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Neoplatonism, Christianity, and Camus

Few Master of Arts theses enter the history of ideas. Indeed, seldom is it that anyone but the examiners read them. Designed to consolidate undergraduate learning, few such writings have intrinsic worth. That a publisher of authors like Pierre Manent, Roger Scruton, and René Girard should print a Master of Arts thesis is a rarity. Then again, the strangeness evaporates on learning that the student work is that of Albert Camus. But not entirely, for the title of this 1936 thesis is Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism.

Camus (1913-1960) is arguably the most famous of modern philosophers. He was closely involved in the development of existentialist philosophy. This (and his movie star good looks) placed him at the pinnacle of cool. Many are astonished upon learning Camus ever had such interests. Whether one thinks of Camus as a writer of dark philosophical novels—he won the Noble Prize for Literature in 1957—or as a man of the Left, or as a debonair philanderer, to learn that he studied and wrote about Christian metaphysics plays with our notions of the man.

That he did so helps make sense of his books, however. Camus’ classic novels, The Plague (1947), The Stranger (1942), and The Fall (1956), all include climactic scenes where the secular hero confronts a priest, or, as in The Fall, a conceited lawyer acknowledges his service to the Devil. All of these works incubated in the thesis written by the 23-year-old Camus in completion of his degree from the University of Algiers.

Besides filling out our portrait of the artist as a young man, though, Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism has intrinsic merit. In the broadest perspective, this interesting and startling work tries to explain what is the West. This is how it closes: “During the long years, it [Christianity] remains the only common hope and the only effective shield against the calamity of the Western World.” Today, we are in the odd situation of having an enemy (ISIL) who seems keenly aware of who we are even as our political masters, media, and universities, appear uncertain on the question.

In 1951, Camus published a formal philosophical work, The Rebel, that was also a fascinating account of modernity. His thesis begins at the other end of the history of the West, documenting the emergence of Christianity within the Hellenized Mediterranean. It is not a work of history, however, for Camus tries to distill the worldviews of Greece and Christianity and not only that, but to evaluate them.

He sees Christianity not only as a rupture but as rupturing. Christianity challenges Greek serenity with the problem of death: “The whole effort of Christianity is to oppose itself to this slowness of heart.” Christianity shunts the placid to one side and demands an anxious focus on time, history, and the arc of each person’s life. In light of this, Camus’s three great novels are all thematically Christian: collective death (The Plague), preparing the self for execution (The Stranger), a man’s deathbed (The Fall).

Camus’ favored descriptor for Christianity is “passionate,” a passion perceived by the Greeks. Saint Augustine, in generating his Christian metaphysics, attests to the importance of Neoplatonism but Camus argues that Neoplatonism itself grew out of the encounter with Christianity: it was an effort within the Greek ethos to take seriously Christianity’s passionate provocations and to counter the appeal of the new religion. Camus enjoys documenting the dismay of Greek intellectuals, not least the horror they expressed at the aesthetic implications of Christianity.

Christianity expresses a “profound truth” but Camus is nonetheless reserved about Christianity. He acknowledges its civilizational role but his assessment is balanced and distant. In The Rebel, Camus rejects Christianity for the inequality of grace: that some are saved and others not. There, as here, he affirms a Mediterranean stance: opposing Christian pessimism and the consequent Christian need for hope to the Greek “sportive” spirit and—cue The Stranger—“the run of a young man on a beach.” Although not dumbfounded like Porphyry by the Christian’s veneration of a man who “met the ugliest death, linked with iron,” Camus certainly joins the Tyrian philosopher in affirming the “aesthetic plane” rather than “the triumph of the martyred flesh.”

Camus is subtle. If Christianity foregrounds death, it also offers eternal life. Haunting the arc of a person’s life, Christianity demands rebirth. The young Camus, embryonic novelist and playwright, casts rebirth as an “adventure.” The Greek mind spans science and play but the remaking of the self—think of Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins racing out the front door to go on an adventure!—is unknown. Christianity and Greece thus ultimately encounter one another on the philosophical plane of the meaning of the self.

The intellectual conflict was not immediate—Christian apologists often lamenting the dismissiveness with which the Christian community has greeted ideas—but a conflict was inevitable. “Christianity’s most natural tendency,” argues Camus, “is to extend itself.” For its expansion, metaphysics was essential. Though porous to all sorts of mystery cults, the Mediterranean was steeped in Greek intellectuality: “The effort of reconciliation inherent in Christianity will be to humanize and intellectualize its sentimental themes.” This effort culminates in Camus’s hero, Saint Augustine.

It is an odd fact to reckon with, but when he wrote his thesis, Camus was a member of the Communist Party. The then-communist showed a fierce regard for Augustine, in whom he saw a man consumed by his passions yet intent on an existential transformation of the self through ideas. Augustine is the embodiment of rupture: “Greek in his need for coherence, Christian in the anxieties of his sensitivity.” The evolution of Neoplatonism into Christian metaphysics is consummated with him.

Neoplatonism hoped to offer Greece a philosophical account of the gods to challenge the spread of Christianity. But in describing how a divine mind could partition itself into other divine minds, Neoplatonism only gave Augustine’s genius the material it needed to rout the Greek ethos utterly. Augustine took the idea of emanations within the divine to account for the Trinity and radicalized it to explain God’s entry into history at the Incarnation. The novelty of Christian metaphysics is that it is the story of a person’s life: a God born of a woman in a moment of human history.

Why does Camus consider this person’s story the “common hope” of the West? The gain of Christianity is the rise of the West’s conviction about the importance of persons but the cost is the burden of self-making. The history of the West includes calamitous missteps in self-making and, at age 23, Camus was sure that Christianity’s own proposed solution to the problem it had posed was inadequate.

“Neoplatonism was the unconscious artisan of the reconciliation” of Mediterranean thought and Christianity, he wrote, “but there is a limit to the flexibility of intelligence.”

Albert Camus would continually revisit the Christian proposal, but bleakly his heroes would always find that their intelligence forbade full reconciliation.

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