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The Journal of Camus Studies
Formerly the Journal of the Albert Camus Society, the JCS is published annually and is available in print or as an ebook. For more information on purchasing or contributing visit the Camus Journal page.
French writer Albert Camus and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche are not normally two people mentioned in one breath. However, their body of work has a lot in common when it comes to morality. One of the most striking books in Nietzsche's career as a philosophical writer on this theme is On the Genealogy of Morals. In an essayistic style he portrays how society changed over decades of time from being content with joy to utter discontent with feelings of revenge. Moral judgements changed enormously and Nietzsche is ought to examine the origin of morals questions by going back to the basic idea of good and evil. What is good, and if it is, why is that so?
Albert Camus' concern directs itself into a similar direction. His major concern is the not origin of basic moral questions but rather the development that come with them, most notably freedom and the right to revolt. Camus continued to develop his idea of man's rebellion against the absurd in nearly all his work. An undertaking he had begun in his essay collection The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). Several years later, in 1951, the book length essay The Rebel would refresh the idea of rebellion. It is actually implied in the title itself of the French original with L'Homme révolté, whose English translation The Rebel seems to give it a more political note.
Throughout, Camus examines several writers from Epicurus to Hegel, from Dostoevsky to Breton and analyses their portrait of man. Here, his work refers several times to Friedrich Nietzsche and most notably his sense of nihilism, a concept about the ultimate negation of all values. Camus mirrors Nietzsche's own morality when he interrogates God as a moral instance. Both authors seem to start from a fairly humanistic viewpoint: God is the constructed being, a named abstraction and an uplifted instance to distribute what is morally right and morally wrong.
When man submits to God to moral judgement, he kills Him in his own heart. And then what is the basis of morality? God is denied in the name of justice but can the idea of justice be understood without the idea of God? Have we not arrived at absurdity? ... man, in order to exist, must decide to act. 1
Even though the word itself is never mentioned in The Rebel, Nietzsche's concept of ressentiment seems to linger between the lines. Ressentiment, which is the feeling the many or few in society are highly frustrated with an aspect in their lives. The cause can be simple (such as jealousy) or complex (such as a feud), but the reaction is the same: in order to satisfy their hurt ego, these many or few need to direct their resentment/ ressentiment towards the cause of their feelings. In Nietzsche's case, it results in a revolt between the master and the slave. A problem he tried to solve with the invention of the superman (‘Übermensch'), a person superior enough to overcome his own nature of guilt, desire and jealousy. He has no feelings of resentment, because he simply does not care about anything below his vision.
The ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge. While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is “outside,” what is “different,” what is “not itself”; and this No is its creative deed. 2
At first sight, both authors seem to strongly contrast in the idea of ressentiment. Then the reader should remember the purpose of Camus' revolt: it is to overcome the absurd. If we put this equation into Nietzschean logic, then Camus' chosen protagonists like Sisyphus direct their resentment towards the cause of their feelings, which is the absurd. However, instead of simply revolting against this abstract, Camus adds a valuable step to it: acceptance. Sisyphus, like the man in revolt, overcomes and rebels against the absurd by accepting it. In doing so, he internalises the focus of rebellion – it becomes a struggle between the self and the absurd alone.
The sequence of events is interesting because it asks if people are able to understand the abstract all by self (here justice) without another authority (here God). By stripping off God from this thinking, man is left with absurdity as the first obstacle to overcome. According to Camus, Nietzsche is confronted with this attitude, which is a possible reference to the latter's famous claim that God is dead.
In The Rebel there are several claims to nihilism. Nihilism is often affectionately said to be a preceded version of existentialism. In philosophy as well as literature, an open discussion with '-isms' is always very dangerous because of its lack of fixed definitions and examples. Further, Camus excluded himself from the existentialist writers, so the only direction left is to step directly from Nihilism to the absurd. A step that is per se not wrong because both concepts deal with the freedom of the mind.
Freedom of the mind, freedom of decision and freedom as a general theme are therefore connective points between Nietzsche and Camus. Nietzsche's idea of freedom is to overcome ressentiment and also to live out the Dionysian life force as shown in his work The Birth of Tragedy. Camus' idea of freedom starts in the very moment one experiences bitterness. In a way, Camus' figures like Meursault, Jean-Baptiste Clamence or Sisyphus are the written outlook of ressentiment , which in French terms is nothing more than re-sentir – to re-feel.
Camus now pursues a different way and saves his figures from becoming slaves in Nietzschean terms. The negative part of ressentiment is turned around into a positive one: these figures try to re-feel themselves but they can only do so when they accept their fate as their own and not made by society.
In the end, both authors have more in common than their love for the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky. It is not massively important for this comparison what Nietzschean text Camus had read. Nietzsche's novels are throughout his life, luckily, in a state where one can say that each of his works combines his whole philosophical outlook. However, the concept of ressentiment is visible in Camus' works. Vice versa, Camus detects a level of absurdity in Nietzsche. The reader can see how the French writer took the question of morality to the next level by adding self-fulfilment and offered a way of leading Nietzschean slaves out of their misery.
1 Albert Camus, The Rebel; translated by Anthony Bower (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), p. 57.
2 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals; Ecce homo; translated by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale; edited, with commentary by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books 1967), First Essay, Section 10, p. 36.