Dharmic existentialist ethics in a time of pandemic

Today we find ourselves – like many generations before us, going back to the middle ages – in the grip of a scary epidemic. Ours is due to the coronavirus (aka Covid-19); the earlier ones were called the Black Death, the Plague, the Spanish flu, Ebola, cholera epidemics, and so on. Some great creative writers have used these occasions to plunge into their deeper human meaning; here I’m thinking particularly of Albert Camus’s The plague (1947) and Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in a time of cholera (1985). The first of these bristles with dharmic resonances that I want to explore with you.

Camus, still famous today for his contribution to existentialism, was a Frenchman born in 1913. By the time Nazi Germany conquered and occupied France in 1940 he was an established writer, and he planned The plague[1] as an allegory of the German occupation of his country.

The story he tells is set in Oran – a modern, commercial and uncharming small French city on the Algerian coast. Life here is extraordinarily banal, until rats in growing numbers start staggering out onto the streets and landings, and haemorrhaging and dying at the feet of the indignant citizens. Not long after that, a number of the citizens start dying horribly of a strange disease.

The novel’s protagonist, a plain man called Bernard Rieux, is one of the city’s doctors. He quickly drops to the almost unthinkable conclusion that this modern town is beset by a medieval calamity, the Black Death. The city fathers and several other doctors at first take umbrage at this suggestion. (Sound familiar‽) But the epidemic gathers speed, and the national authorities isolate the city to stop the plague spreading to other areas. No-one is allowed in or out, and for several months the citizens of Oran are locked in with the plague, which picks them off randomly and in ever larger numbers.

Rieux and his closest associates are ordinary, private individuals who make no pretence to heroism or public-spiritedness, and have a tendency to get lost in their own personal tribulations. But they are also realists; they react with irritation at the widespread denial and trivialisation going on among other doctors and officials. The logic of the truth they are bearing witness to gradually draws them into the dangerous work of fighting the plague.

This is a story within a real-life wider story. Camus suffered from tuberculosis. Half-way into writing the novel he’s forced to leave Paris for a place with cleaner, drier air in which to continue writing. He moves to a quiet, poor, rural town of around 5000 souls on the French Massif Central, one called Le Chambon; he arrives there with no inkling of the drama that’s unfolding in that town. But it’s a drama acutely relevant to the themes of The plague, one that has left a clear impression in Camus’s text. And the novel in turn became a key source for those who came much later to try to figure out what happened in Le Chambon.

Le Chambon, authenticity and ethics

As the German occupiers in France and their Vichy collaborators rounded up Jews to send them to the death camps in Poland, some Jewish fugitives happened to turn up unannounced in Le Chambon seeking sanctuary. The locals – overwhelmingly Huguenots, devout Protestants – took them in, though it constituted a capital offence. As more Jewish fugitives arrived, the same thing happened. Jewish underground organisations noticed this pattern and began to send more and more of their desperate charges to Le Chambon. In time the 5000 Chambonnais took in around 5000 Jewish fugitives in this way. No-one was turned away; everyone was saved.

In comparative terms, the Chambonnais approach to rescue on this scale was – to say the least of it – idiosyncratic. They had no weapons or organisation and very few resources of any kind. Church services were the only meetings they ever went to. Each family took its own initiatives, and seemed to believe, not only that what it was doing was the decent Christian thing to do, but that any normal human being would do the same thing under the circumstances. None made the slightest claim to heroism.

The Chambonnais were not to know, either, that they’d now joined the tiny moral elite of just 0.01 percent of German-occupied Europe’s people who undertook rescue work. The vast majority of Europeans looked on as the Jews were slaughtered, refusing to believe it was happening, or refusing to believe that it mattered. This vast majority – including hundreds of millions of the Chambonnais’ fellow Christians – had no respect for the truth.

Perhaps the most important characteristic of the Chambonnais was precisely their respect for truth – a characteristic that cultivating the dharmic eightfold path demands of us all. They readily acknowledged what was happening to the Jews, and they knew what the German occupiers and the Vichy authorities were like. So they rescued Jews openly, while flagrantly voicing their detestation of the German and Vichy authorities. They practised open, in-your-face spiritual resistance.

The Chambonnais knew what they knew, and they knew what they had to do about it. Their full acknowledgement of the truth made them stiff-necked and fearless; they had no reverse gear. In this way they stared down opponents with vastly greater firepower and no scruples about using it, but also no experience of dealing with people remotely like the Chambonnais.

Camus saw this drama unfolding, and we find strong echoes of it in his text. Right at the beginning of the epidemic his viewpoint character, Dr Rieux, has to contend with those who – just like bystanders to the Holocaust – refuse in the name of caution and prudence to acknowledge what is happening and pronounce its true name, because that would make heavy demands on the city authorities and disrupt the life of its citizens.

A certain Dr Richard fits into this category, and accuses Rieux of describing ‘the syndrome’ to make it look like the plague. To which Rieux tartly replies that he hadn’t described a syndrome – he’d described what he’d seen (p.40). And it didn’t matter what you called it, if the authorities didn’t take drastic measures, half the town would die.

To quote the novel:

But there always comes a time in history when the person who dares to say that two and two make four is punished by death…And the question is not what reward or punishment awaits the demonstration; it is knowing whether or not two and two do make four. For those of the townspeople who risked their lives, they had to decide whether or not they were in a state of plague and whether or not they should try to overcome it (pp.101-2).

Decency, suffering and evil

As Rieux and his friends undertake their exhausting and dangerous work, they occasionally squeeze in a little downtime in which to reflect on what they think they’re doing. Here, too, the convergences with dharma practice are striking.

At a stage when one of Rieux’s acquaintances, the journalist Rambert, is still holding back and refusing to ‘play at heroes’, Rieux replies to this objection:

I have to tell you this: this whole thing is not about heroism. It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.

‘What is decency?’ Rambert asked, suddenly serious.

‘In general, I can’t say [Rieux tells him], but in my case I know that it consists in doing my job’ (p.125).

Like a good dharma practitioner, Rieux here refuses to talk in generalities. But it’s clear from the thrust of the book that decency is an effect of honesty – of acknowledging what is true and then acting on it with whatever resources one can personally muster. Just as the Chambonnais did.

Rieux and his friends exemplify the main original contribution that existentialism has made to our moral understanding, the concept of authenticity. It is the full acknowledgement of one’s real situation, in contrast to bad faith, in which one denies one’s actual situation and the choices and demands for action within it. Authenticity – being real in one’s dharma practice – is an essential aspect of cultivating the eightfold path.

Naturally, the novel has quite a bit to say about our old friend dukkha (anguish, suffering). Not just the physical agonies of the dying, but the fear, grief and isolation that become the townspeople’s daily experience.

During the long struggle against the plague, a close friendship gradually develops between Rieux and one Jean Tarrou, a recent blow-in and something of a social misfit. Rieux is the type who ‘keeps his own counsel’, and it takes a long time before he opens up to Tarrou. When he does, he confesses that he only became a doctor ‘because I needed to, because it was a career like any other, one of those that young people consider for themselves.’ (p.98).

But as he practised medicine, Rieux has never been able to reconcile himself with death. ‘Since the order of the world is governed by death,’ he tells his friend and fellow atheist Tarrou, ‘perhaps it is better for God that we should not believe in Him and struggle with all our strength against death, without raising our eyes to Heaven and to His silence.’ And he intends to go on struggling against death, even though this struggle condemns him to ‘an endless defeat’.

Thematically, the plague has now broadened its scope from being a metaphor for the German occupation, to being a metaphor for death, and ultimately of evil as such. That which denies and insults humanity. The struggle against death and evil – both embodied in the figure of Mara in the early dharma –will never be crowned by final victory, but it gives an individual’s life dignity and meaning.

This wisdom impresses Tarrou. ‘Who taught you all that, doctor?’ he asks.

Rieux’s reply is instantaneous, and dharmically significant: ‘Suffering’ (p.99).

Still later, Tarrou has his own confession to make to Rieux about his relationship with death as evil in pure form. His father was a public prosecutor. He was a good, affectionate father and Tarrou grew up very close to him. But one day when Tarrou is old enough, his father suggests he sit in on one of his trials to see if he’s drawn to follow in his footsteps.

The young Tarrou watches the poor wretch in the dock with growing sympathy, knowing his father is working to have him executed. When his father wins the case and the defendant is duly sent to the guillotine, Tarrou turns quite viscerally against his father, and against all the social institutions that create death. In Tarrou’s words, which come very close to any dharma practitioner’s self-instruction:

‘All I know is that one must do one’s best not to be a plague victim and this is the only thing that can give us hope of peace or, failing that, a good death…

‘I have decided to reject everything that, directly and indirectly, makes people die or justifies others in making them die.

‘That is why this epidemic has taught me nothing except that it must be fought at your side. I have absolute knowledge of this…that everyone has it inside himself, this plague, because no-one in the world, no one, is immune…What is natural is the microbe. The rest – health, integrity, purity if you like – are an effect of will and a will that must never relax. The decent person, the one who doesn’t infect anybody, is the person who concentrates most…

 ‘All I say is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims – and as far as possible one must refuse to be on the side of the pestilence.’ (pp.194-95)

Eventually the plague retreats from Oran. Healthy rats reappear, and people stop dying. The citizens rejoice in the streets as the first trains from the outside world arrive at the station, and the city opens its gates. But Rieux, nursing his own private bereavement, is not impressed. The novel ends thus:

Rieux recalled that this joy was always under threat. He knew that this happy crowd was unaware of something that one can read in books, which is that the plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely, that it can remain dormant for years in furniture and clothing, that it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and that perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of humankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city (pp.237-38).

To put the point about how evil endures – there is no final victory against it – and what this means for our practice, we can refer to the succinct, dharmic terms of one of the four great bodhisattva vows:

Greed, hatred and ignorance rise endlessly; I vow to abandon them.

[1] Trans. Robin Buss (London and NY: Penguin, 2001)


This article is a revised version of a dharma talk given by Winton to the Kookaburra Sangha in Australia.


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