A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Camus and Sartre

Albert Camus was born one hundred years ago tomorrow, and the occasion is being marked in various ways. The TLS Recently had a review of his writings on Algeria, his homeland. Spiegel-online today has a good essay on the relationship between Camus and Sartre and how they eventually came to represent, as some of his can remember, the two sides of a great ideological divide in the fifteen years between the end of the Second World War and Camus’ tragic death in 1960. I read and liked Sartre’s essay on existentialism–especially on the self-constitutive role of freedom–but didn’t much like his novel Nausea.  On the other hand, I liked Camus’s novels more than his philosophical writings, and I still remember how affected I was as I perfected my French by reading the brief essays in his Carnets in the early 1960's. Camus seems to have been much the better as a human being; while he seems to have been a man of great integrity and honesty, there does not seem to have been much to admire in Sartre the man.

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

When I read The Rebel back in, what? must have been 1957, something in the way Camus wrote reminded me of G. K. Chesterton. When I re-read it last year, I had the same feeling, but I was expecting it this time. (Incidentally, I was surprised at how well it stood up.) I have absolutely no idea of what it is about Camus that reminds me of Chesterton, but I mention it in case anyone else has had the same experience.

I read Camius' "The Stranger" and "The Plague" in college.  Also Sartre's "No Exit" and "Being and Nothingness".  I actually liked Sartre's work better - it seemed more honest about meaninglessness and I thought it was brave of him to assert that in the face of that meaninglessness you could create meaning yourself.  Perhaps you like Camus better because he was a fan of St. Augustine? :)

Subscribers to the New Yorker should have a look at this Adam Gopnik essay on Camus, which goes into great detail about his relationship with Sartre. Apart from their famous differences of opinion, there are also fascinating personal differences. Both were charismatic intellectuals, but whereas Sartre presented himself as a sage and was treated as a kind of father figure of the French Left, Camus was cool, more fraternal than paternal, a Humphrey Bogart of the Left Bank. From Gopnik's essay:

The ugly man who thinks hard—Socrates or Sartre—is using his mind to make up for his face. (Camus once saw Sartre over-wooing a pretty girl and wondered why he didn't, as Camus would have done, play it cool. "You've seen my face?" Sartre answered, honestly.) When handsome men or beautiful women take up the work of the intellect, it impresses us because we know they could have chosen other paths to being impressive; that they chose the path of the mind suggests that there is on it something more worthwhile than a circuitous route to the good things that the good-looking get just by showing up.


Sartre was one of the first authors I read once I got tired of "The famous five". My main memory is the amount of time I spent puzzling over the meaning of the word "pederast". The lack of completely explicit descriptions makes it a word that is hard to learn from context with any degree of confidence; in the end I had to ask my father about it. Sartre's books were generally unpleasant to read (fitting the title "Nausea"). The only exception was "Les mots", the only one of his books that is enjoyable when one is still at an age when we put no distance between ourselves and the narrative.

I have read Camus' "Stranger" several times, and it gets better every time. The first time, I was about thirteen and was taken aback by the sparsity of the writing style. How is one supposed to identify with a boring weirdo, and how does one read fiction if not by identifying with the main character? In the end, after reading the book, one was left with a gnawing question: "Why?" - how dissatisfying! ... But now I love it. The opening sentence already gives me pleasure. Even before that, I savor the book itself, its pages with wide margins and lots of white space around the text. Meursault no longer seems hard to identify with, his thought process seems much more natural, and the "Why?" question has lost its sharpness because of its familiarity. 

Last year, during the Presidential electoral campaign, while the candidates were rivaling to show their culture, Sarkozy proclaimed his admiration for "Stephane Camus".

In my old age, I'm trying to fill in my reading gaps with things I ought to have read somewhere along the way, so I selected Camus's "The Plague" last year. I steeled myself, I suppose because I expected something "difficult" in the absurdist vein, like Bertolt Brecht. I found that, as a human story (which is the basic level on which I understand things), the novel was an absolute delight. I have a little mental "film" of the segment about the man who spit on cats, one of the most wonderful little scenes I've ever encountered in a book.

Shades of Chesterton there were none. Chesterton is an overconfident blowhard with a heavy didactic hand, who goes off on riffs whenever he thinks he's struck on something that "proves" his own views (though even these problems failed to mar my delight in his bio of William Blake, possibly because nobody can wreck Blake for me). Camus's style struck me as quite spare, even reportorial. But maybe I'm only looking at surface. It's such an interesting comparison, I'll have to go back and look again.

Yes, Camus is a delight, especially close-up. I don't know about Sartre, actually. I've never been tempted to go back and read his books again, but I must have missed so much on first reading that it's not really accurate to say that I've read him.


In my last year at a small liberal arts college for women I elected to take a philosophy course, Existentialism.  (It was the first year that we could elect philosopy and theology courses.)

I can say with honesty that I would not have been able to understand the focus of many of the Documents of Vatican II had I not taken that course.

The TLS link didn't work for me.  I did a search and came up with this, which did work:

There is a very thoughtful and generous essay by Claire Messud in the New York Review of Books about Camus' newly translated Algerian Chronicles.

Messud characterizes Camus as "a Catholic atheist":

He rejected religion, but was nonetheless formed by its codes. His university thesis was a study of Saint Augustine and Plotinus, and his engagements always seemed to Czesław Miłosz 'marked by a suppressed theological bent.' That he was not wholly ready to dismiss a core of Christian values is further recorded in his Notebooks, when, at a gathering with Koestler, Sartre, Malraux, and Manès Sperber, he urged:

Don’t you believe we are all responsible for the absence of values? And that if all of us who come from Nietzscheism, from nihilism, or from historical realism said in public that we were wrong and that there are moral values and that in the future we shall do the necessary to establish and illustrate them, don’t you believe that would be the beginning of a hope?




It seems to me that Camus must have been the sort of atheist who is sometimes reached by the grace of God as it is evidenced in the actions such as  the kindnesses of Pope Francis'.  At Rod Dreher's blog an atheist says that the recent photo of Pope Francis kissing the hideously ugly man has made him wonder again about the existence of God. 


 The Most Beautiful Photo: Pope Francis Kissing a Disfigured Man


The great force of gestures such as Francis' is that extremely compassionate actions show the workings of grace, grace which enables people to do what is highly improbable or even impossible.  Grace works something like miracles, persuading us, including even non-believers, that God works for good in this world  after all.. 


As Dostoievsky said, beauty will save the world.

Up on our homepage now, Gerald Russello's review of Camus' Algerian Chronicles.


Exactly! I like Camus but I still think nobody can touch the Russian existentialists like Dostoevsky and Berdyaev; much more spiritual depth but I think that is a reflection of the Russian mind that just seems to naturally tend towards the spiritual but maybe that is my own Slav bias.

The picture, or rather Pope Francis' action, is a very great challenge for me.  How many times have I walked past, averted my eyes quickly, hoping that the image of the person before me would not linger in my consciousness.   How few times have I ever reached out, much less in such a direct way.  

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me…”

Mark L.

In case you’re interested:

 1) “The Unbeliever and Christians,” a talk given by Camus in 1948 at the Dominican monastery of Latour-Maubourg

2) Camus’s speech at the Nobel banquet in 1957, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature

3) “The Editorialist as Hero,” Joseph Frank’s excellent review of Camus at Combat

If I recall correctly, Camus said that he couldn't reconcile the suffering of a single child with the existence of God.

This is about neither Camus nor Sartre but about Crystal Watson's praise for the latter in creating meaning out of meaninglessness -- I have just watched once again Eric Rohmer's "My Night at Maud's" (Ma nuit chez Maude), and was struck by Vidal, the Marxist, who plays with a kind of secular version of Pascal's wager. A man who does not believe that history has any meaning, he nevertheless becomes a Marxist, reasoning that if there's even a 10% chance that history might hold meaning, it is the only thing that gives him hope. If you don't know the film, pull it out of your local friendly video rental; it's a staggeringly wonderful movie.

Thanks for the sites, Gene.  Sadly, they've made me revise my old, positive but very superficial opinion of Camus.  Many years ago I started  reading one of his novels, The Plague,  but  I misread the beginning and gave up on it, so until I read his speech to the monks, I knew him only by what others had written about him.

Anyway, his talk to the monks makes me think that his rejection of God is a result not just of the problem of suffering children but of his rejection of people who behave badly.  He seems to think that Christians who don't live up to their beliefs thereby falsify their beliefs.  Frankly, he sounds rather self-satisfied to me.  It's as if he thinks that the truth of a person's beliefs is determined by how well the person measures up to those beliefs.  

Consider also what  The Guardian says about him,

" The Algerian war trapped him in an impossibly vexed position. Unable to support a liberation movement whose tactics could "strike blindly" against his mother, he was reduced, in Tony Judt's words to "impotent silence". "



In other words, Camus himself did not speak out when it was called for, he too did not measure up to the ideals which the Christians claimed to hold.  

But that doesn't diminish the fact that he was willing to speak out loudly to the brutality of totalitarianism in other places.  It only means that he wasn't a perfect man either.

As to the problem of evil, true, there is no philosophical solution.  But it also seems to be the case that the fact of compassion in some people seems to lessen the issue of the apparent injustice of innocents' suffering.  (See also Job.)  In other words, compassion somehow makes the fact of unjust suffering lose some of its existential power, though it certainly doesn't eliminate the problem.  Mystery, mystery, mystery.

America magazine has Jason Berry’s tribute to Camus.  Here’s how it begins:

“November seventh is Camus’s feast day,” says Sister Helen Prejean, with impish irony, giving the agnostic French author a ring of sainthood.

“He taught us that Christians should get away from abstractions and confront the blood stained face of history—that we should speak out clearly,” says Prejean, who credits Camus’s essay “Reflections on the Guillotine,” as a major influence during her work on Dead Man Walking.

“The word is thickened,” she explains. “When I finished the first draft, my [Random House] editor Jason Epstein suggested I read Camus. I had read him in college, but going back to him substantiated what I was saying and gave me a new edge. Camus helped me to see how Christians—and my own self—were slack. He thickened my argument, deepened my understanding of how we can live, and be slack by not doing anything about the death penalty. It’s an issue of the poor and shows that to the extent we’re not involved with the poor, we go along with injustice. Camus was good because he’s so honest.”

Here are a few more excerpts:

“Camus commanded unusually respectful attention from Christian readers,” writes Robert Ellsberg in All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses of Our Time:

Several of his works prompted anticipation of the author’s imminent conversion. His untimely death did nothing to silence the rumors that he had been secretly receiving instruction in the Catholic faith. All this was ironic tribute to a man whose philosophy began with the assumption that God does not exist...Despite his protests, many have suggested that Camus’s position was not so far removed from Christianity as he supposed. The number of those who serve Christ is not confined to self-professed Christians. Paradoxically, Camus served the Truth by keeping faith with his conscience and denying God.

* * * * *

In the title essay [of The Myth of Sisyphus], Camus calls Sisyphus, “the wisest and prudent of morals”—as it were, an Everyman of the Resistance—condemned by the gods to push a stone up the hill, only to have it fall back each time he neared the plateau. The quest for moral truth, to restore peace, lay in the faith to keep pushing, again and again, regardless. “Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks,” wrote Camus. “The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

* * * * *

When the Allies ended the German occupation and toppled the Vichy government in 1944, French officials began trying collaborators. Camus supported the execution of those found guilty of killing members of the Resistance. As the trials degenerated into purges, his views began to shift toward the position he would later articulate in “Reflections on the Guillotine.” As questions of justice and death bore down on Camus, the French novelist and Nobel laureate, François Mauriac, had a hand to play. As Robert Zaretsky writes in the superb new book, A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (Belknap/Harvard):

François Mauriac, whose resistance and literary credentials were equal to those of Camus, had already signed the petition [to prevent execution]. Devoutly Catholic, Mauriac had previously collided with Camus on the question of the purge. The older man insisted on the need for mercy and national reconciliation, while the young editor of Combat replied that national healing required a foundation built on implacable justice. When the trials had turned into sham events, however, Camus confessed in an editorial: “We now see M. Mauriac was right: we are going to need charity.”

* * * * *

A major turn in Camus’s journey toward the guillotine essay came in 1951 when he published The Rebel, which triggered one of the most spectacular literary battles in post-War Europe. The Nazi assault on European civilization had failed in the end; but Communism, for Camus, was just as morally blind. Marxist totalitarianism sacrificed justice as means to an end: the classless society. Camus' position drew the scorn of Jean-Paul Sartre, a committed Marxist, who published a long public letter attacking Camus himself as much as the book, throwing their friendship off the rails.

* * * * *

By 1957, when he wrote “Notes on the Guillotine,” Camus had taken a lonely position in refusing to take sides on the Algerian civil war. Denounced by Sartre and other former allies from the left for his unwillingness to endorse the National Liberation Front in Algeria as it sought independence, Camus was appalled by the front’s terror tactics. As he told a news conference in Stockholm, on receiving the Nobel: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” He was just as appalled by the French military policy of torturing Algerian captives. 

* * * * *

In “Reflections on the Guillotine,” Camus wrote with the unerring precision of a prophet: “I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.”

Ann Olivier:  you claim that “Camus himself did not speak out when it was called for.”   I don’t see it that way;  I’d say it was more complicated than that, more a question of him refusing to speak out in the way that others (e.g. Sartre) wanted him to speak out.  I think this is made clear in the fine piece by Claire Messud, referred to in James Englert’s earlier comment.

After reading that piece, does it still seem fair to you to characterize Camus’s position as one of “impotent silence?”

In "The Rebel" Camus denounces what he calls "rational murder," i.e., the notion that there are some sound grounds for killing another person. He acknowledges that we may sometimes have to kill a person to preevent his or her killing us or someone else. Even so, he argues, those of us who do kill in such circumstances have made forfeit our own lives. Strong stuff, but there is something right about it. The historical record shows so many putative justifications offered for killing, so many of which are no more than rationalizations.

Camus, in my eyes, is something of a prophet. He has no grand theory, but he does confront us with some stark challenges.

By 1957, when he wrote “Notes on the Guillotine,” Camus had taken a lonely position in refusing to take sides on the Algerian civil war. Denounced by Sartre and other former allies from the left for his unwillingness to endorse the National Liberation Front in Algeria as it sought independence, Camus was appalled by the front’s terror tactics. As he told a news conference in Stockholm, on receiving the Nobel: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” He was just as appalled by the French military policy of torturing Algerian captives. 

I wonder if Camus can be of good counsel for taking a sound position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is something that concerns, confuses, and vexes me.

Gene --

I don't know whether  Camus was a case of impotent silence.  My complaint about him is that he accuses others of not speaking out when they too perhaps thought that the consequences would be worse than silence.  The specific issue for him was: should I risk my own mother by speaking out?  His answer was, No.  My problem is that it seems wrong to me that he then faults the monks and others for protecting their own --  as, for example, Pope Pius XII did when he protected his priests in Germany by not speaking out more forcefully against the Nazis.

I have not read him in decades but I clearly remember on readingTthe Stringer,thinking of Jesus Christ when reading the sentence about the prisoner who when a chaplain walks in his cell feels his gentleness and peace[I believe ,something to that effect.I. don't have the book here so can't go back and check that particular sentence]I remember thinking immediately that he Camus was expressing the peace of Christ and that he Camus  is really a christian,in his heart of hearts.A christian without actually believing -one can't help not believing but but up to that ,totally christian in understandiong of the human condtion.Christ loves the world,understands and loves suffering humanity so does Camus.THAT is christian. Though people can profess atheism, God scrutinizes hearts and he I believe was a Christian.I also thought of christianity in general [i'm remembering  now] when in that book the protagonist says that something about the sun over head in the sky propelled him to murder his victim.That, though sounding like a deflection, reminded me of the ancient Christian belief in the "noon day Devil." I believe Camus was alluding to it..Also even in his phrase" the gentle indifference of the universe"-I see that as a prayer .I think of Camus, I think of Christ. Funny how that happens rather often-professed atheists can be the ones who evoke Christ in ones mind. At least for me.

I don't understand or agree with the atheist  existentialist position that though life is meaningless, one can create meaning for oneself. Either life has meaning or it does not. To create meaning or give it a subjective meaning ,is to pretend it has meaning.The only thing tha can give meaning to life is trancendence of life. Meaning to life is either found outside life or life is meaningless.Creating meaning is to play at meaning, a past time,a game.Christ on the cross confronts the heart of the matter, we suffer and die .And the iconic cross does not hedge, that brute existential fact of being humnan.From that reality springs the good news that yes ,though we suffer and die, though we're all on the cross, our suffering and death is not the ultumate truth about us. The good news is that God so loves the world...Only christianity takes the bull by the horn so to speaks and cronfronts the reality of the human condition. The belief that it is up to us to give memaning to our lives, is a bore. How long can you keep up the pretense?

Ms. Caminer:   I don't think that one need counterpose things as sharply as you do in this last post.  To affirm that life has meaning or, in addition, that it is in Christ that life has meaning, is to make a personal judgment--I believe (Credo), and, since this meaning is not obvious, believing is an act of freedom. Yes, the meaning comes from the Gospel, and it is disclosed in what God has done in Christ, but it is each of us who has to appropriate that meaning by personal judgment and commitment. In that sense, it is not wrong to say that it is up to each of us to give meaning to our lives.

Didn't Sartre believe in free will? If so-then that is a spiritual belief. Today atheists deny free will.Today our seculatized culture is adapting the narrative of" people as brains".And brains we know are matter. Hence our secular cultures indoctrinating narrative is filled with this" humans as brains" reductionism.Mental health is dipicted and spoken of as a brain disease. All behavior is increasingly reduced -to brain chemstry /matter. We see this mostly with mental illness discussions but this deterministic world view is starting to permeate our beliefs about what it means to be human.Denying free will-is becoming the defacto position.So from todays perspective a Sartre who believed in radical human freedom and claimed that humans are an unfolding;of our actions, thoughts, beliefs experiences, ironically his belief in free will  allignes with those of us who believe that we are more then our unfolding in life;more then our actions, thoughts, experiences.We have a soul hence  though influenced by matter and previous events/states, are always free to choose.We're always more then the sum of our past.Sartre for all his atheism, believed in what today is deemed a belief that is the legacy of superstious relgion;that  we have free will.That is subversive  to the atheist/humanist  view today.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment