The Plague and a God of Absolute Freedom
Our current predicament, faced with a pandemic whose sudden appearance and terrible toll confuses and terrifies us, has occasioned much comment from the religiously-minded.
In these pages, for example, some have said that the phenomenon teaches us the limits of science and the necessity of the Divine. Others have held that it demands humility before God’s creation. Others recommend the willful embrace of optimism and gratitude despite everything.
All such admonitions seem inadequate, however. When we find ourselves face to face with a monster that itself has no face, that can be anywhere and everywhere, that destroys our bodies and takes lives without compunction or contemplation, because it is incapable of both, we must reckon with the terrible challenge this poses to our assumptions.
Far from the limits of science, the current crisis demonstrates to us the necessity of science, because in the end — whether by vaccine, epidemiology, or the derived policies of isolation and quarantine — it is unquestionably science that will save us.
Humility before God’s creation will gain us nothing, because it also implies humility before the monster — that is, surrender. And surrender is precisely the thing we must reject. Optimism and gratitude are, one regrets to say, both acts of willful blindness. It is, in fact, pessimism that is most prudent in such a situation, and the thing most likely to spur us to action. As for gratitude, it simply ignores the horrendous injuries we are now suffering.
This pandemic, then, is not an occasion for a retreat into faith, but a direct challenge to it, and it demands an answer beyond surrender, humility, optimism, or gratitude.
Perhaps the most thorough exploration of this challenge is Albert Camus’ novel The Plague, and it is not a coincidence that, seven decades after it was published, the book is again climbing the bestseller lists.
The Plague tells the tale of an epidemic that decimates the small Algerian city of Oran. It strikes without warning, kills without discrimination or mercy, and forces those who witness it to reckon with the brutality of fate and their own impotence in the face of an enemy they can neither see nor control.
Some of the characters fall into despair, some disappear into themselves, some willingly die, and others expend their efforts in treating and comforting the afflicted. Dr. Rieux, the main character, understands that he has almost no resources, no viable treatment and no cure for the disease. He cannot even ameliorate the suffering of his patients. And he is always exposed to the possibility of infection by the disease itself. Nonetheless, he perseveres.
In a sense, all of the characters fail in their task. They cannot arrest or control the disease, which ruthlessly exterminates the young and the old, believers and non-believers, the righteous and the wicked. In the end, the plague recedes as suddenly as it began, without reason or explanation. And the beleaguered Dr. Rieux knows it could return just as inexplicably:
He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.
Despite appearances, however, The Plague is very much not a tract of despair. Indeed, Camus appears to be saying that those who battle the plague may have failed to defeat it, but in a sense they triumph, because they have, through an act of will, found meaning in the struggle itself. They have undergone the bane of men and emerged enlightened.
This is in keeping with Camus’ own philosophy of the absurd. The world, Camus believed, is fundamentally meaningless, and visits on us both pleasures and horrors that are equally random and inexplicable. As such, it is up to us to find our own meaning, and perhaps even our own joy in the struggle against this meaninglessness. As he put it in his classic image of Sisyphus condemned to roll a boulder to the top of a hill and then see it fall again, for all eternity, Camus said, “We must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
In effect, to Camus, meaning itself is an act of will and resistance. An uprising against fate: I rebel, therefore I am.
In a sense, Camus’ theory depends on a single thing: The choice of resistance can be made because, in the end, human beings have a kind of absolute freedom. However horrendous or constrained our conditions may be, we nonetheless have the freedom to reject them, to rebel against them, to resist them unto the end, even if it is only within ourselves. Or, as Camus put it, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger, something better, pushing right back.”
In a time of plague, then, we too must rebel against meaninglessness, against death, against the absurd, and — perhaps because — we have the freedom to do so. It is for this reason, more than anything else, because it is the only way, that the retreat into an emptiness of pure faith and shallow optimism must be rejected.
Whether or not there is a God is unknowable. Even if there is a God, it is certain — as Maimonides, for example, asserted — that we can know nothing about him. But if he exists, we must assume that our absolute freedom is his own act of will, and it has been given to everything that exists without qualification or condition. It is absolute. If one believes in a God, one must believe, by definition, in a God for whom freedom is above all, even for the smallest organism. Even for the virus that ravages other creatures, even for those who suffer from this freedom and even for those who, in the end, nevertheless choose to resist.
And perhaps the ultimate proof is one of the central divine admonitions of Judaism: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore choose life.”
To say “choose life” is, even the most devout will be forced to admit, impossible if man did not have the absolute freedom to choose. A freedom that is beyond God, though it is God’s own creation out of his own absolute freedom.
We must imagine that Judaism embraces this God of absolute freedom. That those of faith and those without faith should not reject that which may save us, bow before monsters or embrace a false optimism and undeserved gratitude. We should simply admit that it is incumbent on us all to choose — because we are free to choose — the invincible summer, and act accordingly.
Benjamin Kerstein is an Israeli-American writer.