Camus and Lowering Your Expectations,
Augustine was an Optimist

Augustine's Confessions and Camus' The Stranger deal with human dissatisfaction and frustration, and yet they are very different books. At the root of this variance lie the attitudes of these authors. Camus is called an absurdist, and he is rather negative or pessimistic. Augustine is a Christian, Christianity being generally associated with optimism or being positive. These are fundamentally and irreconcilably different views, although both theism and atheism can be convincingly argued. I will examine this incompatibility throught the notion of "great expectations."

Camus' apathetic and emotionless Meursault does not have "great expectations." When his employer offered him a promotion and a new post, he answered, "one life was as good as another, and my present one suited me quite well." When facing his mother's death, he says, "really, nothing in my life had changed." When his girlfriend asked him to marry her, this happened:

I said I didn't mind, if she was keen on it, we'd get married. Then she asked if I loved her. I replied, much as before, that her question meant nothing or next to nothing - but I supposed I didn't.
Later she says, "suppose another girl had asked you to marry her - I mean, a girl you liked in the same way you like me - would you have said 'yes' to her, too?" He answers, "naturally."

Meursault constantly shows his indifference to every thing that happens to him. Even his own trial seems nothing more than a curiosity to him. Finally, on death row, in the confrontation with the priest, we see what causes Meursault's terrible apathy - Meursault does not believe in God. This lack of faith gives Meursault his fatalistic view of life. Why should he get upset, or exert himself, or care about anyone or anything, when nothing matters? With no concept of sin, or guilt, or heavenly reward, there is no motive to care what happens to him at all. Each moment of life can be pleasurable or painful, but they are not brought about by any discernable causality. So what if the executioner comes for him at dawn today or months from now? Everyone's got to die sometime. This man has no great expectations.

This attitude makes Meursault "the stranger," a man alien from all the people around him. This is what brought on his imprisonment and death sentence, the fact that people could not understand his hopeless attitude.

After Meursault's chance for an appeal is gone, all he has left is life from day to day. Once he realizes that he is doomed to die, he gives up any intention to live, and becomes a creature not really human. He is a stranger to his race.

With death so near, Mother must have felt like someone on the brink of freedom, ready to start life all over again ... it was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.
This man is very much resigned to whatever death may bring him, for it is all indifferent. But he now sees this indifference as "benign." This suggests some changes.

Before Augustine's conversion to Christianity, he actively searched for a belief or philosophy which would satisfy his quest for the meaning and purpose of his life. After years of study, he entered the field of oratory.

In those years I taught myself the art of rhetoric. Overcome myself by a desire for gain, I took money for instructing my pupils how to overcome other people by speechmaking.
Rhetoric did not satisfy him and he continued seeking truth he could live by.
Thus I was ready enough to consult those imposters called astrologers, my reason being that they made no sacrifices and addressed no prayers to any spirit to assist them in their divinations.
This, too, he abandoned.
The governor of the province at the time was a wise man who had a great knowledge of medicine and was very widely known for his skill. When in the course of conversation he discovered that I was an eager student of the books of those who make horoscoples, he spoke to me in a most kind and fatherly way, urging me to throw away these books and not to waste on pure nonsense the care and attention that should be devoted to something useful.
Finally, even the Manichean doctrine failed to satisfy Augustine. He writes:
For about nine years, in my mental aberration, I was a disciple of the Manichees, and for nearly all of this time I had been waiting for the coming of this man Faustus. The arguments themselves did not appear to me to be any better simply because they were better expressed; eloquence did not make them true...
So once again Augustine set out on his active search for truth. He leaves the Manichees and sets out for Rome and Milan where he hears St. Ambrose and becomes a catechumen in the Catholic church. Only when Augustine learns of God does he find the truth that he sought for so long. The Christian religion gave him great expectations. Only then is his search for a philosophy ended. He is given understanding, he is given the consequentiality of his actions, and he is given a goal - piety. Understanding, control, and a goal. These are the things Meursault did not have.


Postscript: When I wrote that Christianity was "optimistic", I should have defined that term carefully; as Schopenhauer has rightly pointed out, there is a sense of the word in which Christianity is "pessimistic" - and this pessimism is one of its strengths! But "pessimism" in that sense is not hopelessness - Meursault's pessimism, on the other hand, does lean toward hopelessness. I also used the words "positive" and "negative" without clearly defining them - they are far too vague. Finally, I failed to describe the change which Meursault experiences toward the end of his life: a small but definite shift in the direction of meaning or peace or optimism. Why did the Manichean doctrine fail to satisfy Augustine?

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