Camus and Voltaire: Ecrasez l’infame

In Camus’ The Plague the telling scene comes about four fifths the way through the book, where the narrator, Rieux, goes swimming one night in the harbor with his compeer Tarrou. After the swim they have a conversation, really, it’s just Tarrou telling Rieux about why he had to fight the plague at his side: “You see, I already had the plague.” Camus then sets out the whole allegory. Tarrou’s father had been a provincial prosecutor, and one day he took his son to court to see him in action. There he essentially browbeat a defendant into admitting guilt to a capital crime. The elder Tarrou thought his son would be proud: he was horrified instead. So, he repudiated his father, and went and joined himself to a group who was set on overthrowing the government, Tarrou thought that they were seeking this through peaceful means. The text doesn’t say, but it is clear the group is Communist, and once Tarrou finds out that they are for violence, he repudiates them as well, though only after realizing that he has had a hand in countless deaths. Then comes the first of a number of powerful lines: “I had plague already, long before I came to this town and encountered it here. Which is tantamount to saying I’m like everybody else.” He then goes on to talk about how plague is not only an active life trying to force people to your will, but it is also a passive negligence: people become habituated in the plague, trying to make it an antiseptic reality. A few pages on comes another bracing line: “For the plague-stricken their peace of mind is more important than a human life. Decent folks must be allowed to sleep easy at nights, mustn’t they?” It is a vivid confession about not only standing on the sidelines while others die, but of even being complicit in these deaths by our saying nothing. Then two pages on comes the real money quote: “Each of us has the plague within him; no one on earth is free from it. And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him. What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest – – health, integrity, purity (if you like) – – is a product of the human will, of vigilance that must never falter.” This is why I have always preferred Camus to Sartre, Voltaire to Rousseau, for each of the former never thought himself, or wished never to think of himself, as somehow sovereign over the will and thought of others. Camus despised Sartre (a Vichy collaborator, whereas Camus was in the resistance) and Voltaire thought Rousseau a misanthrope (look up Voltaire’s short story Timon). It is not that Camus was against persuasion, argument, and debate (and Voltaire certainly was not either); what he was against was the whole notion that “I know better” and that “this is for your own good.” It’s a key concept that so few people grasp. I had a student once who said “I don’t think people should have so much freedom.” Well, maybe they shouldn’t, but who made you the sovereign to think for them? Why do you have the liberty to think on their behalf? And who made you the monarch over other men’s lives, goods, and property. This is what is behind the “right to happiness”: that we have no people who have more of a right to pursue their own ends, or have a claim on our property and possessions, the labors of our hands, then do we. If not, we have reverted not just to a new aristocracy, but indeed, to a new slavery.

But it is all more sinister than mere quibbling about freedom of thought – – important as that is,  indeed, incredibly so – – or the right to happiness. No, the real problem is that tonight thousands of people, many of them Christians, are facing death and deprivation in the name of an idea, and some of them explicitly so in that Christians are now targets, are struggling to survive against a murderous form of the plague, in Syria and in Egypt. And our government, while not doing all in its power to make sure that the murderers triumph, is nonetheless openly and vocally helping those carrying out the enormities. I don’t know why, I can only guess, but the truth is, our government is infested with plague, whether they be Ds or Rs. And if they aren’t the pestilence, then they are certainly the rats that are carrying the fleas. They want us to be comfortable, and not be concerned about what’s beyond our oceans, what’s beyond our comfortable lives. But tonight Christians are dying. What are we doing? Has the plague put us to sleep? We should at least be praying.

About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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4 Responses to Camus and Voltaire: Ecrasez l’infame

  1. Bravo! Thanks for telling the truth, and eloquently.

  2. Gabe Martini says:

    Fantastic, as usual.

    I love The Stranger, too. Someone like P.T. Anderson needs to do a screenplay for that one.

  3. Excellent as usual Gary. We are a plague ridden culture. Concerning the Middle East, our recent history of contagion includes Iraq, which has already be “plagued” and most of the Christians dispereserd. Many to the Levant, where they are in peril again. Lebanon is next, read Open source State Dept. information. BTW, while there is already a Coptic Church in the Blue Bell, PA area there is a new one close to it and to me located in Hatfiled. I am glad to see their growth here, but grieved for the reason why.

  4. oliver says:

    I do think so. I do think your article will give the individuals a good showing. And they will show thanks to you later

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