Neither Victims Nor Executioners: Albert Camus on the Antidote to Violence
“If he who bases his hopes on human nature is a fool, he who gives up in the face of circumstances is a coward.”
By Maria Popova
“Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Zadie Smith wrote in her spectacular essay on optimism and despair. Seventy years earlier, just after the close of World War II, another genius of the times addressed this predicament and its attendant question of what reimagining progress looks like as we behold the future from the precarious platform of the present.
In November of 1946, a decade before he became the second-youngest laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded him for work that “with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times,” Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) wrote a series of short essays for the journal of the French Resistance, which were later published as Neither Victims nor Executioners: An Ethic Superior to Murder (public library).
At the outset of the war, Camus considered what it means to have strength of character in difficult times. Now, at its grim end, he examines what it takes to maintain that strength and make it a heritage to future generations in the aftermath of extreme moral weakness at the level of a whole civilization. He begins his final installment in the series, titled “Toward Sociability,” with an inquiry into the vital interplay of reason and emotion in inciting the movements that bring about social change:
Yes, we must raise our voices. Up to this point, I have refrained from appealing to emotion. We are being torn apart by a logic of History which we have elaborated in every detail — a net which threatens to strangle us. It is not emotion which can cut through the web of a logic which has gone to irrational lengths, but only reason which can meet logic on its own ground. But I should not want to leave the impression, in concluding, that any program for the future can get along without our powers of love and indignation. I am well aware that it takes a powerful prime mover to get men into motion and that it is hard to throw one’s self into a struggle whose objectives are so modest and where hope has only a rational basis — and hardly even that. But the problem is not how to carry men away; it is essential, on the contrary, that they not be carried away but rather that they be made to understand clearly what they are doing.
In a sentiment he would later ferment into the assertion that “real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present,” Camus counters the dangerous notion that the present must be made a sacrificial offering to some abstract ideal future:
To save what can be saved so as to open up some kind of future — that is the prime mover, the passion and the sacrifice that is required. It demands only that we reflect and then decide, clearly, whether humanity’s lot must be made still more miserable in order to achieve far-off and shadowy ends, whether we should accept a world bristling with arms where brother kills brother; or whether, on the contrary, we should avoid bloodshed and misery as much as possible so that we give a chance for survival to later generations better equipped than we are.
A decade before he reached a warm hand across the Iron Curtain of the Cold War in his beautiful letter of cross-cultural solidarity to Boris Pasternak, Camus writes:
We are asked to love or to hate such and such a country and such and such a people. But some of us feel too strongly our common humanity to make such a choice. Those who really love the Russian people, in gratitude for what they have never ceased to be — that world leaven which Tolstoy and Gorky speak of — do not wish for them success in power-politics, but rather want to spare them, after the ordeals of the past, a new and even more terrible bloodletting. So, too, with the American people, and with the peoples of unhappy Europe. This is the kind of elementary truth we are liable to forget amidst the furious passions of our time.
Five years before Hannah Arendt considered loneliness as the common ground for terror and how dictators use isolation as a weapon of oppression in her own postmortem of WWII, Camus adds:
Yes, it is fear and silence and the spiritual isolation they cause that must be fought today. And it is sociability (“le dialogue”) and the universal intercommunication of men that must be defended. Slavery, injustice and lies destroy this intercourse and forbid this sociability; and so we must reject them.
Exactly forty years later, in his magnificent Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel would echo Camus and insist that “silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Half a century after Tolstoy asserted in his forgotten correspondence with Gandhi about violence and human nature that “love is the only way to rescue humanity from its ills,” Camus argues that framing the violence of the present as a necessary evil of what will eventually be “History” is a grave disservice to posterity:
Modern nations are driven by powerful forces along the roads of power and domination. I will not say that these forces should be furthered or that they should be obstructed. They hardly need our help and, for the moment, they laugh at attempts to hinder them. They will, then, continue. But I will ask only this simple question: what if these forces wind up in a dead end, what if that logic of History on which so many now rely turns out to be a will o’ the wisp? What if, despite two or three world wars, despite the sacrifice of several generations and a whole system of values, our grandchildren — supposing they survive — find themselves no closer to a world society? It may well be that the survivors of such an experience will be too weak to understand their own sufferings. Since these forces are working themselves out and since it is inevitable that they continue to do so, there is no reason why some of us should not take on the job of keeping alive through the apocalyptic historical vista that stretches before us, a modest thoughtfulness which, without pretending to solve everything, will constantly be prepared to give some human meaning to everyday life. The essential thing is that people should carefully weigh the price they must pay.
A year after he contemplated the three antidotes to the absurdity of life, Camus concludes the essay with a mighty reminder that we choose our future with our actions in the present — and that violence is a choice, as is its counterpoint:
All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice. After that, we can distinguish those who accept the consequences of being murderers themselves or the accomplices of murderers, and those who refuse to do so with all their force and being. Since this terrible dividing line does actually exist, it will be a gain if it be clearly marked. Over the expanse of five continents throughout the coming years an endless struggle is going to be pursued between violence and friendly persuasion, a struggle in which, granted, the former has a thousand times the chances of success than has the latter. But I have always held that, if he who bases his hopes on human nature is a fool, he who gives up in the face of circumstances is a coward. And henceforth, the only honorable course will be to stake everything on a formidable gamble: that words are more powerful than munitions.
Complement Neither Victims nor Executioners with Camus on happiness, despair, and the love of life, consciousness, the most important question of existence, and what it really means to be a rebel, then revisit Rebecca Solnit on resisting the defeatism of easy despair and Toni Morrison on the artist’s task through turbulent times.
Published March 5, 2018