As a freshman, I had to apply in person to the dean of philosophy at the liberal arts college where I took my bachelor's degree: the subject was only open to sophomores. I had heard that my college was a party school and that it was easy to pass courses just by showing up for classes. For that reason, I deliberately sought out classes whose professors were unsparing in their grading as well as courses fewer students had any interest in taking. I must suppose that the dean, who also taught the fundamentals, was the first person to tell me that he did not want to hear the phrase, "philosophy of life," because it was redundant. On the other hand, this particular professor also taught by example that life was a complex thing and that "life" at least narrows the topic so as to exclude eschatological considerations. Except to theologians, eschatology is of lesser importance. And that was the problem.

The prof had a famous, or relatively famous, brother, an older sibling he looked up to, mentioning him from time to time and making sure that our text contained one of the older brother's writings. The text was a compendium of essays on this and that, works by Kant, Schopenhauer, St. Augustine, many others. About two-thirds through the book there was a section on the existentialists, and I was looking forward to learning about the philosophical movement that most influenced the way I was trying to live my life. Things by Camus, Sartre, the phenomenologists, &c. The prof would do anything to keep us awake. He would even stand on his desk, making jet like swooping sounds as if he were King Kong grabbing at imaginary airplanes flown by Locke and Hobbes. It soon became clear that his intent was to convince us that the only area of philosophy worth examining was metaphysics. Only later, upon reading the existentialist materials, including the novel, The Stranger, a work that influenced my thinking beyond expression, I came to the conclusion that the reason the prof wanted to skip the existentialists is that most if all were atheists. (Yes, Virginia, there are Christian existentialists. They must be like cafeteria Christians.)

Camus has lately been remembered as a steadfast friend of the biologist Jacques Monod. They went through a war together and remained close the rest of their lives. Monod, based upon his biologist's studies, ultimately came to the conclusion that the only operative force in nature is chance. (This is compatible with Darwin.) What this means is that when Meursault stares up at "the benign indifference of the universe," he is looking at random, meaningless, uncaring nature. Each of us is an accident of birth. The so-called religion (it is not, it is a system of humanistic morality) called Buddhism teaches that since we're all in the same boat on the tributaries of Styx, we're all our brothers' keepers.

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Religious people sometimes say these old-time atheists express despair at there being no God.

Do you think this is true?

Camus' novel The Plague seemed to me like a celebration, a song of admiration at humanity - not despair.

I think so too. Camus' Oran is a small place in which we suffer together, work together, and find our strength.

And I suspect religious people talk about despair because they secretly feel despair - possibly because they rely on empty promises.



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