflect such a misunderstanding of justice that it is hard to believe that he ever wrote such things. The Death Penalty: Neither Hatred nor Revenge http://homicidesurvivors.com/2009/07/20/the-death-penalty-neither-hatred-nor-revenge.aspx The Death Penalty: Mercy, Expiation, Redemption & Salvation http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-death-penalty-mercy-expiation.html Killing Equals Killing: The Amoral Confusion of Death Penalty Opponents http://homicidesurvivors.com/2013/02/19/murder-and-execution--very-distinct-moral-differences--new-mexico.aspx The Death Penalty: Not a Human Rights Violation http://homicidesurvivors.com/2006/03/20/the-death-penalty-not-a-human-rights-violation.aspx
Thomas Hart OSB
3 years 5 months ago
What a confident group of male religious in that Dominican house, who invited Camus to address them in 1948. Excerpt online: http://meanderthal.typepad.com/meanderthal/2005/01/the_unbeliever_.html .
Christopher Rushlau
3 years 5 months ago
"Well, I can say that, pessimistic as to human destiny, I am optimistic as to man. And not in the name of a humanism that always seemed to me to fall short, but in the name of an ignorance that tries to negate nothing." That is Camus speaking to the male religious in the article suggested by Thomas Hart OSB. This reminds me of the tone of The Stranger, where the story is whimsical as the convict awaits execution, but nobody seems to be worried that he shot an Arab on the beach because the sun got in his eyes. This is irony carried too far. And could you refuse to take sides on the question of France's withdrawal from its African colony? Even today the French government's actions require us to ask again about racism and law. If the people pass a racist law, does that make it just? If the highest court approves a racist policy, does that make it the law? Camus perhaps considered himself an Algerian, one of a million settlers. Let us look at this ignorantly: a million settlers arrive at your place under the protection of an invading army sent by a democratic country. They claim that you are now citizens of that invading country, free to vote (I assume all Algerians could vote in French elections, but, again, I doubt it). Is this a square deal? It seems, rather, to put racism in clearer terms. If you invade someone of a distinguishable ethnicity under the claim of giving them democratic rights, the challenge you must meet is that you should try this first on your fellow ethnic-group members to see how they like it. France should have corrected Germany's constitutional problems by invading Germany and sending settlers. No? Then it appears your invasion and settlement is a combined lynch mob and land-grab. And how does a democracy manage such an enormity? By degrading the quality of political conversation. By taking refuge in willful ignorance.
Gabriel Speciale
3 years 5 months ago
Mr. Rushlau are you saying Camus was racist? Are you saying that he did not work for peace and reconciliation in Algeria? Not all people of European heritage in Algeria were the right-wing grand colons. Many were poor peasant stock from Spain, Sicily and Alsace. They had deep roots in the country going back to the mid 19th Century. It is naive to think they would just walk away (although they eventually did just that in 1962). How was Mr. Camus to feel while his entire family still lived in Algeria and the FLN was murdering and mutilating European civilians (not to mention many more "idigenous Algerians"). I am not saying that the French government and local authorities in Algeria were blameless. On the contrary, they created the violent terrorism of the FLN. Camus always said this. Equally as important though Camus never made excuses for the violent revolution of the FLN like some of his left-wing contemporaries did. This is what made Camus a moralist and a "secular saint".
Michael Barberi
3 years 5 months ago
I found this article interesting and thought-provoking. However, when it comes to capital punishment, or any sanctioned killing by authority, religious or secular, its morality is time and culturally contingent. All one has to do is read the Old and New Testament. For centuries, killing for adultery was morally just, and cutting off limbs for certain crimes was morally permissible. If you believe in Catholic exegeses, God killed Onan because he was practicing coitus interrupts. Of course, anything that God did was just. Even Thomas Aquinas, whose ethics underpin many Catholic Church teachings, believed that killing a man to safe-guard justice was morally permitted at least if State Authority carried it out. However, killing a man for vengeance was immoral. If you think hard about these case examples, it contradicts the Catholic moral principle "the end does not justify the means" because in these cases the end/goal indeed justifies the means. Both the Church and secular society has learned to be more tolerant over the centuries. At least this is true in a limited way and not a universal. However, I do agree that capital punishment should only be reserved for extreme cases of horrific crimes where there is no reasonable hope for rehabilitation. I do believe that life in prison without parole is hell on earth and should be preferred over a death sentence. One final thought. There are many moral dilemmas that the Catholic Church offers no rational convincing "moral" answers. Consider the case where you are sitting on a plane that was highjacked by terrorists and it is heading to NYC with a dirty bomb that will kill a million people. The plane has 200 people on board, and you have the opportunity of blowing up the plane over the ocean far from NYC and avoiding this tragedy. Is it morally permissible to do that?
Des Farrell
3 years 5 months ago
An outstanding article and my thanks also to Thomas Hart for the link to the talk given by Camus to the Dominicans. The final paragraph alone is worth reading.

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