At the end of World War II, as Europe lay in ruins, so too did its “intellectual landscape,” notes the Living Philosophy video above. In the midst of this “intellectual crater” a number of great thinkers debated “the blueprint for the future.” Feminist philosopher and novelist Simone de Beauvoir put it bluntly: “We were to provide the postwar era with its ideology.” Two names — De Beauvoir’s partner Jean-Paul Sartre and his friend Albert Camus — came to define that ideology in the philosophy broadly known as Existentialism.
The two first met in Paris in 1943 during the Nazi occupation. They were already “deeply acquainted” with one another’s work and shared a mutual respect and admiration as critics and reviewers of each other and as fellow resistance members. Both “intellectual giants” were targeted by the FBI, and both would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (though Sartre rejected his). Their fame would continue into the postwar years, despite Camus’ retreat from philosophical writing after the publication of The Rebel.
While we’ve previously brought you stories of their friendship, and its bitter end, the video above digs deeper into the Sartre-Camus rivalry, with critical historical context for their thinking. Their initial falling out took place over The Rebel, which championed an ethical individualism and critiqued the morality of revolutionary violence. Instead of exploring suicide, as he had done in The Myth of Sisyphus, here Camus explores the problem of murder, concluding that — outside of extreme circumstances like a Nazi invasion — violent political means do not justify their ends.
The book provoked Sartre, a doctrinaire Marxist, who had issued what Camus considered feeble defenses for Joseph Stalin’s purges and gulags. A series of scathing reviews and angry ripostes followed. The personal tone of these attacks chilled what little warmth remained between them. When the Algerian war for independence erupted a few years later, the staunchly anti-colonialist Sartre took the side of Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN), excusing acts of violence against civilians and rival factions as justified by French oppression. Such events “were beyond justification in the mind of Camus.”
While Sartre belittled Camus as “a crook,” the “acuteness of the situation was all the stronger for Camus since Algeria was his homeland. He could not see it in the ideological warped black and white of Sartre’s circle or the conservative French government.” The statement might sum up all of Camus’ thought. As Sartre finally conceded in a posthumous tribute; he “represented in our time the latest example of that long line of moralistes whose works constitute perhaps the most original element in French letters…. he reaffirmed… against the Machiavellians and against the Idol of realism, the existence of the moral issue,” in all its complex ambiguity and uncertainty.