Yesterday we wrote about Albert Camus’ role as the editor of Combat, a newspaper that emerged from a French Resistance cell and played a central role in the ideological conflicts of post-war France. Camus wrote essay after essay about the problems of violent extremism and the complications inherent in forming a new democratic civil order. Although he briefly fought alongside Communists in the resistance, and stood in solidarity with their cause, Camus would split with his Marxist allies after the war and come to define his own anarchist political philosophy, one he described as “modest… free of all messianic elements and devoid of any nostalgia for an earthly paradise.”
Camus gave the fullest exposition of his position in The Rebel, a critique of revolutionary violence on both the left and right. Published in 1951, this compelling, impressionistic work is an ethics as much as a politics–indeed, the two were inseparable for Camus. To proceed otherwise was a form of nihilism that would only end in profound unfreedom. “Nihilist thought,” he wrote in the chapter on “Moderation and Excess,” ignores the limits of human nature; “nothing any longer checks it in its course and it reaches the point of justifying total destruction or unlimited conquest.”
Fascism and Nazism were not far from Camus’ mind when he wrote these words. But he also referred to the increasingly doctrinaire Stalinism of his close friend and fellow existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, who, writes Sam Dresser at Aeon, read The Rebel with “disgust.” Sartre published a scathing review in his journal, Les Temps Modernes. Camus sent a long reply, and Sartre countered with what Volker Hage in Der Spiegel calls a “merciless” response. “The split between the two friends,” writes Dresser, “was a media sensation,” the kind of popular feud between public intellectuals that may only happen in France.
Animated by Andrew Khosravani, the Aeon video above gives us a brief narrative of the famous falling-out. There may be “no better bust-up in the annals of philosophy than the row between” these “two titans of Existentialism.” The two fought not only over ideas, but over women, including Sartre’s famous partner Simone de Beauvoir. (Camus offended Sartre by turning down her advances.) Both Sartre and Camus “worried about how to make meaning in an essentially absurd, godless world.” But Sartre, Camus thought, abrogated the radical freedom he had written of in works like Being and Nothingness with his acceptance of dialectical materialism and his admiration for an authoritarian regime that imprisoned and murdered its own people.
Camus found the contradictions in Sartre’s thought intolerable, and he begins The Rebel with a philosophical inquiry into the ethics of killing. Can murder be justified in the name of a utopian ideal? Camus was not a pacifist—he had no problem fighting the Nazi occupation. But he categorically rejected revolutionary violence and all forms of extremism in the name of some “earthly paradise.” Sartre and Camus could not agree to disagree and went their separate ways, and Camus died in a car accident in 1960. In a heartfelt appreciation that Sartre penned shortly before his own death 20 years later, he called Camus, “probably my only good friend.”