Sunday Poetry: Camus about Europe

Albert Camus is the most influential writers to me (See here why). This passage is from his third “Letter to a German Friend” (1944), depicting his unbroken love for European culture in the dark times of the second world war.

“Sometimes on a street corner, in the brief intervals of the long struggle that involves us all, I happen to think of all those places in Europe I know well. It is a magnificent land moulded by suffering and history. I relive those pilgrimages I once made with all the men of the West: the roses in the cloisters of Florence, the gilded bulbous domes of Krakow, the Hradschin and its dead palaces, the contorted statues of the Charles Bridge over the Vltava, the delicate gardens of Salzburg. All those flowers and stones, those hills and those landscapes where men’s time and the world’s time have mingled old trees and monuments! My memories have fused together such superimposed images to make a single face, which is the face of my true native land. … It never occurred to me that someday we should have to liberate them from you. And even now, at certain moments of rage and despair, I am occasionally sorry that the roses continue to grow in the cloister of San Marco and the pigeons drop clusters from the Cathedral of Salzburg, and the red geraniums grow tirelessly in the little cemeteries of Silesia.”

I wish you all a pleasant Sunday.

What Albert Camus taught us about freedom

The French-Algerian author and philosopher Albert Camus is unarguably one of the most read and thought-provoking intellectuals of the 20th century. Although he mainly gained attention through his philosophical theory of the absurd, which he carefully and subconsciously embedded in his novels, Camus also decisively contributed significant ideas and thoughts to the development of freedom in the post Second World War era. That is why I want to present you five little known things we still can learn from Albert Camus’ political legacy.

  • Oppose every form of totalitarianism

After the Second World War, socialism spread across Eastern Europe and was proclaimed the alternative draft to capitalism, which was regarded to be one of the reasons for the rise of fascism in Germany. On the other side, socialism was believed to bring about freedom for everybody in the end. Even though many intellectuals at first were attracted by the socialist ideology, Camus instantly saw the dangers of its predominant “the ends justify the means” narrative. He justifiably considered the vicious suppression of opposing views in order to obtain total freedom in the future as an early shibboleth for totalitarianism.

To achieve self-realization, an individual needs personal freedom, which is one of the first victims of totalitarian despotism. Thus, Camus vigorously fought against right or left authoritarian proposals – and for individual liberty, which lead to his conclusion: “None of the evils that totalitarianism claims to cure is worse than totalitarianism itself”.

  • A diverse Europe

If one thing is for sure, then it is Camus’ unbroken love for Europe. However, his conception of Europe does not portray the continent as a possible source for collectively controlled industry, military or thoughts. In contrast, he depicts Europe as an exciting intellectual battlefield of ideas, in which for 20 centuries people revolted “against the world, against the gods, and against themselves.” Thus, European people are unified through shared ideas and values rather than divided by borders.

That is why he forecasts the emergence of an unideological Europe populated by free people and based on unity and diversity already in 1957. Although he felt a strong love for his homeland France, he notes that an expansion of the realm he defines as “home” does not necessarily affects his love in a negative way. That is why he later on even argued for the “United States of the world.”

  • Nihilism is not a solution

In “A letter to a German friend” Camus remarks certain similarities between him and the Nazis regarding their philosophical starting point. They both reject any intrinsic, predetermined meaning in this world. However, the Nazis derive an arbitrariness of defining moral categories such as “good” and “evil” as well as a human subjugation to their animal instincts from this perception. Thus, it is allowed to murder on behalf of an inhuman ideology.

Contrary, Camus insisted that this nihilism leads to self-abandonment of humanity. In turn, he argues that we must fight against the unfairness of the world by creating our own meaning of life in order to achieve happiness. If there is no deeper meaning in our existence, every person has to seek happiness in his or her own way. When we accept our destiny, even if it devastating at first glance as he describes it in “The myth of Sisyphus”, we can pursue our own goals and therefore fulfil our personal meaning of life.

  • Total artistic freedom

Considering his artistic background, Camus’ conception of the value of freedom is quite interesting. Classical liberalist such as Locke and Mill regard freedom as the state of nature: The man is born free and thus freedom is the natural state of any person. Liberty for Camus instead is a necessary condition to fulfil every personal perception of the meaning of life. That is why he particularly emphasizes the invaluable worth of liberty for humanity: When people are not free, they cannot pursue their own meaning of life and thus achieve happiness in an unfair world.

Considering the immense value art personally has for Camus, it certainly reflects a major component in his personal equation towards fulfilment, alongside other interests such as sports and love. Hence, it is not surprising that he was a lifelong supporter of total artistic freedom, which prevents nobody from obtaining happiness through individual perceptions of art. That is why he famously concludes “Without freedom, no art; art lives only on the restraints it imposes on itself and dies of all others.”

  • Abrogate the death penalty

In the chilling essay “reflections on the Guillotine” Camus insists on the abolishment of the death penalty. Apart from different scientific arguments such as low efficiency and a non-existing deterrence-effect, Camus also points out the general moral fragility of the death penalty: He is deeply worried by the state privilege of deciding over life and death. This privilege is exploited through the death penalty, which solely is a form of revenge. On the contrary, it is only triggering an unbearable spiral of violence instead of preventing it. Alternatively, he argues for being set at labour for life as maximal punishment.

Albert Camus was not an Anarcho-capitalist nor was he a libertarian. Nevertheless, he regarded individual freedom as an essential element of society and examined the inseparable relation between freedom and art. Every true work of art increased the inner freedom of its admirer and thus free art gives scope for individual happiness. One can never solely serve the other – they presuppose each other. Because of his artistic and philosophical roots, Camus provides an unusual moral argument for individual liberty, which makes him worth reading even today.

The existentialist origins of postmodernism

In part, postmodernism has its origin in the existentialism of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is generally regarded as the first existentialist. Kierkegaard had his life profoundly marked by the breaking of an engagement and by his discomfort with the formalities of the (Lutheran) Church of Denmark. In his understanding (as well as of others of the time, within a movement known as Pietism, influential mainly in Germany, but with strong precedence over the English Methodism of John Wesley) Lutheran theology had become overly intellectual, marked by a “Protestant scholasticism.”

Scholasticism was before this period a branch of Catholic theology, whose main representative was Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Thomas Aquinas argued against the theory of the double truth, defended by Muslim theologians of his time. According to this theory, something could be true in religion and not be true in the empirical sciences. Thomas Aquinas defended a classic concept of truth, used centuries earlier by Augustine of Hippo (354-430), to affirm that the truth could not be so divided. Martin Luther (1483-1546) made many criticisms of Thomas Aquinas, but ironically the methodological precision of the medieval theologian became quite influential in Lutheran theology of the 17th and 18th centuries. In Germany and the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) Lutheranism became the state religion after the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and being the pastor of churches in major cities became a respected and coveted public office.

It is against this intellectualism and this facility of being Christian that Kierkegaard revolts. In 19th century Denmark, all were born within the Lutheran Church, and being a Christian was the socially accepted position. Kierkegaard complained that in centuries past being a Christian was not easy, and could even involve life-threatening events. In the face of this he argued for a Christianity that involved an individual decision against all evidence. In one of his most famous texts he makes an exposition of the story in which the patriarch Abraham is asked by God to kill Isaac, his only son. Kierkegaard imagines a scenario in which Abraham does not understand the reasons of God, but ends up obeying blindly. In Kierkegaard’s words, Abraham gives “a leap of faith.”

This concept of blind faith, going against all the evidence, is central to Kierkegaard’s thinking, and became very influential in twentieth-century Christianity and even in other Western-established religions. Beyond the strictly religious aspect, Kierkegaard marked Western thought with the notion that some things might be true in some areas of knowledge but not in others. Moreover, its influence can be seen in the notion that the individual must make decisions about how he intends to exist, regardless of the rules of society or of all empirical evidence.

Another important existentialist philosopher of the 19th century was the German Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche was also raised within Lutheranism but, unlike Kierkegaard, he became an atheist in his adult life. Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche also became a critic of the social conventions of his time, especially the religious conventions. Nietzsche is particularly famous for the phrase “God is dead.” This phrase appears in one of his most famous texts, in which the Christian God attends a meeting with the other gods and affirms that he is the only god. In the face of this statement the other gods die of laughing. The Christian God effectively becomes the only god. But later, the Christian God dies of pity for seeing his followers on the earth becoming people without courage.

Nietzsche was particularly critical of how Christianity in his day valued features which he considered weak, calling them virtues, and condemned features he considered strong, calling them vices. Not just Christianity. Nietzsche also criticized the classical philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, placing himself alongside the sophists. The German philosopher affirmed that Socrates valued behaviors like kindness, humility, and generosity simply because he was ugly. More specifically, Nietzsche questioned why classical philosophers defended Apollo, considered the god of wisdom, and criticized Dionysius, considered the god of debauchery. In Greco-Roman mythology Dionysius (or Bacchus, as he was known by the Romans) was the god of festivals, wine, and insania, symbolizing everything that is chaotic, dangerous, and unexpected. Thus, Nietzsche questioned the apparent arbitrariness of the defense of Apollo’s rationality and order against the irrationality and unpredictability of Dionysius.

Nietzsche’s philosophy values courage and voluntarism, the urge to go against “herd behavior” and become a “superman,” that is, a person who goes against the dictates of society to create his own rules . Although he went in a different religious direction from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche agreed with the Danish theologian on the necessity of the individual to go against the conventions and the reason to dictate the rules of his own existence.

In the second half of the 20th century existentialism became an influential philosophical current, represented by people like Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Albert Camus (1913-1960). Like their predecessors of the 19th century, these existentialists criticized the apparent absurdity of life and valued decision-making by the individual against rational and social dictates.