‘The conquering virtues’: virtue ethics, megalopsychia and the Hellenistic legacy in the later Camus
AsPro Matthew Sharpe (Deakin University)

April 30, 2015, 12:15pm - 2:15pm
Department of Philosophy, University of Melbourne

G16 (Jim Potter Room)
Old Physics Building

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Abstract: Recent French- and English-language work on the Nobel Prize winning philosophical novelist Albert Camus has shown the depth of Camus’ lifelong engagement with classical philosophy, history and poetry, distancing him from the existentialism with which he is popularly associated, despite his spectacular dispute with Sartre et al in the early 1950s.  In this paper, I will argue that, by the time of his mature political writings (led by The Rebel of 1948-‘51), Camus advocated for a distinct form of ‘virtue ethics’ in a sense we academically recognise today, as a response to the kinds of thinking and political culture associated with the total regimes of the far Left and Right.  In particular, the essay will chart Camus’ acceptance of the positions that (i) virtues are lasting dispositions of character (spanning forms of perception, cognition, desire and affection) learnt through habituation, imitation, and mastery over the passions; (ii) the virtues involve, in particular, the moderation of our often-conflicting passions, each of  which if indulged alone run to forms of blindness, partiality and excess; (iii) that heroism and courage are secondary, not primary virtues, in contrast to existentialist celebrations of ‘authenticity’, ‘resoluteness’ or ‘fidelity’ and (iv) that to live well requires a practical wisdom which Camus terms ‘lucidity’ or ‘clear-sightedness’, balancing and excluding none of the competing demands upon our attention and allegiances. Finally, (v) in a way that aligns Camus most closely with the ancient Stoics’ conception of megalopsychia, Camus sees a certain elevated ‘indifference’ towards material, external goods as the precondition of such lucidity (and for weighing the far greater importance of other human beings).  He thanks his own ethical paideia amongst the poor Algerian pied noirs (he was the first in his family to even attend school) for whatever progress he was able to make towards such virtues.

Matthew Sharpe teaches philosophy at Deakin. He is the author of Camus, Philosophe: To Return to Our beginnings (Brill 2015)

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