By Jean-Luc Beauchard


The Montréal Review, October 2023


Christ presented to the People (1518 - 1520. Oil on panel) by Quinten Massys at Museo del Prado, Madrid



One of my students recently bemoaned the fact that I put Nietzsche on the syllabus. Yes, he is an important thinker, but nihilism is so tiresome. Life is hard enough. Why not give students a philosophy to live for? A colleague said much the same. “Nietzsche the narcissist,” he called him. What does he have to offer besides an oversized ego and license to live as one pleases? I have fielded similar complaints when teaching Freud (dated! disproved! sexist!) and Camus (a psychotherapist I know recently recounted a story from his days as an intern: A college student came in after attempting to commit suicide. The cause? He was taking a course on existential philosophy. The treatment? Drop the class and burn his copy of The Myth of Sisyphus). Sartre sums up such critiques aptly: “Others have condemned [existentialists] for emphasizing what is despicable about humanity, for exposing all that is sordid, suspicious, or base, while ignoring beauty and the brighter side of human nature. For example, according to Miss Mercier, a Catholic critic, we have forgotten the innocence of a child’s smile.”

Leaving aside the insistence of Augustine, Doctor of the Church, that there is nothing innocent about the minds (let alone the smiles) of infants, what strikes me every time I hear such objections is how alien they are to the thinkers they are meant to critique. Nietzsche is no nihilist. Far from it. Nor does he seek to justify the horrors perpetuated by human beings, though he is honest enough to admit them. Freud’s theories cannot be disproved. Like any philosophical system, psychoanalysis can be argued against—but only if one has taken the time to understand it. And Camus might justly be condemned for being too optimistic. Sisyphus is, at bottom, a hopeful book, one that provides compelling arguments against suicide and could even be prescribed as a remedy for despair. Why, then, the slander? What is it about these thinkers that makes perspective readers dismiss them out of hand?

The answer, I think, can be found in Book II of Plato’s Republic. There, Glaucon provides one of the keenest hermeneutics for interpreting the history of western thought. The perfectly unjust individual, he argues, will seek to appear just in the eyes of the world, receiving praise and plaudits for his virtue while concealing (and thus getting away with) countless injustices. Conversely, the perfectly just individual is likely to be slandered and labeled unjust by those in power. How many good men have been condemned for their supposed malice and robbed of the recognition their justice merits? That this is the way of the world is obvious to anyone with the eyes to see it. (As Boethius observes, “When wickedness rules and flourishes, not only does virtue go unrewarded, it is even trodden underfoot by the wicked and punished in the place of crime”). That it also holds true for the world of ideas is less appreciated, yet no less veracious. Philosophies too are liable to appear one way only to be another and it takes a particularly subtle reader to glimpse beyond the mask.

One need not apply Glaucon’s logic to any of the more reputable philosophers—say, the arch-moralist Kant who, one learns from an early biographer, tried desperately to get the inmates of a nearby prison reprimanded for their incessant singing (what right had they to be merry?)—to suspect that the aforementioned thinkers (Nietzsche, Freud, Camus) may be among those just individuals unduly slandered by a corrupt reading public. As Nietzsche himself observes, insights are often misread as “follies and sometimes crimes” when interpreted carelessly, without the thought, attention, or nuance that the most difficult topics demand. To see this, however, one must reserve judgement until one has returned to these philosophers with the Republic’s oft-neglected hermeneutic in mind. When one does, one finds that their works open up in surprising (and surprisingly moral) ways. Nietzsche, for instance—perhaps the most maligned of the group—is quick to emphasize the importance of cultivating virtues. And for him, one virtue stands above the rest: Honesty. But to be honest means, first and foremost, to be honest with oneself—to be honest about oneself. And that is not something human beings are wont to do. Like the prophets of old, Nietzsche never tires of unmasking the hidden menace each of us harbors within. Yet, just man that he is, he refuses to do so without also indicting himself. He’s too honest for that. Who, after all, are his condemnations of the priestly caste for? Who his chastisements of the resentful and malignant soul? Who, but Nietzsche himself—a member of the most priestly of priestly castes, the philosophers, who speaks of the debilitating effects of resentment with the authority of one who knows, one who carries that particular poison within and has lost countless friends (Wagner, for instance, and Paul Rée) because of it.

Honesty, of course, is often esteemed as an important virtue. But how many of us are willing to suffer the slings that accompany it? Nietzsche knew he would be defamed for challenging the sacred cows of his day—his writings are littered with passages indicating as much—yet he declares in his autobiography that he would rather play the part of the buffoon than the saint, embodying the very folly characteristic of history’s most saintly men. Indeed, to read Nietzsche and fail to recognize the humor is to misread him entirely. Was he oblivious to the fact that a puny weakling like him would be utterly crushed in the noble, warlike culture he seems to espouse? Did he see no irony in comparing himself to Christ with the title of one book (Ecce Homo) and ensuring he would be numbered among the damned with another (The Antichrist)? Such frivolity is not uncommon among those serious enough about justice to interrogate it (think of such holy fools as Socrates, Petronius, and Thomas More who were all willing to die for their convictions while living with the levity of children at play). It is also liable to lead to misunderstanding, misreading, and censure. That these mortifications act as safeguards against the appearance of justice—the supreme danger for anyone who cares for the real thing—is more than enough to compensate for the chastisements one receives for being honest about the horrors and follies of human existence. One’s worldly reputation is, in a very real sense, a measuring stick for how far one has strayed from the righteous path. To be celebrated is the ultimate temptation. It might be likened to a curse.

And yet even if one has been beckoned by admiration’s siren call, one will be forced to admit—if one is truly committed to cultivating the virtue of honesty—how little the praise of the world matters when, as Freud notes, each of us is “soon to be beyond the reach of all favour or disfavour.” Death is not so much the great equalizer—nothing is equal to nothing, as another sage fool would have it—but the great unmasker. Stripping us of all pretense, it reveals what we really are. (Naked we come from the earth and naked we return to it, as Job rightly observes). Better then to be candid about our situation. Better not to attempt to hide from our affinity with those the world condemns. For, not only do we share their fate; we share their predicament. At bottom, we are all made of the same stuff and we’ll each be unmade in our turn. (Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto says Terence. “I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me”).

This recognition of one’s proximity to one’s fellow man, one’s own fallibility, perversion, and injustice, is the root of another great virtue: Compassion. And though few readers seem to appreciate it, there is no more compassionate thinker than Sigmund Freud. For Freud, perversion is the hallmark of human existence. In his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, he memorably argues that there is no “normal” human behavior, only greater and lesser deviations from the norm. Sexual aberrations (and for Freud, every aberration is sexual in some sense) account for much of the conduct we label as immoral and unjust. Yet, as fundamentally sexual beings, each of us must bear the cross of his own perversions. The struggle of human life is defined by the continuous attempt to master one’s impulses and find socially acceptable ways of expressing one’s deviant desires. That the difference between me and the social outcast who has been shunned or imprisoned by civilized society is a difference of degree, not kind—that his perversions are not only related to but perhaps merely intensifications of my own—means that his behavior is comprehensible to me. Not only can I understand him, I am in no position to condemn him. For, in condemning another, I condemn myself. One cannot point out the splinter in a neighbor’s eye without revealing the beam in one’s own.

Freud’s most profound insight may be one he never fully articulates and is rarely credited with providing. While his ideas certainly merit attention, the compassionate disposition his example evinces makes his work essential. That an esteemed physician, a man of science living in Victorian Vienna, should sit with, listen to, and affirm the thoughts, feelings, and longings of women who had been written off as hysterics ought to be enough to problematize the charge of sexism. That he displayed just as much humanity with every patient, every fellow-sufferer he treated, makes him worthy of canonization. This compassion comes through in his writing. It does not matter whether he is examining the irrational, erratic tendencies of the psychologically unwell, the appalling proclivities of the extremely sexually deviant, or the crimes and abuses of society writ large, Freud always seeks to understand and rarely, if ever, condemns. Sounding a bit like St. Paul (“foremost” of all the sinners), he is quick to number himself among the perverse, admitting his own shortcomings, aberrations, and hysteria in solidarity with those who seek his treatment for their maladies. If Heine is right that every philosophy that peers down into the darkness of the human heart offers sustenance to the doctrine of original sin, then Freud provides a useful counterbalance, lending equal credence to the value of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. (That he writes against this very commandment matters little to one who has trained his eyes to look beyond the appearance of justice in pursuit of the real thing).

Searching himself honestly, Freud finds not guilt but understanding—the recognition that he is not morally superior to any other. This frees him from the pitfall that plagues so many moral philosophers: Pride. It allows him to care for those who suffer with the compassion of a fellow-passenger to the grave, as Dickens might call it. (That psychoanalysis is, at bottom, a moral philosophy is rarely recognized; but then, what would one call a school of thought that offers directives on how best to alleviate suffering and live in relation to one’s neighbor?). Such compassion is a prerequisite for a higher virtue, one that the last of our thinkers, Camus, demonstrates most palpably: Mercy. The Myth of Sisyphus famously opens with the question of suicide. The stakes of philosophy, it makes clear, are high. Is life worth living or not? And if not, what follows? Others have raised this concern before and done so more provocatively. Schopenhauer, for instance, constructs an entire pessimistic worldview atop an admission of the purblind brutality of existence. Yet doing so while writing at one’s leisure and enjoying an academic post smacks of decadence. Nietzsche, being the honest jester he is, puts out his tongue at Schopenhauer’s dreary conceit: “Schopenhauer, although a pessimist, actually—played the flute . . . daily after dinner: one may read about the matter in his biography.” (A thorough unhorsing, to echo Hendel’s diagnosis).

That such hypocrisy should inspire laughter is not surprising. How can others be expected to take a philosophy seriously when its author himself belies it? Yet here, where mockery seems so warranted, Camus pauses and offers something more. “Schopenhauer,” he writes, “is often cited as a fit subject for laughter, because he praised suicide while seated at a well-set table. This no subject for joking. That way of not taking the tragic seriously is not so grievous, but it helps to judge a man.” Not so grievous. One can almost hear the ring of forgiveness in Camus’s voice. Who hasn’t betrayed his highest ideals? Who hasn’t failed to live up to his own standard? (Let he who is without sin cast the first stone). If, as Camus suggests, such failings help us to judge the hypocrite, they commend us to judge with mercy. Afterall, as the remainder of Sisyphus makes clear, few (if any) are capable of bearing the “absurd ascesis.” To respect the tragic is to condemn oneself to countless “nights of Gethsemane.” What mortal would choose to carry that cross?

This merciful approach to the frailty of others tracks throughout Camus’s corpus and is most evident in his fiction. Two examples from The Plague will help to serve the point. First, Tarrou’s charitable observation—following a particularly callous homily by Fr. Paneloux who blames the pestilence on the residents of Oran and calls the scourge a just recompense for their sins—that most people are better than their words. “It’s only a matter of giving them a chance,” he says and, giving Paneloux just such a chance, finds him willing to care for the sick and dying. Second, Rieux’s reflections as the novel draws to its close and the plague has lifted. A violent outburst had just broken out. Cottard, who has been harboring the secret of some terrible crime, has finally snapped. He’s holed himself up in a building and rains bullets down on passersby, firing his revolver indiscriminately into a crowd. The police rush into the building, apprehend him, and beat him mercilessly. (What else is one to do with an unhinged gunman?) A short while later, Rieux thinks back on “the dull thud of fists belaboring the wretched man’s face” and reflects, “Perhaps it was more painful to think of a guilty man than a dead man.” This, from a doctor who has worked tirelessly for months on end combating the plague and confronting death.

Such boundless mercy is hard even to imagine, let alone incarnate. Yet Camus closes The Plague by observing “there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” Mercy, he shows, gives rise to hope. But not some flimsy hope rooted in escapism or illusion. Not a hope that denies the tragic and at times demonic nature of human affairs. A hard-won hope forged in the crucible of pain. A joy found in the teeth of anguish. Such hope can be ours, he suggests, if only we want it. It comes at a cost. Honesty, compassion, mercy—these are the most demanding of virtues. They take as much as they give and are never fully realized. I was surprised on a recent rereading of Sisyphus to find Camus talking of happiness. “What! by such narrow ways—?” And yet, the happiness he speaks of is real. It is, perhaps, the only happiness we mortals can attain, the happiness of one who has suffered much and loved much, forgiven much and understood the simple virtue of being human. This is no small task. It takes vigilance and conviction and the kind of integrity one fashions over the course of a lifetime. But it is our task, each of us. And, paradoxically, we are all capable of realizing it.


Jean-Luc Beauchard is a philosopher and Catholic priest. He is the author of The Mask of Memnon: Meaning and the Novel (2022) and City of Man: A Novel Reading of Plato's Republic (2023). He can be reached at




The Montréal Review © All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911