November 7 marks the 1913 birth of Albert Camus, 1957 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for work that “illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.” Those times were ones where the specter of tyranny loomed large during World War II and its aftermath, until his accidental death in 1960.
While best known as an existentialist and absurdist, his Nobel lecture highlighted why his insights are valuable to those devoted to liberty. Camus said the writer “cannot put himself today in the service of those who make history; he is at the service of those who suffer it.” On their behalf, “the two tasks that constitute the greatness of [the writer's] craft [are]the service of truth and the service of liberty…rooted in two commitments, difficult to maintain: the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance to oppression.” To commemorate his birthday this Saturday, his defense of liberty against tyranny merits remembering.
“In the twentieth century power wears the mask of tragedy.”
“The tyrannies of today…no longer admit of silence or neutrality. One has to take a stand, be either for or against…I am against.”
“The real passion of the twentieth century is servitude.”
“By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more.”
“Totalitarian tyranny is no based on the virtues of the totalitarians. It is based on the mistakes of the liberals.”
The principles which men give to themselves end by overwhelming their noblest intentions.”
“The welfare of the people…has always been the alibi of tyrants…giving the servants of tyranny a good conscience.”
“[P]olitical utopias justified in advance any enterprises whatever.”
“All modern revolutions have ended in a reinforcement of the power of the State.”
“Absolute domination by the law does not represent liberty.”
“The only conception of freedom I can have is that of the prisoner or the individual in the midst of the state. The only one I know is freedom of thought and action.”
“I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.”
“Freedom is not a gift received from the State or leader, but a possession to be won every day…”
“Freedom is not a reward or a decoration that is celebrated with champagne…It’s a long distance race, quite solitary and very exhausting.”
“Freedom is nothing else but a chance to get better, whereas enslavement is a certainty of the worse.”
“Liberty ultimately seems to me, for societies and for individuals… the supreme good that governs all others.”
“Instead of killing and dying in order to produce the being that we are not, we have to live and let live in order to create what we are.”
“The aim of art, the aim of a life can only be to increase the sum of freedom and responsibility to be found in every man and in the world. It cannot, under any circumstances, be to reduce or suppress that freedom … “
“The current motto for all of us can only be this: without giving up anything on the plane of justice, yield nothing on the plane of freedom.”
“More and more, when faced with the world of men, the only reaction is one of individualism. Man alone is an end unto himself. Everything one tries to do for the common good ends in failure.”
Albert Camus wrote when “the barricades of freedom have once more been thrown up. Once more justice must be bought with the blood of men.” The crucial importance of defending liberty against tyranny was clear then. But unfortunately, many have forgotten that essential recognition, despite the web of softer tyrannies that increasingly surround us. That keeps Camus’ insights, particularly that liberty is “the supreme good that governs all others,” both valuable and powerful today, a half century after he wrote.