Since early March, the 1947 novel, “The Plague,” by Albert Camus, has been selling out in Japan. The story is reminiscent of today’s virus outbreak and the moral behaviors of those stricken by it.
The large Algerian city of Oran is hit with a plague caused by a rat infestation. At first, city officials won’t admit it. When they finally do, the city is closed, trapping its inhabitants. This causes some to hire smugglers to escape.
In his first sermon on the crisis, a priest, Father Paneloux, points to God’s wrath because of sinfulness. Later, he witnesses a young boy die and is shaken. He proclaims in his second sermon that the unexplainable deaths of innocents compel Christians to choose to believe everything or nothing about God.
Another citizen, Rambert, plans to escape to be with his wife in Paris, but after a conversation with a friend, he feels ashamed and choses to stay in Oran to fight the disease.
As time goes by, most city dwellers come to see the epidemic as a collective disaster that affects everyone and requires each person’s efforts. They accept their social responsibility and participate in efforts to quell the plague.
One commentator, Tony Judt, wrote that the book’s author Albert Camus, was “placing individual moral responsibility at the heart of all public choices (which) cuts sharply across the comfortable habits of our own age.” Judt further pointed to Camus’ definition of heroism, “ordinary people doing extraordinary things out of simple decency” as ringing “truer than we might once have acknowledged.”
The book ends on the note that there is more to admire than to detest in humans.
As undesirable as is a crisis, it can drive us deeper into considering who we really are as humans. For example, when faced with a calamity, do we face it truthfully or falsify it to save face?
Do we accept our moral responsibility and try to do our best in the worst of conditions, or turn our back on our collective responsibilities and run?
Does a crisis encourage us to go beyond the ordinary out of a sense of decency?
When overcome with fear, do we pray to a merciful God or see God’s wrath punishing us?
My Greek professor would chide us that his tests were not scourges but opportunities for improvement. Life’s calamities are occasions to further develop our moral responsibility and courage.