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  • Reason, Feeling, and Happiness: Bridging an Ancient/Modern Divide in The Plague

Camus is defined by many as an absurdist philosopher of revolt. The Plague, however, shows him working rigorously through a well-known division between ancient (Aristotelian) and modern (Kantian) ethics concerning the relation of reason, feeling, and happiness. Kant and Aristotle would agree, however, in their judgment of many characters and actions in The Plague: the novel provides realistic insights into a philosophical agreement between these supposed oppositions. In particular, both philosophers would agree concerning the relative goodness and relative happiness of Joseph Grand and Raymond Rambert. The illustration of this agreement proves Camus is valorizing a traditional ethic.

A novel is never anything but a philosophy expressed in images. And in a good novel the philosophy has disappeared into the images.1

“But, damn it, Doctor, can’t you see it’s a matter of common human feeling? . . . You’re using the language of abstraction, not of the heart; you live in a world of abstractions.”

The doctor glanced up at the statue of the Republic . . . 2


The relation of reason to feeling provides one of the great divisions between ancient and modern ethics. For example, for Aristotle, virtue is the measure of the moral worth of the person, and the virtues are stable dispositions that include both affective and intellectual aspects. [End Page 350] For Kant, on the other hand, one’s particular feelings are either that from which we must abstract to judge the moral worth of an act—so feelings have no significance in making moral judgments—or they are a constant hindrance to a person’s proper moral activity. That they have no significance seems implied when Kant says “a sympathetic temper . . . has no genuinely moral worth”;3 that they are a constant hindrance or temptation might appear to be the case a little later when he says that “the will stands, so to speak, at a crossroads between its a priori principle, which is formal, and its a posteriori motive, which is material” (FMM, p. 400). In his later writings the differential sourcing of the will’s possible principles seems to judge as amoral—at best—Aristotle’s unity of intellectual and affective aspects in the person’s disposition, since “habit belongs to the physical nature of the determination of the will.”4 By contrast, for Aristotle, choice following correct reasoning about one’s moral situation is insufficient, even if one’s feelings are, on a singular occasion, in accord with that correct reasoning and choice; neither the person nor the choice is fully virtuous until it flows from the disposition.

This contrast is connected to a second great division between Kant and Aristotle (and between most moderns and other ancients), namely on the relation between virtue and happiness. For Kant, happiness is an ideal of the imagination, “a maximum of wellbeing in my present, and in every future, state,” all the elements of which “are without exception empirical” (FMM, p. 418).5 This means that happiness, as the summation of all of our empirical desires, might look even more like the constant counterweight to moral action based on the a priori principle, except that this ideal is so indefinite not only as to what must be included but also to what extent, and when and how each element (some of which have not yet been invented) is to be included, that we can have no sure idea of the direction in which this summation of all our material motives actually points. We might even hope that, far from being counter to each other, following the moral law might always accord with happiness. For, while we can be sure when a particular desire is being thwarted by the categorical imperative, we could never be sure that our imaginary ideal is being so thwarted.6

Furthermore, Kant’s definition of happiness naturally leads him to affirm another modern passion as natural: the desire to be free from all constraints by others (even though this is impossible in any society). Thus, “our condition is such that in certain respects we are necessarily unhappy.”7 The impossibility or indeterminacy of happiness seems absolute; therefore its connection to the work of reason in directing [End Page 351] moral action seems perfectly indeterminable, though it often looks to imagination as if the moral law stands athwart the desire for happiness, since in fact it does thwart some particular desires whose ends are imminently achievable, and are imagined as parts of happiness at the moment.

Aristotle has no such difficulties: happiness is “an activity of the soul in accord with virtue and if there are several with the best and most complete, in a complete life” (NE 1098a16–19);8 and this happiness is the final end of all action and choice. Virtue is that which allows one to make the best use of the particular gifts nature and fortune have given us. However limited they may be, the virtuous person knows how to best utilize and organize not only the external goods of life (1101a3–7) but also his physical, mental, and emotional particulars. In fact, his own achievement of virtue will differ from another’s such achievement precisely in many of these, for each virtuous person is born into a personally particular socio-historical-familial nexus and must have become aware of those excessive (and deficient) desires to which he was most subject and aimed contrary to them (1109b1–18) in order to achieve his more perfect disposition—a disposition in which his desires are no longer excessive or deficient.

Despite these strong seeming contrasts, Kant and Aristotle would have significant agreement in their judgment of which characters and actions are good, as well as which are happy. Both the agreements and the difficulties may be illustrated by examining some characters and actions from Albert Camus’s novel The Plague. Though some consider The Plague mere allegory about resistance to a common evil, that Camus’s contemplation of such allegorical bones exhibits his own consideration of these well-known problematic relations of thinking to feeling and happiness to morality is patent. Moreover, the novelistic approach to these issues—which gives us not otherworldly thought experiments but a picture of individual lives engaged in moral choices—allows us realistic insights into a philosophical agreement between these supposed oppositions. Showing that Camus is both considering and attempting to resolve these important philosophical issues, and considering the import of his novel’s hero as the resolution of this ancient/modern quarrel, requires we question the usual interpretation of Camus as the absurdist philosopher of revolt. [End Page 352]


That Camus has precisely this ancient/modern division in mind can be seen in his opening descriptions. The narrator notes the “completely modern” habits, passions, and vices of the townspeople in a way that seems to echo how Aristotle might judge them. For example, their way of loving ranges from “consum[ing] one another rapidly in what is called ‘the act of love’ or else settl[ing] down to a mild habit of conjugality. We seldom find a mean between these extremes.” We do not need Aristotle to point out that these extremes of habitual feeling and action constitute opposed vices between which one might hope to find whatever constitutes the virtuous habits of married love; however, this wording certainly calls up that famous ancient doctrine. But this ancient echo quickly becomes complicated by the modern overtones of Kant’s later criticism of acting from disposition, without noticing or being moved by the command of reason: the narrator notes the town’s busyness, adding that, “For lack of time and thinking, people have to love one another without knowing much about it.” Altogether, the town is such that “you can get through the days there without trouble, once you have formed habits. And since habits are precisely what our town encourages, all is for the best . . . and, after a while, you go complacently to sleep there” (pp. 4–6). Such unthinking sleepwalking is precisely what Kant seems to have had in mind in his criticism of morality as dispositional: it is the robotic mechanism at work, abrogating the activity of the principle of pure practical reason. The narrator’s description, even of those few who might hit the mean, seems to bring them as well under the shadow of Kant’s critique: theirs is a zombie virtue; the modern city encourages such busy mindless activity.

The narrator suggests an unlikely “hero” (pp. 126–27, 130) for the story of Oran: Joseph Grand, a poor, temporary assistant municipal clerk with “constriction of the aorta” who lives “in rue Faidherbe” (p. 17).9 We meet him after he has just saved Monsieur Cottard—“a man with something pretty serious on his conscience” (p. 54)—from suicide. When Dr. Rieux says “somebody should watch Cottard tonight,” Grand responds, “I can’t say I really know him, but one’s got to help a neighbor, hasn’t one?” (p. 19). It becomes clear that Grand does this despite the fact that while Cottard “always seemed to want to start a conversation,” he really should have seen that Grand had “some private work” (p. 32)—one “connected with ‘the growth of a personality’” (p. 41)—that involved considerable quiet study. These descriptions of [End Page 353] Grand seem a perfect illustration of the will that “is good through its willing alone” (FMM, p. 394). His activities precisely illustrate Kant’s examples of two imperfect duties—to cultivate our talents and to come to the aid of others (FMM, p. 423); he chooses to watch over Cottard out of recognition of the moral law, not out of any particular liking for him, and clearly he much prefers other activities, in which he habitually spends his evenings. He also seems to perfectly illustrate here what Kant calls “moral apathy,” where “the feelings arising from sensible impressions lose their influence on moral feeling only because respect for law is more powerful than all those feelings together.”10

Grand attempts to fulfill both of these meritorious duties despite having been disfavored by fate and having received but “niggardly provision” (FMM, p. 394) both from nature and city officials. Though the work of his good heart is constricted by his slender gifts of physical and intellectual nature as well as his impoverished early upbringing and continuing penury, throughout the novel he nonetheless fulfills even imperfect duties whenever they appear; and when they conflict, as in this case, Grand judges correctly that as aid to his neighbor is needed immediately, so development of his talent should wait. What Grand aims at in his work—a novel, which is a symbol of good will (and thus the growth of his personality as well as that of the character in his story)––is perfection.11 The narrator rightly calls him “our worthy fellow citizen” (p. 43, emphasis added; also see p. 97), whom the language of conventional sympathy is “incapable of describing” (pp. 130–31), because his activity involves a source beyond the ken of such sympathetic feelings.12 Grand seems to be, then, a man who has transformed his original desire for the unlimited freedom that imaginary modern happiness entails into that more complex (and lucidly rational) desire for a freedom fulfilled (and really fulfillable) under moral laws, in his own much constricted life in Oran in 194.

His work—connected as it is with “the growth of a personality”—is, it also becomes clear, his happiness.13 So it is strange that precisely when the narrator names Grand the “hero,” who has “to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal,” he thinks he is rendering “to the truth its due, . . . and to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness” (p. 130). This last claim either makes nonsense of what Grand does—for he does, it seems, give up his happy activity of study not only for Cottard but also to help Tarrou and the doctor’s volunteer forces later in the novel—thereby putting modern happiness second to [End Page 354] that which makes him the hero of the work. On the other hand, if we accept the narrator’s rating of happiness and heroism, we must regard Grand’s choice of those actions he does take as less noble than staying happily at home. Thus the putative hero would be a hero by virtue of a failure of moral judgment.14 The only other possibility is that by “the noble claim of happiness” Rieux means precisely what Aristotle means by happiness—but this is not in agreement with Rieux’s other uses of the term, as we shall see. If this last were the case, as I think it is, we would see that the shape of Grand’s happiness changes due to fluctuations of circumstance and the concomitant changes in what is required by virtue: his heroism and his happiness are one. Thus the doctor’s distinction collapses in his case, as Aristotle would have said. The narrator’s inability to be clear on this matter is another indication of his peculiar unreliability, on which more is forthcoming.

The narrator’s description here of Grand is not empty nonsense but perfectly backward, if Grand is, as I have been arguing, the picture of good will. He does not act as he does out of “goodness of heart,” if we understand by that a love based on feeling or inclination (as we might suspect the doctor of thinking),15 but it is true only if we mean “practical love”—a love “residing in the will” and the only love that can be commanded (FMM, p. 399). His ideal of perfection in the development of the personality is hardly absurd, but in fact illustrates Kant’s later insight that we must constantly renew our affirmation to make the vagaries of the specific acts of our Wilkür (or free choice) subject to the pure a priori law of Wille, just as Grand is constantly rebeginning his book. Kant, for example, says this: “We must begin with the incessant counteraction against [the propensity to evil in Willkür],”16 while the good disposition as a whole “stands in the place of this series of approximations carried on without end” (Rel., p. 61n); further, “virtue is always in progress and yet always begins at the beginning” (MPV, p. 409). Finally, the narrator’s placement of happiness above “heroism,” when by the latter term he seems to picture Kantian duty for the sake of duty,17 not only reverses Kant’s ordering of our two unconditioned goods but also misses Grand’s own self-understanding: he leaves his happy work because “one has to help one’s neighbor.”

Contrary to Grand, the narrator, later revealed to be Rieux, is obviously one we should call “unreliable.” Perhaps, then, the fact that he seems to be the image of another modern ethical theory, or perhaps several, is less than accidental. He seems to consider reason’s only function to be producing hypothetical imperatives for purposes all of the ends [End Page 355] of which are given by inclination.18 In the meeting of the city health committee he seems to want to meet all inclinations—those who know it is the plague and want to take adequate measures to control it, and those who don’t want to admit it is plague because the news would be upsetting to the populace (as would the measures required to control it). Since each individual has different inclinations, he attempts, as far as possible, not to interfere with anyone’s processes of achievement, just as he doesn’t interfere with Cottard and Rambert conspiring to escape the quarantine. The satisfaction of such inclinations he regards as happiness, which he hopes each one can achieve.

Nonetheless, once the quarantine is declared, he fulfills the duties of his position, which include abstracting the sick from their families and quarantining those members who had been in immediate contact with the sick. In most of his thinking he appears to be reliably utilitarian, wishing to allow or produce as much happiness as possible. His duties are understood as being set by his task, as the necessities of a hypothetical imperative which he has been given or undertaken: being a doctor. In Kantian terms he seems entirely heteronomously motivated, and incapable of considering that there is another possibility for the will, which autonomously assigns itself its duties: thus his incapacity to see Grand as he is or explain his actions and feelings correctly.

Grand seems also to capture some significant elements of Aristotle’s ethics. By his own admission his happiness consists principally in a form of theoria (NE 1178b29–32); for this reason, he has less need of external goods, and worries less about them (1179a1–9). Grand’s intellectual efforts are engaged in for their own sake, and though he has not much in the line of intellectual gifts, he makes the best use of his constricted natural and social conditions precisely by always performing virtuous actions and contemplating excellence (1101a5–10, 1100b18–20). His immediate and reliably regular responses regarding all such actions indicate that these activities are unhindered—and these unimpeded activities of the best natural state are pleasant to him (1153a10–15); though of course, as Aristotle says while discussing courageous acts, such pleasure in the activity “is not found in all virtues, except as it attains to the end” (1117b16). His continual practices of meditation on the kalon life and personality in the construction of his novel, his continual efforts to perfect that vision, and perfectly to express it, have shaped his feelings in such a way that he grasps the fullness of a moral situation more quickly and adequately than his intellectual superiors who are less virtuous. He is not a mere everyday schmuck or someone whose [End Page 356] small intellectual efforts are “a distraction,” which raises “the question of whether Grand can adequately articulate a sustained, responsible moral engagement with the contingencies generated by the disease.”19 They aren’t a distraction; he does sustain responsible moral engagement, and he does so without letting go of the highest and happiest activity available to human nature—contemplation of the good. Hats off, gentlemen! Grand, both before and during the plague, does everything in his power to achieve the good in as sustained, responsible, and articulate a manner as nature and circumstance allow him.

Camus illustrates Grand’s use of his capacities with brilliant counterpoint. One day, when our clerk brings Dr. Rieux the death figures from his city office, the following exchange takes place:

“Well,” [Rieux] said, “perhaps we’d better make up our minds to call this disease by its name. . . .”

“Quite so, quite so,” Grand said as he went down the stairs at the doctor’s heels. “I, too, believe in calling things by their name. But what’s the name in this case?”

“That I shan’t say, and anyhow you wouldn’t gain anything by knowing.”

“You see,” Grand smiled. “It’s not so easy after all!”

(p. 40)20

One cannot imagine Grand, were he the doctor, answering Rieux as he has been answered here. After describing Grand’s difficulty in finding his words, yet his continual dogged efforts to become more exact—where exacting clearly means making the hearer feel as well as understand the truth he is expressing (pp. 99, 127–29)21—the doctor considers that “pestilence on the great scale could [not] befall a town where people like Grand were to be found, obscure functionaries cultivating harmless eccentricities” (p. 45). But Grand’s activity is not a mere eccentricity—except perhaps in the scientific, sociological sense, which tells us nothing about the truth of human nature. In the very next scene, at the aforesaid meeting of the medical society, Rieux, who had sent away for plague serum a few days earlier, explicitly refuses the word, but uses some very exacting medical language that carefully leaves the question of whether it is exactly plague unanswered; it is a masterpiece of obfuscation by detailed exactness (pp. 47–49).22 Rieux’s sympathy and dread, perhaps—or some feeling that he must remove anything at all that allows or expresses emotion in order to achieve perfect lucidity—obfuscates both his desire to be clear (with Grand), and his ability to be so (at the meeting of the city health committee). [End Page 357]

Thus, in this minor civil servant, small in natural gifts and external means, Camus also presents a version of Aristotle’s most happy, virtuous human life, a version that exhibits its permanent availability, even under the inauspicious conditions of the thoroughly modern city (though one without the additional sleep-inducing artifacts we have since discovered to be indispensable—for thoughtlessness). He is one who, in every free moment, when the physical and moral demands of being a citizen in a human city allow him, turns to that activity which is most final, self-sufficient, and divine: thus the best, most pleasant, and happiest life for man (NE 1177b20–26, 11178a3–8, 1178b7–23). And he has more free moments than most because he does not work, as do the other citizens of Oran, “solely with the object of getting rich” (p. 4), but only so much as is required for his needs. “Even if human happiness is not possible without external goods, we must not think that it will require many and great possessions. For self-sufficiency does not depend on superabundance—neither does judgment or action—and it is possible to do good deeds without ruling land and sea” (1179a1–4). Such is Joseph Grand. This is all in his name: his is the common grandness—both Aristotle and Kant could see it.


If Grand illustrates in himself both Kantian and Aristotelian versions of the morally good person and his acts, perhaps we can begin to reorient our philosophical distinctions so as to bring ancient and modern back together. Let us begin with Kant’s idea of “the worthy purpose of existence, for which . . . reason is quite properly designed” (FMM, p. 396). Reason is given to certain finite creatures in order that they might produce in themselves a good will, and such a will, indeed the capacity to act under such a determination—reason’s own law—raises the creature that has it sublimely above what we might call mere nature, which has no capacity even to conceive of the law upon which it operates.23 “Consciousness of this determination produces reverence” (pp. 401–2n), and because of this reason-produced reverence “a rational impartial observer can never feel approval in contemplating the uninterrupted prosperity of a being graced by no touch of . . . a good will” (p. 393).

This means that as a complete human being—a hylomorphic composite in Aristotle’s terms, a finite rational will in Kant’s—no one can be fully content with himself except insofar as he knows himself to be acting in accord with the categorical imperative from a settled principle which [End Page 358] makes that imperative superior to any other hypothetical imperative that reason may consider for the accomplishment of his empirical ends. Since Kant has defined happiness in the peculiarly modern way—the satisfaction of all one’s inclinations—we need another term for this more complete satisfaction of the whole person, whose happy satisfaction is, at the same time, not judged by his own correctly operating reason to be unworthy, thereby causing rational discontent at his own material and emotional fulfillment. Perhaps the best word, since it almost has good will embedded in it, is eu-daimon-ia.24

This Kantian eudaimonia depends upon and embodies a good will, for only so can we have that element of happiness Kant calls rational self-love. In fact, this phrase—“rational self-love”—seems to both limit self-love to activities within the purview of the moral law and its concomitant self-respect, and fill pure practical reason’s skeletal work with material muscle and body (self-love); it summarizes, in a way, both form and content of Kantian eudaimonia; in it we see how practical reason gives the will its end (the highest good), and fills in that true object as the “idea of the whole of all ends”—a world in which all those worthy to be happy are happy.25 And if we, as Joe Grand, shape our desires and recalibrate our needs in accord with such a will’s understanding of both the changing circumstances of our material conditions and the changing needs of those rational beings around us—our neighbors and fellow citizens—we will find that we have perhaps as much of that feeling of happiness at the satisfaction of our material ends as it is possible for one with our particular limitations of nature and history to have, with our particular neighbors and fellow citizens. And if we do not—if things go badly for us, as they did, at the end, for Priam—we still will hold on to the one element of an Aristotelian happiness, and one element of Kant’s complete good, which even under bad fates is within our control, and through which we may again become more completely happy (see NE 1101a 7–14).

Further, this now Kantianly defined eudaimonia is something that every finite rational will must be aiming at under the rubric of “das einzige und das ganze . . . Gut” (the sole and complete good) (FMM, p. 396). For, being finite, we must will the fulfillment of many desires; indeed the incapacity of the finite will not to do so appears in Kant’s argument for both of the imperfect duties he discusses—to develop our talents and to come to the aid of others when able (p. 423). As finite wills we require such things as help and developed talents and cannot consistently will against them. Thus our will would contradict [End Page 359] itself in attempting to universalize a maxim against either. The happiness of others and the perfection of our own capacities to set and achieve many purposes (let us call these excellences technê, epistemê, dianoia, sophia) is a requirement of the good will. We might then best think of happiness as the matter and the categorical imperative as the form of this complete human good we call Kantian eudaimonia; this is the true, single and complete, most final and self-sufficient good of all finite rational creatures.26

In the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant says that virtue is not “the entire and perfect good as the object of the faculty of desire of rational finite beings. For this, happiness is also required . . . even in the judgment of an impartial reason, which impartially regards persons in the world as ends in themselves.”27 Every virtuous person, then, wills this complete good for every other person. Recognition of others as ends in themselves entails our aid in their achievement of their morally licit happiness. Things we imagine to be parts of our happiness that cannot be brought into complete order within this form cannot really be elements of eudaimonia, however pleased their imagined achievement may make us. Clearly, according to Kant, imagination may supply us with wildly divergent possibilities from among those ends we have actually achieved or can achieve, particularly in a world of plague—but that is not a criticism of either his or Aristotle’s moral position (who advises that the suggestions of pleasure are those we must aim against in becoming virtuous [NE 1109b7–13]). And if we are made unhappy by comparing such imaginations with our actual situation, or with the situation we may make actual for ourselves in accord with the categorical imperative, who is it then who causes our unhappiness? And how, precisely, have we done so? Joseph Grand, small as his life may be due to the constrictions of nature and circumstance, is, then, far from being eccentric, or one for whom we should feel sorry; his story is rather the story of a man who has hit the mark of human life under very inauspicious conditions; this is equally true whether we measure by Kant or Aristotle. Grand is virtuous, and he is as happy as he can be in such circumstances, and these two facts are intimately connected. To imagine otherwise is to destroy his actual historical person. To consider that his choices are somehow torn between his happiness and virtue is not to understand the way he is living, or the happiness he confesses (so eccentrically, for a modern Oranais) in his poverty.

Let us remember here that the impersonality of nature, indeed its often seeming antipersonality, as symbolized by the plague––not a [End Page 360] particularly modern phenomenon––and as practiced by the Nazis, who are understood as the referent of the allegory, does not make the world absurd for either Aristotle or Kant. It does not do so for Joe Grand either; his own life is worthwhile for the good he aims at, achieves, and contemplates. Suicide is not his essential question; it is not a question for him at all. He is shocked by Cottard’s attempt. Rather, his life is about those intellectual and moral excellences that I have pointed out—and for their own sake. The doctor confesses that “there are times when the only feeling I have is one of mad revolt” (p. 202), but the one who is named hero of the novel does not fall into such a feeling. If the doctor speaks for Camus, as many commentators imply or presume, then his narrator’s choice of hero is a confession of the failure of his own absurdist philosophy, the madness of rebellion, and the continuing import and value of an ancient and rational philosophical tradition.28

Considering further, we see that Camus is a vociferous critic of modern culture. This, too, is implied in his opening descriptions of Oran as a “completely modern” city—one “without intimations” (p. 4). The people, we have seen, form habits, seldom virtuous—which would seem to mean they are morally corrupt, except those few who hit the mean. On the other hand, it seems all these habits are formed without much moral knowledge (about love, for example), and they are driven by the usual modern socioeconomic dispositions without moral reasoning ever waking up. So, one might consider, as does Kant, that the disposition is indeed a physical determination—grown so strong as to make reason’s alternative determination unhearable—and it is aided in the modern (even pre–smart phone) city by the constant hurry of business and lack of time. The town as a social enterprise is built as it is physically—to deny entrance to beauty and wonder.29

If the disposition is indeed physically determinative and needs nothing further, and everything in modern culture stands in the way of reason obtaining hearing in the soul, we might consider all such citizens as acting in ignorance, though not voluntarily, and so not blameworthy (NE 1110a1, 1110b18). Aristotle went so far as to suggest that upbringing in a bad culture might ruin a person for virtue: “It makes a great difference—indeed all the difference—whether one becomes accustomed to good or evil actions from youth” (1103b22–25); and the practice of such virtuous actions is the aim of every legislator, and every good constitution (1103b2–6). Perhaps, then, the upbringing of the modern city produces an invincible ignorance—which Aristotle might be attributing to barbarian cultures, which do not know the end.30 The book is not just [End Page 361] an allegory for Nazism, then; Nazism is merely an extreme symptomatic expression of modern culture. Expect the rats to loose themselves again “for the bane and the enlightening of men” (p. 287).

This story about the most complete and final good of human life unites Aristotle and Kant in a well-defined eudaimonia, or rational and successful self-love (within the limits of one’s own real life). Now, inside this happy unity, let us reexamine the issue of the moral status of the passions and acting from a rational/passional disposition formed through choice. Here we may be helped by a brief look at another character, Raymond Rambert, a journalist from “one of the leading Paris dailies” (p. 11). When he finds himself trapped in Oran by the quarantine, he seeks out the doctor to try to get a certificate of health allowing him an exit, since he doesn’t “belong here” (pp. 80, 82). He is, at this point in the novel, a clear exemplification of one who imagines his (Kantian) happiness is opposed to the demand of the moral law, since his happiness, symbolized by “his wife. . . . Well, she wasn’t exactly his wife but it came to the same thing” (p. 79) is in Paris.31 After being refused by the doctor, not on moral grounds, but on grounds Kant would call “technically rational,”32 Rambert begins a long and oft-restarted process, through some smugglers and black marketeers, of attempting to escape the city and get back to “his wife”—or what comes to the same thing. After one such weeklong process ends in a breakdown, Rambert realizes that “all this time he had practically forgotten the woman he loved, so absorbed had he been in trying to find a rift in the walls” (p. 147). While figuring and acting on the long, linked chain of hypothetical imperatives (each with its own particular end) that he had hoped would end in the achievement his greater (imagined assertoric) end, he had forgotten that more distant and encompassing end entirely. Every particular end is more definite, more immediate, and more capable of ordering action, as well as more clearly kept in mind than his imagined complete and perfectly “suiting” happiness.

What Rambert confesses about the kind and quality of his passionate and rational concentration on his beloved, and what he says of her love for him (“we suit each other perfectly”), shows his disposition regarding her—and other people—is as means (perhaps mutual means—as in business transactions) to the satisfaction of desire. This is one kind of human love, as is that of equal mutual pleasure, which both Kant and Aristotle recognize. But because this is his disposition, a passional disposition affirmed by his reason, which is set to finding means to its achievement—and reset to the same end several times, so a practiced [End Page 362] disposition—it is difficult for him to see the wrongness of what he is about. This love, based on use or pleasure according to Aristotle, based in inclination according to Kant, is insufficient for the human good. However, numerous members of Rambert’s circle encourage this blindness; the doctor wishes him good luck in his efforts, and neither he nor Tarrou does anything to stand in the way.

In their discussion beneath the statue of the Republic (p. 82, and epigraph above), neither Rambert nor the doctor seems to note or understand the “common ground” (p. 83) upon which, as rational beings, they already stand. The Republic is merely a statue under which they stand, and at which the doctor glances—it is not pointed out by the doctor, nor does his discussion with Rambert suggest that this statue has some connection to an abstract ideal, as Plato would have held. That ideal and that ground are the realm of ends in which each citizen is both legislator and subject to the legislation of every other rational being (FMM, pp. 437–38). Only by acting in accord with maxims that can be universally legislated can he treat all other rational beings (including his beloved) as ends, rather than mere means.33 We see this puzzle finally become somewhat clear to him as he works alongside the other citizens and, after setting up his escape, decides to stay: “I know that I belong here whether I want to or not. This business is everybody’s business.” His passions, however, are still not in line—as Grand’s are—with the moral law that unites him to his fellow citizens. When asked about “her,” he confesses that

his views hadn’t changed, but if he went away, he would feel ashamed of himself, and that would embarrass his relations with the woman he loved.

Showing more animation, Rieux told him that was sheer nonsense; there was nothing shameful in preferring happiness.

“Certainly,” Rambert replied. “But it may be shameful to be happy by oneself.”

(p. 194)

Rambert’s virtuous choice here is not entirely virtuous. Aristotle proposes just this sort of person as “bearing the closest resemblance” to virtue because he is “motivated by a sense of shame, and avoidance of reproach” (NE 1116a26–29). He does not yet have, as Aristotle says is required for virtue, “the right reason” for his action, namely that it be “chosen for its own sake . . . from a firm and unchangeable character” (1105a30–35). Kant also recognizes this sort of disposition as imperfect; specifically, Kant calls this case impurity, for “although the maxim is [End Page 363] indeed good in respect of its object (the intended observance of the law), . . . it is not yet purely moral; . . . it has not, as it should have, adopted the law alone as its all-sufficient incentive.”34 Since the fullness of Kant’s picture requires that we aim at the happiness of others in accord with the moral principle, we see that Rambert has also moved closer to perfection than he was earlier, according to Kant’s scheme: he is right to be ashamed of happiness by himself. When, as the plague is ending, Rieux tells Rambert, “It’s up to you now to prove that you are right” (p. 270), he clearly is voicing something Kant would think that we all must prove, in our own hope: that the life directed by the moral law can deliver the flower of happiness.

Grand, however, gives every indication that can be given in the phenomenal world of operating on the moral law as his all-sufficient incentive; he is the more perfect member of the kingdom of ends, as Kant recognizes; he has so frequently chosen this that his feelings have been shaped into agreement with this incentive. Thus the moral feeling of respect is his lead feeling—the lead passion, behind which all others line up; his choices flow from this disposition of the passions. And since the moral feeling can only be aroused by the work of pure reason, it is not possible that this more perfect disposition is merely the robotic machinery of nature, or even less, a zombie virtue. For one only has the feeling of respect under practical reason’s present action. Grand also exhibits with his fellow citizens, from Cottard and Rambert to Rieux, that concord—homonoia, oneness of mind—which Aristotle expects “in those matters in which it is possible for both partners or all to attain their goals” (NE 1167a28–30)—even when they are not fully ready to be such partners themselves, as none of those others are. Thus both Kant and Aristotle agree that Grand’s disposition is morally superior to that near approach to virtue illustrated, finally, by Rambert: Joseph Grand is “our worthy fellow citizen,” he waits for us in that Republic to which all rational creatures by their nature tend, and the achievement of which is our complete happiness as those individual, historically particular, embodied persons we are. [End Page 364]

Gene Fendt
University of Nebraska at Kearney


1. Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays, trans. Ellen Conroy Kennedy, ed. Philip Thody (New York: Vintage, 1970), p. 199.

2. Albert Camus, The Plague, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Random House, 1975), p. 82; hereafter cited by page number.

3. Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. H. J. Paton (New York: Harper, 2009), p. 398; hereafter abbreviated FMM and cited by Akademie pagination.

4. Immanuel Kant, Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, trans. James Ellington (Indianapolis: LLA, 1964), p. 409 (Akademie pagination); hereafter abbreviated MPV.

5. This definition of happiness is quintessentially modern. See John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, ed. Oskar Piest (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957): “by happiness I mean pleasure and the absence of pain” (p. 10); this is echoed and then reduced by Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1961): “experiencing strong feelings of pleasure” (p. 25).

6. Kant’s examples (FMM, pp. 399, 418) of the impossibility of knowing whether a particular empirical end (say, cheesecake, or wealth) fits in with the universal empirical end of happiness or runs counter to it can also be applied to whether following the moral law in any particular situation fits in with our imagined universal empirical end or runs counter to it. We can’t know.

7. Allen W. Wood, Kant’s Ethical Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 254.

8. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Martin Ostwald (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 1999); hereafter abbreviated NE and cited according to Bekker pagination.

9. Robert Solomon, in Dark Feelings, Grim Thoughts: Experience and Reflection in Camus and Sartre (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), considers this heroic suggestion “ludicrous”: “Dr. Rieux is obviously trying to put one over on us (a point that several commentators seem not to notice)” (p. 120; see also p. 127).

10. MPV, p. 408. Kant continues, explaining that “lively sympathy with good” or “enthusiasm” is what must be moderated in the exercise of virtue; an excess of such emotion “leaves one languid” (p. 409); clearly the deficiency of this emotion is also a bad thing, as it would be counter to “a deliberate and firm resolution” (p. 409). Moral apathy, then, cannot mean lack of moral feeling or sympathy with the good. It means, rather, apathy to all sensibly aroused feelings in the face of the moral good.

11. A perfection “such that from the very first words it will be possible to say: ‘Hats off!’” (p. 99). Grand is speaking of his novel, but the work on the novel is clearly that around which we are meant to see the growth of his own personality. Significantly, when Rieux says the first sentence has “whetted his curiosity, . . . Grand told him he’d got it all wrong” (p. 99). The activity of the good will raises awe, respect, or reverence, not curiosity or some other appetite.

12. David Sherman, in Camus (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), vaguely hints in the direction of some agreement with Kant, claiming Camus has a “two tiered” approach to ethics in which the “first tier, the primary one, is in some sense transcendental” (p. 164, emphasis in the original; also see p. 165). He offers no further details concerning this Kantian theme.

13. And so, deep in the plague, he can say, “Happily, I have my work” (p. 96). Recently, Matthew Sharpe has also argued that for Camus the virtues “are necessary” if a person is “to live happily, fulfilling their nature” as a political and rational being.” Matthew Sharpe, “Camus and the Virtues (with and beyond Sherman),” Philosophy Today 61, no. 3 (Summer 2017): 679–708 (682–83).

14. John Krapp takes this position on Grand: “His uncompromising devotion to his sentence, even while assisting the sanitation squads, continues to distract him . . . [and] prompts the question of whether Grand can adequately articulate a sustained, responsible moral engagement.” John Krapp, “Time and Ethics in Albert Camus’s The Plague,” University of Toronto Quarterly: A Canadian Journal of the Humanities 68, no. 2 (Spring 1999): 655–76 (668); hereafter abbreviated “TEAC.”

15. In the course of describing his “obscure hero” the doctor notes that in choosing Grand, he gives “this chronicle its character, which is intended to be that of a narrative made with good feelings—that is to say, feelings that are neither demonstrably bad nor overcharged with emotion in the ugly manner of a stage-play” (p. 130). This is less than half of Aristotle’s idea of virtue.

16. Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, trans. Theodore M. Greene and Hoyt H. Hudson (New York: Harper Torch, 1960), p. 46, also see p. 60; hereafter abbreviated Rel.

17. For example, the way to deal with the plague, or evil, “was to do your job as it should be done” (p. 39); for Kant, everyone’s job is to follow the moral law: that, indeed, would be the end of the plague/evil.

18. Echoing another source of modernity, David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 2nd ed., ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), writes, “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions” (p. 415).

19. “TEAC,” p. 668, also see p. 672.

20. Colin Davis discusses this scene in “Camus’s La Peste: Sanitation, Rats, and Messy Ethics,” The Modern Language Review 102, no. 4 (October 2007): 1008–20. He says Rieux’s earlier dicta about telling the truth “come adrift,” frustrating the novel’s drive for “simplicity and clarity” (pp. 1016–17), but he does not analyze what this might show about the differences between the two characters. Grand works at both truthful precision and emotional rightness; Rieux . . . comes adrift—the passive voice is perfect here: he is moved by other considerations.

21. Sherman claims Grand is “looking for words that function transparently as a sort of ‘photograph’” (Sherman, Camus, p. 118), but Grand clearly wants something much more; he throws out one version of his first sentence because the sibilants are disturbing, and another because the rhythm puts a hitch in the horse’s trot. This is about feeling at least as much as intellectual clarity. Intellectual clarity alone is insufficient for excellence—in writing and in life.

22. Krapp says that Rieux “postpones using the word until he is fairly certain it accurately denotes. . . . He wants to use language responsibly” (“TEAC,” p. 663). But this is false; Rieux had already sent away for serum and named the disease to Castel in the previous days. Rieux is not the moral hero, and if he “speaks for Camus”—a daring presumption about a literary work, which most of the scholarly literature on the novel accepts—so much the worse for Camus. Rieux is, perhaps precisely because of his inconcinnities regarding feelings, not a thoroughly trustworthy narrator.

23. “Yet there is one thing in our soul which we cannot cease from regarding with the highest wonder, when we view it properly, and for which admiration is not only legitimate but even exalting, and that is the original moral predisposition itself in us” (Rel., p. 44).

24. Kant puts it this way: “No man who is not indifferent to morality can take pleasure in himself, can indeed escape a bitter dissatisfaction with himself, when he is conscious of maxims which do not agree with the moral law in him. One might call that rational self-love which prevents the adulteration of the incentives of the will by other causes of happiness” (Rel., p. 41n). Note Kant’s phrase, “other causes of happiness” besides rational self-love, implies what I am saying about the more complete (Kantian) eudaimonia including both rational (a priori) and material elements: “alle Vermischung anderer Ursachen der Zufriedenheit aus den Folgen seiner Handlungen (unter dem Namen einer dadurch sich zu verschaffenden Glückseligkeit) mit den Triebfedern der Willkür verhindert” (pp. 694–95n).

25. Immanuel Kant, “On the Common Saying: That May Be Correct in Theory, But It Is of No Use in Practice,” in Practical Philosophy, ed. Mary J. Gregor (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 273–309 (280n).

26. Stephen Engstrom has called this connection of elements in the complete good “Kant’s hylomorphic account of willing” in “Virtue and Vice in Aristotle and Kant,” in Pavlos Kontos, ed., Evil in Aristotle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 222–39 (228). An earlier essay, “Happiness and the Highest Good,” in Aristotle, Kant and the Stoics, ed. Stephen Engstrom and Jennifer Whiting (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) put it similarly: “Glückseligkeit can be rationally conceived only through the idea of virtue” (p. 106). Thanks to Engstrom for supplying the newer paper before publication.

27. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956), p. 111.

28. That Camus is an absurdist, that suicide is the one serious philosophical problem, that permanent rebellion is the answer required by the human condition are the standard tropes by which he is summarized. See, for instance, the entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

29. “Oran is grafted on to a unique landscape, . . . ringed with luminous hills and above a perfectly shaped bay. All we may regret is the town’s being so disposed that it turns its back on the bay, with the result that it’s impossible to see the sea, you always have to go look for it” (p. 6).

30. See Aristotle, Politics, in Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon, trans. Benjamin Jowett (New York: Random House, 1941), 1252a32–34, 1255a 20–22.

31. That she works as a symbol of Kantian happiness for Camus cannot be doubted. Rambert never gives her a definite description (just as we cannot do for happiness), or even the definite article: “The truth is I wasn’t brought into the world to write newspaper articles. But it’s quite likely I was brought into the world to live with a woman. That’s reasonable enough, isn’t it?” “The truth . . . is that she and I have been together only a short time, and we suit each other perfectly.” After their discussion, which includes this paper’s epigraph concerning the Republic, the doctor muses, “Yes, the journalist was right in refusing to be balked of happiness” (pp. 80–83). As the story continues, the narrator includes parts of “the long, heartrendingly monotonous struggle put up by some obstinate people like Rambert to recover their lost happiness” (p. 131).

32. The doctor says, “I can’t give you that certificate because I don’t know whether you have the disease or not, and even if I did, how could I certify that between the moment of leaving my consulting room and your arrival at the prefect’s office you wouldn’t be infected? And even if I did—” (p. 81).

33. It is not possible that Camus, who wrote his philosophical thesis on Plotinus and Augustine, is unaware of the details of the distinctions the doctor uses to define himself under the statue. He “did not know if he was using the language of reason, but he knew he was using the language of the facts as everybody could see them—which wasn’t necessarily the same thing” (p. 82). The language of the heart (which Rambert accuses him of not understanding) he pointedly does not respond to. Aristotelian concord, or homonoia—a oneness of mind in the realm of action and about judgment of the good (NE 1167a22–67b8)—seems to describe Kant’s idea of such legislation as the idea of a Republic symbolizes.

34. Rel., p. 25, emphasis in the original.

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