What Albert Camus can teach us about friendship

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Can you be friends with someone whose policies are diametrically opposed to yours? Social media standards seem to prohibit it.

Today, people commonly identify as the enemy of “another”. Politicians speak of a lost ability to fraternize across party lines. Activists pretend to socially distance themselves from their rivals, while public comments are fiercely controlled to ensure that no cross-contamination occurs.

For Albert Camus, this withdrawal from community friendship was one of the indicators of the moral crisis of humanity, even if, given that the Algerian-French philosopher identified the phenomenon 75 years ago, it would seem that ‘it has been in gestation for a long time.

Camus remains one of the most compelling and important thinkers in modern European history, and he is able to impact readers like no other moral philosopher. Just ask Robert Emmet Meagher who developed “the Camus class as a signature class” in 52 years of teaching at colleges across the United States, including Yale.

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

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

A veteran of anti-war campaigns, Meagher has straddled academia and activism – he spent time working for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. After retiring from full-time teaching, he turned to the production of Albert Camus and the Human Crisis, which will be released next week before Camus’ birthday on November 7.

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

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

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

Meagher has strong ties to Ireland. His father named it after an Irish patriot as a sort of ‘farce’, and he lived in Dublin for a short time 40 years ago when he taught at Trinity College Dublin and produced a play at the now defunct Focus Theater. Called Jumble Sale, it was almost canceled on opening night, he remembers fondly, “when a group of nuns… Thinking they were going to a clearance sale” took the stage to buy props. .

As a philosopher passionate about the absurd, Camus would surely have appreciated the scene.

Robert Emmet Meagher, author of Albert Camus and the human crisis

Why is Camus such an attractive thinker to so many people?

Robert E Meagher: “Camus was considered primarily a journalist until he rose to fame and won the Nobel Prize, and his journalism has always been driven by morals and ethics. He was aware of values ​​and I think young people today – without knowing it – are hungry for ethical language and ethical thought.

What is his distinct contribution as a moral thinker?

“This speech he made [in New York, at the age of 32] very early on distilled the vision which marked the path of all his writings and his efforts. . . As he said later in The Fall, the man of today will be summed up in these terms: “He fornicated and read the newspapers.

“By fornication he did not mean love; it was the opposite of love. It was the illusion of intimacy, the illusion of being connected to others through pleasure or pain.

“So you can read about a big disaster, a car bomb or a plague – you’ve made your connection to the world – but it’s over as soon as you put it down.

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

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

“It was like he was saying, ‘If you don’t know what I’m talking about with these four stories, then you’re infected; you cannot discuss it or be reflected in it.

“One of the stories was a woman in a building used by the Gestapo – it was the cleaning lady who entered the room where these men were tortured during the night. Because she was just going about her business and didn’t seem to engage with them at all, one of them scolded her and she replied, “I never interfere with my family’s affairs. tenants.

Is he trying to prick your conscience?

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

But he’s not arguing for a set of moral rules. So how do we decide what is right or wrong?

“He was confused by it. He said, “I hope there is human nature and that we know when we are violating it.

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

“For Camus, it was about killing – the only moral issue we face is murder, and he would refuse to distinguish between murder and murder. All the taking of human life is a violation.

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

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

“It is to privilege experience over theory.

“A moral conscience experienced 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. As a journalist, he cannot help but think of the irrelevance of factual truth in speech and publications.

“When he was faced with irreconcilable and insoluble dilemmas, he fell silent – as he did in Algeria – and so I think he would be silent on that maybe because I don’t think so. that he would know what to say. I think it would be very loud about the wars the United States has been engaged in, and not just the United States. “

He notably explored the human search for meaning. What would he say to people looking for meaning in extreme political movements?

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

“How would he get people to talk to each other?” I do not know. He personally believed that a dialogue with the Nazis was possible. In the newspaper of which he was editor-in-chief, Combat, he published a series of articles titled “Letters to a German Friend” – the German friend was a German soldier. It was to counter the other side of the war, and he attempted to engage in an imaginary dialogue.

“He did not 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 default moral position.

“Euripides has exactly the same point of view – that by our very nature we are one with the 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 be ready to change his mind. One of the things that has inspired and impressed me throughout my life is the way Camus has changed his mind. opinion several times – on religion, on the death penalty – and if there was public disagreement he would admit he was wrong.

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


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