Camus: Ignorance and clear-sightedness

Along with others, I have been revisiting Albert Camus’ novel The Plague (like Vox’s Sean Illing speaking to historian and Camus biography Robert Zaretsky or Book Riot’s Christine Ro contrasting two different versions of the novel). As Ro puts it, “If Contagion is The Movie of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Plague is The Novel.”

Trying to get back into quotes, I was drawn to the one below about ignorance and what is often translated as clear-sightedness or lucidity:

The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as good, if they lack understanding. On the whole men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. There can be no true goodness, nor true love, without the utmost clear-sightedness.

Though the novel is directly about the Algerian town of Oran under quarantine for Bubonic plague and the main characters finding various ways of coping and addressing the isolation and rising body count, it also explores deeper themes of humanity in the face of overwhelming challenge. The plague itself is partly a symbol for Nazism and other fascist regimes, nihilism, and the specter of the absurd.

This leads to the above quote. Camus’ post-war morality, which developed firmly in his Letters to a German Friend during the war, focuses on these two sides: ignorance and lucidity. Elsewhere in The Plague the two main characters have a conversation:

“What on earth prompted you to take a hand in this?”
“I don’t know. My… my code of morals, perhaps.”
“Your code of morals. What code, if I may ask?”
“Comprehension.”

Throughout much of his writing, including his early work like The Wrong Side and the Right Side, Camus argues that clarity is at the core of morality. One cannot do the right thing clouded with ignorance, and vise versa: having a clear sense of the situation makes it harder for tyrants to perpetuate atrocities. For example, as he writes on capital punishment:

When the imagination sleeps, words are emptied of their meaning: a deaf population absent-mindedly registers the condemnation of a man. … There is no other solution but to speak out and show the obscenity hidden under the verbal cloak.

Part of this belief seems to step from Camus’ faith in the underlying goodness of most people, a resilient theme in his work. As he says, “men are more good than bad.” This faith girdled his humanism and informed his break from other French intellectuals, like Sartre, who took a more Marxist view of history, less focused on individual morality and more focused on grand causes and social movements.

But as Camus says, most people are inherently ignorant, causing suffering through their uninformed actions or letting leaders abuse them and stir them to abuse. And if clear-sightedness is the core of morality than the opposite is the worst: “an ignorance which fancies it knows everything.” Over the years, I have often come back to this form of ignorance, which I often term “impassioned ignorance,” where individuals, for whatever reason, refuse to change their views in the face of information.

While not new and not inherently destructive (Will Sorr’s The Unpersuadables takes a more positive view, for instance), this impassioned ignorance seems especially destructive today, whether in the rhetoric of anti-vaxxers, science-deniers, those vilifying other races and ethnic groups, and those peddling conspiracy theories like QAnon. Amid fake news and post-truth rhetoric, impassioned ignorance is flourishing.

And I think Camus’ warning is as important as ever, though like the plague itself, addressing ignorance presents an seemingly impossible challenge.

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