Sunday, May 18, 2014

Moralist vs. Moralizer

A moralist is not a moralizer. The latter has the answer before he is asked the question, while the former has only questions after she hears the available answers. And it is the questions that, as the French say, déranger— disturb, or more literally, disarrange what has already been arranged. Camus was, in this respect, a moralist. These questions did not lead Camus to solitude and nihilism, but instead pulled him toward solidarity and a form of ethical exigency. He was a moralist who insisted that while the world is absurd and allows for no hope, we are not condemned to despair; a moralist who reminded us that, in the end, all we have is one another in an indifferent and silent world:

I have sought only reasons to transcend our darkest nihilism. Not, I would add, through virtue, nor because of some rare elevation of the spirit, but from an instinctive fidelity to a light in which I was born, and in which for thousands of years men have learned to welcome life even in suffering.… To the unworthy but nonetheless stubborn sons of Greece who still survive in this emaciated century, the scorching heat of our history may seem unendurable, but they endure it in the last analysis because they want to understand it. In the center of our work, dark though it may be, shines an inexhaustible sun, the same sun that shouts today across the hills and plain. 

The experience of suffering is central to the life and work of a moralist. Certainly, this conviction girds the visceral opening of Camus’ early essay The Myth of Sisyphus: “Judging whether or not life is worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” For many of us— perhaps including those not yet aware they belong to this number— this remains the fundamental question. Are our lives, filled inevitably as they are with pain and loss, worth our while? The ancient Greeks, the deep source of Camus’ inspiration, had no doubts: suffering had its advantages. As Camus’ beloved Aeschylus has his chorus announce in the Oresteia, “We must suffer, suffer into truth.” Martha Nussbaum’s remark on the educative role of suffering in Greek tragedy also applies in spades to Camus:

“There is a kind of knowing that works by suffering because suffering is the appropriate acknowledgement of the way human life, in these cases, is.” 

The genius of Greek tragedy is that it refuses answers or resolutions. Instead, its value lies in its ability “to describe and see the conflict clearly and to acknowledge that there is no way out. The best the agent can do is to have his suffering, the natural expression of his goodness of character, and not to stifle these responses out of misguided optimism.”

This observation applies to Camus’ work and his life, of course, but we must be careful. Suffering was no more an answer to the world for Camus than was the recognition of our absurd condition. As early essays such as “Nuptials at Tipasa,” as well as his last work, The First Man, recall with ravishing power, Camus loved the world. He was uneasy with those indifferent to its beauty, blind to the sensuous allure of the landscapes of his native Mediterranean, and faithless toward their fellow human beings. To be a moralist, as the Epicureans understood, means one must be a sensualist. It was not just the reality of his suffering, but also his rootedness in our world that allowed Camus to declare, without a hint of sentimentality, that even though “it was the depths of winter, I finally learned that, within me, there lay an invincible summer.”

- Excerpts from the new book A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning by Robert Zarestsky

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