The Struggle of Sisyphus: Absurdity and Ethics in the work of Albert Camus
Moralist Camus - Letters to a German Friend
Kem Stone - July 2006
With the start of the second world war and the German occupation of France, Camus found his absurd world
turning upside down.  Though uncertain about the nature of
good, there was no doubt for Camus that the Nazi
regime represented true
evil.  Defeated and demoralized by the German invaders, France had all but lost its faith
in the benevolence of God, and nihilism was spreading like a plague (a metaphor Camus would later make ample
use of).  The need for a strong moral voice had seldom been greater, and Camus took it upon himself to make
that voice heard.  He knew that his arguments for living without appeal and appreciating earthly life would no
longer be enough, and he would now have to tackle one of the toughest problems he would ever face: finding a
moral justification to resist oppression without relying on divinity.

This task was made all the more difficult due to the circumstances of the time.  Speaking out against the Nazi
regime was a dangerous business in occupied France, and Camus knew that he would be risking his life.  But he
managed to find a platform through which he could spread his ideas and yet remain anonymous, when in 1943 he
agreed to serve as editor-in-chief of a Resistance newspaper called
La Revue Noire, later renamed Combat.  
The goal of
Combat was simply to “fight for our freedoms” and by late 1943, a quarter of a million copies were in
circulation.  The danger of Camus’ position was made perfectly clear when the printer of
Combat, André Bollier,
committed suicide just before he could be arrested by the Germans and forced to reveal the names of his fellow
Resistants (Kamber, 69).  In spite of the risks of torture or imprisonment in a concentration camp, Camus
managed to anonymously publish a series of four profoundly idealistic and fiercely anti-Nazi letters which would
later be republished together and titled,
Letters to a German Friend.

The difference in tone between these and Camus’ earlier works is striking to say the least, and French readers
undoubtedly had no idea that these letters were written by the same young man who had penned
The Stranger.  
The most clear difference would be their complete lack of moral ambiguity (Kamber, 69).  Camus takes a firm
position, not bothering to water-down his message with wordy ethical justifications to support his points.  
Addressing his letters to an imaginary German friend (now an enemy), he writes with a resolute confidence that he
wishes to inspire in his fellow countrymen.

    At this point I see you smile as of old.  You always distrusted words.  So did I, but I used to distrust
    myself even more.  You used to try to urge me along the path you yourself had taken, where
    intelligence is ashamed of intelligence.  Even then I couldn’t follow you.  But today my answers
    would be more assured.  (Camus, RRD, 14)

The position he advances is clear: the Nazis are in the wrong because they value only the might of their country,
while the French have suffered dearly for the very cause which puts them in the right—justice.  Though it may be
an oversimplification on Camus’ part to say that the French defeat at the beginning of the war was due to their
need to “overcome our weakness for mankind, the image we had formed of a peaceful destiny” (Camus,
RRD, 8),
he remains steadfast in his conviction that the love of truth and justice is why France will inevitably emerge
victorious.


Christianity

Whereas Camus’ position toward Christianity in his previous works is clearly adversarial, in Letters to a German
Friend
his attitude is more ambivalent.  Camus wastes no time criticizing doctrine, as it is nihilism and tyranny that
he is up against, rather than what he views as merely misguided faith.  Christianity, though he does not accept its
claims, is a part of the European tradition, a tradition that Camus wishes to defend.  However, he indirectly
criticizes the religion due to the ease with which its ideals can be twisted into hypocrisy.

In his second letter, Camus tells the story of eleven French prisoners being carried in a truck from a prison to the
cemetary where they are to be shot.  Of the eleven, only five or six are guilty, while the rest are “victims of a kind
of indifference” (Camus,
RRD, 15).  Among the innocent are a young boy, the most terrified of them all.  The
Germans have provided them with a chaplain, who is meant to alleviate the agony of the hour of waiting, but his
words of a future life and the peace to come do nothing to calm the boy’s fears.  While the chaplain’s back is
turned, the boy tears back the canvas and with hardly a sound jumps out of the truck and begins to run away.  But
the flapping of the canvas is enough to make the chaplain turn and notice what has happened.  “A second in which
the man of God must decide whether he is on the side of the executioners or on the side of the martyrs in keeping
with his vocation.  But he has already knocked on the partition separating him from his comrades” (Camus,
RRD,
17).  Guards are dispatched to chase after the boy, and soon enough he is brought back to await his execution.

Camus cites a French priest as the source of this story, who has indicated pride that no French priest would be
willing to make his God abet murder.  It would seem then that it is not Christianity that he is attacking but the
madness of his enemy’s position.

    The chaplain simply felt as you do.  It seemed natural to him to make even his faith serve his
    country.  Even the gods are mobilized in your country.  They are on your side, as you say, but only
    as a result of coercion.  You no longer distinguish anything; you are nothing but a single impulse.  
    And now you are fighting with the resources of blind anger, with your mind on weapons and feats of
    arms rather than on ideas, stubbornly confusing every issue and following your obsession.  (Camus,
    RRD, 18)

Even men of faith can share in this sort of frustration; that the ideals of non-violence and martyrdom upon which
their religion is based can be twisted and abused so as to justify murder.  However, that these ideals can be so
manipulated is a weakness of Christianity that Camus is not afraid to point out.

Later in his career, Camus would give a speech in which he would express this specific criticism.  His words
indicate a hostility not to the values of the Christian faith, many of which Camus himself would endorse, but to the
failure on the part of the faithful to make these values clear enough to prevent their ever being twisted.

    What the world awaits from Christians is that they speak loud and clear, and that they express their
    condemnations in such a manner that never a doubt, never a single doubt, may rise in the heart of the
    simplest man.  It is that they leave off with abstraction and that they face up to the bloodstained
    visage which history has taken today….When a Spanish bishop blesses political executions, he is no
    longer a bishop, nor a Christian, and not even a man, he is a dog, like all those who from the height
    of an ideology command this execution without doing the work themselves.  (Hanna, CCE, 56)

And so the criticism Camus levels against Christianity in
Letters to a German Friend is an indirect one—that its
ideals are too abstract to serve as a basis for morality if both victims and executioners can claim to wave its
banner.


Absurdity

However, it is not the misinterpretation or manipulation of Christianity that Camus feels is responsible for the
atrocities of the Nazi regime; he sees their lust for conquest primarily as a consequence of absurdity.  At the
beginning of his first letter, Camus describes an imaginary discussion from which both he and his German friend
had split paths.  Both having recognised the world as essentially absurd, they were forced to find meaning in
something beyond religious doctrine, and the conflict began when they chose opposing ideals.

    You said to me: ‘The greatness of my country is beyond price.  Anything is good that contributes to
    its greatness.  And in a world where everything has lost its meaning, those who, like us young
    Germans, are lucky enough to find a meaning in the destiny of our nation must sacrifice everything
    else.’ I loved you then, but at that point we diverged.  ‘No,’ I told you, ‘I cannot believe that
    everything must be subordinated to a single end.  There are means that cannot be excused.  And I
    should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.  I don’t want just any greatness for it,
    particularly a greatness born of blood and falsehood.  I want to keep it alive by keeping justice
    alive.’  You retorted: ‘Well, you don’t love your country.’  (Camus, RRD, 5)

In this allegory the Germans have chosen the might of their country as their reason and purpose for living, whereas
the French are more inclined to place their love of justice beside the love of their country.  While the Nazis fight
using any means to jusitfy what they believe is a worthy end, the French have been defeated because of their belief
that certain means can never be justified no matter what the ends.

So Absurdity plays the role of the common starting point from which the two nations diverged at the start of the
conflict.  In the Europe of the 1930s, torn and scarred by the first world war, misery and death were seen as the
natural order of things.  Darwinism only added to the notion that the only values that could survive in such a cruel
and absurd world are the values of strength.  Ideals such as justice and peace had no
real meaning, as history is
only the story of the weak perishing at the hands of the strong.  The Nazi ideal of the Master Race would seem to
go hand in hand with this “survival of the fittest” perspective.  But the French, and indeed all the Western allies,
would demonstrate a reaction against such circumstances.

Written in July 1944, Camus’ final letter explicitly examines the conflict between these two ideologies.

    Where lay the difference?  Simply that you readily accepted despair and I never yielded to it.  
    Simply that you saw the injustice of our condition to the point of being willing to add to it, whereas it
    seemed to me that man must exalt justice in order to fight against eternal injustice, create happiness in
    order to protest against the universe of unhappiness.  Because you turned your despair into
    intoxication, because you freed yourself from it by making a principle of it, you were willing to
    destroy man’s works and to fight him in order to add to his basic misery.  Meanwhile, refusing to
    accept that despair and that tortured world, I merely wanted men to rediscover their solidarity in
    order to wage war against their revolting fate.  (Camus, RRD, 27)

Starting with the acceptance of an absurd and cruel world, one can either adopt this condition as the ultimate value
and twist the cruelty to serve one’s own interests, or struggle against it and put new values in its place.  To put it
simply, when confronted with an idea such as, “The world is shaped by murder,” once can either conclude, “I am
therefore justified in murder,” or “The world must change its shape.”  The latter is a far more difficult conclusion to
accept due to the enormous responsibility that goes along with it, but given the alternative Camus is more than
willing to take on that responsibility.


Values

The responsibility lies in bringing justice to a world devoid of it.  While murder has been a characteristic of life
since life began, justice is a new and strictly human invention.  Nevertheless Camus adamantly proclaims that its
realisation in the world is a task that must be fought for.

    I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning.  But I know that something in it has a
    meaning and that is man, because he is the only creature to insist on having one.  This world has at
    least the truth of man, and our task is to provide its justifications against fate itself.  And it has no
    justification but man; hence he must be saved if we want to save the idea we have of life.  With your
    scornful smile you will ask me: what do you mean by saving man?  And with all my being I shout to
    you that I mean not mutilating him and yet giving a chance to the justice that man alone can
    conceive.  (Camus, RRD, 27)

And so Camus lashes out against the Nazi’s stark realism with a fiercely humanistic idealism.  If the absurd fate of
the world is to be opposed, it is Man alone that stands to oppose it.  “Man is that force which ultimately cancels
all tyrants and gods” (Camus,
RRD, 14).

Ironically, both Camus’ position and that of his enemies can be described as “naturalistic.”  Once religion has been
rejected as a source of values, nature is the next place that many people will look.  If God cannot tell us how we
ought to live, perhaps we ought to live as nature would suggest.  The Nazis looked at nature and saw survival of
the fittest as the ultimate value.  Camus, on the other hand, looked at human nature and saw the desire for
happiness and justice as—if not the ultimate value—as the value we ought to be fighting for.  The ethical claim he
makes can be understood in the following way: “Since it is natural for human beings to desire justice and
happiness despite the world’s indifference to these desires, human beings ought to band together to fight injustice
and create happiness” (Kamber, 71).

Aside from justice and human happiness, Camus begins to show signs of advancing another value that had been
absent from his previous work: that of solidarity.  Whereas his absurdist phase focuses on the plight of the
individual within a world devoid of meaning, he now finds meaning and value in the voluntary commitment to a
common cause (Kamber, 70).  It is not surprising that this should be the case, considering the circumstances in
which Camus found himself at
Combat.  Before the war, Camus was concerned merely with finding a way to live
happily in an absurd world, a task limited within the confines of each individual mind.  But when confronted with
the very real and threatening power of the Nazi regime, one cannot face such evil alone, and it becomes necessary
to rely on one’s brethren as well as to recruit help from as many others as possible.  Indeed, Hitler would never
have been defeated if his enemies has not joined forces against him.

Camus attributes France’s initial defeat to the long, slow progress her people had in finding their justification.  The
ideals which Camus expresses early in his career are certainly not of the sort that a nation can stand together and
die for.  But the lesson Camus and his countrymen had learned from their defeat is what he insists will secure their
eventual victory.

    It taught us that, contrary to what we sometimes used to think, the spirit is of no avail against the
    sword, but that the spirit together with the sword will always win out over the sword alone.  That is
    why we have now accepted the sword, after making sure that the spirit was on our side.  We had
    first to see people die and to run the risk of dying ourselves.  We had to see a French workman
    walking toward the guillotine at dawn down the prison corridors and exhorting his comrades from
    cell to cell to show their courage. (Camus, RRD, 9)

This image, which Camus returns to several times throughout his letters, illustrates the most important aspect of the
shift between Camus’ absurdist and his moralist phase—the value placed on solidarity, of bravely facing the cruel
fate of absurdity (symbolised again through execution) together with one’s fellow man.  His attention shifts from
the position of the individual within society to the affect of society on the individual, from the question of suicide to
the problem of murder.