What Albert Camus can teach us about friendship

Unthinkable: Can you be friends with someone whose politics you oppose?

Albert Camus said man today would be summed up in just these terms: ‘He fornicated and read the papers.’ Photograph: Loomis Dean/Time & Life Pictures/Getty

Albert Camus said man today would be summed up in just these terms: ‘He fornicated and read the papers.’ Photograph: Loomis Dean/Time & Life Pictures/Getty

 

Can you be the friend of someone whose politics are diametrically opposed to yours? The norms of social media would seem to forbid it.

People today commonly self-identify as the enemy of some “other”. Politicians speak of a lost ability to fraternise across party lines. Activists make a show of distancing themselves socially from rivals, while public commentary is ferociously policed to ensure no cross-contamination occurs.

To Albert Camus, this retreat from communal friendship was one of the indicators of humanity’s moral crisis, although given the Algerian-French philosopher identified the phenomenon all of 75 years ago it would seem to be a long time in gestation.

Camus remains one of the most compelling and important thinkers in modern European history, and he is capable of having an impact on readers unlike any other moral philosopher. Just ask Robert Emmet Meagher who developed “the Camus class as a signature class” in 52 years of teaching in colleges across the United States, including Yale.

“It was the class that always caught fire and I never felt it had much to do with me. It was because of Camus. Like no one else, he spoke to students in a way that reached them more deeply and influenced their lives.”

We have reached a point where we are capable of being indifferent to the death and torture of others 

A veteran of anti-war campaigns, Meagher has straddled academia and activism – he spent some time on peace and reconciliation work in Northern Ireland. After he retired from full-time lecturing, he turned his attention to producing Albert Camus and the Human Crisis, which is being published next week ahead of Camus’s birthday on November 7th.

The book is conceived as “a kind of masterclass, or my last class” – the title coming from a lecture Camus gave on March 28th, 1946, in New York, 14 years before he was killed in a car crash.

You can watch it today on YouTube being delivered by actor Viggo Mortensen at a commemorative event in 2016. The speech is about 40 minutes long and it “summed up his moral vision”, says Meagher.

“In it, he said we have come to the point where our very humanity is at stake . . . we have reached a point where we are capable of being indifferent to the death and torture of others.”

Meagher has strong links with Ireland. His father named him after an Irish patriot as a kind of “prank”, and he lived in Dublin for a short period 40 years ago when he taught in Trinity College Dublin and produced a play at the now defunct Focus Theatre. Called Jumble Sale, it was nearly cancelled on the opening night, he fondly recalls, “when a bunch of nuns . . . thinking they were going to a jumble sale” came up on the stage looking to buy some of the props.

As a philosopher with a keen interest in the absurd, Camus would surely have enjoyed the scene.

Robert Emmet Meagher, author of Albert Camus and the Human Crisis
Robert Emmet Meagher, author of Albert Camus and the Human Crisis

Why is Camus such an appealing thinker to so many?

Robert E Meagher: “Camus was considered primarily a journalist until he became famous and won the Nobel Prize, and his journalism was always morally, ethically driven. He was values-informed and I think young people today – without knowing it – are starved for ethical language and ethical thinking.”

What is his distinct contribution as a moral thinker?

“That speech he gave [in New York, at the age of 32] distilled very early on the vision that set out the path of all his writings and endeavours . . . As he said later in The Fall, man today will be summed up in just these terms: ‘He fornicated and read the papers.’

“By fornication he didn’t mean love; it was the opposite of love. It was the illusion of intimacy, the illusion of being connected with others by either pleasure or pain.

“So you can read about a great disaster, a car bombing or a plague – you have made your connection with the world – but it’s over as soon as you put it down.

“It’s like a form of fornication where you get something from it but there are no ties, no moral bond.

“What was interesting in the talk, he just told four stories, four vignettes, and I think he did that because he didn’t want to give a definition or theory of what he was talking about.

“It was as if he was saying: ‘If you don’t know what I’m talking about with these four stories then you are one of the infected; you can’t be argued out of it or reflected out of it.’

“One of the stories was a woman in an apartment building being used by the Gestapo – she was the cleaning lady who came into the room where these men were tortured during the night. Because she just went about her work and didn’t seem to engage with them at all, one of them reproached her and she replied, ‘I never interfere with my tenants’ business.’”

Is he trying to prick your conscience?

“Absolutely, yeah, and of course if yours is so wounded that you read those four stories and you look up and say nothing, or ‘well, they’re interesting’ or something like that, then that would be a personal illustration of the problem that he is addressing.”

But he doesn’t argue for a set of moral rules. So how do we decide what’s right or wrong?

“He was troubled by that. He said, ‘I hope there is a human nature and that we know when we violate it.’

“Most of the veterans I worked with, the various IRA/INLA and [loyalist] ex-combatants in Northern Ireland, had abandoned religion – especially on the nationalist side – but the moral conscience was still very much alive: wounded, broken, but recovering. They were shocked by their lives as terrorists although many of them still believed that their side was right.

“One of them who had been in prison said to me, ‘I don’t know how I could have had such a lack of respect for human life as I did then.’

“For Camus it was all about killing – the one moral issue we have to deal with is murder, and he would refuse to distinguish between killing and murder. All the taking of human life is a violation.”

Like Aristotle, he seems to believe in practical wisdom rather than abstract moralising.

“Yes . . . Aristotle said the closest you can come to moral truth is to find the most moral, the most ethical person you can think of and see how they are acting. Or if they are dead – like Camus is dead – you ask: How do you think he would act?

“It’s a privileging of experience over theory.

“An experienced moral conscience in practice is your best guide, not a list of commandments, or a list of dos and don’ts.”

If he was here today, what would Camus be talking about? What would concern him?

“I think he wouldn’t know what to make of this anti-fact culture. Being a journalist, he wouldn’t know what to make of the irrelevance of factual truth in speech and publications.

“When he was confronted with irreconcilable, insolvable dilemmas, he went silent – like he did in Algeria – and so I think he would be silent on that perhaps because I don’t think he would know what to say. I think he would be very vocal on the wars that the US has been engaged in, and not just the US.”

He famously explored the human search for meaning. What would he say to people who seek meaning in extreme political movements?

“I think, first of all, he would listen. He believed the beginning to any solution of difference or conflict is dialogue. He said we live in a world where everyone is convinced they have the truth.

“How would he bring people into dialogue? I don’t know. He personally thought dialogue with the Nazis was conceivable. In the newspaper of which he was editor, Combat, he ran a series of articles entitled ‘Letters to a German friend’ – the German friend was a German soldier. It was to counterpart on the other side of the war, and he tried to engage in an imaginary dialogue.

“He didn’t call him ‘my German counterpart’ or ‘my German enemy’, but ‘my German friend’ because for Camus the essential human relationship between people was friendship. Friendship was the moral default position.

“Euripides has the very same view – that by our very nature we are one with each other; we live in a community, no matter how much we deny, violate or destroy that connection.

“So I think Camus would try to engage in dialogue and he would be open to changing his mind. One of the things that inspired and impressed me across my life is how Camus changed his mind numerous times – on religion, on the death penalty – and if there was a public disagreement he would admit that he was wrong.”

Albert Camus and the Human Crisis by Robert E Meagher is published by Pegasus Books