The Contradictions of Sartre and Camus

During this period of quarantine, I’ve been reading a lot of existentialism. The past month has drawn me to the delights (or the indifference) of Albert Camus’s The Plague and The Stranger, while my present read is Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre. Curiously, though the writings of these two French philosophers have a lot in common (except, I hear, their looks), they shared an unparalleled rivalry in thought. While Camus considered himself as more of an ‘artist’, Sartre was a philosopher in the true sense of the word. Both rejected the allure and comforting nature of religion, choosing instead to face a barren, godless world. Both submerged themselves into politics, staunchly advocating their ideal of the just state. Both saw that life lacked inherent meaning, leaving it up to us to derive one. Yet they had different conceptions of freedom: while Sartre’s was existentialist, Camus advocated his own breed of atheistic absurdism.

Their contradictory stance on politics was the catalyst for an intellectual feud between the two former friends in the 1950s. While Camus advocated nonviolent political revolution in The Rebel, being horrified at the lack of freedom in the Soviet Union, Sartre was a staunch Marxist and supporter of the regime until 1956, when the Soviets invaded Hungary. He distrusted authority, tending towards ‘libertarian socialism’, wherein a state of anarchy exists but individuals work in harmony to achieve the common good. Moreover, Sartre opposed capitalism for instilling in us the need for material goods and wealth, thereby restricting our freedom to pursue more meaningful experiences.

Both thinkers were riddled with contradictions. Ironically, Sartre argued that the radical freedom of man was a source of meaning in a purposeless world, yet held history as inevitably deterministic in his support of radical communism. Camus was quick to point out this paradox in a critique of Sartre’s works. However, Camus’s philosophy embraced contradictions too; his signature idea of absurdity defines the contradiction between our human desire to find meaning and there existing none. The absurd is captured in his literary works, from the image of Sisyphus pushing a rock up a mountain only to see it fall back down an infinite number of times, to the depiction of Mersault unfeelingly murdering an Algerian man shortly after his own mother’s death. Camus’s lifelong task of writing over 12 books was arguably paradoxical; why invest all that time to pursue an unguaranteed higher end if life was vacant of meaning? His unfortunate death was the most striking paradox of them all; a man voicing a purposeless life, killed in a car crash.

Yet despite a shared acceptance of existential angst, they reached starkly different conclusions. Camus’s works present life as inherently meaningless and individuals as born unfree; like Mersault, who indifferently watches life pass him by. He argued that only upon confronting and accepting the absurdity of life, are we truly free. In Camus’s worldview, freedom was not intrinsic to human nature, but something to struggle for and possibly attain from embracing the absurd. On the other hand, Sartre held that “existence precedes essence”, meaning an individual’s choices create their ‘essence’; in other words, we are what we do. Rather than mourning our lack of freedom, Sartre argued that we are overcome with “an anguish of freedom” resulting from infinite choices in the face of a pointless life. Nausea portrays Antoine Roquentin as overwhelmed with his existence and submerged in ‘nothingness’, unable to change the past or the future. His existence is fraught with meaningless choices that he makes with indifference, such as walking into a cafe or visiting an art museum. It is not Roquentin’s lack of choices, but the abundance of choices he faces that induces a feeling of nausea in him. In contrast, in Camus’s The Stranger, Mersault’s actions seem largely predetermined, although arbitrary, building up to the murder of the Algerian man. His seeming lack of free will is shown in his indifference during the trial; he feels entirely detached from his actions and their consequences, suggesting a lack of intention.

As evidence of their fundamental disagreement over the nature of human freedom, the two philosophers disagreed blatantly on the issue of suicide. While Sartre argued that suicide was a bold assertion of human will in the face of a meaningless life, Camus denounced suicide as a cowardly renunciation of life. Sartre’s argument is consistent with his view that humans are free to exercise their autonomy, and should always pursue freedom as opposed to operating within a constraint. Suicide is choosing to free oneself from the constraints of a meaningless life. Camus’s stance is equally unsurprising as he argued that the only way to find meaning and achieve happiness in life was in accepting its absurdity, as evident in his condemnation of finding purpose in a deity.

While Sartre is widely considered the father of existentialism, Camus’s absurdism is more ambiguous, fitting on a spectrum between nihilism and existentialism. While Camus rejected the nihilist interpretation of a life utterly devoid of meaning, he did not support Sartre’s breed of existentialism, which supposed individuals can exercise their free will to construct a life of meaning. In his writings, he outright rejected both terms. With the term ‘absurdism’, Camus imagined a world of ‘benign indifference’. Unlike Kierkegaard, who came before him, Camus did not believe in religion, instead rejecting faith as a form of philosophical suicide and an escape from confronting the absurdity of one’s existence. Sartre similarly rejected religion as the solution to existentialist angst, arguing instead that we should find inherent meaning in our freedom to choose.

While both philosophers held that there is a light worth pursuing at the end of the tunnel, Sartre’s existentialist philosophy was slightly more optimistic than Camus’s absurdism. Their friendship, and later-turned, philosophical rivalry, illustrates the importance of contradictions and dialectical discussion in philosophical thought.

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