Albert Camus: Political Moralist

by William F. May

William F. May is Cary M. Maguire Professor of Ethics at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. This essay draws on some language and ideas generated by the author and others in the advisory work group on ethics for the White House task force on health care reform. The opinions expressed do not, however, purport to represent the positions of the Clinton administration, the task force or the ethics advisory group. The author accepts sole responsibility for the views expressed.

This article appeared in the Journal Christianity and Crisis, November 24, 1958. Used by permission. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


According to William May, Camus rejects political realism in both its conservative and revolutionary forms and summons man to a modesty, an honesty, and a decency that he believes to be within the reach of man—and certainly within the reach of Western man—as it recovers the best in the European revolutionary tradition. Camus argues, man overreaches himself, pretends to one sort of divinity or another, but concludes by justifying the violation of man.

The writings of Albert Camus have had a decisive influence on the political convictions of many young Frenchmen. Yet he often sounds like a Christian moralist. In fact there is no better way of moving toward the center of his political convictions than by recognizing their theological dimension.

"The astonishing history evoked here is the history of European pride." With these words Camus introduces his eloquent study of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, The Rebel (New York: Alfred Knopf, Inc., 1956). Camus writes scathingly "of the horizontal religions of our times," of the attempted deification of man that has plagued contemporary life. In the fashion of the Christian prophet, he pursues the moral pretensions of the French Revolutionaries, the pedantry and hypocrisy of the bourgeois world, the demonia of the fascists, and the messianic utopianism of the Marxists. In all these movements, Camus argues, man overreaches himself, pretends to one sort of divinity or another, but concludes by justifying the violation of man.

Further, in a manner reminiscent of the classical theologians, Camus links the cardinal sin of pride with a consequent dishonesty and murder. Every human absolute eventually contradicts itself and does so at terrible expense to the solidarity of the race. In honor of Justice, Law and Order the French Revolutionists unleashed a lawless terror. Although praising the formal virtues of honesty, conscience, and the dignity of work, the bourgeois class created social conditions that made the exercise of these virtues impossible. While declaring everything permissible in the name of a glorious Germany, Hitler led this very Germany to an impermissible, inglorious defeat. In deference to a future humanity, the Stalinist commits inhumanities that defer indefinitely the advent of the New Jerusalem. The results in each case are more than contradictions furnished by the turns and twists of events. There is a fundamental moral incoherence at the root of all these movements, as they lay an ax to their own principles and split open the race.

Camus’ affirmations also have a familiar ring for moralists in Christian circles, especially those concerned with "proximate justice." Against the wild immodesty, contradiction and betrayal of human solidarity that ensues when men absolutize a particular group or future for man, Camus urges a passion for justice that is governed at every point by a sense of limits. He displays the essential double tension: The prophet’s zeal for response to the abuse of man’s dignity, with distrust for a zeal that denies all restraints upon that response. In every instance, Camus recommends a modesty, honesty and decency in political action that will honor the proximate character of justice; he recommends these persuasively by reflecting the discipline of these virtues in his own writing.

Yet the rejections and affirmations suggested so far are hardly enough to register Camus in the latent Church. Notoriously absent from "the history of European pride" is the sense that it is man who is prideful. Ideologies rather than men appear to do most of the overreaching of limits. Man is treated as the victim rather than the author of the ideologies that have dominated our times. In short, there is little sense of man as sinner. As might be suspected, Camus also shows little sympathy for "realism" in politics—an immediate corollary of the sinfulness of man for so many Christian moralists. He has little patience with those who counsel the use of force on the grounds that the world is not yet redeemed. Camus calls not for realistic action in the light of the sinfulness of man but for action on behalf of man as the relatively innocent victim.

And yet, admitting these distinctions, why not add a dash of pessimism and a pinch of realism and still recognize in Camus’ study of pride a significant contribution to Christian anthropology? This is rather difficult, for at the very core of his whole thinking is the denial of God. Clearly denied in his doctrine of limited political goals is God, the Limiter. Although it is out of fashion amongst some theologians to take such a denial seriously, Camus, at least, asks us to consider it so. The denial of God informs the whole of his political thinking. Ultimately he makes it the basis for his rejection of realism in politics, and he places it at the origin of every virtue and every improvement in the human condition. To sense the weight and breadth of this conviction, it is worth returning again to his understanding of pride.

Christians have interpreted pride as the attempt on the part of the creature to play the Creator. In fact, Augustine once remarked that every sin is a grotesque mimicry of one of the perfections of God. Curiosity imitates God’s omniscience; ambition seeks to duplicate God’s glory; luxuriousness parodies the abundance of the divine life, etc. In sin, man perversely imitates God’s virtues.

Camus also understands pride as the attempt to imitate God. Not his virtues, for God has none. But rather this single encompassing vice: God is a murderer. The proposition is simple and fully horrifying. If God exists and every man dies, God is the death-bringer. He is the one who places every man under the penalty of suffering and death. When all the cant, the prayers and imprecations are done with, this is the truth about God: He is the one who slays, the one who raises buboes in the groins of little children, the one who places all men under the penalty of the destruction of their flesh. Neither cult, nor ecclesiastical apparatus, nor theological ingenuity can obscure this fact. ". . . the order of the world is shaped by death" (The Plague, tr. Stuart Gilbert, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1948, p. 223), which inflicts upon man a never-ending defeat. In the light of this horrible fact, Camus does not summon man to atheism but to blasphemy. To deny God’s existence is inaccurate. In a sense, he does exist. God exists as the destroyer. But to say "Hallowed be thy name"? This is unthinkable. In decency, man can only blaspheme the death-bringer, resist and desecrate his name. He is a ghoul, a chewer of corpses, against whom men ought to rebel. For God has transgressed a limit—human life.

Camus urges action then, not in the image and similitude of God, but action that bears witness to one’s original manhood, a manhood that receives its outline in the original refusal to consent to God and his works.

Pride, on the other hand, is a human work of murder added to the divine work of murder, a human injustice that corresponds to the divine injustice, a transgression of limits.

The chief difference between God and man is that God offers no justification for his behavior; he is silent. But man does. In political life, he offers ideologies which attempt to justify murder. Reactionary ideology justifies unrestrained repression as a means of preserving good order and life. Revolutionary ideology justifies the use of every means—war, duplicity and murder—for the sake of a future life and order.

Camus opposes both on the grounds of the limit discovered in the original insurrection against death itself. All subsequent established orders and revolutions betray their origins when they resort to murderous means in their own right.

No more than Israel is permitted to forget her covenant with her God, or the Church her covenant in the blood of Christ, is the revolutionist permitted to forget his covenant in the blood that originally prompted his insurrection against death. In organizing itself for the future, a revolution must not forget its origins. Otherwise the revolution obscures its future goals and disfigures its face in the present.

Camus is clearly interested in recovering a form of sanctity in political life founded in a double refusal: The refusal of God and the refusal to be God. His rather spectacular theological criticism is directed to that end. He rejects political realism in both its conservative and revolutionary forms and summons man to a modesty, an honesty, and a decency that he believes to be within the reach of man—and certainly within the reach of Western man—as it recovers the best in the European revolutionary tradition. His argument against the pride of the realists concludes in a summons to sanctity.

Sanctity does not refer here to the possession of some moral perfection by hero or community, but rather to a politics of witness—political action that is luminous at every point to its origin. If need be, even the goal must be sacrificed for the sake of this witness.

¼ revolution must try to act, not in order to come into existence at some future date in the eyes of a world reduced to acquiescence, but in terms of the obscure existence already made manifest in the act of insurrection.

(The Rebel, p. 252)

Camus’ saints are the revolutionaries of 1905 in Russia, members of the battle organization of the Social Revolutionary Party. These men, above all, were distinguished by a sense of limit. Kaliayev, for example, was willing to assassinate, but not when there were children in the carriage of the victim. Moreover, as testimony to the fact that not even such discriminate murder, strictly speaking, was justified, the revolutionary was prepared to atone with the offering of his own life. Camus, in a bitter note, distinguishes such rebels from the dominant realist tradition in the West by remarking,

Two different species of men. One kills only once and pays with his life. The other justifies thousands of crimes and consents to be rewarded with honors.

(The Rebel, p. 273, note 6)

Revolutionaries like Kaliayev, however, have always been criticized by the realists as being nihilistic. They live and die on behalf of an immediate witness, but they are irresponsible toward the future. They are ready to protest momentarily; they are willing to take their Hungarian holiday from tyranny. But soon the ecstasy is over, and they lapse by their ineffectiveness once again into the negative fraternity of the condemned. If one is limited to means that must bear immediate witness to one’s origin and end, then there is little hope of success. And when a leader pays little attention to success, he purchases a glorious moment at great cost to his people. Renunciation of all concern with efficacy, in the long run, implies a practical acceptance of the world as run by those who avail themselves of force without restraint.

The whole art of politics depends upon the use of means that to some degree obscure origin and goal. Perhaps in the realm of art it is possible to achieve a work that is luminous in detail, that suggests an utter appropriateness in the use of means, but not so in politics. Unless one is willing to abandon the future, there is need for the use of force, indirection and even disguise in the present.

Camus does not entirely neglect this argument of the realists against a political ethic of immediate witness. He is not unmindful of the problem of power in politics. His savage attack on capital punishment, for example, is not an attack upon penal systems as such. His novel, The Plague, does not disparage the need for public structures of power. In The Rebel he shows himself sufficiently sensitive to the problem of political force to cast about for power groups that would furnish the material principle for his own ideas.

However, Camus is outspoken in his criticism of the absolute justification of the use of power. In Western culture absolute justification has been furnished by futurism—Christian and Marxist; therefore, Camus has leveled his guns against both. Conservative Christian futurism urged the acceptance of present abuse in the name of a supernatural tomorrow; Marxist futurism has encouraged revolutionary violence in the service of an earthly tomorrow. In both cases the means are justified absolutely; the present is a mere instrument in the hands of God or the Party. Camus insists that the present can never be considered raw material or instrument in relation to the future. Violence may be necessary, but it is never in the strictest sense of the word justified.

Beyond urging this restraint on the use of power, however, Camus also argues that the realists overlook different levels of power and efficacy. Camus suggests that there is an efficacy in sap, as well as in the tornado, that the realists are inclined to overlook. On this point, Camus has more in mind than the Western politician who has discovered that there are moral and spiritual, as well as military, forces and urges their full use. Rather he suggests an altogether different relation to power than that of use and manipulation. Here Camus’ Mediterranean piety toward nature—and human nature—comes to the fore: Nature cultivated rather than manipulated, enjoyed rather than transformed, attested to rather than detested in the name of a more perfect fulfillment that lies ahead. When nature and human nature are looked at in this way, different levels of power and efficacy come into view.

Realists and futurists are doubly blind then—blind to suffering as they sacrifice the present to the future, that is, as they treat human nature and its powers like raw material that must be manipulated and transformed; but blind also to the creative possibilities of history itself, as they overlook different levels of efficacy and power.

Camus may be blind in his own way. We may not hold to his argument. We may surely note with some irony that his work has come out of a country in signal need of as much realism in politics as it can lay its hand on. But it is difficult to read Camus without having one’s own vision corrected—particularly a tendency to farsightedness that causes one to overlook the evil and the summons to witness that lie near at hand. It is remarkable how easy it is to deal carelessly with the present, to charge off the whole of life to the interim needs of battle without witnessing to the origin of the war, to remain frozen in the present while serving some forgotten future thaw.

The Church militant has always recognized a danger in the Franciscan spirit. This journal was founded in concern with that danger. No doubt there is an even greater danger of Franciscanism in politics. But, no less than the Church, the political order is in trouble if there is no one around to insist on an immediate witness.