Behind Jean-Paul Sartre and Heidegger, French author and playwright Albert Camus is viewed by many as one of the most influential existentialists in the literary world. Camus indeed explores many of the same topics as the other existentialists, but his work at its core does not reflect an existential mind. In order to fully understand where Camus stands on the philosophical and literary issues that define existentialism, it is important to first delve into what ideas, attitudes, and concepts make up existentialist thought.
The easiest way to define existentialism in my opinion involves contrasting it with Judeo-Christian philosophy. Where Christianity of course believes in a God, the afterlife, and a person’s predetermined essence, existentialist philosophy presents the opposite point of view. Existentialist thought typically rejects the idea of any supreme being who may have power over the actions or will of an individual. It also rejects the concept of an afterlife and a predetermined essence. In existentialist philosophy, an individual makes his own essence through his or her actions. Through the decisions said individual makes, their essence and purpose in life is defined. Intention means nothing. Action means everything. Where Christian paradigm adheres to the concept of a divine plan, existentialism adheres to the individualist view that the universe is absurd. A person’s choices are the only thing they have. Regardless of how petty or grandiose, a person always have a decision.
Now let’s take a look at how Sartre compares to these ideas. Sartre tends to struggle against Christian theology in his work, pushing against it. He struggles to create a freeing new philosophical paradigm to replace Christian thought. Camus doesn’t do any of this. Camus seems to be totally free of any concept of the Judeo-Christian world. It is because of this fact that I would consider Camus to be more pagan than existentialist. Especially in his early work, it is clear that Camus is in touch with his experiences of the natural and man-made world around him. He views it all as one feast for the senses of man, a mere animal.
Now the trees were filled with birds. The earth would give a long sigh before sliding into darkness. In a moment, with the first star, night would fall on the theater of the world. The dazzling gods of day would return to their daily death. But other gods would come. And, though they would be darker, their ravaged faces too would come from deep within the earth (Camus 71-72). Lyrical and Critical Essays. Vintage Books, 1970.
Besides the explicit references to “gods” in the passage from Camus’ essay Nuptials at Tipasa, the manner in which Camus speaks about the world lends itself to a pagan view as opposed to a monotheistic view, regardless of whether or not that monotheistic philosophy is viewed in a favorable light. Particularly in Camus’ early writing, his lyrical essays on places and moments are soaked in Chthonian thoughts and emotions.
Everything seems futile here except the sun, our kisses, and the wild scents of the earth…the great free love of nature and the sea absorbs me completely (Camus 66).
Camus seems to inhabit a world void of any Judeo-Christian thought. He revels in the primal experiences nature has to offer. He struggles with the great basic questions every human must face without regard for a supreme celestial being, an afterlife, or moral order. Camus’ world is inhabited by the forces of nature.
In the Spring, Tipasa is inhabited by gods and the gods speak in the sun and the scent of absinthe leaves, in the silver armor of the sea, in the raw blue sky, the flower-covered ruins, and the great bubbles of light among the heaps of stone (Camus 65).
While it is impossible to determine an author’s complex world-view based on several essays written in youth’s vigor, it is helpful to look through the honest writings of a young soul to better understand their concept of existence. Paired with the fact that Camus never professed himself to be an existentialist when asked, the case against Camus being an existentialist in the Sartrearian sense is pretty strong.