Each Sunday, the San Francisco Chronicle lists the ten most popular fiction and non-fiction reads among Bay Area residents. Most books have been published in the last two years. A few weeks ago, however, a modern classic cracked the tenth spot: The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus (1913–1960).
COVID19 is an ostensible explanation for The Plague’s bump in readership. With no premonition of the events that have transpired among us, I read The Plague one year ago. As Camus’ best-known work, the author’s humanism resounds in the words and actions of his protagonist, Dr. Bernard Rieux. To understand Camus’ humanism, one must recognize Christian theology as its sparring partner.
The setting of The Plague is French Algiers, modern-day Algeria. Camus narrates the devastating effects of a bubonic outbreak in a North African town, yet the substance of the text is philosophical and theological dialogue between friends. The pestilence has prompted the question of how these men should live and why they choose to do so.
Camus was an influential French existentialist author who wrestled with understanding lived existence in a world without God. Throughout his works, Camus speaks of “The Absurd,” by which he means the dilemma of finding meaning in a world without any transcendent end. In an empty, dark impersonal universe, the very word “meaning” is difficult to make sense of. This creates obvious problems for assessing the plague itself. How can a person strive against what is biologically inevitable? More importantly, why would a person even care to combat a plague?
One exchange between Rieux and a friend Tarrou, captures the startling reality of Camus’ life philosophy. Rieux explains,
“…since the order of the world is shaped by death, might not it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence.”
“Yes, but your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.”
Rieux’s face darkened.
Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.”
“no reason, I agree. Only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.”
“Yes, a never ending defeat.”
Camus’ honesty that a God-less world is a hopeless one could lead to despair, yet he chooses to embark boldly on a journey conceding that there is no destination. Camus’ existentialist option remains common among secular-oriented persons, for it affirms social responsibility without the demand for faith and obedience to God.
The Plague mulls over the inexplicability of the pestilence, or any natural disaster for that matter. How can the God of the Bible permit or ordain such things? Camus is familiar with traditional Christian answers to the problem of evil, and expresses those views in the figure of Father Panelou. Camus gives Panelou a fair hearing, which includes several sermons and dialogue with Reiux and his friends. One intense debate occurs over the death of a child who succumbs to the plague under Reiux’s care. For the doctor, a child’s death offers profound challenges to anyone defending the goodness and love of God.
Not coincidentally, a child’s death is also the subject of a similar debate over the existence of God in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Panelou concedes that a choice is given to all under these trying circumstances: to hate God or to love Him. There is no middle ground. In another sermon, Panelou provides his own explanation for the death of a child, when he says,
The love of God is a hard love. It demands total self-surrender, disdain of our human personality. And yet it alone can reconcile us to suffering and the deaths of children, it alone can justify them, since we cannot understand them., and we can only make God’s will ours. This is the hard lesson I would share with you today. This is the faith, cruel in men’s eyes, and crucial in God’s, which we must ever strive to compass. We must aspire beyond ourselves to that high and fearful vision. And on that lofty plane all will fall into place, all discords be resolved, and truth flash forth from the dark of clouds of seeming injustice.
Camus does not dismiss the possibility that Panelou’s explanation is true, or the sincerity of his faith, but he resists the idea that the individual’s life exists for God’s sake. In a later chapter, he reveals to his friend that he “feels more fellowship with the defeated than with the saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man.”
In A Secular Age, Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor observes that Camus’ concept of the absurd is flawed, for we find things absurd only when we expect meaning to be there. On Camus’ own terms, the death of a child should be a matter of indifference. The author cannot escape asking whether evils have some unforeseen purpose or why the world seems broken and incomplete. At the same time Camus cannot accept Panelou’s judgment that the divine will is inscrutable and a future restoration will satisfy our questions.
Camus’ humanism gives autonomy a preeminent place, and thus, pushes out faith. If the author cannot accept what Father Panelou clings to by faith, The Plague reminds us that the alternative path is almost unbearable. “There can be no peace without hope,” says Rieux. And at another juncture, “no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.”
The Plague pushes us to boundaries where we must choose, in Panelou’s words, to love God or to hate him. Only faith can “accept a hard love” and its demand that we first surrender all.