Thursday, September 20, 2018

Cyrenaic Philosophy

Cyrenaic, adherent of a Greek school of moral philosophy, active around the turn of the 3rd century bc, which held that the pleasure of the moment is the criterion of goodness and that the good life consists in rationally manipulating situations with a view to their hedonistic (or pleasure-producing) utility.

The school was called Cyrenaic because Cyrene in North Africa was the centre of its activity and the birthplace of several of its members. Although the elder Aristippus, a pupil of Socrates, was generally recognized as its founder, its flourishing occurred at a later date, probably at the end of the 4th century bc.

According to the Cyrenaics, a man knows that things external to himself exist because they have an effect upon him, but he can know nothing about their nature. All that he can perceive is the way in which he himself is affected by them; how other men are affected is unknown. The fact that two men give the same name to their experiences is no guarantee of identity. Thus, the only admissible objective of action is to ensure that one’s own affections are pleasant. The three possible conditions of the human constitution are violent change, gentle change, and stability. The first is accompanied by pain, the second by pleasure, the last by neither. Man must avoid the first and seek the second; it is a mistake to suppose that the third is pleasant or desirable. Moreover, the pleasure to be sought is that of the moment; only present experience can give present pleasure. Happiness, the sum of pleasures, is to be valued because it includes momentary pleasures, which are like in kind, their relative value depending only on their intensity. Bodily pleasures (and pains) are more intense than those of the mind. Nevertheless, the latter were recognized and even held to include some that have an altruistic aspect; e.g., joy in the prosperity of one’s country. To be stronger than pleasure is a true Socratic ideal and distinguishes the Cyrenaic from the wastrel.

Three Cyrenaics made innovations important enough to give their names to followers. Theodorus denied that pleasures and pains are good or bad. His aim was mental cheerfulness and the gift of wisdom, which he considered sufficient for happiness. Hegesias, like Theodorus, doubted the power of reason to procure pleasures and so advised avoidance of pain; much pain of mind could be avoided by regarding such things as poverty and riches, slavery and freedom, death and life as matters of indifference. Finally, Anniceris revived the original doctrines with some additions.

The ethical doctrines of the later Cyrenaics were, in due time, incorporated bodily into the teachings 

of Epicurus, founder of a later school of ethical philosophy

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Existentialism of Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre  is the philosopher of human freedom. He build an existentialist philosophy, where man loneliness and responsibility is absolue. Despite this fragile condition, man has to invent his way to define who he is.
Among his philosophical works and literature, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in particular:
Imagination (1936)
Nausea (1938)
The Wall (1939)
Being and Nothingness (1943)
Existentialism and Humanism (1946)
Baudelaire (1947)
What is literature? (1947)
Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960)
The Words (1964)
The Family Idiot (1971-1972)
Human consciousness, according to Sartre, is the power of nihilation (explanation to come) and freedom: it is opposed to the in-itself (explained below), a being full, solid and opaque. Thus, condemned to absolute freedom, the man should invent himself.

Sartre, Nausea and Contingency:

The starting point of Sartre’s philosophy does not it would fall in “Nausea”, feeling privileged and has a quasi-ontological significance?
Antoine Roquentin, hero of the famous story Nausea, experiences himself as something unnecessary in the middle of the world (as a thing among things) is having “Nausea.”
What I take, then, is the contingency of existence, deprived of reason and necessity, never by itself, its raison d’etre.
The world of existence is not the explanation and reasons.
To exist is to be here, simply, without any necessity.
Sartre applies also to the existence unnecessary artificiality of the term: it means that things are there, as they are, unnecessarily and without reason.
I am there among them, and discovers my original facticity.
But on the merits of this first experience, something else will emerge: the awareness of the human project, building freely the meaning and values ​​within the free and the absurd, the absurd defining itself as the which is beyond all reason, which can not be justified rationally.

Sartre and Freedom:

In Sartre’s thought, freedom is a both matter of morality and metaphysics.
Human creation is, indeed, free. Sartre, I exist and I am free, two proposals are rigorously synonymous and equivalent.
What is that to exist in the vocabulary of Sartre?
exist is to be there, and in an absurd universe and contingent, build and put his stamp on things.
There is no human essence fixed and predetermined essence that precede existence.
The man appeared in the world and there drew his face
But how this equivalence of the existence and freedom is possible?
Human freedom means, in Sartre, the opportunity given to us to remotely at any moment, the infinite chain of causes.
Freedom is the power that is held continuously, the consciousness of annihilation, that is to say nothing of the show on any substantive reality, of breaking the various determinations, or mobile units to choose – the idea of ​​defining choice, basically, with him, by that of consciousness.
The ability to say “yes” or “no” to choose, can hardly be distinguished under these conditions, consciousness, seizure of ourselves, beyond any reason and any mobile.
This freedom we all experience anxiety in a true metaphysical sense reveals our total freedom, where seizure reflexive consciousness is dizzy before she and her infinite powers.
Anguish means so that the shock of consciousness to itself, this sense of giddy potential.
Of course, consciousness can choose pretending not to be free: the lie to self and self, where I fight against anxiety, where I hide my freedom has a name is bad faith.
Is bad faith, the consciousness that makes a lie to oneself, to escape the anxiety and the difficulty of freedom, who goes blind in his infinite freedom.
The bad faith and the spirit of seriousness constantly threaten consciousness.
If bad faith means, in effect, a lie to oneself, by which consciousness seeks to escape its freedom and anxiety, may the spirit of seriousness, too, we are “petrified”.
What is he? in this attitude by which, banishing the anxiety and anguish, we prefer to set from the object:
The spirit of seriousness believes that values ​​are not created, they are independent of human subjectivity
Values ​​are in the world before man, it would only pick them.
Bad faith and spirit of seriousness: as many leaks in front of our infinite freedom.
It is in this perspective that we must define the bastard, the Sartrean sense of the word, as one who, in bad faith, hiding the gratuitous and unjustifiable existence:
The bastard sees his existence as necessary so that all existence is unjustified and gratuitous
All these analysis on the anxiety, freedom and bad faith refers to the mode of being of the existing human, this for-itself which is opposed in every respect to the in-itself:
While the in-itself is a fullness of being (it means that things are as they are devoid of conscience) …
– … The for-itself is the way to be an existing one which never coincides with itself.
Exhaust permanent himself, he is never quite itself.
Without stopping, he separates himself.
While the in-itself is opaque to itself, full of himself …
– … The for-itself is the user be aware of a vanishing forever, simple movement of transcendence towards things.
Consciousness is nothing but the outside of itself and it is this absolute leak, this “refusal to be substance” which is as consciousness.
Thus, the for-itself is a being that is characterized as a movement and project to be. This project concept is, indeed, central
We exist as projects;
We, we cast perpetually ahead of ourselves, to the future, towards what is not.
The project (the verb projicere, throw away) is the instrument by which we strive, with all our freedom, to the future and possibilities.
So are we totally free and totally responsible: the responsibility is, in Sartre, the full support of his fate by the existing human nature that creates and creates the world. But in this invention and that this outpouring is the permanent freedom of the for-itself, I seem constantly under threat, one that arises from the presence and emergence of others in the world.

Sartre, the Other and collective action:

That is, for me, others? It basically means, the Other, the different, that is to say, “a self that is not me.”
Another is, in fact anyone who is not me and I’m not. Is there not here the announcement of a threat, even an original fall? That’s what happens in reality according to Sartre.
The very fact that I offer in the world as a “quasi-object” under the gaze of others, I “fall” truly at things, and this because of the freedom of the subject who looks at me and judge me … “Hell is other people”, according to the famous formula of the camera.
However, if our lives are often “twisted” and “flawed” because of “dual” of consciousness that arise, the man can always find reciprocal relationships with others, especially at the historical action.
In the Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre focuses, in fact, common historical praxis, where the subjects come together and look alike.
This means an excess free praxis collective material conditions and this, in the context of historical action.
Sartre is indeed close to that time, the Marxist doctrine and praxis is in this perspective, a project organizer common where different minds are working together to achieve an end.
Within this overall vision, Sartre attaches to the group, gathering unified by a common praxis, a community of action.
The crowd stormed the Bastille as a group.
On the contrary, social gatherings without true unity, without unifying under internal (eg a queue of passengers waiting for the bus), represent what Sartre calls the series, collections of separate individuals and atomized.
The group embodies the historical project free while the series is living under the sign of praxis mired in a world where freedom, without being lost, is still threatened.
The merit of Sartre is to have attached to historicity, defined as objective belonging to an era. The man is a history, which are temporally and collectively. This interest in human historicity, it appeared very early in the writings of Sartre, is particularly clear after 1960.
Any Sartre’s work revolves around the notion of freedom, described individually, but also in its collective dimension or historical.
Sartre is the philosopher of freedom at work in the world and things, responsibility constructing values ​​and human worlds.

Friday, September 14, 2018


Cynicism originates in the philosophical schools of ancient Greece that claim a Socratic lineage. To call the Cynics a “school” though, immediately raises a difficulty for so unconventional and anti-theoretical a group. Their primary interests are ethical, but they conceive of ethics more as a way of living than as a doctrine in need of explication. As such askēsis—a Greek word meaning a kind of training of the self or practice—is fundamental. The Cynics, as well as the Stoics who followed them, characterize the Cynic way of life as a “shortcut to virtue” (see Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 104 and Book 7, Chapter 122). Though they often suggest that they have discovered the quickest, and perhaps surest, path to the virtuous life, they recognize the difficulty of this route.

The colorfulness of the Cynic way of life presents certain problems. The triumph of the Cynic as a philosophical and literary character complicates discussions of the historical individuals, a complication further troubled by a lack of sources. The evidence regarding the Cynics is limited to apothegms, aphorisms, and ancient hearsay; none of the many Cynic texts have survived. The tradition records the tenets of Cynicism via their lives. It is through their practices, the selves and lives that they cultivated, that we come to know the particular Cynic ēthos.

1. History of the Name

The origin of the Cynic name kunikos, a Greek word meaning “dog-like”, is a point of contention. Two competing stories explain the source of the name using the figure of Antisthenes (who Diogenes Laertius identifies controversially as the original Cynic), and yet a third explanation uses the figure of Diogenes of Sinope. First, Antisthenes is said to have taught in the Cynosarges, which is a Greek word that might mean “White Dog,” “Quick Dog,” or even “Dog’s Meat”. The Cynosarges is a gymnasium and temple for Athenian nothoi. "Nothoi" is a term that designates one who is without Athenian citizenship because of being born to a slave, foreigner, or prostitute; one can also be nothoi if one’s parents were citizens but not legally married. According to the first explanation, the term Cynic would, then, derive from the place in which the movement’s founder worshipped, exercised, and, most importantly, lectured. Such a derivation is suspect insofar as later writers could have created the story through an analogy to the way in which the term “Stoic” came from the Stoa Poikilē in which Zeno of Citium taught. Though nothing unquestionably links Antisthenes or any other Cynic to the Cynosarges, Antisthenes was a nothos and the temple was used for worshipping Hercules, the ultimate Cynic hero.

A second possible derivation comes from Antisthenes’ alleged nickname Haplokuōn, a word that probably means a dog “pure and simple”, and is presumably referring to his way of living. Though Antisthenes was known for a certain rudeness and crudeness that could have led to such a name, and later authors, including Aelian, Epictetus, and Stobaeus, identify him as a kuōn, or dog, his contemporaries, such as Plato and Xenophon, do not label him as such. This lack lends some credence to the notion that the term kunikos was applied to Antisthenes posthumously, and only after Diogenes of Sinope, a more illustrious philosopher-dog, had arrived on the scene.

If Antisthenes was not the first Cynic by name, then the origin of the appellation falls to Diogenes of Sinope, an individual well known for dog-like behavior. As such, the term may have begun as an insult referring to Diogenes’ style of life, especially his proclivity to perform all of his activities in public. Shamelessness, which allowed Diogenes to use any space for any purpose, was primary in the invention of “Diogenes the Dog.”

The precise source of the term “Cynic” is, however, less important than the wholehearted appropriation of it. The first Cynics, beginning most clearly with Diogenes of Sinope, embraced their title: they barked at those who displeased them, spurned Athenian etiquette, and lived from nature. In other words, what may have originated as a disparaging label became the designation of a philosophical vocation.

Finally, because Cynicism denotes a way of living, it is inaccurate to equate Cynicism with the other schools of its day. The Cynics had no set space where they met and discoursed, such as the Garden, the Lyceum, or the Academy; for Diogenes and Crates, the streets of Athens provide the setting for both their teaching and their training. Moreover, the Cynics neglect, and very often ridicule, speculative philosophy. They are especially harsh critics of dogmatic thought, theories they consider useless, and metaphysical essences.

 2. Major Figures and the Cynic Lineage

The major figures within Cynicism form the pivotal points within a lineage traced from Antisthenes, Socrates’ companion and a major interlocutor in the Socratic dialogues of Xenophon (see especially his Memorabilia and Symposium), through his student, Diogenes of Sinope, to Diogenes’ pupil Crates, and from Crates to both Hipparchia of Maronea, the first known woman Cynic philosopher, and Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism.

Some others among the more notable Cynics include Metrocles of Maronea, brother to Hipparchia and pupil of Crates, Menippus, Demonax of Cyprus, Bion of Borysthenes, and Teles. Thinkers heavily influenced by Cynic thought include Zeno of Citium, Cleanthes of Assos, Aristo of Chios, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Dio Chrysostom, and the emperor Julian.

The Socratic schools tend to trace their lineage directly back to Socrates and the Cynics are no exception. As such, the historical authenticity of this heredity is suspect. Nevertheless, it accurately tracks a kind of intellectual transmission that begins with Antisthenes and is passed on to Diogenes, Crates, and Zeno. Cynics seem to have survived into the third century CE; two of Julian’s orations from 361 CE disparage the Cynics of his day for lacking the asceticism and hardiness of “real” Cynics. As a “school” of thought, Cynicism ends in the sixth century CE, but its legacy continues in both philosophy and literature.

 3. Cynic Ethics

Foremost for understanding the Cynic conception of ethics is that virtue is a life lived in accord with nature. Nature offers the clearest indication of how to live the good life, which is characterized by reason, self-sufficiency, and freedom. Social conventions, however, can hinder the good life by compromising freedom and setting up a code of conduct that is opposed to nature and reason. Conventions are not inherently bad; however, for the Cynic, conventions are often absurd and worthy of ridicule. The Cynics deride the attention paid to the Olympics, the “big thieves” who run the temples and are seen carrying away the “little thieves” who steal from them, politicians as well as the philosophers who attend their courts, fashion, and prayers for such things as fame and fortune.

Only once one has freed oneself from the strictures that impede an ethical life can one be said to be truly free. As such, the Cynics advocate askēsis, or practice, over theory as the means to free oneself from convention, promote self-sufficiency, and live in accord with nature. Such askēsis leads the Cynic to live in poverty, embrace hardship and toil, and permits the Cynic to speak freely about the silly, and often vicious, way life is lived by his or her contemporaries. The Cynics consistently undermine the most hallowed principles of Athenian culture, but they do so for the sake of replacing them with those in accord with reason, nature, and virtue.

 a. Living in Accord with Nature and Opposing Conventions

Though the imperative to live life in accord with nature is rightly associated with Stoicism, the Stoics are following a Cynic lead. Diogenes of Sinope fervently rejects nomos, or convention, by showing the arbitrary and frequently amusing nature of Athenian social, religious, and political mores and trampling the authority of religious and political leaders. Fundamental to this is a redefinition of what is worthy of shame. Diogenes’ body is disorderly, a source of great shame among the Athenians and the reservoir for the principle of shamelessness among the Cynics.

Diogenes uses his body to upend the conventional association of decorum with the good. He breaks etiquette by publicly carrying out activities an Athenian would typically perform in private. For example, he eats, drinks, and masturbates in the marketplace, and ridicules the shame felt when one’s body is unruly or clumsy. This does not mean, however, that there is nothing about which a person ought to feel shame. For example, in Lives of Emminent Philosophers, one finds the following anecdote: “Observing a fool tuning a harp, ‘Are you not ashamed,’ he said, ‘to give this wood concordant sounds, while you fail to harmonize your soul with your life?’ To one who protested ‘I am unfit to study philosophy,’ Diogenes said, ‘Why then live, if you do not care to live well?’” (Diogenes Laertius, Book 6, Chapter 65; R.D. Hicks’ translation is altered for this article.)

As Diogenes ’ reappraisal of shame suggests, the Cynics are not relativists. Nature replaces convention as the standard for judgment. The Cynics believe that it is through nature that one can live well and not through conventional means such as etiquette or religion. One reads that Diogenes of Sinope “would rebuke men in general with regard to their prayers, declaring that they asked for things which seemed to them to be good, not for such as are truly good” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 43). This captures the crux of the Cynic notion of living in accord with nature and contrary to convention. Praying for wealth, fame, or any of the other trappings convention leads one to believe are good is a mistaken enterprise. Life, as given by nature, is full of hints as to how to live it best; but humans go astray, ashamed by petty things and striving after objects, which are unimportant. Consequently, their freedom is hindered by convention.

 i. Freedom and Parrhēsia

The Cynics clearly privilege freedom, but not merely in a personal sense as a kind of negative liberty. Instead, freedom is advocated in three related forms: eleutheria, freedom or liberty, autarkeia, self-sufficiency, and parrhēsia, freedom of speech or frankness. Their conception of freedom has some shared aspects with other ancient schools; the notion of autonomy which derives from the imperative that reason rule over the passions is found in the ethics of multiple Classical and Hellenistic thinkers. A specifically Cynic sense of freedom, though, is evident in parrhēsia.

An element of parrhēsia, which can be overlooked when it is defined as free or frank speech, is the risk that accompanies speaking so freely and frankly. Legendary examples of the Cynic’s fearlessly free speech occur in Diogenes of Sinope’s interchanges with Alexander the Great. One such example is the following: “When he was sunning himself in the Craneum, Alexander came and stood over him and said, ‘Ask of me any boon you like.’ To which he replied, ‘Stand out of my light’” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 28). At another point, Alexander pronounces his rank to Diogenes of Sinope by saying, “I am Alexander the Great King.” Diogenes responds with his own rank, “I am Diogenes the Cynic,” which is to say “Diogenes the Dog” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 60).

The examples above demonstrate the unique confluence of humor, fearless truth telling, and political subversion which distinguishes the Cynic way of living. With a few notable exceptions, the philosophers of antiquity can be found at some time or another in the company of rulers (Plato, Aeschines, and Aristippus all attended the court of Dionysius, Xenophon is intimately associated with Cyrus, Aristotle with the Macedonian ruling family, and so on). The Cynics, however, made it a point to shun such contact. The Cynics strive for self-sufficiency and strength, neither of which is capable of being maintained once one enters into the conventional political game. The life of an impoverished, but virtuous and self-sufficient philosopher is preferable to the life of a pampered court philosopher.

Diogenes Laertius writes that, “Plato saw [Diogenes of Sinope] washing lettuces, came up to him and quietly said to him, ‘Had you paid court to Dionysius, you wouldn’t now be washing lettuces,’ and [Diogenes] with equal calmness answered, ‘If you had washed lettuces, you wouldn’t have paid court to Dionysius’” (Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 58). The lesson of this exchange is clear: whereas Plato views paying court as freeing one from poverty, the Cynic sees poverty as freeing one from having to pay court to a ruler. This second sense of freedom so forcefully advocated by the Cynics, comprises both autarkeia, or self-sufficiency, and parrhēsia, or the freedom to speak the truth: something one at court is never free to do. It is no surprise, then, that when asked what is “the most beautiful thing in the world,” Diogenes replied, “Parrhēsia.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 69.)

 ii. Training and Toughness

In order to live the Cynic life, one had to be inured to the various physical hardships entailed by such freedom. This required, then, a life of constant training, or askēsis. The term askēsis, defined above as a kind of training of the self but which also means “exercise” or “practice,” is appropriated from athletic training. Instead of training the body for the sake of victory in the Olympic Games, on the battlefield, or for general good health, the Cynic trains the body for the sake of the soul.

The examples of Cynic training are multiple: Antisthenes praised toil and hardship as goods; Diogenes of Sinope walked barefoot in the snow, hugged cold statues, and rolled about in the scalding summer sand in his pithos; Crates rid himself of his considerable wealth in order to become a Cynic. The ability to live without any of the commodities usually mistaken for necessities is liberating and beneficial. It is also, however, a difficult lesson: “[Diogenes of Sinope] used to say that he followed the example of the trainers of choruses; for they too set the note a little high, to ensure that the rest should hit the right note” (Diogenes Laertius, Book 6, Chapter 35).

 4. Cosmopolitanism

The Cynics are not always given credit when it comes to the notion of cosmopolitanism, for the origin of this term is at times ascribed to Stoicism. Moreover, when it is attributed to Cynicism, it is often characterized as a negative tenet that gains content only once it is transplanted into Stoic doctrine (see John L. Moles’ discussion of “Cynic Cosmopolitanism” in The Cynics). However, cosmopolitanism can be fully understood within its Cynic context if it is taken as more than an oxymoron or a pithy retort: “Asked where he came from, [Diogenes of Sinope] said, ‘I am a citizen of the world [kosmopolitēs]’” (Diogenes Laertius, Book 6, Chapter 63). In this last quote, Diogenes is responding to a question calling for him to state his origin with what seems to be a neologism. To be a politēs is to belong to a polis, to be a member of a specific society with all of the benefits and commitments such membership entails. By not responding with the expected “Sinope,” Diogenes is renouncing his duty to Sinopeans as well as his right to be aided by them. It is important to note that Diogenes does not say that he is apolis, that is, without a polis; he claims allegiance to the kosmos, or the universe.

The Cynics, then, cast the notion of citizenship in a new light. To the Greek male of the Classical and Hellenistic period, citizenship was of utmost value. The restrictions on citizenship made it a privilege and these exclusions are, to the Cynic, absurd. Under cosmopolitanism, the Cynic challenges the civic affiliation of the few by opening the privilege to all. General national affiliation was likewise esteemed, and Diogenes’ cosmopolitan response is therefore also a rejection of the limitations of such a view.

Finally, cosmopolitanism revises the traditional conception of the political duties of an individual. As such, the Cynic is freed to live according to nature and not according to the laws and conventions of the polis. The conventional polis is not just rejected but replaced. This has important ethical connections to the notion of living in accord with nature, and can likewise be seen as an important precursor to the Stoic understanding of physis, or nature, as identical to the kosmos, or universe.

 5. The Cynic Legacy

The first and most direct Cynic influence is upon the founding of Stoicism. One story, preserved in Diogenes Laertius, tells of Zeno of Citium reading a copy of Xenophon’s Memorabilia in a bookshop while shipwrecked in Athens. He became so taken with the figure of Socrates that he asked the bookseller where he might find such a man. At just that moment, Crates passed by, and the bookseller pointed him out as the one to follow.

Though this, like many of Diogenes Laertius’ stories, may strike one as too propitious to be historically accurate, it preserves the way in which the primary tenets of Stoicism emerge out of Cynicism. The primacy of ethics, the sufficiency of virtue for happiness, the cultivation of indifference to external affairs, the definition of virtue as living in accord with nature, and the importance placed on askēsis, all mark the shared terrain between the Cynics and the Stoics. Indeed, when various Stoic thinkers list the handful of Stoic sages, Cynics, and especially Diogenes of Sinope, are typically among them. Epictetus in particular advocates the Cynic stance, but warns against taking up lightly something so difficult (see Discourses 3.22).

Within political philosophy, the Cynics can be seen as originators of anarchism. Since humans are both rational and able to be guided by nature, it follows that humans have little need for legal codes or political affiliations. Indeed, political associations at times require one to be vicious for the sake of the polis. Diogenes’ cosmopolitanism represents, then, a first suggestion that human affiliation ought to be to humanity rather than a single state.

The impact of Cynicism is also felt in Christian, Medieval, and Renaissance thought, though not without a good deal of ambivalence. Christian authors, for example, praise the Cynics for their self-discipline, independence, and mendicant lifestyle, but rebuke the bawdy aspects of Cynic shamelessness.

Finally, the mark of the Cynic is found throughout the texts of literature and philosophy. Menippean Satire has a clear debt, and Diogenes of Sinope in particular appears as a character in literary and philosophical contexts; Dante, for example, situates Diogenes with other virtuous but pagan philosophers in the first level of hell and Nietzsche is especially fond of both Diogenes and the Cynic attitude. One striking example occurs in section 125 of The Gay Science. Here Nietzsche alludes to the anecdote wherein Diogenes searches for a human being with a lit lamp in daylight (D.L. 6.41). In his own rendition, Nietzsche tells the story of the madman who entered the marketplace with a lit lamp on a bright morning seeking God. It is this same madman who pronounces that God is dead.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The Plague, a novel by Albert Camus


The Plague (French: La Peste) is a novel by Albert Camus, published in 1947, that tells the story of a plague sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran. It asks a number of questions relating to the nature of destiny and the human condition. The characters in the book, ranging from doctors to vacationers to fugitives, all help to show the effects the plague has on a populace.

The novel is believed to be based on the cholera epidemic that killed a large percentage of Oran's population in 1849 following French colonization, but the novel is placed in the 1940s. Oran and its environs were struck by disease multiple times before Camus published this novel. According to a research report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Oran was decimated by the plague in 1556 and 1678, but all later outbreaks, in 1921 (185 cases), 1931 (76 cases), and 1944 (95 cases), were very far from the scale of the epidemic described in the novel.

The Plague is considered an existentialist classic despite Camus' objection to the label. The narrative tone is similar to Kafka's, especially in The Trial whose individual sentences potentially have multiple meanings, the material often pointedly resonating as stark allegory of phenomenal consciousness and the human condition.

Camus included a dim-witted character misreading The Trial as a mystery novel as an oblique homage. The novel has been read as a metaphorical treatment of the French resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II Additionally, he further illustrates the human reaction towards the "absurd". The Plague represents how the world deals with the philosophical notion of the Absurd, a theory that Camus himself helped to define.


Few writers kept their work as close to the subject of death as did Albert Camus, one of the greatest novelists and essayists of the 20th century, who met his own end in a road accident 55 years ago this week, on the Lyon-Paris Route Nationale 6.

Of all Camus’ novels, none described man’s confrontation – and cohabitation – with death so vividly and on such an epic scale as La Peste, translated as The Plague. Most of us read The Plague as teenagers, and we should all read it again. And again: for not only are all humankind’s responses to death represented in it, but now – with the advent of Ebola – the book works on the literal as well as metaphorical level.

Camus’ story is that of a group of men, defined by their gathering around and against the plague. In it we encounter the courage, fear and calculation that we read or hear in every story about West Africa’s efforts to curtail and confront Ebola; through its narrator, Dr Rieux, we can identify with the hundreds of Cuban doctors who went immediately to the plague’s Ground Zero, and those such as the Scottish nurse currently fighting for her life at the Royal Free Hospital in London.

I think Camus intended such a literal – as well as allegorical - reading. It is generally agreed that the pestilence he describes signifies the Third Reich. Writing in 1947, as the world whooped victory and “Never Again”, Camus insisted that the next plague “would rouse up its rats again” for “the bane and enlightenment of men”. But Camus was also aware of the great cholera epidemic in Oran, Algeria – where the novel is set – in 1849, and of others in his native district of Mondovi in the Algerian interior.

But there is another reason we should all re-read La Peste (preferably in French or the English translation by Stuart Gilbert, a work of literature in itself). Like every good metaphorical or allegorical work, it can represent beyond its intentions; including pestilences both moral and metaphorical that have happened after Camus’ own lifetime. The critic John Cruikshank insists that La Peste is also a reflection on “man’s metaphysical dereliction in the world”, in which case the applications are endless, and up to us. So it is worth reflection on this anniversary of his death: what would the plague signify now?

Nowadays, I think, La Peste can tell the story of a different kind of plague: that of a destructive, hyper-materialist, turbo-capitalism; and can do so as well as any applied contemporary commentary. In fact especially so, for this reason: the Absurd. Our society is absurd, and Camus’ novel examines – among many other things, and for all its moralising – our relationship to the absurdity of modern existence. It can describe very well the plague in a society which blares its phantasgmagoria across the poor world so that millions come, aboard tomb ships or across murderous deserts, in search of its empty promises; and which even destroys the constant against which Camus measured human mortality: nature.

Essential to Camus’ existential isolation was the discrepancy between the power and beauty of nature, and the desolation of the human condition. From his earliest days, he loved the sea and deserts, and saw man’s mortality in the light of their indifferent vastness.

The master of the 20th-century absurd, Samuel Beckett, was born seven years before Camus, but was active in the French resistance at the same time. In Beckett’s Happy Days, Winnie meditates that “Sometimes it is all over for the day, all done, all said, all ready for the night, and the day not over, far from over, the night not ready, far from ready”. In this place, as in the wait for Godot, there is no purposeful human agency.

In La Peste, however, absurdity is a source of value, values and even action. The group of men gathered around the narrative represent, it feels, all human response to calamity. Each takes his turn to tell it, although it is the doctor, Rieux – the hidden narrator – who battles the pestilence with his work, medicine, just as Camus tried to battle first injustice, later fascism, with his labour in words.

The difference from Beckett is this: as the hunter for Beckett’s Molloy concludes: “Then I went back to the house and wrote. It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining” – ergo, even the narration is self-negating. But Camus’ characters in La Peste illustrate that, although they know they are powerless against plague, they can bear witness to it, and this is in itself of value. When he accepted the Nobel prize for literature in 1957, Camus’ magnificent speech urged that it was the honour and burden of the writer “to do so much more than write”.

Camus saw no dichotomy between the emptiness which lies at the heart of L’Etranger, and the endeavours of La Peste. He wrote once about “the wine of the absurd and the bread of indifference which will nourish [man’s] greatness”. The fact of absurd powerlessness is no reason not to act; Camus, for all his deep sense of the absurd, urges us to action.

But there was no moral place for humankind in nature. The distance of nature’s power and beauty is almost a form of torture: in Camus’ first major novel, La Mort Heureuse, Mersault ponders the “inhuman beauty of the April morning”. Only one letter separates Mersault’s name from that of his more complex and ambiguous sucessor, Meursault, anti-hero of L’Etranger: he is a man of many questions but no answers. Yet even Meursault deduces that in killing an Arab on the beach: “I understand that I had destroyed the harmony of the day”.

But why does La Peste speak so loudly to us now? Camus wrote early on, in an essay entitled Le Desert, about “repugnant materialism”. He was on a track of vital import to us now, in a world of materalism so repugnant it has become a plague. Everything mankind does in a turbo-capitalist age, with his ravaging of nature, “destroys the harmony of the day”.

Every bleat of the politicians echoes those in authority during Camus’ fictitious plague in Oran: “There are no rats in the building”, insists the janitor as they die around him. The newspapers rally the populace with news that the pestilence is under control when it is not.

Camus offers us a way of abandoning our pointless quest for “oneness” with ourselves, but carrying on nevertheless, fighting: For some ill-defined moral justice, even though we have ceased to be able to define it. At the conclusion to La Peste, Rieux – whose wife has died of illness elsewhere, unconnected with the pestilence – watches families and lovers reunite when the gates of Oran are finally opened. He wonders – in the wake of so much suffering and pointless struggle – whether there can be peace of mind or fulfilment without hope, and concludes that yes, perhaps there can, for those “who knew now that if there is one thing one can always yearn for, and sometimes attain, it is human love”.

These are the people “whose desires are limited to man, and his humble yet formidable love” and who “should enter, if only now and again, into their reward”. But Rieux has already qualified these words before he has written them, a few lines earlier. “But for those others”, he says, “who aspired beyond and above the human individual towards something they could not even imagine, there had been no answer”.

No answer. No description, even, of what that “something” else might be. And yet it nags, it makes demands of us, and those who identify with Rieux know what it is, though we have abandoned a definition. Pointless, but imperative; political to a degree, but impatient with politics; moral certainly, but uneasily – and with serious regard to that vastness in nature against which our mortality measures itself, but which we are now killing.

Something to ponder further, then - as I did as I drove on Sunday up what is now Autoroute 6 between Lyon and Paris with a little trepidation on the anniversary itself, past Villeblevin, where the Facel Vega sports car driven by Camus’ friend Michel Gallimard crashed both men to their deaths.