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Between Nihilism and Transcendence: Camus's Dialogue with Dostoevsky

  • Sean Illing

This article examines the influence of Fyodor Dostoevsky on Albert Camus's political philosophy of revolt. The aim is to clarify Camus's reactions to the problems of absurdity, nihilism, and transcendence through an analysis of his literary and philosophical engagement with Dostoevsky. I make three related claims. First, I claim that Camus's philosophy of revolt is informed in crucial ways by Dostoevsky's accounts of religious transcendence and political nihilism. Second, that Camus's conceptualization of the tension between nihilism and transcendence corresponds to and is personified by the dialogue between Ivan Karamazov and Father Zossima in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Finally, that Camus uses his novel The Plague to bridge the moral and metaphysical divide between these two characters. In particular, I argue that Camus offers a distinct vision of revolt in The Plague, which clarifies both the practical implications of revolt and his philosophical rejoinder to Dostoevsky.

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1 Camus quoted in Todd's, Olivier biography, Albert Camus: A Life (New York: Knopf, 1997), 395.

2 It is worth noting that Camus appears much more engaged with Ivan Karamazov than with Father Zossima in virtually all of his works. Indeed, there is but one direct reference to Zossima (Zossime in French) in Camus's The Rebel, notably in the chapter entitled “The Rejection of Salvation.” By contrast, there are countless references to Ivan in Camus's essays, literature, and notebooks. However, the claim here is not that Camus is exclusively in dialogue with these two characters (though there is good reason to suppose that he is); rather, I argue that he is in dialogue with the themes and attitudes represented by them, and, moreover, that the tension between these two figures offers a unique way to frame Camus's conceptualization of the corresponding tension between nihilism and transcendence. In addition to clarifying the terms of the problems against which Camus is reacting, this also helps to illuminate the motivating concerns of Camus's project. In any case, despite the dearth of explicit references to Zossima, we know that Camus read The Brothers Karamazov with passionate attention for much of his adult life, and thus it seems likely that the figures and the motifs in this text informed his political philosophy of revolt.

3 Hanna, Thomas, The Thought and Art of Camus (Chicago: Regnery, 1958), 85.

4 Orme, Mark, The Development of Albert Camus's Concern for Social and Political Justice (Cranbury, NJ: Rosemont, 2007), 159.

5 See Friedman, Maurice, Problematic Rebel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 492.

6 Davison, Ray, The Challenge of Dostoevsky (Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 1997), 51.

7 Camus, Albert, Notebooks, 1935–1942, trans. Thody, Philip (New York: Knopf, 1963), 118.

8 Camus, Albert, The Rebel, trans. Bower, Anthony (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 274.

9 Camus, Albert, The Myth of Sisyphus (New York: Vintage International, 1991), 28.

10 Camus, Albert, Camus at Combat, trans. Goldhammer, Arthur (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 100.

11 Dostoevsky, Fyodor, Notes from the Underground, trans. Coulson, Jessie (New York: Penguin Books, 1972), 17.

12 Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 4.

13 Ibid., 51.

14 Ibid., 121.

15 Ibid., 110.

16 Lev Braun has pointed to this overlap as well, noting that Camus considered Dostoevsky's literature a universal articulation of the problem of the absurd. In Witness of Decline, for example, Braun argues that the reason Camus adapted so many of Dostoevsky's works for the theatre was that he believed Dostoevsky was “no less accessible to an intelligent and sensitive worker than to any member of the educated classes” (239).

17 Epstein, Thomas, “Tormented Shade,” in The Originality and Complexity of Albert Camus's Writings, ed. Vanhome, Emmanuelle Anne (New York: Palgrave Martin, 2012), 148.

18 Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, A Writer's Diary, Volume 1: 1873–1876, trans. Lantz, Kenneth (London: Quartet Books, 1994), 656.

19 Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 5–6.

20 Camus, Albert, Notebooks, 1951–1959, trans. O'Brien, Justin (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2008), 94.

21 Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, v.

22 Camus, Notebooks, 1935–1942, 95.

23 Camus, The Rebel, 71.

24 Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 54.

25 Ibid., viii.

26 Camus, The Rebel, 3.

27 Dostoyevsky, A Writer's Diary, 1:279.

28 Ibid., 1:286.

29 Ibid., 1:286–87.

30 Camus, The Rebel, 107.

31 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Possessed, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics), 409.

32 Camus, The Rebel, 184.

33 In the concluding chapter of The Rebel, Camus again emphasizes the consequences of this development: “Science today betrays its origins and denies its own acquisitions in allowing itself to be put in the service of State terrorism and the desire for power. Its punishment and its degradation lie in only being able to produce, in an abstract world, the means of destruction and enslavement. But when the limit is reached, science will perhaps serve the individual rebellion. This terrible necessity will mark the decisive turning-point” (ibid., 295).

34 Ibid., 175.

35 Ibid.

36 Dostoevsky, The Possessed, 409.

37 Ibid.

38 Dostoevsky, Fyodor, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Garnett, Constance (New York: Random House, 1996), 263–64.

39 Ibid., 264.

40 Ibid., 267.

41 Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 110.

42 Camus, Albert, Correspondence, 1932–1969, trans. Rigaud, Jan F. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 93.

43 Although he does not examine it at length, Phillip Rein points implicitly to this connection: “In much the same way that Dostoevski proves through Christianity that values do exist,” argues, Rein, “Camus sets out to prove that revolt in its true meaning is man's only recourse in a world void of religious faith” (Rein, Albert Camus [Boston: Twayne, 1969], 79).

44 Camus, Albert, Notebooks 1942–1951, trans. O'Brien, Justin (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2010), 1516.

45 Hayden, Patrick, “Albert Camus and Rebellious Cosmopolitanism in a Divided World,” Journal of International Political Theory 9, no. 1 (2013): 197.

46 Ward, Bruce, Dostoevsky's Critique of the West (Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1986), 3637.

47 Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 244.

48 Ibid., 338–39.

49 Sagi, Avi, Albert Camus and the Philosophy of the Absurd (New York: Rodopi, 2002), 156.

50 Ibid.

51 Camus, The Rebel, 8.

52 Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 334.

53 Ibid., 337.

54 In Problematic Rebel, Maurice Friedman similarly notes that, by Zossima's logic, to love all things equally is to move “toward a whole and genuine way of life, a reciprocally confirming relationship with other men and with nature” (275).

55 Camus, The Rebel, 18–19.

56 Solomon, Robert, Dark Feelings, Grim Thoughts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 118.

57 Hayden, “Albert Camus and Rebellious Cosmopolitanism,” 208.

58 Sagi, Albert Camus and the Philosophy of the Absurd, 168.

59 Quilliot, Roger, The Sea and Prisons (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1970), 140.

60 Sagi, Albert Camus and the Philosophy of the Absurd, 2.

61 In his final novel, The First Man, it is precisely this sort of imaginative identification with the other that leads to solidarity and self-transcendence. For example, the protagonist Jacques discovers solidarity via his denial of moral distinctions between men; instead all are regarded as “victims.” And the transcendence to which he aspires is not otherworldly; rather, it is achieved the moment he imagines himself “reborn in the eyes of others” (Camus, The First Man, trans. Hapgood, David [New York: Vintage Books, 1996], 216).

62 In a revealing notebook entry from October 1946, just before The Plague was published, Camus references this aspect of the absurd: “My effort: show that the logic of revolt rejects blood and selfish motives. And that the dialogue carried to the absurd gives a chance to purity—through compassion (suffer together)” (Notebooks, 1942–1951, 125).

63 Camus, Notebooks 1935–1942, 193.

64 Zaretsky, Robert, Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 86.

65 Camus, The Plague, 255.

66 Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 253.

67 Camus, The Plague, 218.

68 See Hanna, The Thought and Art of Camus, 85.

69 Friedman, Problematic Rebel, 444.

70 Ibid., 430.

71 Camus, The Plague, 255.

72 Ibid., 118.

73 Sprintzen, David, Camus: A Critical Examination (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 90.

74 Ibid.

75 Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 4.

76 Eubanks, Cecil, Eric Voegelin's Dialogue with the Postmoderns (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004), 178.

77 Camus, Albert, Algerian Chronicles, trans. Goldhammer, Arthur (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 142.

78 Thomas Meaney, “The Colonist of Good Will: On Albert Camus,” The Nation, September 2013, 41.

79 Camus, Algerian Chronicles, 114–15.

80 The postwar history of Algeria suggests that Camus's concerns were more than justified. For instance, as soon as Algeria won its independence in 1962, the new president Ahmed Ben Bella began violently purging the FLN of elements he believed were willing to negotiate with the French during the war.

81 Camus elaborates on this time in a speech he gave in Algiers on January 22, 1956: “The hideous face of this solidarity can be seen in the infernal dialectic according to which what kills one side also kills the other. Each camp blames the other, justifying its own violence in terms of its adversary's. The endless dispute over who committed the first wrong becomes meaningless. Because two populations so similar and yet so different, and each worthy of respect, have not been able to live together, they are condemned to die together, with rage in their hearts” (Algerian Chronicles, 153).

82 Camus, Algerian Chronicles, 138.

83 Ibid., 142.

84 Srigley, Ronald, Albert Camus's Critique of Modernity (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011), 82.

85 “If rebellion could found a philosophy,” Camus writes in The Rebel,” it would be a philosophy of limits, of calculated ignorance, and of risk” (289).

86 Judt, Tony, The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron and the French Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 104.

87 Sartre, Jean-Paul, Search for a Method, trans. Barnes, Hazel (New York: Knopf, 1963), 36.

88 Sartre, Jean-Paul, The Communists and Peace, trans. Fletcher, Martha H. and Berk, Phillip R. (New York: George Braziller, 1968), 209.

89 Political rebels, Sartre argues, cannot so much as “budge without shaking society. . . they are revolutionary by virtue of their objective situation” (The Communists and Peace, 226).

90 Breton, André, Second Manifesto of Surrealism, in Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Seaver, Richard and Lane, Helen R. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), 178.

91 Nor should it be seen as ignoring material circumstances. In The Rebel, for instance, Camus writes that “if rebellion exists, it is because falsehood, injustice, and violence are part of the rebel's condition” (304). Contrary to the objections of Sartre and others, then, it is not true that he was oblivious to these realities. The question for Camus was always how best to respond to these conditions; their existence or justness was never in dispute.

92 Eubanks, Cecil and Petrakis, Peter, “Reconstructing the World: Albert Camus and the Symbolization of Experience,” Journal of Politics 61 (1999): 310.

93 Eubanks and Petrakis make this point well. If appropriately moderated, they claim, revolt “may serve to dignify and enhance human existence and even to evoke a community of shared pathos” (ibid., 293). If it is not moderated, it leads instead to the rejection of life and living man.

94 Isaac, Jeffrey, Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), 156–57.

95 Sprintzen has also described Camus's ethical thought in terms appropriate to Camus's intent. Within Camus's framework, he explains, “we do not deduce rules of action; ethics is not mathematics or even law. Rather, we grasp limits to humane action and recognize that certain commitments cannot go together with others. This approach reveals limitations intrinsic to the realm of values, establishing binding hypotheticals, constraints of action within particular frameworks. Thus value claims should take an if-then form: if that is wished, then this must be taken into view. But the need to act in accordance with any specific ethical or human framework—with the if-clause of the hypothetical—can never be deduced” (Sprintzen, Camus: A Critical Examination, 131).

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