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The Cure for the Plague Is Decency

For Times of Extremity, Albert Camus Prescribed Modest Virtues

Photograph of Albert Camus Wikimedia Commons

As the linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson once observed, we live by metaphors. They govern how we think, experience, and act. Not only are there metaphors that we live by but there are metaphors that we die by. At times, quite literally: in Rwanda in 1994, Hutu Power radio stations described Tutsis as snakes. To remove their heads with machetes, then, made sense. Germany’s Third Reich portrayed Jews as vermin, then murdered them at Auschwitz. That the camps used Zyklon-B, a commercial pesticide, was not a coincidence.

There are other metaphors we risk dying by, if only metaphorically. Take the case of plague, a metaphor that has spread like, well, the plague since the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. Whether it is a Washington Post op-ed delineating “The Ten Plagues of Trump,” The American Prospect diagnosing the plague festering in the White House, or an op-ed in The Hill calling for the eradication of the “Trump plague,” this particular metaphor has been as persistent as the disease itself. Trump is not the sole vector: politicians and pundits have repeatedly identified the rise of nationalism and populism, racism and anti-Semitism in plague-like terms.

The metaphor’s ubiquity has not dulled its utility. In his novel The Plague, Albert Camus found within the conceit not only an expression of anxiety but a call to moral behavior that was both modest and profound. That novel and its message bear revisiting for all the reasons that the metaphor resonates today.

CYCLE OF REBELLION

By the time The Plague was published in 1947, Camus had won world renown for his novel The Stranger and his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Those two books, published during the German occupation of France, founded his postwar reputation as an existentialist writer—a label he always rejected—who portrayed a world shorn of significance, shaped by contingency and shrouded by absurdity. Our pursuit of meaning, Camus declared, will always meet with silence.

Camus described those books, published in 1942, as belonging

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