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

Philosophy and Literature 43 (2):350-368 (2019)
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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 and modern ethics concerning the relation of reason, feeling and happiness. For Aristotle, the virtues are stable dispositions including affective and intellectual elements. For Kant, one’s particular feelings are either that from which we must abstract to judge moral worth, or are a constant hindrance to proper moral activity. Further, Kant claims “habit belongs to the physical nature of the determination of the will,” which seems to imply habit cannot be a moral determination at all. A related disagreement regards virtue and happiness. Aristotle’s happiness is “an activity of the soul in accord with virtue.” For Kant and other moderns, happiness is an ideal of imagination, “a maximum of well-being in my present, and in every future, state,” all the elements of which “are without exception empirical.” Thus happiness seems more the constant counterweight to moral action than its fulfillment. Kant and Aristotle agree, however, in their judgment of many characters and actions, as is illustrated in The Plague. The novel provides realistic insights into a philosophical agreement between these supposed oppositions. In particular, I show how both philosophers would agree in their judgements concerning both the relative goodness and relative happiness of Joseph Grand and Raymond Rambert. The illustration of this agreement proves Camus is valorizing a traditional ethic.



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Gene Fendt
University of Nebraska at Kearney

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