Many fundamental aspects of human nature are often hidden behind the shelter of modern convince and a lack of physical threats or existential risk but can be pushed to the forefront by extreme circumstances. It is just this kind of circumstance that is illustrated in Albert Camus’s The Plague, which uses the quarantined city of Oran to offer a vivid depiction of what happens to population once robbed of their convinces and placed in state of existential limbo by the titular plague that leaves them all but helpless in the face of the lingering specter of death that hangs over the city, striking swiftly and indiscriminately to take the lives of any unlucky enough to contract the illness. It is for this reason that The Plague makes for an ideal petri dish to examine human nature in its most raw and exposed form, making use of various sociological and philosophical lenses to explore what happens when the structures and systems we rely on collapse in front of us.
Throughout the novel, various attempts are made to ascribe meaning to the seemingly random and merciless ravages of the plague. One such attempt is made by the character Father Paneloux who believes the plague to be a manifestation of god’s judgement upon the sinful. This makes him an ideal mouthpiece for the Augustinian view that man is inherently sinful and is often oblivious to the nature of his sin until it is revealed though divine scrutiny (Barash 131). Paneloux epitomizes this idea in his sermon to the people of Oran, preaching “For plague is the flail of God and the world His threshing floor, and implacably He will thresh out His harvest until the wheat is separate from the chaff. There will be more chaff than wheat” (Camus 95) thus solidifying his viewpoint that humanity largely debaucherous and plagued, not only physically, but spiritually by the lingering burden of original sin (although, not being a theist, I am admittedly predisposed to dismiss this line of reasoning).
Another case study of individuals acting in the realm of ethical ambiguity is that of Raymond Rambert. A traveling journalist trapped in the quarantined Oran, Rambert serves as an example of the Machiavellian quest for power, although not in the traditional sense normally ascribed to the Machiavellian pursuit. Instead of simply looking to gain power over others, Rambert seeks a power not allowed to any with city’s confines: he seeks the power to leave Oran (Camus 140). Machiavelli asserts that traditional ethics must be ignored in the pursuit of power stating “You are to understand that a Prince… Cannot observe all those rules of conduct in respect whereof men are accounted good, being often forced, in order to preserve his Princedom, to act in opposition to good faith, charity, humanity or religion” (Barash187). Rambert demonstrates this by idea in his attempt to escape the city, as the quarantine was put in place to protect the outside world from the plague and attempting to leave the city to reunite with his wife and in doing so risks the lives of countless people outside of the city limits, thus ignoring traditional ethics in the pursuit of personal gain.
This action also demonstrates the ideas of another philosopher: Thomas Hobbes, who believed that people are, by nature, are inclined to act out of self-interest, stating that in human nature there is “a perpetual and wrestles desire for power… because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more” (Barash 134). Rambert’s desire to escape the city (Camus 138) demonstrates this notion through the insecurity that drives him in his quest to leave. He has a life outside of the city that he fears will somehow be changed, either by too much time away from his wife or that will never be able to return at all. He is simply trying to maintain the standard of living to which grown accustomed, after that status quo is threated by the uncertainty brought on by the quarantine.
At first, Rambert attempts his escape through official channels, asking Rieux to give him medical clearance to leave the city. Rieux denies this request, stating that he had no way to guarantee that that Rambert wouldn’t carry the plague outside of the city. While Rambert accuses Rieux of being heartless and living “in a world of abstractions,” in reality, Rieux’s actions demonstrate a cold rationality that strives to be just to all parties. This is in line with Plato’s notion that truth and justice can only be achieved through putting rational thought over emotion (bashar 51). While Rambert’s failure to see this as fair or ethical makes for an excellent example of Franz Boas’ idea of cultural relativity which states that “it is somewhat difficult for us to recognize that the value which we attribute to our civilization is due to the fact that we participate in this civilization” (Barash 163). In not agreeing with Rieux’s decision, Rambert is showing that he bases his morality on that of a society not ravaged by plague and, therefore, puts more value on his own freedom that the theoretical safety of others.
When this attempt fails, Rambert tries to smuggle himself out by way of a criminal organization. This sort of behavior shows Rambert to be what Adam Smith would refer to as a “rational utility maximizer”a term used to describe the human proclivity for making the most of the recourses proved to them in order to maximize their own personal benefit (Barash 58). This kind of resourcefulness is evident in numerous attempts to attain his freedom by using any and all means available to him. But in the end, Rambert gives up his persuit of escape out of the shame he would feel leaving the city in crisisa conclusion only reached due to the influence of Rieux and Tarrou both being aware of his intent, thus supporting Plato’s notion that people are only good when being watched (Barash 128), as he is influenced by the opinions of two individuals acting more selflessly than himself.
While ethical shortcomings and moral failings may run rampant through the plague-ridden streets of Oran, there are, conversely, no shortage of examples demonstrating man’s kinder inclination, and there is no better specimen of this innate goodness than the character of Jean Tarrou. Throughout the novel, Tarrou stands alongside Dr. Rieux at the forefront of the fight against the rampaging plague. Demonstrating ideology similar to that of a secular humanist, Tarrou makes for a near perfect example of Peter Kropotkin’s concept of mutual aid, which posits that people will innately act in a cooperative manor in as a means of improving the health of the greater meta-organism of the human race as a whole (Barash 153). Tarrou exemplifies this by spearheading the civilian branch of the plague relief effort (Camus 131), placing him in the direct path of the disease that would eventually take his life, due to his adamant belief that, while the fight against death is inevitably futile, attempting it is a cause noble enough to give his life meaning, however fleeting it may be.
In their shared, humanitarian fight against the rampaging sickness, Tarrou and Dr. Riuex both exemplify the ideas of Aristotle who believed that humans are naturally social beings that use reason to attain happiness (or in this case, to at least minimize suffering) (Bashar 56) as well as another advocate of human goodness: Jean-Jacques Rousseau who believed that humanity was generally inclined to help one another but was often unable to because of the less-than-ideal world they occupy forced them into competition (Barash 143). Tarrou and Riuex demonstrate this in the attitude in which they view their service to the community, with Riuex stating “there is no question of heroism in all of this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile but the only means of fighting a plague iscommon decency” (Camus 163). This indicates a world view that sees acting towards a common good to be the norm and not the exception. This concept a preexisting common decency can also be used to Demonstrate Immanuel Kant’s notion of an a priori sense of duty found in all people which Kant describes as “a law before all inclinations are dumb” (Bashar 49).
While various modes of reason are visible throughout the novel, where Camus really shines is in his depictions of the limits of reason and one of the strongest examples of this can be seen in the character of Joseph Grand. Paralyzed by trivial anxieties, Grand is the human embodiment of the saying “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” spending a seemingly endless amount of time and energy trying to perfect the opening lines of his manuscript (Camus 102). Grand does this out of an emotional need to attain perfection, which in turn prevents him from writing anything past the first line. This type of thinking causes his life to stagnate, creating similar dilemmas that prevent him from moving forward in his carrier or reconciling with his wife. Instead he chases an unattainable ideal, much like Stephen Crane’s depiction of a man chasing the horizon (Barash 78). In allowing this need for perfection to dominate his life, Grand is ignoring the pragmatic solution of simply accepting that perfection is unattainable and allowing himself to move forward in life. Instead he chases an irrational ideal out of emotional insecurity. This lack of rationality is reflective of Dostoevsky’s notion that man is often incapable of reconciling his own emotions with the indifference of the natural world and will continue to lash out against his condition no matter how futile his action may be (Barash 70)
One interesting idea Camus highlights in his novel is the way in which people cling to social structures. When Oran is cut off from the rest of the world and its citizens are surrounded by constant reminders of their own mortality, do they simply give up and let the city devolve into chaos? No, despite the undeniable truth that their way of life has been fundamentally altered, they do their best to maintain a sense of normalcy. People continue to work, even if their jobs have become obsolete without travelers coming to the city; they see movies even though there are no new films. In short, they make do with what they have in order to maintain their societal norms as much as possible. This is because these routines and traditions are what Emiel Durkheim would call “social facts:” small manifestations of a broader culture that carry on even as other aspects of the culture erode due to circumstance (Bashar 160).
This also highlights the role experience plays in culture. John Locke’s view of experience is that it serves as the source of “all materials of reason and knowledge” (Bashar 37) and this is demonstrated in the way the people of Oran continue to base their action what they have previously experienced, and not what might be dictated by their current circumstance. This can also be used to illustrate David Hume’s notion of Identity of sameness which Hume describes as “a distinct idea of an object that remains invariable and uninterrupted thro’ a suppos’d variation of time” (Basha 41). If we were to view city of Oran, including its occupants as a singular object, this continuation of routine perfectly demonstrates that objects ability to remain consistent over time, thus confirming that experience provides a valid method to define that object.
There are few concepts that hang over the Camus’s The Plague more than that of Jack London’s view of nature. Throughout London’s work nature is depicted as unyielding force that can be fought against but never beaten and if one survives, it is not by his own strength or ingenuity but nature’s mercy or chance. Perhaps best illustrated in London’s short story “To Build a Fire” which shows one man’s struggle against nature which inevitably ends in his own demise at nature’s hand (London 16). This idea of the unending fight against forces outside of human control is, in essence, the central conflict of The Plague as it depicts a losing battle against the titular disease that ends, not by defeating the plague, but simply outlasting it with no measure of certainty that it will not return.
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