Albert Camus
Era20th-century philosophy
RegionWestern Philosophy
SchoolExistentialism, Absurdism
Notable ideas
"The absurd is the essential concept and the first truth"

Albert Camus (pronounced [al'bɛr ka'mʉː]) (November 7, 1913January 4, 1960) was a French author and philosopher and one of the principal luminaries of absurdism. Camus was the second youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature (after Rudyard Kipling) when he received the award in 1957. He is also the shortest-lived of any literature laureate to date, having died in a car crash three years after receiving the award.

Early years

Albert Camus was born in Mondovi, Algeria to a French Algerian (pied noir) settler family. His mother was of Spanish extraction. His father, Lucien, died in the Battle of the Marne in 1914 during the First World War, while serving as a member of the Zouave infantry regiment. Camus lived in poor conditions during his childhood in the Belcourt section of Algiers.

In 1923, Camus was accepted into the lycée and eventually to the University of Algiers. However, he contracted tuberculosis in 1930, which put an end to his football activities (he had been a goalkeeper for the university team) and forced him to make his studies a part-time pursuit. He took odd jobs including private tutor, car parts clerk, and work for the Meteorological Institute. He completed his licence de philosophie (BA) in 1935; in May of 1936, he successfully presented his thesis on Plotinus, Néo-Platonisme et Pensée Chrétienne for his diplôme d'études supérieures (roughly equivalent to an M.A. by thesis).

Camus joined the French Communist Party in 1934, apparently for concern over the political situation in Spain (which eventually resulted in the Spanish Civil War) rather than support for Marxist-Leninist doctrine. In 1936, the independence-minded Algerian Communist Party (PCA) was founded. Camus joined the activities of Le Parti du Peuple Algérien, which got him into trouble with his communist party comrades. As a result, he was denounced as "Trotskyite", and quit the party in 1936.

In 1934, he married Simone Hie, a morphine addict, but the marriage ended due to infidelity by both of them. In 1935, he founded Théâtre du Travail — "Worker's Theatre" — (renamed Théâtre de l'Equipe ("Team's Theatre") in 1937), which survived until 1939. From 1937 to 1939, he wrote for a socialist paper, Alger-Republicain, and his work included an account of the peasants who lived in Kabylie in poor conditions, which apparently cost him his job. From 1939 to 1940, he briefly wrote for a similar paper, Soir-Republicain. He was rejected from the French army because of his tuberculosis.

In 1940, Camus married Francine Faure, a pianist and mathematician. Although he loved Francine, he had argued passionately against the institution of marriage, dismissing it as unnatural, and even after Francine gave birth to twins Catherine and Jean Camus on September 5, 1945, he continued to joke wearily to friends that he was not cut out for marriage. Francine suffered numerous infidelities, particularly a public affair with the Spanish actress Maria Casares. Also in this year, Camus began to work for Paris-Soir magazine. In the first stage of World War II, the so-called Phony War stage, Camus was a pacifist. However, he was in Paris to witness how the Wehrmacht took over. On December 15, 1941, Camus witnessed the execution of Gabriel Peri, an event which Camus later said crystallized his revolt against the Germans. Afterwards he moved to Bordeaux alongside the rest of the staff of Paris-Soir. In this year he finished his first books, The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus. He returned briefly to Oran, Algeria in 1942.

Literary career

During the war Camus joined the French Resistance cell Combat, which published an underground newspaper of the same name. This group worked against the Nazis, and in it Camus assumed the nom de guerre "Beauchard". Camus became the paper's editor in 1943, and when the Allies liberated Paris, Camus reported on the last of the fighting. He eventually resigned from Combat in 1947, when it became a commercial paper. It was here that Camus became acquainted with Jean-Paul Sartre.

After the war, Camus became one member of Sartre's entourage and frequented Café de Flore on the Boulevard St. Germain in Paris. Camus also toured the United States to lecture about French existentialism. Although he leaned left politically, his strong criticisms of communist doctrine did not win him any friends in the communist parties and eventually also alienated Sartre.

In 1949 his tuberculosis returned and he lived in seclusion for two years. In 1951 he published The Rebel, a philosophical analysis of rebellion and revolution which made clear his rejection of communism. The book upset many of his colleagues and contemporaries in France and led to the final split with Sartre. The dour reception depressed him and he began instead to translate plays.

Camus's most significant contribution to philosophy was his idea of the absurd, the result of our desire for clarity and meaning within a world and condition that offers neither, which he explained in The Myth of Sisyphus and incorporated into many of his other works, such as The Plague. Some would argue that Camus is better described not as an existentialist (a label he would have rejected) but as an absurdist.

In the 1950s Camus devoted his efforts to human rights. In 1952 he resigned from his work for UNESCO when the UN accepted Spain as a member under the leadership of General Franco. In 1953 he was one of the few leftists who criticized Soviet methods to crush a workers' strike in East Berlin. In 1956 he protested against similar methods in Poland and Hungary.

The monument to the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960), built in the small town of Villeblevin, France where he died in a car crash on January 4, 1960

He maintained his pacifism and resistance to capital punishment everywhere in the world. One of his most significant contributions was an essay collaboration with Arthur Koestler, the writer, intellectual, and founder of the League Against Capital Punishment.

The bronze plaque on the monument to the Camus, built in the small town of Villeblevin, France. The plaque reads: "From the Yonne area's local council, in tribute to the writer Albert Camus who was watched over in the Villeblevin town hall in the night of the 4th to the 5th of January 1960."

When the Algerian War of Independence began in 1954 it presented a moral dilemma for Camus. He identified with pied-noirs, and defended the French government on the grounds that revolt of its North African colony was really an integral part of the 'new Arab imperialism' led by Egypt and an 'anti-Western' offensive orchestrated by Russia to 'encircle Europe' and 'isolate the United States' (Actuelles III: Chroniques Algeriennes, 1939-1958). Although favouring greater Algerian autonomy or even federation, though not full-scale independence, he believed that the pied-noirs and Arabs could co-exist. During the war he advocated civil truce that would spare the civilians, which was rejected by both sides who regarded it as foolish. Behind the scenes, he began to work clandestinely for imprisoned Algerians who faced the death penalty.

From 1955 to 1956 Camus wrote for L'Express. In 1957 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, officially not for his novel The Fall, published the previous year, but for his writings against capital punishment in the essay "Réflexions Sur la Guillotine". When he spoke to students at the University of Stockholm, he defended his apparent inactivity in the Algerian question and stated that he was worried what could happen to his mother who still lived in Algeria. This led to further ostracism by French left-wing intellectuals.

Camus died on January 4, 1960 in a car accident near Sens, in a place named "Le Grand Fossard" in the small town of Villeblevin. In his coat pocket lay an unused train ticket. It is possible that Camus had planned to travel by train, but decided to go by car instead [1]. Ironically, Camus had uttered a remark earlier in his life that the most absurd way to die would be in a car accident.

Albert Camus' gravestone

The driver of the Facel Vega, Michel Gallimard -- his publisher and close friend -- also perished in the accident. Camus was interred in the Lourmarin Cemetery, Lourmarin, Vaucluse, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, France.

He was survived by his twin children, Catherine and Jean, who hold the copyrights to his work.

After his death, two of Camus's works were published posthumously. The first, entitled A Happy Death and published in 1970, featured a character named Mersault, as in The Stranger, but there is some debate as to the relationship between the two stories. The second posthumous publication was an unfinished novel, The First Man, that Camus was writing before he died. The novel was an autobiographical work about his childhood in Algeria and was published in 1995.

Summary of Absurdism

Many writers have written on the Absurd, each with his or her own interpretation of what the Absurd actually is and their own ideas on the importance of the Absurd. For example, Sartre recognizes the absurdity of individual experience, while Kierkegaard explains that the absurdity of certain religious truths prevent us from reaching God rationally. Camus was not the originator of Absurdism and regretted the continued reference to him as a philosopher of the absurd. He shows less and less interest in the Absurd shortly after publishing Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus). To distinguish Camus's ideas of the Absurd from those of other philosophers, people sometimes refer to the Paradox of the Absurd, when referring to Camus's Absurd.

His early thoughts on the Absurd appeared in his first collection of essays, L'Envers et l'endroit (The Two Sides Of The Coin) in 1937. Absurd themes appeared with more sophistication in his second collection of essays, Noces (Nuptials), in 1938. In these essays Camus does not offer a philosophical account of the Absurd, or even a definition; rather he reflects on the experience of the Absurd. In 1942 he published the story of a man living an Absurd life as L'Étranger (The Stranger/Outsider), and in the same year released Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus), a literary essay on the Absurd. He had also written a play about a Roman Emperor, Caligula, pursuing an Absurd logic. However, the play was not performed until 1945. The turning point in Camus's attitude to the Absurd occurs in a collection of letters to a fictitious German friend, published in the newspaper Combat.

Camus' ideas on the Absurd

In the essays Camus presented the reader with dualisms: Happiness and sadness, dark and light, life and death, etc. He wanted us to face up to the fact that happiness is fleeting and that we are mortal. He did this not to be morbid, but so we can love life and enjoy our happiness when it occurs. In Le Mythe, this dualism became a paradox: We value our lives and existence so greatly, but at the same time we know we will eventually die, and ultimately our endeavours are meaningless. Whilst we can live with a dualism (I can accept periods of unhappiness, because I know I will also experience happiness to come), we cannot live with the paradox (I think my life is of great importance, but I also think it is meaningless). In Le Mythe, Camus was interested in how we experience the Absurd and how we live with it. Our life must have meaning for us to value it. If we accept that life has no meaning and therefore no value, should we kill ourselves?

Meursault, the Absurdist hero of L'Étranger, is a murderer who is executed for his crimes. Caligula ends up admitting his Absurd logic was wrong and is killed by an assassination he has deliberately brought about. However, Camus, while obviously suggesting that Caligula's Absurd reasoning is wrong, exalts Meursault as the only Messiah we deserve. Le Mythe de Sisyphe raises questions it cannot satisfactorily answer.

Camus' work on the Absurd was intended to promote a public debate. His various offerings entice us to think about the Absurd and offer our own contribution. Concepts such as cooperation, joint effort and solidarity are of key importance to Camus. In the essay Enigma, Camus expressed his frustration at being labeled a philosopher of the absurd. None of his previous work was intended to be a definitive account of his thoughts on the Absurd, although the Le Mythe de Sisyphe is often mistaken as such.

Camus made a significant contribution to our understanding of the Absurd, but was not himself an Absurdist. "If nothing had any meaning, you would be right. But there is something that still has a meaning." Second Letter to a German Friend, December 1943.

Opposition to totalitarianism

Through out his life, Camus spoke out against and actively opposed totalitarianism in its many forms, be it German fascism or the total revolutionary philosophy of radical Marxism. Early on, Camus was active within the French Resistance to the German occupation of France during World War II, even directing the famous Resistance journal, Combat. On the French collaboration with Nazi occupiers he wrote:

Now the only moral value is courage, which is useful here for judging the puppets and chatterboxes who pretend to speak in the name of the people...

Camus' well known falling out with Sartre is linked to this opposition to totalitarianism. Camus detected a reflexive totalitarianism in the mass politics espoused by Sartre in the name of radical Marxism. This was apparent in his work L'Homme Révolté (translated as The Rebel) which was an assault not only on the Soviet police state, but questioned the very nature of mass revolutionary politics. Camus continued to speak out against the atrocities of the Soviet Union, a sentiment captured in his 1957 speech commemorating the anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, an uprising crushed in a bloody assault by the Red Army:

There are already too many dead on the field, and we cannot be generous with any but our own blood. The blood of Hungary has re-emerged too precious to Europe and to freedom for us not to be jealous of it to the last drop.
But I am not one of those who think that there can be a compromise, even one made with resignation, even provisional, with a regime of terror which has as much right to call itself socialist as the executioners of the Inquisition had to call themselves Christians.
And on this anniversary of liberty, I hope with all my heart that the silent resistance of the people of Hungary will endure, will grow stronger, and, reinforced by all the voices which we can raise on their behalf, will induce unanimous international opinion to boycott their oppressors.

Famous works


Short stories







Camus is mentioned in the Streetlight Manifesto and Bandits Of The Acoustic Revolution song 'Here's to life'

Further reading