Source – disinthrallment.com
- “…The current COVID crisis has confronted us all with questions of governmental coercion more naked and threatening than most have ever experienced. I respectfully disagree with those who claim the possible threat of a pandemic requires the circumscription of personal freedoms, and that such actions heretofore deemed by most to be extreme are suddenly now required in the interest of the public good….I must split with those who believe there exists a line of danger that, once crossed, renders coercion of individual against individual appropriate for the good of the collective. I reject any reduction of the individual to a mere part of a whole”
The Philosophy of Revolt
Whatever we may do, excess will always keep its place in the heart of man, in the place where solitude is found. We all carry within us our places of exile, our crimes and our ravages. But our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to fight them in ourselves and in others.
— Albert Camus, ‘The Rebel’
The only conception of freedom I can have is that of the prisoner or the individual in the midst of the State. The only one I know is freedom of thought and action.
— Albert Camus, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus”
There always comes a time in history when the person who dares to say that 2+2=4 is punished by death. And the issue is not what reward or what punishment will be the outcome of that reasoning. The issue is simply whether or not 2+2=4.
— Albert Camus, ‘The Plague’
I recently finished Alistair Horne’s magisterial history of the Algerian War, and it inspired me to revisit one of my favorite philosophers, the French-Algerian Albert Camus.
For the uninitiated, Camus was born in Algeria to poor parents, but through diligence and incisive intelligence he was able to excel at the University of Algiers and make a name for himself as a young philosopher and scholar. He found himself in Paris during the German invasion in 1940 and eventually joined the Resistance as a newspaper editor. After the War, Camus gained fame as an existentialist philosopher (though he rejected the term) and was a vital member of the postwar Left until his untimely accidental death at age 46. Unlike many on the Left, such as his former friend Jean-Paul Sarte, Camus (very much like Orwell) was not drawn to Communism. In fact, his agnostic, absurdist individualism skewed towards anarchism.
One may question why I revere a leftist who rejected religion; this I will answer below.
With Camus actively on my mind, I quite by accident stumbled across this 2017 Aeon article earlier today. As the title suggests, the article summarizes the philosophical split between Sarte and Camus, and the basis of the described split has significant relevance to the issues being confronted by society in the age of COVID. As the article author explains,
[i]f the idea of freedom bound Camus and Sartre philosophically, then the fight for justice united them politically. They were committed to confronting and curing injustice, and, in their eyes, no group of people was more unjustly treated than the workers, the proletariat. Camus and Sartre thought of them as shackled to their labour and shorn of their humanity. In order to free them, new political systems must be constructed.
However, unlike Sarte (and again like Orwell), Camus realized the Marxist ideal of Permanent Revolution was essentially self-defeating because the rebel can and does soon become the tyrant unless the rebel is constrained by moral values. Camus saw that all revolutions in modern times had reinforced the power of the State. Instead, Camus’s “philosophy of revolt”
wasn’t a philosophical system per se, but an amalgamation of philosophical and political ideas: every human is free, but freedom itself is relative; one must embrace limits, moderation, ‘calculated risk’; absolutes are anti-human. Most of all, Camus condemned revolutionary violence. Violence might be used in extreme circumstances (he supported the French war effort, after all) but the use of revolutionary violence to nudge history in the direction you desire is utopian, absolutist, and a betrayal of yourself. “Absolute freedom is the right of the strongest to dominate,” Camus wrote, while “absolute justice is achieved by the suppression of all contradiction: therefore it destroys freedom.” The conflict between justice and freedom required constant re-balancing, political moderation, an acceptance and celebration of that which limits the most: our humanity. “To live and let live,” he said, “in order to create what we are.”
Sarte, on the other hand, believed
it was possible to achieve perfect justice and freedom – that described the achievement of communism. Under capitalism, and in poverty, workers could not be free. Their options were unpalatable and inhumane: to work a pitiless and alienating job, or to die. But by removing the oppressors and broadly returning autonomy to the workers, communism allows each individual to live without material want, and therefore to choose how best they can realize themselves. This makes them free, and through this unbending equality, it is also just. The problem is that, for Sartre and many others on the Left, communism required revolutionary violence to achieve because the existing order must be smashed. . . . Sartre remained unpredictable, however, and was engaged in a long, bizarre dalliance with hardline Maoism when he died in 1980. Though Sartre moved away from the USSR, he never completely abandoned the idea that revolutionary violence might be warranted.
Camus thus rejected doctrinaire revolution and instead
Camus declared for a peaceful socialism that would not resort to revolutionary violence. He was appalled by the stories emerging from the USSR: it was not a country of hand-in-hand communists, living freely, but a country with no freedom at all. Sartre, meanwhile, would fight for communism, and he was prepared to endorse violence to do so.
As I have discussed in other contexts, I fervently believe voluntary interaction is the key to a free society. Thus, although I disagree with Camus on such issues as the ultimate source of morals (I submit God, while he submitted experience), we both morally eschew violence and coercion; this belief leads naturally to philosophical anarchism, which is the only internally consistent approach which does not codify violence to some degree. In a very real sense, from a societal standpoint almost anything is negotiable as long as voluntary interaction is sacrosanct. Thus, I, a Christian anarchist who believes in moral absolutes, can stand arm-in-arm with Camus and long for a free society.
The current COVID crisis has confronted us all with questions of governmental coercion more naked and threatening than most have ever experienced. I respectfully disagree with those who claim the possible threat of a pandemic requires the circumscription of personal freedoms, and that such actions heretofore deemed by most to be extreme are suddenly now required in the interest of the public good. Just as Camus split with Sarte over the question of revolutionary violence, I must split with those who believe there exists a line of danger that, once crossed, renders coercion of individual against individual appropriate for the good of the collective. I reject any reduction of the individual to a mere part of a whole. As Camus stressed:
A living man can be enslaved and reduced to the historic condition of an object. But if he dies in refusing to be enslaved, he reaffirms the existence of another kind of human nature which refuses to be classified as an object.