A Life Worth Living by Robert Zaretsky

Zaretsky, R. (2013). A Life Worth Living [Kindle Android version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com


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It is this persistent uneasiness, this unhappy inability to be lulled by the rationalizations we give for our own actions or the actions of others, this accursed gift of forcing not just oneself, but those around one, to reconsider beliefs one has always taken for granted, that makes Camus so important.

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exigency. He was a moralist who insisted that while the world is absurd and allows for no hope, we are not condemned to despair; a moralist who reminded us that, in the end, all we have is one another in an indifferent and silent world:

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The best the agent can do is to have his suffering, the natural expression of his goodness of character, and not to stifle these responses out of misguided optimism.”

1. Absurdity

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the absurd “poisons our everydayness and gives our every experience a tinge of futility.… We find ourselves desperately trying to move more quickly, to nowhere; or we try to ‘entertain ourselves.’

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This view forces upon us truths that are both prosaic and paralyzing— that we need never have lived or that the world will continue without the faintest of shudders when we die. In seeing ourselves from the outside, Nagel notes, “we find it difficult to take our lives seriously.” At such moments, we confront absurdity— a “genuine problem which we cannot ignore.”

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For Camus, however, this astonishment results from our confrontation with a world that refuses to surrender meaning. It occurs when our need for meaning shatters against the indifference, immovable and absolute, of the world. As a result, absurdity is not an autonomous state; it does not exist in the world, but is instead exhaled from the abyss that divides us from a mute world. “This

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Sartre described a world awash in pure contingency. Caught in the undertow of events for which there is no ultimate or external justification, Sartre observed, we are overcome with a sense of nausea.

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Camus creates a character whose life is empty of the shade offered by self- reflection.

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changed.” 28 With life yoked so tightly to the present that no space remains for what precedes or follows, nothing changes.

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Or, more accurately, it is with reflection that we see change. Moreover, it is only with change that we see reflection— our own.

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This is the paradox Meursault makes flesh: for him, only life lived in the moment— the moment our bodies register sensations sweeping over them— is meaningful.

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Rousseau affirmed that man in his natural state was the happiest of beings because he was, quite simply, the dumbest of beings.

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Absurdity enters our life only when the prison door clangs shut— or when, from the heights of society we measure how far we have fallen.

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Absurdity is the child of disparity. It rises before us when our expectations fall short of reality.

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As for the exodus, what greater disparity could there be for the millions of refugees who, just days before they were pulled into the vortex created by the capsizing of the French Republic, still believed stupidly in the permanence of their civil, legal, and political institutions, as well as the durability of their everyday lives?

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It is the moment when we are woken from our routine lives by a whisper or explosion, either of which demands “Why?” with equal and unexpected insistence.

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Boredom was even more terrible if you did not have a job.

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Camus. It is as if the torment inflicted by the gods has little if anything to do with a body taxed beyond measure, and everything to do with a mind challenged by the endlessly repetitive nature of the task.

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The weight of the labor is not the consequence of gravity, but instead found in the gravity of its inconsequential nature.

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Sispyhus is bound to the boulder, of course, but, more important, he is bound to the absurdity of his relationship with the boulder.

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“You cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible dumb show: you wonder why he is alive.”

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This particular aesthetic, in turn, reveals a truth about the human condition that formal arguments simply cannot: we live in a world that refuses to signify, and thus risks transforming our acts and words into spasms of arbitrary and senseless gestures.

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He allows that these failed arguments persist because they reflect something true and enduring about our lives: the shock we feel when, stepping outside ourselves and adopting “the view from nowhere,” we suddenly confront the dissonance between the great importance we devote to our daily activities and their ultimate inconsequentiality.

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At this point, Nagel declares, “we see ourselves from outside, and all the contingency and specificity of our aims and pursuits become clear. Yet when we take this view and recognize what we do as arbitrary, it does not disengage us from life, and there lies our absurdity.”

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Ironic detachment is tantamount to the wearing of philosophical blinders. But to a man who puts them aside, Camus writes, “there is no finer sight than that of the intelligence at grips with a reality that transcends it.… To impoverish that reality whose inhumanity constitutes man’s majesty is tantamount to impoverishing him himself. I understand then why the doctrines that explain everything to me also debilitate me at the same time. They relieve me of the weight of my own life.”

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Resistance is, first and foremost, a way of seeing the world, one that makes manifest the moral imperative to acknowledge and respect the dignity of each and every fellow human being.

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Finally roused, God speaks through a whirlwind, demanding who it is that “darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding.” The storm- tossed voice launches dozens of similar questions, all of them equally irrelevant to Job’s quest for meaning. By the end of this battering, Job confesses that he had no right to demand to know the reasons why he suffered. The sheer incommensurability between God’s perspective and Job’s, it seems, is reason enough.

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The absurd, Camus wrote in 1942, “teaches nothing.” 96 Instead of looking at ourselves, as do Sisyphus, Meursault, or even Job, we must look to others: we are, Camus recognized, condemned to live together in this silent world.

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“The misery and greatness of this world: it offers no truths, but only objects for love. Absurdity is king, but love saves us from it.”

2. Silence

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Even more than the sea, the figure of the silent mother occupies the center of Camus’ writings: it is the sun, or perhaps the dark matter, toward which everything else is pulled.

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Rather than the consequence of human expectations, the absence we encounter when our ears strain, but fail to hear something, it is instead a positive force, one far older than humankind, perhaps older than the world itself.

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Like a solar eclipse, two orbs of silence overlap: the blinding and incommunicable reality of Prometheus’s pain and the shadow cast by an indifferent and mute world.

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These silences surge, in part, from Prometheus’s failure to find words adequate to the tasks at hand; they spell the breakdown of language.

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Given over entirely to himself, Camus felt defenseless against these “deep forces rising within me that said ‘no.’ ” No, in a word, to plans for the future, to talk about tomorrow, to things not yet done. Instead, Camus demands the weight of the present, of the earth, of a world shorn of its myths and faith in anything other than what we can see and touch and feel.

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This destiny is reflected in the fates of Prometheus and Sisyphus: to accept what they have done, embrace what they have been given, and survey silently a silent universe.

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Camus encountered the staggering distance between word and facts.

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His earlier perception of silence as a condition crucial to self- understanding is overtaken by the recollection that silence also serves political and ideological ends.

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Marveling at the abyss between the ideals of the Republic and reality of Kabylia, Camus refused to surrender his ideals.

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Framed by endless horizons, filled with blinding light and preternatural calm, Camus claimed this world of “silence and solitude” as a source of truth.

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The demand for wooden barrels was shrinking and, in order to maintain his profit margin, Lassalle cannot afford to raise salaries. And what would happen if the entire atelier went under? “A man doesn’t change trades when he’s taken the trouble to learn one, and a difficult one, demanding a long apprenticeship.” Giving up his trade was unthinkable, but so too was resigning himself to an inadequate paycheck and knowing his labor was undervalued. In so unforgiving a situation, “it was difficult to close your mouth.”

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Yet, by the time he reaches the workshop, this is precisely what Yvars and his fellow workers will do.

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Unwittingly, Yvars has repeated the same sentiment offered just moments earlier by Lassalle— with the difference that, this time, the extended hand is accepted.

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occupied France and the Algiers workshop, a silence born in humiliation slowly becomes a silence braced by the nearly instinctive insistence on dignity.

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Today we tend to regard silence as the interruption of noise, but once we recover from the effects of sound, we realize that silence’s primordial function is to provide a kind of basso continuo to the drama of our lives.

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In the end, the trouble may be the simple and tragic impossibility of speaking across lives and the predicaments specific to each and every one of them.

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Words had proved at best useless, at worst complicit in the widening gyre of violence in Algeria. Just as with his mother, when he felt, silently, an “immense pity spread out around him,” so too with the student: “When one keeps quiet, the situation becomes clear.” 51 The tragic situation of his native Algeria, Camus realized, called upon him to maintain his quiet.

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the equally sublime wonder of the world and ethical duties of the individual.

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“He diagnosed in himself, and in others, the inability to believe and the disappearance of the primitive foundation of all faith— namely, the belief in life.”

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Like his mother, like us, perhaps even like Socrates, Camus suffered life he never believed we needed to overcome.

3. Measure

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In a manifesto penned by Camus, the company declared its intent “to demonstrate that it is sometimes advantageous to art to descend from its ivory tower… [and] restore some human values.”

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“The spirit of revolution lies wholly in man’s protest against the human condition. Under the different forms that it assumes, it is… the only eternal theme of art and religion. A revolution is always carried out against the Gods— from that of Prometheus onwards.”

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11 Yet more emphatically, Tipasa, this gateway to antiquity, makes him understand “what is meant by glory: the right to love without limits.”

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In his reply, Camus now straddles the political and metaphysical, physical and spiritual worlds: “Prometheus was the hero who loved men enough to give them fire and liberty, technology and art. Today, mankind needs and cares only for technology. We rebel through our machines, holding art and what art implies as an obstacle and a symbol of slavery. But what characterizes Prometheus is that he cannot separate machines from art.”

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Had this same Prometheus, so hated by Zeus, appeared amid the rubble of postwar Europe, the era’s great technological and ideological actors would also have hauled him away: “They would nail him to a rock, in the name of the very humanism he was the first to symbolize.”

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Indiscriminate and ineluctable, force levels the strong and weak, transforming victim and victimizer into “things.”

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Yet those in power consistently abuse their authority, unaware that their mastery of force is utterly illusory.

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It is a universe where both Prometheus and Zeus are right, but neither is justified, a universe where the gods impose the impossible choice on Agamemnon of either sacrificing his daughter or abandoning his effort to retrieve Helen and Greek honor.

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The people who suffered from these policies “are not inferior except in regard to the conditions in which they must live,”

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France’s duty was clear: it had to “quell the cruelest of hungers and heal inflamed hearts.”

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Camus insisted upon the universal quality of human dignity, all the while holding on to the particularity of individual human beings.

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Prometheus is both just and unjust, and Zeus who pitilessly oppresses him also has right on his side. Melodrama could thus be summed up by saying: “Only one side is just and justifiable,” while the perfect tragic formula would be: “All can be justified, no one is just.” This is why the chorus in classical tragedies generally advises prudence. For the chorus knows that up to a certain limit everyone is right and that the person who, from blindness or passion, oversteps this limit is heading for catastrophe if he persists in his desire to assert a right he thinks he alone possesses.

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The central concern of classical tragedy, Camus realized, is that limit “must not be transgressed. On either side of this limit equally legitimate forces meet in quivering and endless confrontation. To make a mistake about this limit, to try to destroy the balance, is to perish.”

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In a recent work, the political theorist Aurelian Craiutu insists that moderation is a positive theory, one based on the intrinsic values of pluralism, gradualism, and toleration.

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moderate, Craiutu suggests, is a thinker who embraces “fallibilism as a middle way between radical skepticism and epistemological absolutism, and acknowledge[ s] the limits of political action and the imperfection of the human condition.”

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As Nussbaum underscores, tragedy teaches: “There is a kind of knowing that works by suffering because suffering is the appropriate acknowledgement of the way human life, in these cases, is.”

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“Through suffering comes knowledge.”

4. Fidelity

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Camus’ loyalty to the visceral ethics expressed by his father— the intuitive conviction that humankind, if it wishes to preserve this status, must obey certain limits on its freedom, all the while acknowledging the humanity of one’s fellow men and women— endured his entire life.

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It was an ethics based on faithfulness to our fundamental duties and faithfulness to our world.

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the outrage of a meaningless cosmos impels all of humankind to struggle against it.

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Camus “merely wanted men to rediscover their solidarity in order to wage war against their revolting fate.”

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Resentment, after all, is fidelity to an unworthy emotion: hatred or anger.

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As such, it has no place in an ethics that insists the ends can never justify the means— and no less important, the means are at times justified only by their ends.

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When asked whether faithfulness can justify a life, Camus replied it could and must— if the faithfulness served life and happiness, not death and servitude. “Undoubtedly, one of the last questions a man can ask about the value of his life is ‘Have I been faithful?’ But this question means nothing if it does not first of all mean ‘Have I done nothing to degrade my life or another’s?’

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Scarcely twenty years after the Nazi occupiers and French collaborators, in their doomed effort to eradicate the Resistance, had tortured and killed hundreds of Frenchmen and women, French were now torturing Algerian men and women for the same reasons.

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The French army’s justification for the use of torture was straightforward and compelling: France was at war with a terrorist organization whose bombings and assassinations had taken the lives of hundreds of innocent Frenchmen, women, and children.

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As he wrote to his friend, the Kabyle writer Mouloud Feraoun: “When language is thoughtlessly used to dispose of human lives, being silent is not a negative quality.”

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Like Camus, he feared those who argued that a good and great end could justify violent and evil means.

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“If I have always refused to lie… it is because I could never accept solitude. But solitude should now also be accepted.”

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For now, we must at the very least reject every justification, even that of effectiveness, for such methods. From the very moment we justify them, even indirectly, neither rule nor value can exist, all claims are equally valid and war without limit or laws consecrates the triumph of nihilism.”

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Among Camus’ average values was the conviction that the end must never justify the means. Once this rule is violated, well- intentioned men and women will begin their race toward incompatible goals, leaving behind them the trampled remainder of humankind.

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In other words, his memory of the world— the object of his fidelity— was fading while his preoccupation with ideas grew.

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The moral imagination, for Camus as for Simone Weil, is the work of attention. Attention to the physical world in its inflexible and indifferent attitude toward us, attention to our fellow human beings in our common struggle to resist this cosmic indifference.

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But Camus’ essays also reflect Weil’s portrayal of the ways in which force, be it war or factories or governments, transforms human beings into things.