Meaning or Absurdity During the Plague
In the midst of all this disruption to our normal lives, we may find ourselves feeling a bit aimless. What meaning can we find in the face of all this devastation?
This was the very question that Albert Camus sought to answer in 1947 when he published a novel entitled The Plague. Camus intended this book to be read on multiple levels. If you read it, you will see it’s a bit uncanny how much this novel resonates with our own experience today.
The story takes place in the port city of Oran in Algeria, and the main character is a doctor named Bernard Rieux who notices that rats—oddly enough—are dying openly in the streets all over the city. After the concierge of his building dies of a strange fever, he consults with his friend, Dr. Castel, who has come to the conclusion that a plague is sweeping through the town. Together they must convince the authorities to take decisive steps instead of denying that there is a problem or wasting any more precious time. Once the daily death toll spikes the whole city is quarantined. The gates are shut. Travel is prohibited. All communications are restricted.
Camus describes the effect of this shutdown on the general public. It felt like living in exile. He writes: “Once the town gates were shut, every one of us realized that all, the narrator included, were, so to speak, in the same boat, and each would have to adapt himself to the new conditions of life.” They reluctantly conclude that they were “all in this together.”
Previously each person might have thought that his or her own struggle was unique compared to the common suffering of others, but now they realize that they are all experiencing the same intense longing for loved ones. “All these people found themselves, without the least warning, hopelessly cut off, prevented from seeing one another again.”
During the epidemic, Camus seeks to show the various ways in which people respond to their feelings of exile. Some devise plans to try to escape the city. Others find ways to get rich by making money on the black market during the crisis. But Camus reserves perhaps one of his sharpest critiques for the local priest. At the onset of the health threat, the priest delivers a sermon to a packed-out church in which he tries to provide a straightforward explanation for why this is happening. What does the priest do? He blames the residents of Oran for the epidemic. Rather than lamenting the fact that we live in a broken world where we may experience otherwise inexplicable sickness and suffering, the priest tries to rationalize the outbreak. The priest reaches for the most tired and simplistic explanation for any tragedy. Why did this calamity come upon them? Because they deserved it. The priest calls the plague a punishment for their sins—but, of course, it’s not a punishment for any of his own.
In contrast to these negative and inadequate responses to the epidemic, Camus lifts up the example of Dr. Rieux and a few of his friends who focus on treating patients and creating a volunteer team to assist in the city’s sanitation efforts. As the months go by, the situation worsens. People begin to view one another with suspicion. Everyone is at risk of infection, and everyone is a potential carrier. Eventually, the authorities must declare martial law and impose a curfew to prevent people from trying to escape the city. As the number of people succumbing to the disease increases, the emergency rooms are filled to capacity. Houses and hotels are turned into make-shift hospitals and isolation wards. The number of people dying becomes so great that funerals are conducted with less ceremony and greater speed. Little concern is shown for the feelings of the surviving family members.
What makes matters worse is that, in time, it becomes abundantly clear that the anti-plague efforts of Dr. Rieux and his friends do not seem to make much of a difference at all. All their efforts are futile. People keep dying all the same and there is no rhyme or reason to it. The plague is said to deliver “impartial justice” because its victims occupy all levels of the social ladder. It doesn’t matter if you're rich or poor, young or old. Everyone faces the same threat. Some die from the plague, and some die from other causes. Dr. Rieux and his colleagues know that the plague is an airborne contagion, and therefore they increase their chances of infection by fighting against it. But they also know that they could die by doing nothing at all. They choose action in the face of death.
After several months have passed, the epidemic finally begins to break. The gates are reopened. The city is filled with joy, and everyone tries to return to normal life. Towards the end of the novel, Dr. Rieux begins to reflect on what could be learned from this epidemic and what meaning could be found during this long period of exile—which he refers to as a cruel leisure.
“Yes, they had suffered together, in body no less than in soul, from a cruel leisure, exile without redress, thirst that was never slaked. Among the heaps of corpses, the clanging bells of ambulances…among unremitting waves of fear…always a great voice had been ringing in the ears of these forlorn, panicked people, a voice calling them back…And it was to this…toward happiness, they longed to return…As to what that exile and that longing for reunion meant, Rieux had no idea. But…he was thinking it has no importance whether such things have or have not a meaning; all we need consider is the answer given to men's hope. Henceforth he knew the answer…If there is one thing one can always yearn for and sometimes attain, it is human love. But for those others who aspired beyond and above the human individual toward something they could not even imagine, there had been no answer…”
In other words, the best that we can ever hope for and sometimes attain in the midst of an epidemic is an experience of human love, but beyond that, there is no answer to the question of whether our life means anything. In the final pages, Dr. Rieux reveals he is the narrator of this story, and this is how Camus concludes the novel:
“Dr. Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle…to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise. Nonetheless, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory…As he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague…never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when…it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”
The Plague is meant to serve as an allegory for the human condition. Camus rejected belief in God and held that human life was absurd because we all live under the sentence of death. Whether we die during an epidemic or from some other cause doesn’t really matter. Sooner or later, one way or another, we are all going to die—and all our attempts to resist death are ultimately futile. Our life is one prolonged period of exile in which we feel cut off from the possibility of lasting happiness. In the end, everything that matters to us—ourselves included—will be obliterated. Therefore, for Camus, life is utterly irrational and absurd. There is no meaning to our existence. But even if death renders our lives meaningless, Camus believed that it is more noble to fight against suffering and death than to simply give in and resign ourselves to it. There’s something to that, of course. We have seen for ourselves how an epidemic can draw out the best in people. This is what leads Camus to say: “in a time of pestilence…there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”
In the final analysis, however, Camus believes that the most that you can hope for in this life is an experience of human love. That is our only shot at happiness. Camus will admit that even that is still nothing more than a consolation prize because eventually, death will strip you of the ones you care for the most. That’s why Camus concludes the novel by saying that our JOY is always imperiled because the plague – representing the ultimate nothingness of death—never dies or disappears for good. It can lie dormant for years and years—but eventually, it will resurface and take away everything you love.
I admit that’s a little depressing, but that’s French philosophy for you. And as far as atheist philosophers go, Camus is probably a bit more upbeat than most. But let’s be honest, that’s about as good as it gets without God. As a contemporary philosopher puts it: “In the absence of God, all there is left to human life is human action and interaction…and the only meaning any of it has is the meaning we manage to give it. Our existence is thus one long walk on a tightrope over a yawning abyss and there is nothing to catch us should we fall into meaninglessness or isolation or even mere ordinariness” (Anthony Simon Laden, Philosophers Without Gods).
The only meaning in life is the meaning we manage to give it. That might sound exhilarating or inspiring to some. But to me, it seems like little more than a game of pretend. It reminds me of people who struggle with being on time so they deliberately set their watch fast by five minutes. I actually tried doing this once, but it didn't work because I knew that even if the watch said 11:00 am, I knew it was really 10:55am. In other words, I knew I was lying to myself. And here's the point, we can't just imagine that our life means something if it doesn’t. Let’s confront the brutal facts: either life has meaning that death can’t take away or it doesn’t.
And that is why Christianity offers us something far better.
It’s so easy to assume that Jesus’ death was nothing more than a senseless tragedy. Yet another young man sent to an untimely grave. And if Jesus has not been raised from the dead, then Camus is right. Our life is absurd and there isn’t any meaning to it all.
But if Jesus has been raised, then it means that death does not get the last word. Therefore, this life is not absurd, but everything takes on new meaning because this life does not come to a pointless end but lasts into God’s promised future.
If the only meaning to our existence is the meaning we create for ourselves then that is like building sandcastles on the seashore. Everything we are, everything we have ever accomplished, and everyone we have ever loved will be washed away by the waves of time.
But if, on the other hand, God is bringing about a new creation, then everything we do now based on the hope we have in Jesus matters. Everything from the most trivial and mundane tasks to the most important and monumental achievements will be preserved if nothing else in the memory of God and become part of the building blocks of the new creation.
Christians do the good that they can with the time that they have because they know that God will take whatever we have to offer and weave it all together into the tapestry of the new world he is bringing about.
That’s why at the end of his famous chapter about the resurrection of Jesus in his letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul does not conclude by telling us to sit back and relax because Jesus has been raised from the dead. No, he tells us to get to work!
He writes: “Therefore, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding the in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” If Jesus has been raised from the dead, then nothing you ever do for Jesus will ever be in vain. Nothing will be lost. Nothing will be wasted. Everything counts. Everything matters because everything will last. Your life is not irrational or absurd. Because of Jesus, it matters far more than you even know.
This blog post is an excerpt from the sermon preached on April 19, 2020.