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Albert Camus (1913-1960)
by Terence Green
Innocence and guilt
Futile labour without cease
Albert Camus was born in Algeria and brought up in poverty. A scholarship got him through school, and he went on to study philosophy at the University of Algiers. Seemingly bound for an academic career, tuberculosis put an end to that, and so he turned to odd jobs to make his way in the world.
When WWII began Camus was in France, and in 1942 he joined the French Resistance. It was at this time that he first came to prominence as the philosopher par excellence of the absurd. In an indifferent universe, he wrote, we cannot help but experience life as absurd, given our innate expectations of rationality and justice. We want, even expect, things to turn out in certain ways – ways which we believe are right and just – but they rarely do. Instead, the innocent die, the guilty escape punishment, and there is neither rhyme nor reason to anything.
Camus found his perfect exemplar of the absurd quality of life in the Greek myth of Sisyphus. A less than ideal king – he was deceitful, treacherous, and had a habit of killing people on a whim – Sisyphus finally went too far when he tried to outsmart the gods. His punishment for his hubris was severe: for all eternity, he must roll a boulder up a hill, but when almost at the top, it would roll down again, forcing him to commence his toil once more. It’s an entirely futile task. Just like life, said Camus. But, Camus added, Sisyphus was happy because he accepted the futility of his existence. So, rather than feel crushed by the idea that your life is an exercise in the profoundest futility, embrace that futility! You might even find it liberating!
Camus also wondered about innocence and guilt in such a world. Can one be innocent or guilty in a life that is absurd? Innocent or not, Camus’s life ended in a car crash – a fate especially absurd for someone who once observed that dying in that particular manner was the most pointless end he could imagine.
© Terence Green 2021
Terence Green is a writer, historian, and lecturer who lives in Paekakariki, New Zealand.