Royal, Robert: Τhe other Camus
We might even think of Camus as a Stoic or Epicurean in the ancient sense of those terms. The original Stoics were not merely grim heroes; nor were the Epicureans pleasure addicts. Instead, both pursued a rational enjoyment of the world among friends, a resignation to inevitable evils, and a state of deep calm in the soul. Though much of that shared ethos harmonizes with the endurance of the simple people described in The First Man, Camus’s love of beauty and the world was a bit too exuberant for either ancient school. Nevertheless, several entries in his notebooks show that he thought of himself as trying to find a kind of religious order: “The real problem, even without God, is the problem of psycological unity (the only problem really raised by the operation of the absurd is that of the metaphysical unity of the world and the mind) and inner peace. . . . Such peace is not possible without a discipline difficult to reconcile with the world. That’s where the problem lies. It must indeed be reconciled with the world. It is a matter of achieving a rule of conduct in secular life.”
This brings us to a crucial point. One of the more attractive features of Camus’s thought and art to many readers is his sense of the sacred. By all accounts, his family in Algeria was only nominally Catholic and he made his First Communion at the insistence of his grandmother for social rather than religious reasons. Otherwise, the family seems to have been entirely non-practicing. Nothing conventionally religious appears in The First Man. In fact, a note states baldly: “Christ did not set foot in Algeria,” perhaps echoing Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli. In later years, Camus would describe religion as treason to the stoic endurance of his family. Yet something in Camus, even during his youth, suggested a deep religious sense to those who knew him.
Because of a certain tone and attitude in his work, it is often said that Camus might have become a Christian had he lived longer. But there is little reason to doubt his own words on the matter: “I feel closer to the values of the classical world than to those of Christianity. Unfortunately, I cannot go to Delphi to be initiated!”
Yet if Camus is pagan, he is also post-Christian, and Christian influences mark his work. He has a profound sense of the disunity of the human soul that parallels religious ideas such as original sin. Camus once described himself as an “independent Catholic” to his friend Paul Raffi and even allowed that a Christian reading of The Fall was legitimate. (Every element in the name of the single speaker in The Fall, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, has clear Christian overtones, as does the very title of the book.) Camus’s highly successful stage adaptation of Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun in the late 1950s and several of the stories in Exile and the Kingdom involve dark and primitive spiritual themes. But in the final analysis, his was a pagan voice—though an unusual one. As he said in an interview shortly before he died, “I have a sense of the sacred and I don’t believe in a future life, that’s all.”
“That’s all,” however, covers quite a bit of ground. Camus early became and remained a Nietzschean, of the rare sweet-tempered variety. In the same briefcase that held the unfinished manuscript of The First Man, there was also a copy of The Gay Science. Camus agreed with Nietzsche that Christianity had damaged the human race’s image of itself. More seriously, he thought Christianity had inspired a neglect of justice and joy in this world in anticipation of happiness in the next. And like Nietzsche, Camus regarded the way back to real virtues as involving a confrontation with the abyss and a heroic response.