Review: The Plague

Review: The Plague

The Plague by Albert Camus

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic.

As with all of Camus’s books, The Plague is a seamless blend of philosophy and art. The story tells of an outbreak of plague—bubonic and pneumonic—in the Algerian city of Oran. The narration tracks the crisis from beginning to end, noting the different psychological reactions of the townsfolk; and it must be said, now that we are living through a pandemic, that Camus is remarkably prescient in his portrayal a city under siege from infection. Compelling as the story is, however, I think its real power resides in its meaning as a parable of Camus’s philosophy.

Camus’s philosophy is usually called absurdism, and explained as a call to embrace the absurdity of existence. But this is not as simple as giving up church on Sundays. Absurdism is, indeed, incompatible with conventional religion. Camus makes this abundantly clear in his passage on the priest’s sermon—which argues that the plague is god’s punishment for our sins—an idea that Camus thinks incompatible with the randomness of the disaster: appearing out of nowhere, striking down children and adults alike. But absurdism is also incompatible with traditional humanism.
The best definition of humanism is perhaps Protagoras’s famous saying: “Man is the measure of all things.” In many respects this seems to be true. Gold is valuable because we value it; an elephant is big and a mouse is small relative to human size; and so on. However, on occasion, the universe throws something our way that is not made to man’s measure. A plague is a perfect example of this: an ancient organism, too small to see, which can colonize our bodies, causing sickness and death and shutting down conventional life as we know it. Whenever a natural disaster makes life impossible, we are reminded that, far from being the measure of all things, we exist at the mercy of an uncaring universe.

This idea is painful to contemplate. Nobody likes to feel powerless; and the idea that our suffering and striving do not, ultimately, mean anything is downright depressing. Understandably, most of us prefer to ignore this situation. And of course economies and societies invite us to do so—to focus on human needs, human goals, human values—to be, in short, humanists. But there are moments when the illusion fades, and it does not take a pandemic. A simple snowstorm can be enough. I remember watching snow fall out of an office window, creating a blanket of white that forced us to close early, go home, and stay put the next day. A little inclement weather is all it takes to make our plans seem small and irrelevant.

A plague, then, is an ideal situation for Camus to explore his philosophy. But absurdism does not merely consist in realizing that the universe is both omnipotent and indifferent. It also is a reaction to this realization. In this book, Camus is particularly interested in what it means to be moral in such a world. And he presents a model of heroism very different from that which we are used to. The humanist hero is one who is powerful and free—a person who could have easily chosen not to be a hero, but who chose to because of their goodness.

The hero of this story, Dr. Bernard Rieux, does not fit this mold. His heroism is far humbler and more modest: it is the heroism of “common decency,” of “doing my job.” For the truth is that Rieux and his fellows do not have much of a choice. Their backs are against the wall, leaving them only the choice to fight or give up. An absurdist hero is thus not making a choice between good and evil, but against a long and ultimately doomed fight against death—or death. It is far better, in Camus’s view, to take up the fight, since it is only in a direct confrontation with death that we become authentically alive.

You might even say that, for Camus, life itself is the only real ethical principle. This becomes apparent in the speech of Tarrou, Rieux’s friend, who is passionately against the death sentence. Capital punishment crystalizes the height of absurdist denial: decreeing that a human value system is more valid that the basic condition of existence, and that we have a right to rule when existence is warranted or not. To see the world with clear eyes means, for Camus, to see that life is something beyond any value system—just as the entire universe is. And the only meaningful ethical choice, for Camus, is whether one chooses to fight for life.

This book is brilliant because its lessons can be applied to a natural disaster, like a plague, or a human disaster, like the holocaust. Indeed, before the current pandemic, the book was normally read as a reaction to that all-too-human evil. In either case, our obligation is to fight for life. This means rejecting ideologies that decree when life is or is not warranted, it means not giving up or giving in, and it means, most of all, doing one’s job.



View all my reviews

Quotes & Commentary #67: Thucydides

Quotes & Commentary #67: Thucydides

Not many days after their arrival in Attica the plague first began to show itself among the Athenians. It was said that it had broken out in many places previously in the neighbourhood of Lemnos and elsewhere; but a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered. Neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves the most thickly, as they visited the sick most often; nor did any human art succeed any better. Supplications in the temples, divinations, and so forth were found equally futile, till the overwhelming nature of the disaster at last put a stop to them altogether.

—Thucydides

The plague of Athens is one of the most famous epidemics in history. It struck the city-state hard, and played a decisive role in Athens’ loss to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. The historian Thucydides, who suffered the disease himself, gives a clinical description of the symptoms. Many are rather garden variety: headache, sore throat, a bad cough, diarrhea, and vomiting. Apart from this, victims suffered ulcers on the skin, and a fever so bad that people tore off their clothes. Thucydides also describes an unquenchable thirst. Tens of thousands died—in a city that was not, by modern standards, especially big—including the great statesman, Pericles; and it created ripples in society that lasted for many years after the plague ended.

(It is still unknown what germ caused the Athenian plague. One theory is typhus.)

It is impossible to make any sort of prediction when it comes to the novel coronavirus. In the beginning, I saw much commentary in the news criticizing China’s heavy-handed approach to dealing with the virus. Back then, most of the political commentary centered on whether an authoritarian regime could adequately cope. Now, Western governments are not looking very good by comparison. The outbreak has caught the leaders off guard, and there were many weeks of downplaying the threat before serious action was taken. And, in the end, Europe will likely have to enact many of the same measures as were put in place in China.

People of any political persuasion can find grist for their mills. I have already mentioned the criticism of China’s heavy-handed approach. Marxists are using the shortages at supermarkets as evidence of the shortcomings of capitalism; while conservatives point to the government’s inadequate response as evidence of bureaucratic incompetence. Trump, as usual, has said many false or misleading things, and the economic downturn caused by the virus could possibly hurt his chances for re-election. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, cites the virus as a good argument for universal healthcare. And so on.

Certainly some of these perspectives have merit. And there is plenty of blame to go around. Judging from the state of things here in Spain, the government was unprepared for the virus, even though they had weeks to observe its progress in China and then Italy. Speaking for myself, the outbreak has been an exercise in humility, since in the past few weeks I consistently downplayed its importance and severity. A week ago I was feeling totally secure, as if my normal life could not be affected. So I do have some sympathy for everyone who underestimated the danger. (On the other hand, the people in power are the ones who are supposed to know, of course.)

To continue my exercise in humility, I think I will refrain from making any definite predictions about the weeks and months to come. There are too many variables. It is unknown how long these measures will have to be enacted; and it is equally unclear exactly what effect this will have on the economy. Further down the line, we cannot predict if, how, or to what extent the crisis will affect the political situation. Big events like September 11 and the 2008 financial crisis had long-lasting political aftershocks, still reverberating today. Will the coronavirus be decisive in the 2020 American presidential elections? Will Spain’s socialist government lose credibility?

The plague of Athens was a major turning point in the history of Ancient Greece. Without Pericles, and reeling from the depopulation, Athens lost to Sparta, which henceforth became the leading power in the Peninsula. The Golden Age of Ancient Greece thus came to an end. How might history have turned out differently if Athens had won instead? Such counterfactuals are impossible to definitively answer. Now, all we can really do is sit in our homes and wait. But perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that, despite all of our missteps, we are far better positioned to deal with the coronavirus than the Athenians were ready to deal with their plague (whatever it was). For one thing, we understand how diseases spread; and thus each of us can do our part to stop it.