I’m a sucker for bon mots, those witty, punchy sayings that are the bumper stickers of literature and philosophy. I ran into one just today: “Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is.” Albert Camus wrote that in his 1951 book L’Homme révolté, translated into English as The Rebel.
BTW, the line in question in French goes like this: “l’homme est la seule créature qui refuse d’être ce qu’elle est.”
This particular quote follows the common pattern of online one-liners: Short, out-of-context, profound-sounding, attached to a “big” name, in this case one of the rock stars of philosophy and a Nobel Prize winner to boot.
Let’s update the sentence a bit, to remove the sexist language: “People are the only creatures who refuse to be what they are.”
Yes. That works.
Now, let’s think about what it says.
I read The Rebel as an undergraduate. It was, in the 1970s, a staple of undergraduate study.
Memory fades, but I remember that Camus examines the lives of several rebels. In my twenty-something mind, anyhow, I took the book and “People are the only creatures who refuse to be what they are” to be all about grand and rebellious aspiration. Human history, as I took it then, was a story of oppression by emperors, czars, and kings and a story of freedom through endless rebellion.
I wanted to be one of those rebels.
Yet, forty-some years later, running across that line lifted out of context, I reflect on “People are the only creatures who refuse to be what they are” and see something else entirely.
No longer do I hear the swelling music of revolution. Now I hear what sounds like a weary whisper: we human beings can’t be content, ever.
Yes, war must be stopped and oppressions ended. But wars and oppressions are further examples of what “creatures who refuse to be what they are” do, aren’t they?
Nowadays, I have to admit that I wonder if the “human project” has two flaws: the humans and the project.
Not much of a bon mot but some ways toward another insight Camus explored.
Din of Conversation: a Humanist Perspective of Theological Questions