CAMUS, CHARACTER, AND CULTURE: A STUDY OF THE CONCEPT OF NIHILISM

ALAN NOEL WOOLFOLK, University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

This study addresses the problem of nihilism by analyzing this concept in the writings of the contemporary French author Albert Camus. It opens with a consideration of the history of the term nihilism in the works of Franz von Baader, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Alfred Weber, analyzing the religious and antireligious use of the concept by these theorists. Baader and Dostoyevsky are treated as defenders of faith as a system of cultural control, while Nietzsche is interpreted as a cultural revolutionary against such controls and Weber is viewed as holding to an intermediate position. The second, third, and fourth chapters focus respectively on the concepts of nature, political commitment, and honesty in Camus' writings in an attempt to clarify to what extent Camus may be understood, on the one hand, as encouraging a system of cultural controls upon experience and, on the other, as insinuating a release from such controls. Because Camus' conceptualization of nihilism is culturally conservative but also antireligious, the direction of his thinking is not always unequivocal. In the case of the idea of nature, he opposes the Judeo-Christian doctrine of creation as a rationalization of the absurd, while also moving toward an ideal of natural order in his later writings. But in the end Camus must be evaluated as creating a symbology of nature which recognized the necessity of controlling motifs in the conduct of life. Camus' treatment of the problem of political commitment or engagement is less indecisive. Although he argued that art must address the social question, he opposed the symbolic involvement of the artist in particular in the struggle for power. Nihilism is defined as involvement in that struggle. However, Camus' fear of symbolically supporting political violence and terror kept him from articulating a public doctrine or systematic theory to oppose what he understood as the nihilism of modern intellectuals. Instead, he emphasized the importance of private commitments such as friendship or what Charles Cooley called primary groups. But his defense of private life does not clarify how the group itself is to be judged. As a consequence, his opposition to the struggle for power can itself be judged as only partially successful. Camus' work values the character ideal of honesty. Yet it is not the same as the ideal of sincerite which is a prominent theme in French literature. Camus' ideal of honesty is based upon affects of modesty and shame which place controls upon expression. His writing thus articulates an ideal of character which carries ascetic implications. This asceticism is evident, for instance, in his praise of the vocational commitment of the artist. However, once again Camus' theory fails to go far enough in that he refuses to acknowledge the power of art to transform character and culture. As a result, Camus' theory of nihilism tends to exempt the artist from any judgement of complicity in the corruption of the social order so long as involvement in politics is avoided. The fifth chapter of this study considers the problems associated with Camus' suggestion that the artist accept the role of cultural guide in contemporary society, thereby succeeding the clergy of Christian culture and opposing the committed revolutionary as a spiritual preceptor. These problems center on Camus' assumption that art can replace religion and philosophy as a source of meaning and direction in contemporary culture. Whether art can indeed offer such guidance in the manner Camus conceived must be seriously doubted. Yet he still remains one of the great cultural guides of our time.

Subject Area

Social research

Recommended Citation

WOOLFOLK, ALAN NOEL, "CAMUS, CHARACTER, AND CULTURE: A STUDY OF THE CONCEPT OF NIHILISM" (1981). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI8127092.
https://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI8127092

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