Albert Camus at 100: Stoic Humanist and World Citizen

Albert Camus
Albert Camus
Albert Camus (1913-1960) would have been 100 this November had he lived beyond the car crash which took his life in 1960.  Camus, who had been the youngest writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, had chaired the committee of support for Garry Davis’ world citizen efforts in Paris and had contributed his writing skills to the statement which Garry Davis and Robert Sarrazac read when interrupting a session of the UN General Assembly meeting in Paris in 1948. Thus it is fitting that a “coffee table” book with extensive photos of Camus be published to mark the 100 birth anniversary under the title Albert Camus: World Citizen. (1)

In 1948, he was still a highly regarded editorial writer for Combat, which began as a clandestine newspaper in 1941 when France was partly occupied by the Nazi troops, and half of France was under the control of the anti-democratic regime of Vichy. Although the Germans occupied Paris, they allowed publishing, theatre and films to continue if the German censors found nothing too overtly oppositional in them. Thus, Camus’ novel L’Etranger (The Stranger) was published in 1942 by the leading publisher, Gallimard.  This short novel is written in a way which owes something to the early style of Hemingway. L’Etranger is a cry of revolt against man-made standards of absolute morality — a theme he develops more fully in his political-philosophical book on the use of violence L’Homme révolté (1951) translated as The Rebel. (2). As he said in his acceptance of the Nobel Prize in Stockholm “the nobility of our calling will always be rooted in two commitments: refusal to lie about what we know and resistance to oppression.”

Camus was born in Algeria, the son of a French father who was killed in the First World War when Albert was only one year old and an illiterate Spanish mother who raised him while working as a cleaning woman. Camus was intellectually stimulated by his father’s brother who read books of philosophy and was active in the local Masonic lodge. Camus’ intelligence was spotted by a secondary school teacher who helped him get a scholarship to the University of Algiers where he studied history and philosophy, writing a master’s thesis comparing the Gnostic ideas of Plotinius and the Christian ideas of St. Augustine.

Camus was faithful to his Mediterranean roots, and his thinking is largely that of the classic Greek and Roman Stoics, the first to call themselves “citizens of the world.”

Camus is the champion of the “now” rather than the “later.”  He is critical of Christian thought which he interprets as “putting up with the injustice of the now in order to be rewarded in heaven later,” along the lines of the satirical song based on a Salvation Army hymn “there will be pie in the sky by and by.”  He was particularly opposed to the “Christian” policy of Franco’s Spanish government, and had been strongly influenced by the struggle of Republican Spain and the Spanish civil war writings of André Malraux.

The same refusal to sacrifice the present for a potentially better future made him a strong opponent of the Stalinist Soviet Union. For Camus, there was no difference between dying in a Soviet camp and dying in a Nazi camp. We should be neither executioners nor victims (the title of one of his most quoted essays.)

Camus is perhaps more memorable as a great journalist and an editorialist than as a novelist. He had put his reputation on the line in defense of Garry Davis, even being put in jail for a short time for having joined Davis in a street protest in front of a Paris prison where Davis was protesting the conviction of a young man who had refused military service — a man working to “satisfy the hunger for freedom and dignity which every man carries in his heart.”

As Camus expressed his world citizen ethos at the end of The Rebel, “The earth remains our first and last love. Our brothers are breathing under the same sky as we; justice is a living thing. Now is born that strange joy which helps one live and die, and which we shall never again postpone to a later time.”

Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

Notes :

Sophie Doudet et al. Albert Camus : Citoyen du Monde (Paris : Gallimard, 2013, 208pp.)

Albert Camus. The Rebel (New York : Vintage Books, 1956, 306pp.)