In his short, gripping book Albert Camus and the Human Crisis, Robert E. Meagher shows why so many readers picked up Camus’s The Plague early in the COVID pandemic. What did modern readers see in a novel published over seventy years ago by a French thinker and veteran of the resistance to the Nazis? Beyond the obvious connection—The Plague, like much of our world since 2019, revolves around disease—Camus explores human capacities not only for corruption and enmity, but also for friendship and commitment. Meagher shows how Camus, in all his major works, examines the fault lines that run through the human heart.
Meagher argues that Camus’s work endures because Camus is “diametrically opposed” to existentialism. Yes, consistent with existentialist thought, Camus believes people seek meaning in a universe where meaning cannot be secured in full. Camus, however, rejects the conclusion that each person faces life alone, unequipped with tools for survival. Instead, writes Meagher, Camus takes cues from the ancient Greeks and St. Augustine to develop “the commonsense view that we all have human bodies, human minds, and human souls, and live and act in the same world as each other. Consequently, we can and must learn about ourselves and our world from each other.” With his focus on human nature and his engagement with Augustine’s theology, Meagher writes, Camus does not fit the description—or, better, the cartoon profile—of an existentialist thinker.
Why is Camus so closely associated with existentialist philosophy? Meagher blames The Stranger. Or, rather, he blames the common misreading of The Stranger as Camus’s full and final testament. Working from Camus’ letters and journals, Meagher shows Camus intends The Stranger to illustrate the fate of one man, Meursault, who responds to a meaningless universe by living a meaningless life and who only glimpses, in his last days, another way to live. Too often, readers forget The Stranger’s final glimmers of possibility and take the story of a meaningless life as Camus’s final statement of How Things Are and Must Be for Humans.
In his work after The Stranger, Camus explores some of the possibilities obscured by the view, upheld by Meursault in his earlier days, that death reveals the futility of human life. “What [Meursault] failed to realize,” Meagher writes, “is the profound implication of this universal death sentence—that we are all in this together and that this makes us brothers and sisters. It never occurred to him that there is a natural, compelling solidarity among the condemned.” Indeed, in Camus’s next novel, The Plague, some characters face the limits of their beliefs and actions and come together to flourish as best they can in a dangerous world.
A great strength of Albert Camus and the Human Crisis is its engagement with Camus’s work as a whole. Meagher shows how Camus, in his letters and journals, mapped out his writing so each of his texts works around the limits of previous texts. “In fact,” Meagher writes, “the stages of human becoming and the distinct modes of life proper to each, as understood by Aristotle and adopted by Augustine and Camus, may be discerned in the curricular progression [in Camus’ work] from the Absurd to Revolt to Judgment to Love. What is commonly overlooked in Camus’ literary/philosophical scheme is its dialectical character. Each stage is an experiment in truth, a test.” Thus, to focus only on one text, whether The Stranger or The Plague or The Fall, is to miss Camus’s vision of the movement of human life.
So, given Camus’s view of human nature, is Meagher right to seat Camus outside of The Existentialist Café? It depends on our definition. If existentialism is a set of propositions, such as existence precedes essence, then, no, as Camus and Meagher insist, Camus is not an existentialist. However, the answer is less clear if existentialism is more of a mood (e.g., anxiety over meaning) or a set of general concerns (e.g., How should we live under the threat of cataclysmic war when conventional religious answers seem inadequate?). Ultimately, how we classify Camus is less important than how we listen and respond to what he says.
In Albert Camus and the Human Crisis, Meagher presents a powerful reading of the oeuvre of a thinker who still has much to tell us. Meagher’s deep understanding of Camus, developed over fifty years of teaching, enables him to discuss Camus’s work in prose that is lively and clear and, at the same time, full of nuance. Reading Meagher is like talking over coffee with your favorite professor. Berets and clove cigarettes optional.
Ross Collin is an associate professor of English education at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. He writes about the political and ethical dimensions of literacy education. His writing has appeared in The Journal of Literacy Research, English Journal, Changing English, and Teachers College Record.