Many people associate Albert Camus with the philosophical movement called Existentialism. However, Camus did not consider himself to be an Existentialist. He did not even consider himself to be a proper philosopher. Rather, he viewed himself simply as a writer. But Camus’s writing, which includes fiction, nonfiction, and drama, does contain significant philosophical ideas and themes, some of which coincide with Existentialism.
One major theme common to both Camus’s work and Existentialism is the absurdity of life. This absurdity consists of a conflict between the human desire for meaning and purpose in life, and a world that is godless, meaningless, and indifferent to human fate. According to Camus, in the face of the absurd, “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
Another essential subject of Camus’s writing is the rebel who accepts and even embraces the absurdity of life, yet pushes on. Camus believed that the only appropriate response to the absurd was courageous acceptance. He viewed such alternatives as committing suicide and seeking meaning in religion to be cowardly and false. In the title essay of the collection The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), Camus’s hero accepts his fate–repeatedly rolling a rock up a mountain and watching if fall back down–with a spirit of defiance and without despair, but also without hope. Camus wrote of Sisyphus’s labors that “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Camus’s assertion that life is absurd and the universe indifferent is not an assertion that life does not offer enjoyment. Some of Camus’s early writing celebrates the pleasure that people can find in the physical world. For example, Nuptials (1939) contains the following exuberant description of nature:
I love this life with abandon and wish to speak of it boldly: it makes me proud of my human condition. Yet people have often told me: there’s nothing to be proud of. Yes, there is: this sun, this sea, my heart leaping with youth, the salt taste of my body and this vast landscape in which tenderness and glory merge in blue and yellow.
Camus believed that to fully enjoy life, people must give up hope of an afterlife and focus on the here and now. True to his ideas, Camus did not reject life, with its paradoxes, but rather engaged in it artistically and politically, producing many works that remain influential today.
Camus was born on Nov. 7, 1913, in the village of Mondovi, Algeria, to parents of French ancestry. Camus’s father, who fought on the side of the Allies in World War I (1914-1918), died from shrapnel wounds in 1914. Camus then moved with his mother and older brother to live with his maternal grandmother and uncle in Algiers. He grew up in poverty in the working-class neighborhood of Belcourt. A number of Camus’s teachers recognized his intelligence early on and encouraged his interest in history and literature. In school, Camus also developed a passion for playing soccer, but attacks of tuberculosis prevented him from pursuing the sport seriously.
From 1933 to 1936, Camus attended the University of Algiers, where he studied philosophy, psychology, and sociology. In 1936, he co-founded the Théâtre du Travail, an acting company that specialized in left-wing political drama. The company later was renamed Théâtre de l’Equipe and moved away from political topics. Camus’s socialist leanings led him to join the Communist Party in the 1930’s, but he was eventually expelled for supporting the cause of Algerian nationalism.
Camus worked as a journalist and typesetter for several newspapers in the late 1930’s, including the left-wing Alger Républicain and Le Soir Républicain, both in Algeria; and later Paris-Soir, in Paris. He also began writing literary works in the late 1930’s. In 1942, he published two of his most famous works–The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus–and emerged as a celebrated author. During World War II (1939-1945), Camus joined the French resistance newspaper Combat. He also worked as an editor for Gallimard Publishing in Paris from the 1940’s to 1960.
In 1957, Camus won the Nobel Prize for literature. By that time, he had published and produced many novels, essays, plays, and short stories. Some of his best-known works included the novels The Plague (1947) and The Fall (1957), the nonfiction study The Rebel (1951), and the play Caligula (1945). On Jan. 4, 1960, Camus died tragically in a car crash in Sens, France, with his publisher, Michel Gallimard. Two of his novels, A Happy Death (1971) and The First Man (1994), were published after his death.
Other selected works:
Betwixt and Between (1937; essays)
Nuptials (1939; essays)
The Misunderstanding (1944; play)
State of Siege (1948; play)
The Just Assassins (1949; play)
Exile and The Kingdom (1957; stories)