The Existentialists

“An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.”—Albert Camus

I have studied (or at least dabbled in) the writings of three great existentialists: Kafka, Kierkegaard and Camus. The first author is easy to read but far too aimless and prurient. As for Søren Kierkegaard, I have to agree with W. H. Auden that he was a “spiritual primadona.” Kierkegaard can deliver powerful insights—at least when he is not giving us opaque treatises in the manner of bad German philosophers. Unfortunately his views tend towards gnosticism, not only in his unrelieved pedantry towards others, but also in the formal sense—his detestation of the human body and physical world, including his fear of marriage. It is a strangely unexistential outlook.

Some have tried to square Kierkegaard’s views with traditional Christianity. It is natural to be charmed with the talents of great thinkers, even those who do not necessarily share one’s doctrines. But reinterpreting their beliefs can land one on intellectual thin ice. Having said that, I may seem contrarian in offering a (qualified) appreciation of Albert Camus. In one treatise he says “that there is something vulgar… yes… worn out about being against religion.” Of course, I make no claim to “baptize” the thought of this French thinker. Kierkegaard came closer to the truth, but Camus on the other hand suffered no pretensions. If Camus fought shy of religion, it was in the name of agnosticism. If Kierkegaard fought shy of religion, it was in the name of some “higher spirituality.”

It has been said that Camus was a moralist as much as a story-teller. He was an odd sort of rebel who could never entirely escape the instinct towards goodness and decency. One finds the Catholic theology of his childhood constantly resurfacing in his writings. Many see his novel The Fall as a “Christ-haunted” work. Perhaps that is why he said

A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession.

Camus’ short-comings remain. He was an anarchist. He opposed marriage, no doubt because his own marriage had gone wrong. He condemned capital punishment. Yet, like George Orwell, Camus was not ideologically hidebound. He opposed all forms of totalitarianism and refused to condone the Stalinism embraced by his former colleague Jean-Paul Sartre. (He also disapproved of the crude obscenity in Sartre’s work.) Camus supported the anti-Soviet Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and also distanced himself from the extreme anti-colonialism and violence of the Algerian revolt.

In the The Myth of Sisyphus Camus makes a statement that perhaps only the genuinely religious person will not be shocked by: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” For all his preoccupation with life’s “absurdity” he argues that self-destruction is “not legitimate.” But beyond these limited philosophical affinities, I think Camus’ great advantage over other existentialists is that he presents his thoughts in living, supple prose—not tortured pseudo-abstractions. In conclusion, I would say that I do not go to the existentialists for the ultimate answers, but they do have an interesting way of posing the ultimate questions.

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