“Why would you study Camus? He’s not a real philosopher” the reasoning usually goes, “He never made an argument, just poetic assertions.”
It is true that Camus was not an academic, he didn’t publish in scholarly journals, and he didn’t have graduate level training in the discipline of philosophy. But the same thing can be said of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche too, both of them were outsiders who nevertheless made a sizeable impact on the course of Western thought. Camus did make arguments and he made poetic assertions, which can’t be said of most philosophers living today.
The most important reason why philosophers should study Camus is because non-philosophers do read Camus, and his influence on people is going to be far more reaching than anything written by Quine or Kripke. This is not to insinuate that the works of brilliant philosophers shouldn’t be studied closely, they should, but one shouldn’t completely focus their intellectual energies in consuming technical material. To do so is going to leave one remote from the uninitiated in the discipline, a condition that is dangerous (and all too common) for the philosopher.
The bulk of Camus’ project could be described as searching for the answer to the problem of death. This is not to say that Camus sought immortality, but how does one live a meaningful life in the face of inevitable death? The question is an ancient one and has been asked many times in many scriptures and epics.
Consider the exchange between Nachiketas and Death in the Katha Upanishad, when Nachiketas is granted three boons from Death, his third choice is this:
Nachiketas: When a man dies, this doubt arises: some say ‘he is’ and some say ‘he is not’. Teach me the truth.
Death: Even the gods had this doubt in times of old: for mysterious is the law of life and death. Ask for another boon. Release me from this.
Nachiketas: This doubt indeed arose even to the gods, and you say, O Death, that it is difficult to understand; but no greater teacher than you can explain it, and there is no other boon as great as this.
Death: Take horses and gold and cattle and elephants; choose sons and grandsons that shall live a hundred years. Have vast expanses of land, and live as many years as you desire.
Ask for any wishes in the world of mortals, however hard to obtain. To attend on you I will give you fair maidens with chariots and musical instruments. But ask me not, Nachiketas, the secrets of death.
Nachiketas: All these pleasures pass away, O End of all! They weaken the power of life. And indeed how short is all life! Keep thy horses and dancing and singing.
Man cannot be satisfied with wealth. Shall we enjoy wealth with you in sight? Shall we live whilst you are in power? I can only ask for the boon I have asked.
When a mortal here on earth has felt his own immortality, could he wish for a long life of pleasures, for the list of deceitful beauty?
Solve then the doubt as to the great beyond. Grant me the gift that unveils the mystery. This is the only gift Nachiketas can ask.
It is interesting how quickly the presence of death can overshadow so much of the pleasures we find in this world. In Homer's Iliad death is ever present and ubiquitous, the heroes are given a constant bloody and grim reminders that they are just a spear thrust or sword stroke away from death. In Book 6 of the Iliad, Diomedes confronts the great warrior Glaucus on the field of battle and taunts him (lines 130-136):
“Who are you, big man, who among mortals? Never before have I seen you in man--enhancing battle, but now you dare to come out so far beyond all the others and await my long-shadowing spear, though they are unhappy indeed whose children oppose me!”
Glaucus responded with some of Homer’s finest poetry (lines 155 to 160):
“Why do you ask who I am? The frail generations of men have scarcely more lineage than leaves. Wind blows the leaves to earth in the fall, but springtime comes and the forest blooms: so one generation of men gives way to another. But if you really would hear who I am, listen and learn what many know already.”
When Glaucus finishes his tale, Diomedes delighted by what he hears, plants his spear in the earth and offers Glaucus his friendship saying (lines 249 to 255):
“Therefore , my friend, let us exchange our armor, that both sides may know of the old family friendship we claim from the time our grandfathers feasted together.” Having spoken, they leaped from their chariots, shook hands, and swore their faith to each other.
For some reason, I cannot help but see this passage from Homer as some kind of fulfillment of this passage from the Buddhist scriptures of the Dhammapada (Book 1, verse 6):
People forget that their lives will end soon. For those who remember, quarrels come to an end.
Acknowledging just how ephemeral life really is the beginning of wisdom, a sentiment that I’m certain Camus would have shared. If life is so short, and there is nothing permanent about us, how then should we live? Should we even bother to try? The last question is perhaps the scariest question to ask and in fact, in the opening chapter of ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, Camus contends that this terrifying question is the most important question philosophy must answer:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.
In a way, Camus does much the same as Descartes or Imam Al-Ghazali, he starts with himself. Instead of proceeding from the epistemological query “what do I know?” he starts with an axiological question, “is life worth living?” That question surely resonates more universally with people than a question of qualifying knowledge over and above belief.
Camus is inviting readers to examine their own lives, not just their assumptions, but the assumptions that supposedly underwrite their actions. Camus tells us that there are facts in the heart awaiting scrutiny:
The body’s judgment is as good as the mind’s, and the body shrinks from annihilation. We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking.
Camus is famous for his formation of life being absurd (and many a petty scholar will try to utilize that for their own hackneyed purposes), but this betrays Camus’ project, because it makes it sound like that is the end of his project when it was actually the beginning:
Reflection on suicide gives me an opportunity to raise the only problem to interest me: is there a logic to the point of death? I cannot know unless I pursue with reckless passion, in the sole light of evidence, the reasoning of which I am here suggesting the source. This is what I call an absurd reasoning. Many have begun it. I do not yet know whether or not they kept to it.
This is an engagement of a question as old as humanity, Camus is answering Nachiketas and Glaucus’ inquiry in a way that is more relevant to us, the epistemic distance between us and Camus is not nearly the size of the gulf between us and Homer or us and the Upanishads. Camus is a creature of the 20th century as we are, just a few generations removed, in a world that is still familiar. To skip that for lack of analytic rigor is a mistake.