What is Albert Camus’ The Plague About? An Introduction

Topping lists of plague novels circulating these days, Albert Camus’ 1947 The Plague (La Peste), as many have been quick to point out, is about more than its blunt title would suggest. The book incorporates Camus’ experience as editor-in-chief of Combat, a French Resistance newspaper, and serves as an allegory for the spread of fascism and the Nazi occupation of France. It also illustrates the evolution of his philosophical thought: a gradual turn toward the primacy of the absurd, and away from associations with Sartre’s Existentialism.

But The Plague’s primary subject is, of course, a plague—a fictional outbreak in the Algerian “French prefecture” of Oran. Here, Camus relocates a 19th century cholera outbreak to sometime in the 1940s and turns it into the rat-borne epidemic that killed tens of millions in centuries past. As Daniel Defoe had done 175 years before in A Journal of the Plague Yeardrawing on his own experiences as a journalist—Camus “immersed himself in the history of plagues,” notes the School of Life. Camus even quotes Defoe in the novel's epigraph: "It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not."

Camus “read books on the Black Death that killed 50 million people in Europe in the 14th century; the Italian plague of 1629 that killed 280,000 people across the plains of Lombardy and the Veneto, the great plague of London of 1665 as well as plagues that ravaged cities on China’s eastern seaboard during the 18th and 19th centuries.” Perhaps more timely now than in its time, The Plague puts Camus’ historical knowledge in the mind of its protagonist, Dr. Bernard Rieux, who remembers in his growing alarm “the plague at Constantinople that, according to Procopius, caused ten thousand deaths in a single day.”

Rieux embodies another theme in the novel—the seemingly endless human capacity for denial, even among well-meaning, knowledgeable experts. Despite his reading of history and up-close observation of the outbreak, Rieux fails—or refuses—to acknowledge the disease for what it is. That is, until an older colleague says to him, “Naturally, you know what this is.” Forced to say the word “plague” aloud, Rieux allows the spreading epidemic to become real for the first time.

[L]ike our fellow citizens, Rieux was caught off his guard, and we should understand his hesitations in the light of this fact; and similarly understand how he was torn between conflicting fears and confidence. When a war breaks out, people say: "It's too stupid; it can't last long." But though a war may well be "too stupid," that doesn't prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.

In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences.

Perpetually busy with mercantile projects and ideas about progress, the town, like "humanists," ignores the reappearance of history and believe plagues to belong to the distant past. Camus writes that such people "pass away… first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions.”

Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.

Whether we are prepared for them or not, plagues and wars will come upon us, aided by the brute force of human idiocy and irrationality. This terrible truth flies in the face of the untethered freedom of Sartrean existentialism. “They fancied themselves free,” Camus’ narrator says of Oran’s townspeople, “and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.” The novel proceeds to illustrate just how devastating a deadly epidemic can be to our most cherished notions.

In Camus’ philosophy, “our lives,” the School of Life points out, “are fundamentally on the edge of what he termed ‘the absurd.’” But this “should not lead us to despair pure and simple,” though the feeling may be a stage along the way to “a redemptive tragi-comic perspective.” The recognition of finitude, of failure, ignorance, and repetition—what philosopher Miguel de Unamuno called “the tragic sense of life”—can instead cure us of the “behaviors Camus abhorred: a hardness of heart, an obsession with status, a refusal of joy and gratitude, a tendency to moralize and judge.” Whatever else The Plague is about, Camus shows that in a struggle for survival, these attitudes can prove worse than useless and can be the first to go.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How to Teach and Learn Philosophy During the Pandemic: A Collection of 450+ Philosophy Videos Free Online

The term philosophy, as every introductory course first explains, means the love of wisdom. And as the oldest intellectual discipline, philosophy has proven that the love of wisdom can withstand the worst human history can throw at it. Civilizations may rise and fall, but sooner or later we always find ways to get back to philosophizing. The current coronavirus pandemic, the most frightening global event most of us have seen in our lifetimes, doesn't quite look like a civilization-ender, though it has forced many of us to change the way we live and learn. In short, we're doing much more of it online, and a new collection of educational videos free online is keeping philosophy in the mix.

"In order to aid philosophy professors during the pandemic as they transition from in-person to online teaching, Liz Jackson (ANU) and Tyron Goldschmidt (Rochester) created a spreadsheet of videorecorded philosophy classes and lectures," writes Daily Nous' Justin Weinberg. At the time of Weinberg's post on Monday, the spreadsheet, available as an open Google document, contained more than 200 videos, a number that has since more than doubled to 457 and counting.

You'll find an abundance of introductory courses to the entire subject of philosophy as well as to subfields like logic and ethics, and also specialized lecture series on everything from Hume and Nietzsche to Stoicism and metaphysics to death and the problem of evil.

Weinberg adds that "anyone can add their own videos or ones that they know about," so if you're aware of any video philosophy courses that haven't appeared on the spreadsheet yet, you can contribute to this ongoing effort in at-home philosophy by inserting them yourself. Even as it is, Jackson and Goldshmidt's course collection offers more than enough to give yourself a rich philosophical education in this time of isolation — or, if you're a philosophy professor yourself, a way to enrich any remote teaching you have to do right now. Putting as it does so close at hand lectures by such figures previously featured here on Open Culture as Nigel Warburton, Michael SandelPeter Adamson, and the inimitable Rick Roderick, it reminds us that the love of wisdom is best expressed in a variety of voices.

In addition to the spreadsheet, can find many more philosophy videos in our collection, Free Online Philosophy Courses.

via Daily Nous

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Meaning of Life According to Simone de Beauvoir

When someone presumes to explain the meaning of life, they usually draw, however vaguely, on religion. Many a philosopher has ventured a secular answer, but it’s hard to compete with the ancient stories of the world’s major faiths. The richness of their metaphors surpasses historical truth; humans, it seems, really “cannot bear very much reality,” as T.S. Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets. Maybe we need stories to keep us going, which is why we love Plato, whose myth of the origins of love in his novella, the Symposium, remains one of the most moving in the Western philosophical canon.

Plato's philosophical project was a story that existentialists like Simone de Beauvoir were eager to be rid of, along with the hoary old myths of religion. The Athenian's pious idealism “dismissed the physical world as a flawed reflection of higher truth and unchanging ideals,” says Iseult Gillespie in the TED-Ed video above. “But for de Beauvoir, early life was enthralling, sensual, and anything but static.” Material reality is not an imperfect copy, but the medium into which we are thrown, to exercise freedom and responsibility and determine our own purposes, as de Beauvoir argued in The Ethics of Ambiguity.

For de Beauvoir, as for her partner Jean-Paul Sartre, the “ethical imperative to create our own life’s meaning,” precedes any pre-existing meaning to which we might attach ourselves, and which might lead us to deny freedom to others. “A freedom which is interested only in denying freedom,” she wrote, “must be denied.” We might think of such a statement in terms of Karl Popper’s paradox of intolerance, but the idea led de Beauvoir in a different direction—away from the liberalism Popper defended and in a more radical philosophical direction.

De Beauvoir’s existentialist feminism asked fundamental questions about the given categories of social identity that lock us into prefigured roles and shape our lives without our consent or control. She realized that social constructions of womanhood—not a Platonic ideal but a historical production—restricted her from fully realizing her chosen life’s meaning. “Despite her prolific writing, teaching, and activism, de Beauvoir struggled to be taken seriously by her male peers.” This was not only a political problem, it was also an existential one.

As de Beauvoir would argue in The Second Sex, categories of gender turned women into “others”—imperfect copies of men, who are construed as the ideal. Later theorists took up the critique to show how race, sexuality, class, and other stories about human identity restrict the ability of individuals to determine their lives’ meaning. Instead, we find ourselves presented with social narratives that explain our existence to us and tell us what we can hope to accomplish and what we cannot.

De Beauvoir was also a storyteller. Her personal experiences figured centrally in her philosophy; she published several acclaimed novels, and along with Nobel-winning novelists and playwrights Sartre and Albert Camus, made Existentialism the most literary of philosophical movements. But when it came to grand abstractions like the “meaning of life,” the answer all of them gave in their philosophical work was that such things aren't hovering above us like Plato's ideal forms. Each of us must figure it out ourselves within our flawed, imperfect, individual lives.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Jeremy Bentham’s Mummified Body Is Still on Display–Much Like Other Aging British Rock Stars

Plato’s ideal of philosopher-kings seems more unlikely by the day, but most modern readers of The Republic don't see his state as an improvement, with its rigid caste system and state control over childbearing and rearing. Plato’s Socrates did not love democracy, though he did argue that men and women (those of the guardian class, at least) should receive an equal education. So too did many prominent European political philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries, who had at least as much influence on world affairs as Plato did on Athens, for better and worse.

One such thinker, Jeremy Bentham, is often remembered as the inventor of the panopticon, a dystopian prison design that makes inmates internalize their own surveillance, believing they could be watched at any time by unseen eyes. Made infamous by Michel Foucault in the mid-20th century, the proposal was first intended as humane reform, consistent with the tenets of Bentham’s philosophical innovation, Utilitarianism, often associated with his most famous disciple, John Stuart Mill.

Bentham may also have been one of the most progressive secular philosophers of any age—espousing full political rights for everyone—by which he actually meant everyone, not only European landowning men. “In his own time,” writes Faramerz Dabhoiwala at The Guardian, Bentham “was celebrated around the globe. Countless practical efforts at social and political reform drew inspiration from him. […] He was made an honorary citizen of revolutionary France, while the Guatemalan leader José del Valle acclaimed him as ‘the legislator of the world.’ Never before or since has the English-speaking world produced a more politically engaged and internationally influential thinker across such a broad range of subjects.”

Bentham took the role seriously, though there may be the seeds of a morbid practical joke in his last philosophical act.

As he lay dying in the spring of 1832, the great philosopher Jeremy Bentham left detailed directions for the preservation of his corpse. First, it was to be publicly dissected in front of an invited audience. Then, the preserved head and skeleton were to be reassembled, clothed, and displayed ‘in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought and writing.’ His desire to be preserved forever was a political statement. As the foremost secular thinker of his time, he wanted to use his body, as he had his mind, to defy religious superstitions and advance real, scientific knowledge. Almost 200 years later, Bentham's 'auto-icon' still sits, staring off into space, in the cloisters of University College London.

His full-body parody of saints' relics doesn’t just sit in London, in the “appropriate box or case” he specified in his instructions. It has also sat in its box in cities across England, Germany, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Not unlike an aging British rock star,” writes Isaac Schultz at Atlas Obscura, “the older he gets, the more tours he seems to go on. Sometimes Bentham’s severed, mummified head," with its terrifying, unblinking glass eyes, "accompanies the rest of him.” Sometimes it doesn’t.

The head, which was supposed to have been kept atop the fully dressed skeleton, was mishandled and damaged in the creation of the “auto-icon” and replaced by a wax replica (surely an accident and not a way to mitigate the creepiness). What did Bentham mean by all of this? And what is an “auto-icon”? Though it sounds like the sort of inscrutable prank Salvador Dali might have played at the end, Bentham described the idea straightforwardly in his pamphlet Auto-Icon; or, Farther Uses of the Dead to the Living. The philosopher, says Hannah Cornish, science curator at the University College London, genuinely “thought it’d catch on.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In his short, final work of moral philosophy, Bentham shows that, like Plato, he didn’t quite get the point of making art, advancing a theory that becoming one’s own icon would eliminate the need for paintings, statues, and the like, since “identity is preferable to similitude” (to the extent that a mummified corpse is identical to a living person). Other utilitarian reasons include benefits to science, reduced public health risks, and creating “agreeable associations with death.”

Also, in what must have been intended with at least some undercurrent of humor, he asked that his remains “occasionally be brought into meetings involving his still-living friends,” writes Schultz, “so that what’s left of Bentham might enjoy their company.”

Learn more about Bentham’s “auto-icon” in the Atlas Obscura videos here, including the video further up showing how a team of professionals packed up and moved the whole macabre assemblage to its new home across the University of London campus. And read an even more detailed description, with several photographs, of how the oldest partially mummified British rock star philosopher travels, here.

via Atlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

10 Rules of Self Discipline from the 1930 Self Help/Business Guru Napoleon Hill

It seems ridiculous to refer to the Golden Rule as a “weapon,” but that is just what it is—a weapon that no resistance on earth can withstand! —Napoleon Hill

Napoleon Hillwhose early books The Law of Success (1928), The Magic Ladder To Success (1930), and Think and Grow Rich (1937) helped establish the self-help genrewould be considered a life coach or motivational speaker in today’s parlance.

And were he alive today, he’d likely he’d be facing charges, or at the very least, cancelled for some of the behaviors, schemes, and whoppers Matt Novak details in an exhaustively researched essay for Gizmodo’s Paleofuture blog.

We think it’s important to tip you off to that shady side, because Hill's "10 Rules for Profitable Self Discipline," above, are so sunny, they could spur you to disseminate them immediately, leaving you vulnerable to harsh words from better informed friends and, more crucially, social media followers, who are already het up about any number of things in this election year, and who enjoy the catharsis a good call out affords.

Ergo, if you're inclined to share, investigate the well from which they sprung, and then decide whether or not you want to proceed.

Why did we proceed?

Because practiced with the purest of intentions, these rules constitute extremely humanistic advice from a man whose outward philosophy continues to be a touchstone for many in the business community.

And as evidenced by the comments left by grateful YouTube viewers, many of whom stumbled across his words by accident, people are thirsty for such explicitly positive guideposts to interpersonal dealings.

(A good number also seem quite taken with the Virginia native's old timey speech patterns and vintage lingo.)

If nothing else, applying these rules could sweeten your next argument with someone you love, or serve as inspiration if you're ever called upon to give a commencement speech:

Napoleon Hill’s 10 Rules for Profitable Self Discipline

  1. Keep a cool head around hot heads. Rage doesn’t have to be contagious,.
  2. Believe that there are three sides to every argument. If you’re in a dust-up, don’t assume that the fault lays with the other person, but rather that you both shoulder a portion of the blame. This is a pretty compassionate way of ensuring that everyone’s ass will be partially covered for both better and worse.
  3. Never give directives to a subordinate when you are angry. Given that swift and decisive action is often required of those in leadership positions, you’ll have to learn to ice your own hot head pretty quickly to put this one into consistent play.
  4. Treat everyone as if they were a rich relative who might leave you a sizable inheritance. Which is kind of a gross way of putting it, but otherwise, we agree with Napoleon Hill that treating others with respect and loving attention is a real “honey” of a concept, especially if the other person can offer little beyond their friendship.
  5. When you find yourself in an unpleasant circumstance, immediately start searching for the seed of an equivalent benefit within the experience. If Novak’s Gizmodo essay is any indication, Hill probably had a lot of opportunity to put this one into practice, squeezing lemonade from lemons of his own making.
  6. Ask questions and listen to the answer. If you find yourself inclined to disagree with a statement, employ the phrase, “How do you know?” to get the speaker to do all the heavy lifting. For example, Napoleon Hill might say to Matt Novak, “How do you know?” which would be Matt Novak’s cue to produce a mountain of documentation.
  7. Never say or do anything before thinking if it will benefit someone or hurt them. The goal is to refrain from hurting others. Let those of us are without sin cast the first stone here. Hill’s karmic spin on this rule is that any injuries you cause that don’t immediately come around to bite you in the ass, will bite you in the ass much harder at some future point, a la compound interest.
  8. Learn the difference between friendly analysis and unfriendly criticisms. His not entirely foolproof method for distinguishing intent is to consider the nature of your relationship with the one offering the observations, their tone of voice, manner of delivery, and somewhat quaintly, whether or not they throw in any epithets. If it’s friendly, you can set some store by it. Otherwise, disregard.
  9. A good leader knows how to take orders cheerfully. This pairs nicely with Rule Number 3, don’t you think?
  10. Be tolerant of your fellow humans. Always.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join Ayun’s company Theater of the Apes in New York City  for her book-based variety series, Necromancers of the Public Domain, and the world premiere of Greg Kotis’ new musical, I AM NOBODY (March 5 - 28) Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Judith Butler on Nonviolence and Gender: Hear Conversation with The Partially Examined Life

A new Partially Examined Life interview with Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley, discusses the ethics and psychology of nonviolence. This follows a three-part treatment on the podcast of her earlier work.

For a first-hand account of her new book, you can watch two 2016 lectures that she gave at UC Berkeley on early versions of the text:

Watch on YouTube. Watch the second lecture.

Butler has been a tremendously influential (and controversial) figure in ongoing intellectual debates about gender and sexuality. Her 1990 book Gender Trouble argues that gender is a "performance," i.e. a habitual group of behaviors that reflect and reinforce social gender norms. Practices such as dressing in drag satirize this performance, showing how even in "normal" situations, "acting feminine" is not a reflection of one's inner essence but is a matter of putting on a display of culturally expected mannerisms. The drag performer (on Butler's analysis) may convey an absurdity that deconstructs the expected accord of biological sex, sexual preference, and gender identity: "I'm dressing like a woman but am really a man; also, in my everyday life, I dress like a man but am really (in the way I actually feel about myself) am a woman." Most controversially, as a post-structuralist, Butler argues that it's not the case that there is an uncontroversial biological fact of sex that then culture connects gender behaviors to. Instead, all of our understanding of the so-called biological fact comes through the cultural lens of gender; we literally can't understand any such raw, biological fact apart from its cultural associations. In other words, it's not just gender that's a social construction, but biological sex itself.

This position has been attacked both from the position of naive, common-sense scientism (of course biological differences resulting in babies isn't just a matter of what concepts a particular society has happened to develop) and as a moral hazard and existential threat: In 2017 while at a conference in Brazil, far-right Christian groups protested her presence and even burned her in effigy.

It should also be noted that Butler's take on gender departs from current, intuitive explanations of the phenomena of transgenderism, i.e. that one might feel their "true gender" to be different from what society has assigned them. For Butler, there is no inner gender essence that may or may not be displayed authentically. Instead, the "inner" is a cultural construction, itself built out of our external performances and the dynamics of our psychic life, which she discusses within the psychoanalytic tradition.

This use of psychoanalysis to explain our cultural life persists in newly released book, The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind. Though the theory of nonviolent political protest may seem a far-flung topic from gender studies, both involve the process of defining an identity. In the case of gender, one defines oneself as a particular gender or as being of a particular sexual orientation (as opposed to leaving these attributes ambiguous and fluid) by grasping onto a strict social division between the available sexual options and declaring that one of them is "not me." In Butler's discussion of nonviolence, she instead focuses on what counts as "self" in the usually excused exception to nonviolence, self-defense. She's criticizing a position where most of us claim to be nonviolent (and claim that our government is nonviolent) because we are not the aggressors: We will fight only when we are attacked or threatened.

It's not that Butler is categorically against using violence to defend oneself, one's loved ones, one's country, or anyone else who is in danger of being seriously harmed. She is, however, arguing for an ethic of nonviolence that clearly understands our interrelatedness with everyone else in the world, even and especially those that we might think outside our circle of concern. It's too easy for us to define "self" as "people like us," which then leaves out the rest of the populace (and the non-human population, and the environment more generally) from inclusion in our "self-defense" calculations of when violence might be justified. Butler analyzes the fear of immigrants, for instance, as a "phantasmatic transmutation" that projects the potential for violence that always exists within our immediate social relations (and even our own rage against ourselves) onto an invading Other. As in the case of gender, she wants us instead to understand the dynamics of these self-and-other attributions, to behave more rationally and humanely, and to channel our unavoidable rage constructively into forceful non-violence, or what Gandhi calls Satyagraha, "polite insistence on the truth." The goal of this type of political action is conversion, not coercion, and it's communication and respecting even a hated other as a grievable equal that provides a real contrast to violence. She wants us to recognize the potential for violence within each relationship, at each moment, and to choose otherwise.

The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast began a discussion of the general concept of social construction back with in Ocotober with episode 227, following this up with applications of this concept to race (discussing Kwame Anthony Appiah and Charles Mills with in episode 228 with guest Coleman Hughes), to the development of science (considering Bruno Latour on episode 230 with guest Professor Lynda Olman), and to gender (considering Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex for episode 232 with Professor Jennifer Hansen. Professor Hansen then continued with hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Wes Alwan, Seth Paskin, and Dylan Casey to discuss Butler's Gender Trouble. For further explanation of The Force of Nonviolence, see episode 236 at partiallyexaminedlife.com.

Mark Linsenmayer is the host of the Partially Examined Life, Pretty Much Pop, and Nakedly Examined Music podcasts. He is a writer and musician working out of Madison, Wisconsin. Read more Open Culture posts about The Partially Examined Life.

Image by Solomon Grundy.

Moral Philosophy on TV? Pretty Much Pop #32 Judges The Good Place

Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt discuss Michael Schur's NBC TV show. Is it good? (Yes, or we wouldn't be covering it?) Is it actually a sit-com? Does it effectively teach philosophy? What did having actual philosophers on the staff (after season one) contribute, and was that enough? We talk TV finales, the dramatic impact of the show's convoluted structure, the puzzle of heaven being death, and more.

Here are a few articles to get you warmed up:

If you like the show, you should also check out The Official Good Place Podcast, especially the interviews with Schur himself. There are also supplementary educational videos with professor Todd May like this one on existentialism.

A few clips: What's the deal with the "Jeremy Bearimy" time measurement? The Trolley Problem, meeting Hypatia, finale clip with Arvo Part's "Spiegel Im Spiegel."

This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

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