Alienation is a concept widely and wildly appealed to by numerous thinkers and for various reasons. Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, Shaw, each used the concept for their own purposes, though each also in respect to man’s seeming estrangement from his fellow man. I shall return to this.
I once had a colleague – – at which institution I shall not say – – who, after reading St. Augustine’s Confessions for the first time in turn confessed “I don’t get (St.) Monica: I’d never chase my son across the Mediterranean to make sure he went to heaven.” On another occasion this same colleague said when we were discussing Camus’s The Plague, that “the Gospel just breathes through Camus.” This gospel was putatively the gospel of self-validation. In that this was a well-respected professor, you can see the level of theological acumen at said nameless institution. Both of these instances came to mind the other day when reading some illiberal nonsense blathered by Richard Rorty, about how he would seek to inflict his will on his evangelical and fundamentalist students (see here), and twist them from the thought of their parents. These instances tells us what most know already, that the academy, regardless of how much effort you have put into the faith of your child, feels that its bounden duty and obligation is to save them from you. But secondly, it puts in sharp relief one of the few interesting things I found about Camus’s The Plague. The key interpretive scene occurs one evening when Rieux (the narrator) and his friend Tarrou go for a swim in the harbor. Afterwards they take a few minutes and Tarrou essentially gives us what Camus was saying. Tarrou says that he must work against the plague because he has already had it. He grew up the son of a lawyer, who took him to court one day. There he saw his dad, a prosecutor, intimidate and brow-beat a fellow into a confession. It was a capital murder case. The father thought this great stuff, something to impress the boy. Tarrou turned away in horror, knowing that now he must do everything to fight what his father was. He ended up joining a group who seemed opposed to the tyranny of his father and the government. While not saying as much, it appears the group was communist. Eventually Tarrou realizes that the group he was helping, in order to rid the world of enormities like his father, was itself committing enormities. This apparently is what prompted him to leave Europe and head to Oran. Then comes the money line, what he means by plague: that everyone has it, and the truly good person is the one who does not breath in anyone else’s face. This echoes, of course, Rousseau’s statement in The Social Contract that man’s breath is fatal to his fellow man. For Rousseau, however, the meaning is the opposite of what it is here for Camus. In Rousseau it is organized society which produces the plague: culture, industry, the arts (aesthetic, agricultural, mechanical, pedagogical), these destroy the pristine man. For Camus on the other hand, it is our desire and ambition to inflict our attitudes and will on other people that constitutes the plague. Much of the academy has become the plague Camus lamented.
Thus my colleague had completely misread Camus, for like Rorty this particular prof never missed a chance to slander the faith of our young evangelical wards, and at every turn to inflict them with a new version of the Gospel. What is more, this new gospel of self-validation, of creating your own essence, also misses one of the central tenets of the Gospel, the one that stands athwart all the nonsense about alienation. Alienation does exist, of course; but the question is, alienation from whom, and by what means?
Rorty, a truly horrifying person, cannot ever say what the essence of a human is, for in his version of pragmatism he has all but destroyed “what is” as a rule for “what ought to be” (that our ideas about how life should be structured bear any resemblance to that reality we encounter every day.) But how is this different than what Camus’s bete noir, Sartre believed, that “other people are hell.” Why? Because other people are always trying to afflict themselves on us, compromise who and what we are. Ironically, this is exactly what Rorty himself seeks to do: impose his (non)version of reality on his students. In essence, Rorty wants to make his wards in his own image, have them bow to his own will. (The differences between Camus and Sartre as Existentialists can be seen in their respective responses to the Nazis: Camus joined the resistance; Sartre joined Vichy). In this regard, Rorty’s actions assume not just the horrifying, but the demonic.In C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, the stronger demons wished to consume the weaker ones, and all were after the souls of men. The longed for strong souls, but had only weak ones for their fare. In this regard, Rorty seeks to consume the minds of his pupils, turning them into his own version of “twice the son of Hell.” (My thanks to my former student and friend A. B. Byrd for this insight.)
Rorty’s act is the exact opposite of what St. Monica was after. In that St. Augustine was alienated, he was not alienated from man, but first from God, and thus from himself, i.e., his true self, what God had created him to be. In this regard, Augustine actually could not have become what God had always intended for him apart from his mother, Monica. In a brief conversation one night with the eminent Pr. Peter Brown of Princeton, after he had delivered a fine lecture on the central place of spiritual fathers in the monastic world of the Eastern Mediterranean, I noted to him that the presence of a spiritual father seems not to have been the case with Augustine: he goes to St. Ambrose, but he feels he should not bother the great bishop. Peter Brown was quick to agree, and for some time I felt I had scored a point (for or against whom, I have no idea). But now I think that the whole point of the Confessions was to venerate Monica. She was the one who first gave Augustine the Gospel, he tells us, drawing it from her breasts; she was the hound of heaven, who would not let him be; she it was who constantly set before him the claims of Christ; and it was with her that at the end of her life he experienced the ecstasy of heaven. St. Augustine sought glory and pleasure; these Monica fled, and implored him to do the same, and instead to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.”
Here in Lent we seek not ourselves and our own comforts, but are seeking to reorient our lives toward Holy Pascha (Easter), to the resurrection of Christ. It is there that we find what real human nature is. And it is a nature that is not an abstraction, but one lived with other humans, within the body of Christ, within the Church. Our Lord Jesus Christ, at once human and Divine, shows us what true humanity is, and that union with Him in His death and resurrection and glorified life are the true ends of our existence. St. Monica sought not to have St. Augustine conform to her, but to have him conform to Christ. This is what true life entails, and it is something we cannot find by ourselves. By ourselves we can do but one thing: go to Hell. To attain to the image of Christ and the age to come, we need everyone else. As St. Basil the Great asked about hermits: whose feet do they wash? I need to wash other people’s feet, I need them so I can work out my salvation. Alienation can only be resolved when we come to that fulness of what humanity is, when we come to the first true human, to our Lord Jesus Christ, and to his body, the Church. Within this communion we seek only the good of others, and not our own. In this regard our alienation from one another finds its termination in Christ.