Finding the Meaning of Life in Albert Camus’ “The Plague”
I have lived in the pursuit of a vision, both personal and social.
Personal: to care for what is noble, for what is beautiful, for what is
gentle: to allow moments of insight to give wisdom at more mundane
times. Social: to see in imagination the society that is to be created,
where individuals grow freely, and where hate and greed and envy
die because there is nothing to nourish them. These things I believe,
and the world, for all its horrors, has left me unshaken. – (Atheist) Bertrand Russell
Summary: The Plague by Albert Camus
In the small town of Oran, Algeria, dead bodies are multiplying exponentially. A strange virus has penetrated the town walls; it is causing people’s flesh to boil, their inside to curdle with fever and vomit. There seems to be no hope for a cure. Terror has taken over.
One doctor, a darkly handsome man named Rieux, may be the last hope the people of Oran have – or he may simply have lost his mind, He is working tirelessly to treat the victims. He not only puts himself in contact with the deadly contagion, he does so methodically, with tremendous energy and unflinching dedication.
Admirable: but why? Rieux, openly an Atheist, is confident he will receive no reward for selflessness after he dies. Furthermore, he reflects, even if he should succeed in curing the plague against all odds, all his patients and he himself will eventually perish. There will be no resurrection. All is temporary.
The doctor’s beloved wife, meanwhile, is stranded in a sanatorium a hundred miles away. Oran is under strict quarantine. Perhaps his strange dedication to his patients stems from the faint hope that if he cures them all, he can be reunited with her? No – if this were all there were to it, he would not help his friend Rambert the way he does. Rambert, a journalist, had recently come to Oran for a visit when the plague erupted, and its quarantine has trapped him there. With suffering and death all around him, Rambert can think of little but escaping to reunite with his own young bride, in Paris. He is self-righteous in his longing to break free. He is not a citizen of the town, just an accidental victim of fate. He deserves to get out, and he is willing to break the law and put others at risk to achieve it.
Obviously Rambert misses the point. Unless the plague is some purposeful, vengeful work of God – and the thoughtful, skeptical journalist is hardly the kind to believe such fairy tales – the residents of Oran, screaming and dying all around him, are no less accidental victims than a tourist such as he. We are all accidental victims.
Still, the doctor does not resent Rambert’s choice of selfish love over selfless service. The doctor does not attempt to persuade his friend to stay, despite the desperate need for more help in the “sanitary corps” that Rieux is organizing. Rieux encourages Rambert to follow his own heart. If the doctor were working for others only out of raw, calculated self-interest, surely he would calculate the need for Rambert’s participation and be no less understanding. Instead, Rieux simply persists in an endeavor that cannot but inspire us despite describing his own struggle as “a never ending defeat.”
The philosopher Albert Camus’s novel The Plague dramatizes one of the most foundational and challenging questions for umanism. We must explain why we should be good, without God. This is the question we can hear the character Jean Tarrou, a little bit later admiring and a little bit ashamed, asking his friend Rieux: “Why do you yourself show such devotion, considering you don’t believe in God?”
How are we to live our lives? We allow ourselves into the vacuum of ideals, conventions, and authoritarians who tell us how to think. In doing so, we join a herd and allow the blind to lead us. Rieux states that the spirit of pre-plague Oran is one of empty commercialism. The lives of Oran’s people are entirely circumscribed by their habits. Every day, they follow the same routines not realizing that on the other side lays a plague that will call on them to make sense of the world. So will you make sense of it? Or will you act as if the plague won’t happen to you?
What we learn from the plague is that we are all in the same boat. No one can escape the pain, guilt, suffering, and despair that life brings. The plague doesn’t show special grace to the wealthy, educated, or elite. Dr. Rieux thinks it is unimaginable that a city with harmless people like Grand could be subject to a deadly plague epidemic. However, there is no rational or moral meaning behind a plague epidemic. Its choice of victims is completely impartial – there is no rational or moral reason why people like Grand should or should not die from the plague. During one encounter, Rieux gets rocked when he meets a 9 year old boy stricken by the plague. But even with his whole life ahead filled with such potential and virtue, this young boy cannot escape being a victim. He didn’t ask for it. We are all accidental victims. We don’t determine the country we are born in, our socio-economic class, or the competency level of our parents.
The question arises: who takes responsibility – given that we are all victims? We individually should take responsibility. But in Oran, responsibility is passed on. Just as with the rats in Oran, everyone considers it someone else’s responsibility to deal with the mysterious illness. The government officials and Dr. Rieux’s colleagues do not want to break with the status quo, so they waste time discussing whether the disease is definitely contagious and whether it is definitely the bubonic plague. Dr. Rieux’s stance is that they should act as if the disease were the bubonic plague. He does not relish the idea of waiting for new cases to prove his suspicions. His main concern is saving as many lives as possible.
People seem so surprised when they become victims. Dr. Rieux notes that wars and plagues have always existed in human populations, yet people are always surprised when they become victims of one or the other. Maybe it’s because we rely on our accomplishments or status in life to safeguard us from harm. Like fools, we put a dash of solipsism and a dollop of wishful thinking into our worldview and assume a position of self-entitlement and say, “I’ll be okay, I’ve got God on my side.” What does that even mean? With or without God, God still stands above humanity watching rape, torture, and genocide – with arms folded. We should not be surprised at evil, rather, we should respond. May our response not be one filled with wishful thinking, but with compassionate action.
As a society, I don’t know if we will ever cease from explaining evil by means of wishful thinking. All too often, people attempt to rationalize evil by using irrational methods. For instance, many intellectuals argue the genesis of the holocaust was due to Eve eating a piece of fruit and that hurricane Katrina was the fault of sexual immorality in New Orleans. We see shadows of this in the plague. Many people do not want to admit that the rats pose a serious health risk to human beings, so they resort to rationalizing the phenomenon. M. Michel states that pranksters planted the dead rats in the building where he works. Dr. Rieux’s asthma patient declares that hunger drove the rats out into the open to die. Both of these “rational” responses are actually completely irrational. Hunger does not explain the blood spurting from the rats’ muzzles. M. Michel’s explanation doesn’t explain why there are hundreds of death rats in buildings all over the city.
What’s the real cost of wishful thinking? The real cost, if not danger, I think, has to do with being out of touch with reality. It has to do with not having the mental discipline to see what’s really going on versus what one would like to happen. Wishful thinking is dangerous because it impairs our ability to properly see and understand reality. There is a reason why our senses generally give us accurate information about the world around us: without accurate information, we couldn’t hope to navigate our world with any expectation of safety or success. Dr. Rieux muses that his situation requires a certain “divorce from reality.” The beds in the emergency hospitals are full, and there is always an emotional scene when he evacuates patients from their homes to isolate them from their families. Pity has become useless, so he no longer indulges in it. We need to know what is going on around us if we are going to avoid danger or take advantage of opportunities.
Perhaps sometimes there are no rational reasons for instances of evil. Can you rest in the absurd?
The plague makes Rambert realize that he values love and happiness over his profession – that is, his means for making money. However, he is still preoccupied with his personal distress. Insisting that he doesn’t belong, he declares that there is a rational reason for his “right” to leave Oran. Nevertheless, he does not realize that there is nothing rational in his situation, just as there is nothing rational in the arrival of a plague epidemic in Oran. Shit happens, we make the most of our life, and then we die. Let us leave fairy tales and angry gods with the illiterate bronzed age peasants from whence they came … and pursue accepting the absurd.
If there is one thing that unites humanity, it is suffering. For Rambert, he desperately wants to escape the suffering in Oran and return to his love in Paris. The authorities state that they cannot set a “precedent” by letting Rambert leave. Dr. Rieux refuses to give him a certificate declaring him free of the plague. Rieux acknowledges that it is an absurd situation, but there is nothing to do but accept it. We must accept our plague. We must accept that babies will be born with disease, psychopaths will walk into school buildings and shoot whatever moves, and nations will engage in genocide. The plague lives on, and we are all participants in it. We touch the pain and admit that hearts will be broken and minds will be fucked. But within the chaos lies a great deal of joy and growth that leads to fulfillment. While we touch the pain, we never-the-less strive for fulfillment.
The slavish herd in Oran is quite pathetic. Only when they are imprisoned do the citizens of Oran realize the relative freedom they once enjoyed. Before, there was nothing restricting them except the force of their own habits. However, just as before the plague, they continue to be selfishly self-absorbed with their personal suffering. Each citizen believes his distress is somehow unique. They do not try to “find the right” words for their suffering because they are horrified to think that their listener pictures a common, mass-traded emotion. Partly, Oran’s people lack the imagination to communicate their suffering to other people; they were consistently “bored” before the epidemic.
Like Rieux, we must plow forward doing as much good and showing as much compassion as humanly possible. We do this by making the most of our time on this planet. In Oran, their narrow, circumscribed routines and their indifference prevent them from making the most of their finite existence – they are wasting their time. Tarrou’s concern about wasting time echoes Rieux’s own frustration with the Oran’s time wasting tactics in response to the swarm of rats and later with the rising epidemic. Tarrou is no different from any other human being. We were hurled onto this planet with no choice of our own, and now the choice is ours: Do you strive toward virtue or do we succumb to the plague? When honey touches your tongue … is it still sweet?
The central message to Rieux staying and fighting the plague was that he did what he had to do in order to be a human being. Being human is not about a celestial dictator in the sky sending down bronze aged commandments; it’s about an ultimate concern. An ultimate concern is humanly ubiquitous. It arises in all of us in the inner chambers of our being, in a moral center that you cannot abandon unless you abandon everything about your existence.
Towards the end The Plague, Camus allows the plague to pass. Perhaps this is Camus’s way of showing that pain and evil are cyclical, but never completely subside. Part of acknowledging the warp and woof of humanity is that we don’t live constantly in crises; we have moments of repose and gratification.
Many have wondered why Dietrich Bonheoffer left his professorship at Princeton to face an evitable death in fighting the resistance in Germany. Why did Jesus choose to go through Jerusalem knowing that it would prove fatal? Why does the Dali Lama turn a peaceful face toward the tyrants in China who subjugate his people? They engage in these brazen acts because it is their ultimate concern. They do what they have to do in order to be human. Bonheoffer pointed himself toward Germany because of his internal North Star. The Dali Lama points himself towards peace because of his moral compass. The plague is all around us, and the danger is when life becomes so routine, banal, and mundane that we become content with living in the kiddie pool. Therefore, the question is: will you take responsibility and pursue your ultimate concern?