Albert Camus: The Plague and an Ethic of Nonviolence
Delivered as part of the Charles Lecture Series
Earlham College 1998
1998 All Rights Reserved.
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I. Nonviolence in a Plague-stricken World

The topic of my Charles Lectures will be Albert Camus’ The Plague and its connection to an ethic of nonviolence. I have been led to this topic through my own attempts to develop an art of living, an ethic, that confronts the pervasive violence in our world and in ourselves and attempts to transform it through the power of love and belief in human community. How to live life in a meaningful way through creating meaning in our existence has led me on a difficult and often solitary journey, one made more significant by the awareness, through my reading and through my experiences, that other solitary wanderers have been and are now on the same path. I shall invite you who are just beginning your college careers to think seriously about choosing the same path and welcome you to the solidarity that can be born from our shared solitary experiences, as you discover in the compassion that can sometimes be born in our solitude, a voice that can replace the silence with which our desperate questions about the meaning of life are so often met. Like Camus himself, I shall not concentrate on the meaning of life so much as on the way life might best be lived.

These three lectures will explore the three "certitudes" the narrator of The Plague, (pp.301-302), says we all have in common- "love, exile, and suffering," and will then examine the role knowledge and memory play in incorporating these certitudes into an ethic of hope, one in which the way we lead our lives can illustrate, as the narrator of The Plague states on the last page of his chronicle, that what we learn in times of pestilence is that there is more to admire in humanity than to despise. This belief in humanity, I will argue, is both the result and the cause of an ethic of nonviolence.

It may seem to many the The Plague is an unlikely text to illustrate an ethic of hope. Many people have found the experience of reading the novel a depressing one. One of my friends wrote to tell me that when he read it in college, two of his classmates formed a suicide pact and killed themselves. He didn’t seem convinced when I suggested that his class had not read the book correctly and is skeptical that my lectures will remove the painful memory of his undergraduate days.

I know I have my work cut out for me. I intend to link Camus to an ethic of hope, one based upon a spiritually grounded philosophy of nonviolence, although Camus himself stated many times that he was neither a pacifist nor a believer in a supreme being. Still, I will contend that a correct understanding of The Plague offers us reason to live and would never justify anyone’s conclusion that life is meaningless. Perhaps it will be important for you to note as I begin these lectures that what gives meaning both to The Plague and to an ethic of nonviolence is the reality of human love. When you read Thomas Merton’s essay on Gandhi early this term, you saw the importance that Gandhi, our century’s most famous proponent of an ethic of nonviolence, placed on love. Of Gandhi Merton said,

"His whole life, his political action, finally even his death, were nothing but a witness to this commitment. ’IF LOVE IS NOT THE LAW OF OUR BEING, THE WHOLE OF MY ARGUMENT FALLS TO PIECES.’" (Merton, Passion for Peace, p. 209).

Place these words beside Camus’ notebook entry,

"If someone here told me to write a book on morality, it would have a hundred pages and ninety-nine would be blank. On the last page I should write, ‘I recognize only one duty, that is to love." (Cited in Merton, Literary Essays, p. 241).

While Gandhi’s idea of love, unlike Camus’, embraces the cosmos as well as the human world, Camus and he are united in their belief that love is the source of whatever light we have as we seek our way through the darkness that appears to envelop us.

Camus’ novel, The Plague, was written more than fifty years ago. Perhaps inspired by an epidemic of typhoid fever that took place in Oran, Algeria, when Camus was teaching there in 1941, The Plague is also on one level a study of the Nazi occupation of France (the Germans were referred to in the French underground press as "la peste brune," the brown plague, and certain references to concentration camps, collaborators, occupation, etc. seem to reinforce this allegorical interpretation). But at its deepest symbolic level the novel is an exploration of the nature of evil, both in individual persons, in society and in the universe in which humans struggle to find meaning. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk whom you have already encountered in your Humanities course, was fascinated by Camus, despite the apparent differences in religious belief between Camus and himself. In the last two years of his life Merton wrote seven essays devoted to Camus and was not only a perceptive critic of Camus’ world, but also felt that the secular humanism espoused by Camus was not that different from his own understanding of Christianity, especially as both philosophies concentrated on how human beings should best live in this world. Merton wrote that The Plague

"must be read not simply as a drama or as a psychological study, but as a myth of good and evil, of freedom and historical determinism, of love against what (G.M.) Hopkins called ‘the death dance in our blood." (Merton, Literary Essays, p.181)

Merton describes this death dance (a dance we have been performing the whole Twentieth Century) as a

"hidden propensity to pestilence...It is the willful negation of life that is built into life itself, and the human instinct to dominate and to destroy, to seek one’s happiness by destroying the happiness of others, to build one’s security on power, and by extension, to justify evil use of that power in terms of ‘history’’ or ‘the common good’ or of the ‘revolution’ or even of the justice of God." (Merton, Ibid.)

For Merton, for Camus, for me, the human drive to

"destroy, to kill, or simply to dominate and to oppress comes from the metaphysical void [humans] experience when they find themselves strangers in their own universe....." (Merton, Ibid.)

As we come to understand the full dimensions of this, please remember that while the plague seems to characterize much of our existence, it does not characterize our essence. Camus’ awareness of the absurd, after all, was just a starting place for him. His notion of the absurd grew from his awareness that the world remained impenetrable to our greatest efforts to understand it. What interested him ultimately was not the fact of the absurd, but our response to it. Our actions can make sense, can counteract the absurd, and through our existence, we can discover our essence. Our essence, I shall argue, is closer to what the novel in its entirety affirms in its embrace of human solidarity and human love. In these lectures I hope to sketch out a way to find meaning in the face of this void and exile, a meaning that is consistent with but does not depend upon religious faith, but first we need to establish that this century is a century of plague, where violence has not only not been erased, despite what we call ‘human progress’, but has in fact apparently triumphed.

Walter Wink, whose book, Engaging the Powers, has affected my thinking deeply and who himself will be coming to Earlham in November to give the Carter Peace Lecture, entitled "Nonviolence for the Violent", begins his remarkable book in the following manner:

"Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world. It has been accorded the status of a religion, demanding from its devotees an absolute obedience to death. Its followers are not aware, however, that the devotion they pay to violence is a form of religious piety. Violence is so successful as a myth precisely because it does not seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It is what works. It is inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. It is embraced with equal alacrity by people on the left and on the right, by religious liberals as well as religious conservatives. The threat of violence, it is believed, is alone able to deter aggressors. It secured us forty-five years of a balance of terror. We learned to trust the Bomb to grant us peace." (Wink, p.13)

Note in his rather sweeping statement that Wink is not simply referring to specific periods of war, where the face of violence is seen most clearly, but also to the periods between wars, periods sometimes mistakenly described as times of peace. If violence undergirds our culture, then what we should properly call peace must challenge the very structures of violence, must challenge conventional notions of power, must challenge the paradigm we use to define and describe ourselves and our world. It will be my contention that a nonviolent ethic, one based upon what Staughton and Alice Lynd call a "vision of love as an agent for fundamental social change" (Lynd, p.xii), takes us along what Rieux and Tarrou in The Plague call the "path of sympathy," a revolutionary journey that becomes the most important way we can confront the nihilism and despair that appear to surface during wars but remain present, if dormant, in all the interwar periods, claiming victims and casualties often far greater in numbers than those who fall on the battlefields Thus Walter Wink, reflecting on Vietnam, states:

"The cost of such forcible interventions is not tallied on the battlefield alone. We are still undergoing the shock of Vietnam in manifold and sickening ways. An estimated 700,000 out of the three million veterans of Vietnam suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Nearly a quarter of the total prison population in the U.S. is made up of Vietnam veterans, and three to five times that number have been in jail or prison over the past fifteen years. Eighty thousand Vietnam vets have died by suicide, (contrasted with fifty-eight thousand during the war itself) and untold others by drug and alcohol overdose, single-car accidents and other forms of self-destructive behavior. Perhaps fifty percent of all homeless men are veterans, mainly of the Vietnam War."(Wink, p.204)

Vietnam is just one of the many wars our century continues to experience. In 1991 Ruth Sivard pointed out that more people have been killed in our century than in all previous five thousand years of recorded human history. For example, in the 1600’s 6.1 million were killed in wars; in the 1700’s 7.0 million; in the 1800’s 19.4 million; and in the 1900’s, as of 1990,107.8 million had been killed. (Wink, p.221). Wars of ethnic cleansing and genocide since 1991 raise that 1990 figure considerably. Even more than the destruction of these lives, the plague of violence has seemingly destroyed our ability to believe in alternatives to violence. As Camus had feared sometime earlier, we have lost faith in life itself. This is why Wink contends that we seem to believe that violence is redemptive, because we have lost faith in the redemptive power of love. Our churches and our government have promulgated notions of a "just war" long after the ratio of civilian to combat deaths (more than 75% of those killed in Vietnam were not in combat) should have made such ideas about just war obsolete. As evidenced by our own government’s handling of Saddam Hussein, and bombing of Afghanistan and the Sudan, violence and the threat of violence are the first and last resorts in international relations. We seem firmly committed to the notion that "violence is the only language he understands" as our embargo continues to cause the deaths of more than one million Iraqis, while Hussein, personally unaffected by the embargo, appears willing to offer his people up to the altar of his own power. The Iraqi War and its aftermath was not as President Bush proclaimed, the "triumph of the new world order." Far from it. It was in fact the reaffirmation of the old world order, the order of the plague, one that conscientious nonviolent activists have been contesting for the past one hundred years. Like the sanitary squads in The Plague, these activists have been called to rebel against the plague, to offer through their actions, their sacrifices and their sufferings, an alternative vision to the one that has infected us so deeply. This alternative vision often involves the necessity to change ourselves as well as the structure of our society, especially when we realize our complicity in the structural violence that surrounds us, a sort of violence that produces poverty, racism, exploitation of our environment, capital punishment, etc., causing us, for example, to spend more money in building new prisons than in attacking the social ills that produce the criminals.

It is important to establish an understanding of the term "nonviolence" as it is to be used in these lectures. Here is my definition of nonviolence as it appears in these lectures:

"Nonviolence is an action, an activity that seeks to create change in a person or in a structure/system through love, not violence, and it is an action by those who are willing to suffer violence without passing it on. Whereas the goal of violence is domination, the goal of nonviolence is justice. Whereas the success of violence increases separation, the success of nonviolence produces community."

As most theorists have pointed out, the word nonviolence itself is unfortunately negative, even after we remove the hyphen after "non". Gandhi was determined to define and sustain some of the positive aspects of nonviolence and so he constructed a new word that went beyond just the refusal to be violent. He called it "satyagraha" or Truth Force, showing that in acting nonviolently, in resisting violence in all its forms, we were also creating something new even as we were resisting something old. For him nonviolence was not just a tactic to be used in fighting oppression, but also was a way of life that replaced violence with peace, separation with unity, hatred with love. The tradition of nonviolence, especially in America, has considered nonviolence both as a tactic and also as a way of life. In either case, what is important is that nonviolence is an action. Gene Sharp and others have argued that most successful nonviolent actions have been performed by persons not necessarily committed to nonviolence as a way of life for themselves. Sharp describes the political tactics of strikes, boycotts, marches, tax resistance and other forms of non-cooperation with oppressive government demands to show the remarkable success people have achieved when they have refused to give their consent to those seeking to impose their will over them. These people have challenged the whole idea of power, by revealing that that power "over" requires the consent of the oppressed. When the oppressed refuse to give that consent, a different definition of power comes into play, power "with" or as we say, "empowerment." This is the power used to build community, cooperation, harmony and represents a challenge to the power of domination, hierarchy. But by concentrating so exclusively on nonviolence as a tactic, Sharp’s approach seems to put a premium on "winning" something that an opponent must "lose." It is almost irrelevant to Sharp that one’s opponent might be converted or transformed- indeed he says that the opponent is rarely transformed and gives up power very reluctantly- because what is important for social change in Sharp’s view, is that the oppressor no longer has the ability to impose his will.

Nonviolence as used in these lectures will include the use of nonviolence as a tactic, but I will concentrate on exploring nonviolence as a way of life, a system of belief, a way of confronting and perhaps of transforming, the full reality of the violence in our culture and history. Camus talks many times, as he did in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, of the need to "form an art of living in times of catastrophe, to be reborn by fighting openly against the death instinct at work in our society." As I have said, anyone looking at the insanity of the trench warfare of World War I, at the concentration camps of World War II, at the devastation of life in Vietnam, where we could say that in order to save a village we had to destroy it, at the genocide of East Timor, Bosnia, Rwanda-Burundi, Iran-Iraq, will have no trouble establishing that this "dance with death" continues to this very moment. It is also true that more than human beings died in the trenches of the Somme, the ovens of Auschwitz and the jungles around My Lai. Just as Hitlerism did not disappear with the removal of Hitler from power, so too that temptation to nihilism and despair has not disappeared in the heady march of material progress and prosperity we in this country are now experiencing. The systems of dominance and oppression that come into being and sustain themselves through violence are well in place, rooted in hatred, not love, in death, not life. All the same it is important to note that these systems have been challenged, with varying degrees of success, throughout our century, but especially since 1989.

There is one interesting aspect of some of these challenges that is worth comment. Critics of nonviolent action often state that some resistance produces violence, gives birth to it, even if nonviolent action is intended as a protest against violence. Thus Martin Luther King, Jr., was advised by southern ministers in the city of Birmingham not to take his message to the streets because he would be inciting violence. King replied that it is sometimes the case that violence erupts in the midst of a nonviolence campaign. Gandhi found the same thing to be true. But their contention was that the violence was already present in the structures of the political, social, and economic systems against which nonviolent activists were rebelling. All nonviolence did in those cases was to bring to the surface the violence that was already inherent in unjust situations. As Martin Luther King Jr. moved from civil rights to anti-Vietnam activism, he exposed more and more of the violence in American society. And when in his last year he proposed to fight a nonviolent war against poverty, his Poor People’s Campaign, sealed his fate. When the system felt most attacked, it killed him.

These challenges remind us that nonviolence is not, as its critics sometimes claim, a nonresistance to evil. True pacifism, as opposed to passivism, is nonviolent resistance to evil, not nonresistance; or as Martin Luther King Jr. claimed, a "courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love." It is thus a non lethal orientation to life, a vision of love as an agent for fundamental social change, a way of being as well as doing, but primarily a recognition that being emerges out of becoming, a vision is made real only by acting it out. The activity precedes the end, that is, you don’t find peace in order to act, you act peacefully in order to find peace. As Shelley Douglass puts it

"One of the guidelines for nonviolence is that if you want to go someplace, you have to go by getting there. If you want the world to be one way, you have to live that way and that helps the world become that way."(Lynd, 341)

Douglass’ words are in one sense a simple restatement of the classic "ends and means dilemma" to which so many writers on nonviolence return. Camus himself wrote a whole book, The Rebel, devoted to this dilemma, pointing out that whenever groups have sought to allow the end to justify the means, fundamental social change has never occurred. Indeed one tyranny has replaced another in most of the so-called "revolutions" of our century, as violence has been justified to overcome greater violence. In the interests of justice, in the desire to replace intolerable oppression, many have adopted the view that there are only two alternatives- fight or flight. They have thus justified the use of violence as preferable to cowardice, not realizing that there might be a third way. Indeed this belief in only two alternatives appears to be the guiding principle of the foreign policies of most of the nation states we have known. This willingness to let a just end justify any means of achieving it has perhaps removed a few evil persons from the world, but has not really challenged the world view that produced these persons in the first place. More and more we have seen the truth of those who feel that unjust means change the nature of the ends. Marx himself stated that "an end that requires unjust means is not a just end" a statement that many of his disciples seem to have forgotten. Camus believes that at times violence is necessary, but clings to the notion that it is never justifiable. Thus in a letter to E. d’Astiers de la Vigererie he writes in 1948:

"I have never argued for non-violence....I do not believe that we ought to answer blows with blessings. I believe that violence is inevitable, and the years of the (Nazi) occupation have convinced me of it...I do not say one must suppress all violence, which would be desirable but, in fact, utopian. I only say that we must refuse all legitimation of violence, whether this legitimation comes from an absolute raison d’etat, or from a totalitarian philosophy. Violence is at the same time unavoidable and unjustifiable." (Merton, Literary Essays, p.241)

Camus may differ with nonviolent activists on whether violence is unavoidable, and he may be guilty of oversimplifying nonviolence in referring to it as a philosophy of returning blows with blessings, but he is with followers of a nonviolent ethic in believing that the means are crucial, that these means are, as Jacques Maritain stated, "the ends in the process of becoming."

Thus violence never succeeds in defeating violence because violence always wins, or as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it

"Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that...For through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder." (King, Testament of Hope, p.249)

Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Merton and others have tried to show that nonviolence seeks, by being true to the means, ie the active employment of love, not to defeat or humiliate the opponent but rather to convert him, to reconcile him with those who oppose him. Justice for them means attacking the evil of injustice, not simply the evil doers. As King wrote, "nonviolence avoids not only external physical violence, but also internal violence of spirit and refuses both to shoot and to hate the opponent." I am particularly fond of an image Barbara Deming employs in describing nonviolent action. She speaks of nonviolence as having two hands- one taking from one’s opponent or oppressor what is not his due, and the other slowly calming him as we do this. As Deming writes in On Revolution and Equilibrium,

"what is possible is to act towards another human being on the assumption that all men’s lives are of value, that there is something about any man to be loved, whether one can feel love for him or not." (Lynd, p.413)

I regard this concern for and potential solidarity with the Other who opposes or oppresses us as crucial to our understanding of the ethic of nonviolence and to the potential of this ethic to transform ourselves and the world in which we live.

Thus far we have spoken of nonviolence as a nonlethal orientation to life, a vision of love as an agent for fundamental social change, a method that concentrates on just means to achieve just ends and a philosophy that seeks reconciliation and unity,

Here we might note that Aldous Huxley in Ends and Means (1937) distinguishes Good from Evil in this manner: "Good is that which makes for unity; Evil is that which makes for separateness." (p.303) Love and separateness, solidarity and solitude, are major themes in The Plague and love from separateness and solidarity from solitude are two of the achievements of the nonviolent life.

Before moving to the novel, we need to examine yet another aspect of nonviolence. Critics of nonviolence have often described it not only as unworkable but dangerously naive, especially in its conviction that evil can be transformed by good. To be sure, a superficial understanding of nonviolence may lead persons to think that those of us who espouse it believe that if people could just sit down and talk with one another or sing Kumbaya or do a circle dance or a communal backrub all our problems might be solved. They accuse us of believing that our gestures of love will always be reciprocated. To be sure there are those whose understanding of nonviolence is that shallow, but, I would like to think, not those who have thought deeply or studied extensively about nonviolence. Rollo May, reflecting on the flower children of the 1960’s, called some of this naive approach to conflict "pseudo-innocence."

"Capitalizing on naiveté, it consists of a childhood that is never outgrown, a kind of fixation on the past. It is childishness rather than childlikeness." (May p.49)

What does May mean by this distinction between childishness and childlikeness? Authentic innocence, which we will later see to be one of the components of our nonviolent ethic, especially in its hopefulness, is

"the preservation of childlike clarity in adulthood. Everything has a freshness, a purity, newness and color. From this innocence spring awe and wonder. It leads toward spirituality; it is the innocence of St. Francis in his Sermon to the Birds. Assumedly it is what Jesus had in mind when He said: only as ye become like little children shall ye enter the kingdom of heaven." (May pp.48-49)

What makes this more than naiveté is that this is a preservation of childlike attitudes into maturity without sacrificing or obscuring one’s perception of evil, and, as Arthur Miller puts it, one’s complicity with evil. This is authentic innocence. This is the innocence of fictional characters like Grand in The Plague, or Myshkin in The Idiot or Cordelia of King Lear or of real persons like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, A.J. Muste, Roy Bourgeois or Daniel Berrigan. Daniel Berrigan, a Catholic priest who as much as any other in our time has risked everything for his nonviolent beliefs, reacting to the naive lover of peace who forgets about the reality of evil and his or her personal responsibility for it, says with no little degree of sarcasm, in No Bars to Manhood,

"Can it be that God is not a Niagra of Pabulum, spilling His childish comfort upon the morally and humanly neutral, whose faces are raised blankly to partake of that infantile nourishment?" (p.97)

It might be worthwhile understanding more about pseudo-innocence before moving on to the certitudes of suffering and exile that, along with love, Dr. Rieux claims are the only certitudes we as human beings have in common. To begin with, pseudo-innocence is an oversimplification of reality, one that ultimately cannot stand up to evil, let alone transform it. Two important aspects of this oversimplification need to be stressed. First, as I have intimated, it does not come to terms with the violence we all carry within us. Generations of good-hearted but sometimes naive Earlhamites have often been brought up short by Paul Lacey’s explanation about why he is a pacifist. When they have told him that they were pacifists because they knew they couldn’t kill anyone, Paul has told them that he is a pacifist because he knows he could kill. If we are naive about what we are capable of, we not only misunderstand reality, but we avoid full responsibility for others. In Camus’ terms, those who best fight the plague are those who acknowledge that they are not immune and may in fact already be carrying the virus. Failure to come to terms with the reality of violence is an avoidance of responsibility to others, to our society, and to our world, and, as we shall see, to our deeper selves. As May states in 1972

"When we face questions too big and too horrendous to contemplate, such as the dropping of the atomic bomb, we tend to shrink into this kind of innocence and make a virtue of powerlessness, weakness and helplessness. This pseudo-innocence leads to utopianism; we do not then need to see the real danger. With unconscious purpose we close our eyes to reality and persuade ourselves that we have escaped it." (May, p.49)

This leads to dangerous postures of self-righteousness, when in reaction against participating in the structural violence of a society that, for example, enshrines money as a god, that sees itself as having the right to keep the rest of the world in thrall to our insatiable appetite for using the world’s resources as we see fit (such as in Iraq where our need to control the oil resources of the world was masked by our rhetoric of restoring democracy for Kuwait), --when in reaction to all this, we claim our moral superiority by washing our hands with the system and give up trying to transform it.

As May writes, a system of violence is one that denies its responsibility to the whole community, but pseudo-innocence, denying its complicity with the system, denying that it, too, as we shall see, is stricken with the plague, is also an "innocence without responsibility" (p.63).

"Innocence as a shield from responsibility, " May concludes, "is also a shield from growth. It protects us from new awareness and from identifying with the sufferings of mankind as well as with the joys, both of which are shut off from the pseudo-innocent person." (May, p.64)

The genuinely innocent and nonviolent person is the one who like Father Zossima in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, is able to affirm that each is responsible for all, who knows that this responsibility follows from one’s ability to come to terms with the destructiveness in one’s self and in others.

The other aspect of the oversimplification of nonviolence that needs to be stressed concerns the expectation of reward or success. By this I mean that pseudo-innocent gestures of good will often measure the value of the gesture by whether or not it succeeds in overcoming evil. As mature practitioners of nonviolence realize, it is unrealistic and even potentially dangerous to assume a loving action will bring a loving response. As I will explain in the following lectures, the hope that humans might respond to gestures of love instead of to threats of violence is crucial to forming a nonviolent ethic, but hope is not the same as expectation. Hope is not naive about the presence and power of evil; which is why any belief in hope must also incorporate suffering and sacrifice. May and others believe that expectation of reward or success should not determine the value of an action and further, that such an expectation may make it difficult to discover the real meaning of the act. The Plague, we shall see, illustrates this contention very well.

"Even if the sum total of cruelty has not greatly diminished in the last twenty centuries- children still suffer for things for which they have not the slightest responsibility- we shall not require a token success. It is in the confronting of this dilemma- fighting cruelty without regard for tangible success- that man discovers what he is in the depth of his personality." (May, p.252)

Thomas Merton expresses the same sentiments in a letter he wrote to Jim Forest in 1964. As we shall see, the advice Merton offers Forest might well have been given to all those who were in the process of forming the sanitary squads in The Plague.

"Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything." (Lynd, p.325)

Authentic innocence, which is a quality the nonviolent activist must possess, is thus hopeful that humans can change through nonviolent action, but does not hold success as a reason why one should commit oneself. In the end one acts nonviolently because it is right to do so, not because it will always produce the desired results. Moreover, acting upon what is right or true may lead one to see that political results, as Merton indicated to Forest, may not be as important as what is achieved in human relationships. Empathy with the oppressed and with the humanity of the oppressor can give rise to an overwhelming sense of compassion that, as we shall see, not only expresses the deeper meaning of love, but also sheds light on suffering and exile, two negative conditions that have positive dimensions to them. This compassion is deeply healing and can reconcile, as Merton claimed in Blessed are the Meek, man with himself- man the person and man the human family. This sense of compassion cannot come about unless we develop what May calls a "viable sense of tragedy", which would serve, through creating empathy even with our enemies, to mitigate our own cruelty.

"Lacking this sense of our own complicity, most Americans also lack the element of mercy, which may well turn out to be a sine qua non of living in this world with an attitude of humanity." (May, p.53)

I may seem to be overstressing this complicity with evil, but one thing I’ve learned in my teaching and life is that not acknowledging our own complicity stands in the way of genuine compassion for our enemies, and of genuine, non-self-righteous and non-patronizing identification with them.

As we come to the end of this first lecture I would like to say a few more words about the phrase "viable sense of tragedy", for the connection between a sense of tragedy and nonviolence is an interesting one, and it is not possible to talk about Camus without talking about his own sense of tragedy. He reveals in his literary essays that his mentors are those who have a tragic sense of life- Dostoevsky, Kafka, Melville, Faulkner, Malraux, the Greek tragedians, and Shakespeare. There is something that connects these tragic artists and it is amazing how all of them consider themes I have spoken of up to this point- power, violence, pseudo- and authentic innocence, retributive justice and redemptive love. Tragic heroes and heroines often call the universe into question, demanding an understanding of their place in it as well as an explanation of why evil exists and persists. Moby Dick is not just a story of one man’s quest for an allusive white whale any more than The Plague is just the quest for an antidote to a plague that is threatening to destroy the city of Oran. They both are symbolic explorations into the nature of evil as it exists in the universe, and in the hearts of human beings. They are further explorations of a human response to that evil, a response that affirms human values in the light of what is learned and remembered. One thinks of Ahab sharing with Starbuck an awareness of their common humanity as they stand on deck together just before the final encounter with the white whale, or of Rieux and Tarrou swimming together just before they have to go back to fighting the plague.

In tragic art what is lost and what is gained occur at the same time, thus making what might seem to be works of defeat also works of triumph. And the triumph always lies along the lines of Merton to Forest- "In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything." Camus acknowledges his debt to Melville and both of them acknowledge their debt to Shakespeare, who perhaps better than any other, conveys a tragic vision marked by the interplay between love and suffering, cosmic solitude and human solidarity. It is significant that in all of Shakespeare’s great tragedies the tragic waste of human life should be accompanied by the strongest expressions of love- Hamlet, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear,- as if Shakespeare knew with Camus that even though there is no final cure for the evil in the world, there is also knowledge that "if there is one thing one can always yearn for and sometimes attain, it is human love." (Plague, p.300)

It is also interesting, as we head into our discussion of The Plague, to observe how often tragic artists focus on the death of an innocent child and use this occasion to demand an answer to why the innocent suffer. After tasting despair in their encounter with their own isolation and the thunderous silence of the universe when this question is raised, the tragic heroes and heroines in the end turn to others and in their compassion-one thinks of Lear giving his cloak to the shivering Fool on the heath or Ahab’s care for his servant Pip- make a statement about reconciliation and human solidarity that convinces us, to paraphrase Robert Heilman, that the Good may be defeated in tragedy, but it is never changed, and the oneness we feel with tragic characters, as Rieux does with the citizens of Oran at the end of his chronicle, gives us hope that humans may one day live according to their hearts.

So where have we come in our first lecture? We have asserted that we are reaching the end of a century of plague. Sometimes the plague has erupted into devastating wars, claiming the lives of millions of people. At other times the plague has been less visible, but it is kept alive in the institutions built on violence and oppression- institutions like nationalism with its attendant racist tendencies and economic systems of exploitation. At times we have come to feel that violence lies at the heart of the human being and the institutions humans have built for themselves. From time to time, however, and probably more often than we realize, great artists and leaders have pointed out a better way to live, the path of sympathy, the path of nonviolence, requiring those who would follow such a path to its end to commit themselves to a vision of love, to refuse to fight violence with violence because they have known that we become what we hate.

Those who would teach us these things have followed their own advice,- one thinks immediately of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi, - believing humans are part of the same family, however separate they may first appear. These lives, as well as the lives we shall encounter in The Plague teach us that we are called to rebel against all systems,- religious or secular, on the right or on the left- that would seek to separate us from one another and would seek to obscure our responsibility for one another. These lives have courageously faced the reality of evil and have accepted the suffering and sacrifice such a confrontation inevitably entails (without ceasing to love). Their success cannot be measured alone by what they have achieved within their own lifetimes, but also must be assessed in the seeds they have planted in those who have followed them. Because their voices often have fallen on deaf ears, we need to develop new ways of hearing, of remembering what they have said to us. Knowledge and memory. And hope. But these are subjects for my final two lectures.

September 23, 1998

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