On Essays and Letters
In Albert Camus’ Lyrical and Critical Essays (Vintage, 1968), I found a 1940 essay entitled, “The Almond Trees.” This collection has long been a favorite of mine. It bears much of the somberness of the then up-coming War. Camus himself was from Algeria. “When I lived in Algiers, I would wait patiently all winter because I knew that in the course of one night, one cold, pure February night, the almond trees of the Vallée des Consuls would be covered with white flowers.” But the blossoms, though sturdy, were brief. Camus adds, “there is no symbol here.” He does not refer to the passingness of things, either of empires or of lives.
Camus has a third reflection, a remarkable one, “We will not win our happiness with symbols.” With what, we might ask, are we then to “win” our happiness, if indeed it is something to be won? I am glad that neither our happiness nor our lives are merely symbols, though I have heard of philosophers who speak of “real symbols.” If, indeed, we are all “made flesh” in a word, as I suspect we are, them we might well be called “real symbols,” and our real happiness is “symbolic” precisely because it is not mere symbol, a mere word without flesh.
Camus began this essay soberly. As he noted in his 1939 journal, he had read a passage from Napoleon in which the great Emperor had compared power and mind. Napoleon thought, perhaps contrary to Machiavelli, that mind would always “conquer the sword.” I say of Machiavelli “perhaps” because he himself remained “an unarmed prophet.” He too sought to conquer minds.
Camus reflected that during the previous wars of Europe, it was often not the conqueror who became famous, but the mystic, the artist, or the writer who recorded what the war and the time meant. “The Hundred Years War has likewise been forgotten, and yet the prayers of Silesian mystics still linger in some hearts.” Camus thought that because the monk and the painter were drafted into modern armies, there was no longer this distinction between war and thought which even a Napoleon could respect. Camus added the following rather prophetic comment: The mind today “exhausts itself in cursing force, for want of knowing how to master it.” In other words, the crisis is not so much in military power as in the minds of the dons, the monks, the artists.
In any case, many deplore this result, this confusion. They say “it is evil.” But Camus, reminding one of a passage from The Apology, observes, “We do not know if it is evil, but we know it is a fact.” Socrates had replied that he did not know whether death was an evil. All he knew was that “to do wrong was evil.”
Camus next adds the following comment: If we do not know whether the mind is evil or whether it can win over power, we still must act. We must be what were once called, like Camus himself, existentialists. They proposed that we act even if we did not have in our minds a structure of the world, with its distinction of good and evil, in which to act. “All we need to know, then, is what we want. And what we want precisely is never again to bow beneath the sword, never again to count force as being in the right unless it is serving the mind.” But of course there are philosophers, men of the mind, who themselves are corrupt. Camus’ action can never avoid the question of the right ordering of being.
Camus is not a rationalist. “I do not have enough faith in reason to subscribe to a belief in progress or any philosophy of history.” Whatever we might think of the old-fashioned theory of progress, itself a sort of secularization of salvation history, it is clear that we must have enough “faith in reason” to reject the notion, which has subsequently surfaced with such force, that there is no order, nothing but will, as both Machiavelli and Nietzsche thought.
Camus continues with his effort to be unreasonably reasonable. “We know that we live in contradiction, but we know that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it. Our task as men is to find the few principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free people.” I paused for a long time when I read those lines—“a few principles that will calm the infinite anguish of a free people.” I wondered if “unfree people” also had infinite anguishes. Can this be done, we wonder, this calming of “infinite anguish”? Can it be done with these philosophical premises that ask us to “live in contradiction”?
Or perhaps our “infinite anguish” arises precisely because we are “free.” The structure of the world may not be independent of our choices. And our choices may not bear that unlimited freedom that is not bound by the principle of contradiction. The hypothesis that our freedom cannot or does not lead to a truth, this itself may be the real problem.
Camus cautions us to “make justice imaginable” in a world of injustice. Happiness needs to be seen as possible for those who thought it hopeless. Camus adds, in words I presume he did not mean for us to take literally, though that may be the only way they make sense, “Naturally, it is a superhuman task.” He evidently does not mean “supernatural,” as if to say that there are answers that are of reason but also beyond our own reason initially to formulate.
Camus adds, “but superhuman is the term for tasks men take a long time to accomplish.” This is a strange definition of “superhuman”—what takes a long time to accomplish. Logically that would make everything mankind has ever done to be “superhuman.” The answer thus is not from “beyond time”; it is only a question of “more” time. Camus is ultimately comforted by the fall of other civilizations; he thinks it is a sign of ordinariness. He thinks ours is not the last civilization, even should it fall. “Let us not listen too much to those who proclaim that the world is at an end.” The times were not apocalyptic. With this reflection, we are to be comforted. We need the “virtues of the mind.” We need “strength of character. . . .” Camus reverts to the almond tree, whose blossoms are brief against the cold winds but prepare the fruit in due season. He has almost returned to the Greek notion of cyclic history.
And yet, there is “the infinite anguish of free souls.” “Why infinite?” we wonder. Is it because, as Aristotle said, that no natural desire is “in vain?” Is it because we are intended to feel in our souls precise an anguish that is “infinite” so that we ultimately, while not necessarily deprecating it, realize that action, and hence virtue, is not enough for us?
James V. Schall, S.J., is professor of government at Georgetown University and author of, among many other titles, The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking (ISI Books, 2006).