What makes Camus a man of ideas? Here is a brief answer to that question. It has to do with what I will call the density of ideas within a writer’s text.
At the end of his little book, Think, Oxford, 1999, Simon Blackburn says:
The world is full of ideas, and a becoming sense of their power, their difficulty, their frailties, and their fallibility cannot be the least of the things it (the world) needs.
Now no one in my life ever said this, or anything like this to me, especially during my twenties when I was first becoming aware of the ideas and the great hold they would have on me throughout my lifetime right up until now, up until mesquatrevingtans. Blackburn’s few well chosen words do describe what I have learned from a lifetime’s experience of ideas (that which is not yet over, I trust, and that which more than anything else, still tired from not sleeping, gets me up in the mornings, more even than the thought of fresh brewed coffee and homemade bread and homemade jam that my wife and I would enjoy together, more even than those special mornings during the year, such as the delightful coolness of the mornings in the Fall following the long summer heat of Tampa Florida where I live). What I have learned from being constantly introduced to ideas, mostly from the books and the various writings of others, but also from my own thinking and writing about my own ideas, as well as from my judging my surroundings and people, even the objects and the people closest to me, by the ideas they sometimes contained or held themselves, and from my judging them favorably or not so favorably.
I like to think I’m an idea man and until I turn back to my reading of the men of real, of great ideas, that is with direct contact with the hundreds, more like thousands of the real thinkers who have graced our species with their thoughts of what this life is all about, until then I think maybe I too am an idea man. Talk about standing on the shoulders of those who come before, I’ve rarely if ever got down from there to stand on my own two feet.
Here’s what I mean by a thinker with real, with important ideas, ideas that make me think, and in this particular case ideas I’m still struggling to grasp on my own terms, there being no other way to grasp anything. The following paragraph, rich in the writer’s ideas, each one of which could have stood on its own and been a book, is taken from Camus’ L’Homme Revolté. To read this paragraph in the original French alongside the English translation and in context go to, Beyond Nihilism.
There does exist for man, therefore, a way of acting and of thinking which is possible on the level of moderation to which he belongs. Every undertaking that is more ambitious than this proves to be contradictory. The absolute is not attained nor, above all, created through history. Politics is not religion, or if it is, then it is nothing but the Inquisition. How would society define an absolute? Perhaps everyone is looking for this absolute on behalf of all. But society and politics only have the responsibility of arranging everyone’s affairs so that each will have the leisure and the freedom to pursue this common search. History can then no longer be presented as an object of worship. It is only an opportunity that must be rendered fruitful by a vigilant rebellion.
(Imagine for a moment these words being read by our presidential candidates. How might they respond? Well one, Trump wouldn’t take the time to read it. The other, Hillary, she would probably turn it over to an aid and wait to find out what her Camus experts would tell her to say. And she would then read it out loud to the press corps, all the time with a big smile of understanding, what Camus’s paragraph was all about.)
Here is the paragraph, broken up into a few sentences, each with one or more ideas:
There does exist for man, therefore, a way of acting and of thinking which is possible on the level of moderation to which he belongs.
Every undertaking that is more ambitious than this proves to be contradictory.
The absolute is not attained nor, above all, created through history.
Politics is not religion, or if it is, then it is nothing but the Inquisition.
How would society define an absolute? Perhaps everyone is looking for this absolute on behalf of all.
But society and politics only have the responsibility of arranging everyone’s affairs so that each will have the leisure and the freedom to pursue this common search.
History can then no longer be presented as an object of worship.
It is only an opportunity that must be rendered fruitful by a vigilant rebellion.
A few comments of my own. It will take all I’ve learned myself right up until now to begin to make some sense of Camus’s ideas. That of course is what reading is, bringing to bear on the text what you’ve learned from your own experience, all in the attempt to understand.
Here’s a start:
- Where does man belong? On the level of moderation. What could be more relevant to today, when the fanatics, the extremists are everywhere. Right acting and thinking is only possible on that level when the extremes are no more.
- Every other way of acting will contradict itself. Sort of what we mean when we say that the far right ends up in bed with the far left, having in the process been done in by their own extravagant ambition, to be all and ending up being nothing.
- If there is an absolute, forget about trying to reach it through history. History will tell us nothing of importance. Or as Camus says a bit further down, “History can then no longer be presented as an object of worship.”
- Politics is not religion. Isn’t this a plea for the separation of church and state, that which extremists of right and left would undo by their religion? If not politics is nothing but Inquisition, aka Sharia. (Or Islam itself, meaning the extreme behavior of submission or surrender to God.)
- Everyone is looking for “an absolute on behalf of all.” Perhaps this is the very worst that might be said about the 21st. century. Of the 20th. c. also, that taught us, while it ought to have avoided teaching us, to look for those absolutes. And there are still those who go on looking for absolutes at the expense of everyone else. In the Middle East, ISIS and the Wahibis. In the US, the NRA, the Tea Partiers, the Evangelicals, and the Black Lives Matter guys.
- If there is a role for society, for government and politics, it has to be the moderate goal of “arranging everyone’s affairs so that each will have the leisure and the freedom to pursue this common search.” Arranging not meaning controlling, and the common search not meaning having the same goal, but having in common the searching.
- In an earlier passage Camus quotes the poet René Char, who says: “Obsession with the harvest and indifference to history are the two extremities of my bow.” If the duration of history is not synonymous with the duration of the harvest, then history, in effect, is no more than a fleeting and cruel shadow in which man has no more part. Whereas history ought always to take second place in our lives to the Harvest, that which we should never forget.
Post Scriptum: Herbert Read on The Rebel:
The Rebel offers us a philosophy of politics. It’s the kind of book that appears only in France, devoted, in a passionate intellectual sense, to the examination of such concepts as liberty and terror. Not that it is a theoretical work—on the contrary, it is an examination of the actual situation of Europe today, informed by a precise historical knowledge of the past two centuries of its social development. It is “an attempt to understand the times.”