Albert Camus and the Decline of the Public Intellectual | Cassandra Voices

Albert Camus and the Decline of the Public Intellectual


But again, and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death.
Albert Camus, The Plague.

Periodically, I am asked about the relationship between law and literature. Therefore, it came as no surprise to be sent a book on that theme, The Meursault Investigation (2013) by the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud. It is a rebuke to the greatest Algerian, or indeed French, writer of the last century, Albert Camus, and in particular his classic novel of 1942, The Outsider.

In fact, Daoud’s account can be read as a form of homage to Camus’s seminal work, taking as it does the murdered Arab as its lynchpin. Nonetheless, there is an implicit critique of Camus’s putative racism or imperialism, or at best, a lack of empathy for the individual killed.

It is most decidedly not univocally hostile, insofar as Daoud – himself the subject of a religious fatwa in his native land – clearly despises what Camus in effect warned against: the rise of extremism, whether religious or secular, as is the theme of his historical novel The Rebel (1952), set during the French Revolution.

Daoud’s book concludes with an idea Camus himself would surely have approved of: how to hold on to the precious commodity of truth? This is a subject dear to my heart too as a practising criminal defence barrister.

There have been other condemnations of Camus. Richard Posner, for instance, argues:

Not only is the Arab victim left nameless, Arab customs and culture are occluded. Mosques, souks, Arabic, the milling throngs of Arabs in the street all are ignored even though Arabs outnumbered Europeans in French Algeria by more than ten to one.[i]

Edward Said also claims that Camus implicitly accepted French control over Algeria in Culture and Imperialism. But to my mind these assessments fall far wide of the mark, and fail to acknowledge the great humanity of the author.

Marxist Critique

Marxist extremists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and his partner Simone de Beauvoir also crucified Camus over this perceived failing. De Beauvoir’s 1960 autobiography, The Prime of Life, expressed a cold-blooded contempt for Camus, seemingly for his independence of mind, and ideas beyond the cult.

I consider Sartre a mediocre philosopher and terrible writer, and view de Beauvoir’s offerings only marginally superior, at least in her feminist tracts. I find her novels uninteresting. In contrast, Camus’s singular voice is both philosophically, and in literary terms, of far greater importance, then and now.

I believe Camus was the defining, and greatest, public intellectual of the last century. More to the point, he is far from obsolescent or useless. In fact his ideas are more relevant than ever. As Daoud’s timely book suggests, he has come right back into focus. So let us address why much of the criticisms directed against him, including those from a position of disappointed absolutism, are wide of the mark.

Camus’s career was meteoric, but short-lived, dying in a car crash at the age of just forty-three, after becoming the youngest, or second youngest after Rudyard Kipling, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Berta Vias-Mahou’s recent work They Were Coming for Him is suffused with premonitions of mortality, and a suggestion in the coda that the car crash would not be an accident, but an assassination by his enemies, who were at that stage plentiful.

It is the story of a man who has taken a stand against violence, the death penalty, and terrorism, and has his life threatened as a result, and even goes on to die in an attack that is arranged to look like a straightforward accident.[ii]

His career consisted, in substance, of three great, but short, novels together with several plays and political tracts, along with numerous journalistic pieces. This output may seem paltry, but as ever, quantity wins out over quality. Each novel is a masterpiece in its own right that has stood the test of time, and the political tracts are rich in philosophical insight, condensing multitudes. The plays are less garlanded, but worthwhile nonetheless.

In literary terms much was achieved, including that last incomplete work of fiction released by his widow long after his death. The First Man (1994) thus acts as a coda and summation of his greatness, and is set in sultry Algeria, his country of origin. The manuscript was actually rescued from the car crash, and explains a hurried journey to a publisher in icy, mid-winter conditions.

It should also be noted that Albert Camus was a Pied Noir, a nickname for the French community of Algeria, doubly despised by mainland French and the indigenous Islamic population of Algeria.

Still today, Pied Noir is a term of abuse, as I once discovered in a hat shop in the south of France, when the owner mistook me for one – a poor, dispossessed Frenchman. This antipathy is also evident in The First Man.

Hatred of Camus was also linked to his quixotic lifestyle as They Were Coming For Him reveals. Purists, Communist or religious, take exception to the tradition of the cosmopolitan intellectual he represents.

The Figure of the Public Intellectual

If Camus is to be defined a great public intellectual this leads to the question: what is a public intellectual, and what benefits does this increasingly rare breed confer?

A public intellectual is not an academic as such. In his time, as now, the world is full of specialist academics operating in their silos. Specialisation brings a tendency to focus exclusively on one or two matters, leaving no room for the big picture. In contrast, the public intellectual is a generalist and synthesiser.

Today, compartmentalisation has reached dizzying levels. The proliferation of often useless non-directional research, with the requirements to publish or perish, creates careers equivalent to battery hens producing eggs. The role of the academic as a generalist, and popular communicator, has been almost completely extinguished.

Above all, it seems to me, a public intellectual should be a communicator. He or she makes complex ideas accessible, stretching the public’s insights, and shocking them if necessary, but never unnecessarily complicating matters, or dressing them up in excessive verbiage or pomposity.

Take the last two truly great Anglo-American intellectuals, Gore Vidal and Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens was a superb journalist, but it is said that as you read him you always hear him speaking, for above all he was a formidable debater and public speaker, even whilst under the influence.

Unlike Hitchens somewhat bombastic style, Camus communicates in crisp and lyrical prose. Also, importantly, he was an ordinary, even working class, French Algerian, and never forgot where he came from, and nor was he allowed to.

In contrast, Gore Vidal spoke with the plummy dismissiveness and engrained intellectual contempt, of the Brahmin. By all accounts his personality was insufferable, which is apparent in a debate with perhaps a progenitor of American neo-conservatism, the devilishly witty William F. Buckley. Indeed I encountered Vidal’s brusqueness myself when I sought an audience in his Italian villa!

The debate between Buckley and Vidal prior to the 1968 Presidential election returns us to another planet of true intellectual discourse. It is interesting to note that Buckley, whose views I find obnoxious, comes across as the more personable character than Vidal. I heartily recommend the documentary ‘Best of Enemies’ (2019) to find out more.

Both Vidal and Hitchens, however, pale in comparison with Camus, who won a Nobel prize for his literary work. Vidal certainly, and Hitchens to a lesser extent, were great journalists, acerbic and pointed, but both lacked the secular seriousness, humanism and depth of Camus.

While Camus might not regale a dinner party with the same panache as Hitchens, or have the same capacity for anecdote as Vidal, there is a unstinting logic and, above all, deep-seated humanism in his writing.

Rivals Among Contemporaries

There are many great writers of fiction who cannot be classified as intellectuals – although they may be celebrities. For instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, but even allowing for Edmund Wilson’s comment that he could never write a bad sentence, his philosophical insights, except in a yearning, American way, are non-existent.

The Great Gatsby is a simple parable on the self-delusion of the American Dream. A far better and more videogenic vehicle for the true dystopia of the American dream is found in Mamet’s play ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’. (1984), where the American Dream descends into the cut-throat competition of avid materialistic salesmen.

It should be added that Fitzgerald, in his epiphanic manner, argued that the sign of a great and first-rate mind was to keep ‘two inconsistent and contradictory ideas in his head at the same time’, which, ironically, encapsulates the ability of Camus.

Unlike Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway was thought of as a man of ideas and action. But obsessions with bullfighting, machismo, war-making and fishing are not evidence of profound thinking, albeit these relate to important questions over masculinity and mortality, as well as the futility of existence.

Nonetheless, Hemingway’s telegrammatic prose style is perhaps unsurpassed in its succinctness, most evident in brilliant short stories and the 1926 novel Fiesta. These are towering achievements, but they not the work of a public intellectual. On the contrary. Papa was not a thinker. Papa liked mamba. Too much.

The nearest comparisons, and thus competitors of Camus, for the status of the greatest public intellectual of the twentieth century, are French representatives from the same period. These include his erstwhile friends, Sartre and de Beauvoir. Unlike Camus, however, their work has not stood the test of time.

I feel they always looked down on him as a clever provincial boy, and not quite at their level of seriousness; seeing him perhaps as the Algerian equivalent of a Shropshire Lad.

In reality, Sartre’s existentialism was always derived from the superior analysis of Martin Heidegger, and his latter-day Marxism is designer-radical-chic, which ultimately achieved nothing. De Beauvoir is a turgid novel writer, insightful in her autobiographical work, and as a foundational feminist, but neither of them wrote as well as Camus, or as reasonably.

Sartre and de Beauvoir ultimately expelled him from their court: intellectual banishment for the temerity to steer an independent path, and not be their swarthy, mixed-race poodle. Of course, the precise banishment came after his response to the war in Algeria.

To de Beauvoir and Sartre, Camus was a traitor to the extremism and mumbo-jumbo they promoted. A traitor to the achievement of nothing. It is hardly coincidental that Jacques, the fictional hero of They Were Coming For Him, suggests his intellectual executioners will facilitate his real executioners.

It is generally assumed that Sartre, with his existentialist and Marxists texts, is the philosopher, and the Camus novelist. I beg to differ. Camus was a far more practical thinker, and his ideas more digestible. Serious writing is not simply that which is unleavened by humour or compression, even in philosophy. To my mind Jacque Derrida is the worst argument for a public intellectual, and is not serious in the least, as anyone who reads his incomprehensible prose will attest: plenty of words, few clear ideas.


Camus of course, as he readily admitted, was not an existentialist, but a product of the Enlightenment and the French tradition of letters and reason. An inheritor of the tradition of Voltaire, with a clipped prose style redolent of Pascal. There is an austerity about his work too, but also a lyricism born of a mongrel Algerian background.

His critics accused him of French colonialism, as they saw it, but this is a question of perspective. He advocated co-existence between the transplanted French and the native Islamic population, condemning the torture and the death penalty inflicted on the Islamic population. He was one of the few journalists to visit Algeria at the height of the war where he pleaded for moderation.

The Marxist dogmatists despised him for this and accused him of being an agent of American imperialism. This descended to the absurd accusation of racism, lingering in The Meursault Investigation, and in the writings of Posner and Said. In my view these accusations are doubly spurious, considering his desire to broker a peaceful solution between the two sides, and a relentless commitment to human rights.

Camus saw clearly that there would be serious bloodletting in Algeria as there had been during the Terror after the French Revolution, which is the subject-matter of The Rebel. Also, as a Pied Noir, he always argued for the peaceful co-existence between Arab and French populations. In a sense, he anticipated the idea of a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.

Evident throughout his writings is the desire to confront absurdity and extremism and invoke the values of rationality, community, solidarity and human rights. That moderation makes him a kindred spirit of the only true Irish intellectual, Edmund Burke.

The Fall

So why does Camus remain vital to our own time?

In the classic sense, Camus was a man of letters, and of epigrammatic precision. In his writing, as with a great advocate, not a word is wasted. Like Beckett’s profound later works, his novels are models of compression and insight.

It is not simply the novels, but the tracts of political philosophy and journalism – equalling even that of Orwell’s in my view – that define the consistent achievement. He also shared with Orwell a commitment to truth and moderation, defying barbarisms, whether fascistic or Communistic.

The overriding note in Camus, thus, is always one of rationality and a profound distrust of hypocrisy, and indeed the social and religious prejudices emanating from extremism. Unlike Camus, extremists exhibit a fondness for over-statement and wrap ideas in generalisations, propaganda and pseudo-erudition. Psychologically, it is a form of hysteria, and far too many are appearing in our public discourse today.

In this respect Camus’s disquisition on hypocrisy is best seen not just in The Outsider, but above all in the remarkable character of the judge and advocate penitent, Jean Baptiste Clemenceau from the 1956 novel The Fall, which even Sartre appreciated.

Lawyers have often been portrayed as monsters, and such is the character Clemenceau. All ‘piss and blarney,’ as the Irish would say. Seductive, hyper-articulate and a rattlesnake. A judge penitent exiled to Amsterdam confessing his sins, unclear disgrace, disenchantment with humanity, and sense of the hypocrisy of his professional existence. The advocate manqué searching for something, perhaps oblivion.

There is no more properly satanic and self-reflexive lawyer depicted in all of literature than in the crisp eight-five pages seated on a bar stool in Amsterdam. It in fact is a monologue. A mulish self-justificatory cri de coeur.

The point is there for all to see: an awareness of the personal failure, properly understood, to grasp or deal with professional and personal hypocrisy.

Other Works

The Outsider, is Camus’s most famous novel and the pretext for The Meursault Investigation. It is at one level a classic penological drama of crime and punishment; unsurprisingly Camus worshipped Dostoevsky, which explains the echoes of Raskolnikov. Both texts also feature an intrusive religious prosecutor, compelling the alleged perpetrator to confess all.

The cleansing of the soul becomes a metaphorical scaffold built by extremists to hang the perceived deviancy in others. It is really a projection of their own evil onto the righteous, and the innocent. The Outsider is also infused with Camus’s lifelong campaign against the death penalty, making it a human rights tract too.

I would argue it is a mis-reading to suggest he is endorsing French colonialism, and any soupcon of indifference towards the faceless Arab victim should be read in the context of a quest for a just dispensation for all.

It is the two great political tracts The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) and The Rebel (1951), which are, I believe, the most relevant to his status of public intellectual.

The Rebel advocates a freedom tempered by responsibility and engagement. It is a book cautioning against terror and a descent into extremism. It is the voice of enlightened, secular humanism that resists the path of uncaring nihilism. It is not a radical rebellious text as such, save as a plea for independence, principle and indeed righteousness.

Camus demonstrates clearly in Sisyphus that suicide is an abnegation of responsibility. He also saw clearly the need to engage rationally with the important questions of his time. I translate this into my own profession work as meaning the rational compilation of evidence to ward off the forces of darkness.

Thus, the Rebel is not a radical rebellious text as such save as a plea for independence, principle and indeed righteousness. This not unlike Jurgen Habermas’s idea of communicative action of technically but morally rational solutions to human problems.

Continued Relevance

On all sorts of levels, the anti-extremism of a Camus is called for in a world ensnared by religious fundamentalism, fuelled by toxic neo-liberalism and incipient fascism.

As a man of the Enlightenment, Camus was also an opponent of moral relativism: the idea that all views are equally valid. He valued reason and moderation and sought compromise. His enemies now, and then, are the purveyors of Post-Truth psychobabble, along with all forms of fundamentalism and terror, racism and social marginalisation.

Alas, independent public intellectuals are no longer in vogue, and we all must eat. Our universities are corralling us it into fixed categories and narratives. Issues of environmental and economic collapse give way to the safe haven of identity politics, allowing vested interests to virtue-signal their ‘liberal values,’ and ignore the great unwashed.

People are appalled at the likes of Harvey Weinstein, rightly so, but the ex-post-facto-political-correctness is a side show to the real economic and environmental abusers.

The mainstream media provides in Chomsky immortal phrase ‘language in the service of propaganda.’ Standards of intellectual and professional argumentation are going out the window. The educational system is obsessed with branding.

Meanwhile mainstream media demands ‘balanced’ coverage: airing both sides of the argument has led, ineluctably, to the ventilation of utter nonsense. I would love to read what Camus would had to say about the dumbed-down palaver that passes for political debate today.

So the values of Camus, the just man, the legalist in fact, the moderate, the secular humanistic rationalist and compromiser are greatly in need. These qualities are intrinsic to a genuine public intellectual, rather than a jumped-up self-help guru such as Jordan Peterson.

Moreover, my own distaste for the organised criminality of many police officers is reflected in a passage from They Were Coming For Him:

It seems that the; police officer in charge of the investigation had said there was nothing surprising about the case, that a career such as that mans was bound to end as it has.[iii]

Of course, the books still stand the test of time and are now revisited and indeed revitalised by works such as The Meursault Investigation. This legacy is as vital as ever and in Aristotelean terms, the virtues it expresses are those of courage, moderation, justice and prudence. But he also held other great virtues: an utter lack of hypocrisy and, above all else, humanism. Camus had the full package of ingredients required, then as now, to be a public intellectual.

David Langwallner is a barrister at Great James Street Chambers, London.

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[i] Richard Posner, Law and Literature, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1989, p.66

[ii]Berta Vias-Mahou, Cecilia Ross (Translator), They Were Coming For Him, Hispabooks, New York, 2016) p.111

[iii] Ibid, p.189


About Author

David Langwallner is a human rights lawyer and founder of the Innocence Project in Ireland. He was previously Dean of Law at Griffith College. He was made Pro Bono & Public Interest Team/Lawyer of the Year at the AIB Private Banking Irish Law Awards 2015.

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