When the world today is struggling with the pandemic of Covid-19, Albert Camus’s novel The Plague can offer some stimulating lessons. When a plague breaks out in the city of Oran, initially the political authorities fail to deal with it as a serious problem. The ordinary people also don’t view it as an epidemic that requires public action rather than as individual annoyances. The people of Oran are obsessed with their personal sufferings and inconveniences. Finally the authorities are forced to put Oran in quarantine. Father Paneloux, a Jesuit priest, delivers a sermon declaring the epidemic as God’s punishment for Oran’s sins.
Months of suffering make people rise above their selfish notions and obsessions and join anti-plague efforts being carried out by people like Dr Rieux. Dr Rieux is an atheist but committed to service of humanity. He questions Father Paneloux’s religious views when a small boy is killed by the epidemic. The priest delivers another sermon on the necessity of accepting all or nothing: if you believe in God you either accept all that comes as coming from God or you don’t believe in God at all.
It is the same with any other belief too. That is what Camus tries to show in the novel. Dr Rieux is an atheist. But he puts his trust in what Camus calls intellectual honesty elsewhere. Life is absurd. Death is its irrational and ultimate end. Everything is rendered meaningless by death. Except the meaning you create for your life.
Dr Rieux creates a meaning for himself: he believes that each person is responsible not just for himself but for all of mankind. Each one of us is the world’s redeemer. Our actions can make us the saviours of the world. It is not through religious rituals that we become saviours of the world. Sunday’s prayers cannot excuse Saturday’s hates. Man should do the job that he has so far assigned to God. Man should heal mankind by loving, by being compassionate, by being good. Just as you surrender yourself totally to God, you need to surrender yourself totally to this conviction. Once you accept these certainties (compassion, etc), you must sacrifice everything else to them.
Father Paneloux falls ill the day after his second sermon. He soon dies clutching a crucifix. He had told the young priest that “if a priest consults a physician, there is a contradiction.” If you believe that your God is all-powerful, then your God should heal you. Otherwise your faith is feeble, far from absolute. Dr Rieux’s faith in his rational faculty is absolute. The irony here is that the atheist’s faith is better-founded than the priest’s.
Father Paneloux refuses medical assistance. He dies. Dr Rieux doesn’t find symptoms of the plague in the priest. How did he then die? Did the horrendous vacuum between his faith and his life lead to his death? Did he choose a final surrender to his faith? Or did he realise the hollowness of his faith?
Today the world is passing through a critical period because of Covid-19, a pandemic akin to the plague that beset Camus’s Oran. There are thousands of religions and millions of religious leaders and billions of believers in this world. Curiously their silence has become deafening. The world has chosen to put its trust in medical science. We are fortunate to have medical personnel who, like Dr Rieux, believe: “I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when all this ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.”
When the plague is finally eradicated from Oran, Dr Rieux knows that the fight is never really over. The “plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good,” he says. It can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves. The fight against it will be continued “by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.”
All of us can be healers if we dare, if we wish. That’s real religion. That’s what Camus teaches us.
PS. This is part of a series being written for the #BlogchatterA2Z Challenge. The previous parts are:
3. The Castle
14. No Exit