Camus in a Nutshell: God is Not Good, Nature is Not Good, and We are More Moral Than God or Nature

God didn’t prevent the Holocaust, but we would have. And God didn’t prevent the 2004 Christmas tsunami that killed over 100,000 people, but we would have. And Nature doesn’t care if death is the engine of evolution, but we do.

So we’re much, much better–more kind, purposeful, and sensitive–than either God or Nature, and our relationship to these larger entities is therefore absurd. They do not answer to our kindness, purposefulness, desires, or sensitivities.

Here’s Albert Camus from The Myth of Sisyphus (1942): “I derive from the absurd three consequences: my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the sheer activity of consciousness, I transform in a rule of life what was an invitation to death—and I refuse suicide.”

In other words, Camus is saying that an unblinkered encounter with the universe–its indifference toward us, its apparent lack of purpose, and the suffering and death in it–leads us to the conclusion that we are in an absurd situation (neither God nor our environment answers to our longings). Yet this needn’t be an invitation to suicide. In such a situation, we can still lead a vital and moral life. It is our refusal of the absurd–and our outrage against it–that can affirm and energize a human existence: one of rebellion, freedom, passionate caring about our projects, and solidarity with others.

These are the qualities lacking in God and Nature, but present to us in experience.

So once you confront your fate directly–that you are a being toward death (Heidegger) in a cosmos that doesn’t care; that Nature is not ultimately holistic and purposeful in any meaningful sense; that God is dead, hiding, indifferent, or evil–and pass through the nihilism and dark night of the soul that accompanies this confrontation, then there is still the possibility for you to make a meaningful life. It can be private or public; it can be focused on aesthetic projects or others, but it can have value. It is possible.

How so? Look in the mirror. The meaning that you’ve been searching for can be found right there in front of you. You’re it. Meaning needn’t reside in religion or imagining yourself as one with the cosmos, but in you, in me, in other people. That meaning can be present because you can imagine it as present; because you are present.

So in our collective outrage at suffering being met with indifference by God and Nature, we can meet suffering with a compassionate imagination. Since nobody else—and nothing else—will value us, we can value each other and ourselves. If God and Nature will not speak, we will speak. The value of human life can come exclusively from us, and we can feel empathy for those who are in the same bad situation that we are in (again, as a being unto death). In Camus’ novel, The Plague, for instance, the heroic Dr. Rieux, though an atheist, doesn’t flee the plague city, or commit suicide in despair, but values the sick and distressed, and stays with them. That’s part of the rebellion of human consciousness against an indifferent universe: our affirmation of the value of others to us. We are the last court of appeal. Against a vast cosmos that doesn’t care and a God who is dead, we can care and live–and give.

As Camus wrote in “L’homme révolté”: “The solidarity of humanity is based on the revolt, and the justification of the revolt is man’s solidarity with others.” In other words, human connection and solidarity are justified by our revolt against the absurd. No one else, and nothing else, justifies it—or needs to justify it.

Camus’s atheism thus constitutes a robust and moral humanism grounded in outrage at the absurd nature of our private and collective experiences. We don’t need God or environmental holism for meaning, we need only the absurd existence we know; the existence of our evolved, contingent, and pitiful primate selves.

So we are (in Emily Dickinson’s phrase) kangaroos among the beauty—contingently evolved oddities—and in our contingent oddity, we can value ourselves individually and collectively, and extend to one another love, mutual understanding, and solidarity.

But our moral vision does not hold together in a single vision. That’s part of the absurdity of our situation, and a key to our rebellion. If God existed and was talking, or we could read our morals off of Nature (which David Hume told us is not really possible: no is makes an ought), then we would have an external hierarchy of values to point to as to what we should do (as Moses pointed the children of Israel to the Ten Commandments).

But we don’t have Moses’ luxury. In the 21st century, that’s not the way it is for us. God and Nature don’t speak, we speak. And yet we are constantly confronted with competing goods, not straightforward verdicts that we can draw between good and evil. No one can tell us what to do, or how, Solomon-like, we should split our “babies” (the things we value).

Human dilemmas of choice between competing goods are part of the absurdity of our existential situation, and are explored in tragic literature, such as in Sophocles’ Antigone. Antigone has to make difficult choices between her family and the demands of the state. Likewise (also in Antigone), King Creon has to make difficult choices between law and mercy.

The dilemmas of competing goods are also explored in the writings of philosophers like Isaiah Berlin and Richard Rorty.

So this is our human condition: to be sensitive beings in a world where God is not talking and the environment we’re embedded in is not meaningfully holistic. Nature really is red in tooth and claw, and things fall apart. The center does not hold because there is no center.

And this means we’re free. Free to choose from among competing human goods; free to cut the deck of definition and value exactly as we please. Free to decide what’s going to be important to us, and what’s not. A decidedly mixed blessing. And Camus in a nutshell.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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14 Responses to Camus in a Nutshell: God is Not Good, Nature is Not Good, and We are More Moral Than God or Nature

  1. Alan says:

    ‘We’ would have prevented the Holocaust? – No! We perpetrated it! ‘We’ would have ‘prevented’ a tsunami? – No, we placed people and homes in harms’ way! Let’s all blame the stars for man’s folly! God and nature must be bad as people make bad decisions!
    God brought you a universe, a world, even life through nature. Now you are crying that they are not living your life for you too? Poor Santi – must live his life without a nursemaid to make everything good for him. No papa-god to hold his hand and tell him everything will be ok, tuck him into bed with milk and cookies while chasing away the boogie-man.
    That would be a pointless life.
    What you have is opportunity and responsibility for yourself and your (our) world, like it or not. Men started the Holocaust(s), and it must be men & women who stop them. Sorry if that is a disappointment. And no one will stop the tsunamis, as a solid core would leave a stagnate, lifeless world. Man can only protect from them.
    It was men who thought themselves free who perpetrated the Holocaust. Free to choose from among competing human goods; free to cut the deck of definition and value exactly as they pleased. Free to decide what’s going to be important, and what’s not. Freedom is dangerous stuff.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Alan,

      It’s a shitty universe that God brought us. It’s a serving of steak with a heaping of flies. And neither God nor Nature cares to do anything about it, or provide direction. So, yes, the cosmos and God do not answer to what we want. The cosmos is absurd. And Camus, like you, derives freedom from the absurd. What we don’t like, we’ve obviously got to fix ourselves.

      But it’s not just the freedom that is dangerous stuff, it’s the dangerous stuff itself that drives us into making choices that entail competing goods and/or poor options.

      And what’s the good that comes of making humans beings toward death? What’s the good of traumatizing ordeals such as the Holocaust and tsunamis? Your response is to castigate humans for ingratitude and to blame them as a whole for the evil that they experience. It’s a way of deflecting the issue of the greater good that comes out of suffering itself. All the suffering.

      Beyond the freedom of the psychopaths, and the lack of courage showed by those complicitous after the orders went forth from Hitler, you have yet to tell me what the greater good is that God achieved by allowing the Holocaust to occur. Was it to show us how evil psychopaths achieving power can be, and how weak we are? Why not just tell us this from the sky and show us a television show titled, “This is how bad you would fuck up if I let psychopaths loose on the world stage.” Why did six million Jews have to literally die to teach us collectively a lesson? Why not just make human beings smarter and temperamentally a bit nicer, so that such lessons needn’t be learned so dramatically? Smart people would get the message without so dramatic an example, and temperamentally nicer people would still have free will.

      Again, what’s the point of so much suffering in the world? Is this really the best of all possible worlds–the world that a supreme being would have devised?

      • Alan says:

        Santi
        Read back through your latest responses to me. You’re spinning tales of ‘contingencies’ to justify human decisions with bad consequences. I am not the one justifying. Better still, you follow up your justifications with demands for miracles from God to save us all from our mistakes. This universe you want, jumping from one miracle to the next would violate the laws of physics. This does not resemble the universe we have. A rational universe which follows the laws of physics, a universe within which science is possible, a universe gifted to us by a rational God – who is very sparing with miracles. It’s all in the free will, ourselves responsible for our actions in this world. Feel free to watch for miracles, but probably best not to stop and wait for them.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Alan,

        You are wildly misreading your own religious tradition. Look at Aquinas again as representative. It’s not me saying that an ongoing miracle is needed to protect us from the natural course of things, it’s Aquinas, and he says that God used to do precisely this, by his grace, 24/7:

        “[We Chrisians] affirm that man was, from the beginning, so fashioned that as long as his reason was subject to God, not only would his lower powers serve him without hindrance; but there would be nothing in his body to lessen its subjection; since whatever was lacking in nature to bring this about God by His grace would supply.”

        No death. No nothing. So long as one obeyed God’s “reason.” The very promise of a messianic return is the promise of a return to a state of grace–of one in which bodies will, by God’s miraculous and ongoing grace, violate natural law, and not decay or suffer harm.

        So the last sentence you wrote is almost comical: “Feel free to watch for miracles, but probably best not to stop and wait for them.” It shows you don’t have the remotest inkling of what you’re supposed to be hoping for as a Christian waiting on the perousia.

      • Alan says:

        That’s called quote mining, Santi – by cleverly picking through most any tradition, any position can be defended or refuted. Miracles are not simply for the asking. Try it yourself at home.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Alan,

        “Quote mining” is a phrase used by somebody who doesn’t like having an inconvenient quote pointed out to them.

        So I’ll ask you (not Aquinas) five questions: Why aren’t miracles simply for the asking? What is God’s criteria for granting and not granting grace or a miracle? Why hasn’t Jesus returned if his death satisfied the outrage and wrath of the Father? What might the Jews who died in the Holocaust have done to avoid their fate? How about those who died in the 2004 Christmas tsunami?

        If you have a different theoretical construct from Aquinas, Augustine, and St. Paul, please share. They all believed that original sin makes us “children of wrath.” Whatever happens, we’ve always had it justly coming to us.

        Is this not your position?

        Your responses to my five questions surely can’t be as simplistic as (to take them in reverse order): “don’t live by the ocean,” “the Holocaust was Hitler’s and sinful Germans’ fault,” “Jesus has his own good timing,” “I’m not God–ask him,” and “miracles violate natural law, and God doesn’t do that often.”

      • Alan says:

        I think my answers adequate.

  2. Alan says:

    Another factor your missing in your ‘Gimme a damn miracle, Lord, and make it retroactive!’ screed is that to the Classicists’, miracles were rescues, more than preemptive. Aquinas could appropriately hold the Allied liberation in 1945 as the saving miracle of the Jews, the international aid as the saving miracle for the tsunami victims.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      That’s silly. That’s like saying, “I had the power to build a dam before the storm, but I gave them a dam after the storm, and for that they ought to be thankful.”

      Another analogy. “I am a detective. I could see the murder coming. I could have prevented it, but I watched from the sidelines via binoculars. I gave solace to the widow after the calamity. She thanked me.”

      • Alan says:

        No, silly is thinking things will go the way you want them to without historical, literate or mythical precedent. How often are miracles preemptive? You are trying to make largely unprecedented demands

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Alan,

        You’re preaching to the converted. I agree with you about miracles, but go one step further than you: they don’t happen at all.

        Miracles don’t happen, and history doesn’t get controverted by prayer or wishful thinking. Share your thesis with your fellow religionists waiting for Jesus to drop out of the clouds like a deus ex machina.

        Now what do we do, Alan? If God exists and isn’t talking, lets things like the Holocaust and the 2004 Christmas tsunami happen, never sets things right even after Jesus paid the debt for Adam and Eve’s sin, and lets religionists traumatize children with threats of eternal torture in hell–then what’s the point of believing in God at all? What sort of deity would behave this way?

        Best, I think, is to read the existentialists and pragmatists writing during and after the conflagrations of World War II and the Holocaust (Camus, Sartre, Barnes, Adorno, etc.). The horrors of that time concentrated their minds. What could be salvaged from the ruins?

      • Alan says:

        No, Santi, as I have mentioned so many times before, the limit here is not what we can demand from God, but what history and experience tells us we must expect from man. Life without religion is life in a cave – on an earth saturated with about 50,000 humans. (My analysis. Population estimate from J. Diamond ‘The Third Chimpanzee.)

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Alan,

        What is it with your magical thinking about religion? You’ve got this idea that the only thing standing between civilization and utter chaos is fear of hell and once a week putting on nice clothes, going to a meeting house, singing some songs together, and hearing a delusional message from a servile male member of this or that clergy. (Apparently for you, any will do–Mormon or Muslim; Catholic, Protestant, or Jew).

        Why is such social behavior the only thing standing between us and ruin? You don’t justify your panacea–only assert it.

        Why not be like Emily Dickinson, and don’t go to church? Stay at home on Sundays and futz about the back garden? I’m thinking of this Dickinson poem:

        Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
        I keep it, staying at Home –
        With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
        And an Orchard, for a Dome –

        Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
        I, just wear my Wings –
        And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
        Our little Sexton – sings.

        God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
        And the sermon is never long,
        So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
        I’m going, all along.

      • Alan says:

        Santi, if you are going to learn, you have to put forth a bit of effort. I’m sure you tell your students that now and again as well. It also helps to pay attention. At one point you sort of caught that I have been referring to ‘religion’, but then you come back with ‘fear of hell’ and once ‘a week’. Just how universal are those? The Aztecs claimed no hell, and would hold a religious celebration with every war (POW camps unnecessary here, just a short term hotel to put up the guests waiting to be the party attraction). And I did justify my claim on the 7 reasons thread if only partially, but did not defend that justification.
        I was just looking through the telescope, and was as surprised as anyone at what I saw: Wherever there is no organized religion, there is no civilization. Never has there been an exception to that rule. The more I have looked since having that epiphany, the more convinced I became that the only conclusion consistent with the data was just that: No religion = ruin.
        I also threw in the part where the peoples and nations, as they move away from religion, see their presence in the world wane. Largely non-religious Europe and Japan are shadows of their stature a century ago. This phenomenon appears to be holding, though I suspect the reasons are somewhat different.

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