Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a French philosopher of the existentialist school and a novelist of note who won the 1957 Nobel Prize for literature. Numbered among his philosophical works is a volume, published in 1942, called “The Myth of Sisyphus.” The title refers to a character in Greek mythology who is eternally condemned to roll a huge rock up a hill, see it roll back down and start all over again.
Camus took that wretched fate as a metaphor of the human condition. The book’s famous opening sentence reads: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”
Albert Camus may have been more blunt than most, but he’s hardly alone. During the last two centuries, many writers — angry and rebellious or simply depressed — have formed a gloomy chorus proclaiming the demise of religious faith in significant intellectual sectors of Western culture.
Writing in the Victorian era, British poet and critic Matthew Arnold summed it up in his poem “Dover Beach.” Speaking of the supposedly diminished “Sea of Faith,” he wrote: “But now I only hear/Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,/ Retreating. … ”
A crucial value
Today, too, the trickle-down effects of this erosion of belief among secular elites casts a pall of sadness over countless people’s lives. One result has been the rise of a kind of neo-paganism bereft of faith and hope and joy. Pope Benedict XVI calls Europe’s “demographic winter” — a steep drop in births and accelerating population decline — a sign that Europe is “losing trust in its own future.”
All of which underlines how important the virtue of cheerfulness really is. A distinctive feature of our contemporary entertainment-obsessed secular culture is the profound sadness that underlies it. To oppose this encircling gloom with cheerfulness has become a Christian duty.
Camus concluded that suicide wasn’t the appropriate answer to his “philosophical problem.” Instead, his answer was to “live in revolt.” That meant an attempt — heroic, but ultimately doomed to fail — to impose meaning upon essentially “absurd” human life. Other writers followed suit. American writer Ernest Hemingway’s popular 1952 novel “The Old Man and the Sea” is an existentialist parable that illustrates this idea in fictional terms.
Others afflicted by the decline of faith propose different answers. One of these is the dolce vita of physical and psychological gratification. Many people seek to escape, or at least to mask, their dread of meaninglessness with things like alcohol, drugs and the loveless and uncommitted sex epitomized in Internet pornography, or simply by killing time in mind-numbing pursuits like watching endless hours of television. Sometimes it does the trick. But not for long.
Secular utopianism represents another approach. Karl Marx and the Marxists are its classic examples in modern times. Imagining that there is no such thing as heaven or eternal life, the Marxists held that the fulfillment of human aspirations necessarily had to come in this life and this world. And that would happen when the dialectic of history reached its conclusion in a radically egalitarian heaven on earth called the classless society.
Many millions of lives have been sacrificed on the altar of this secularist vision. Observing the cultlike character of Marxist orthodoxy, a critic remarked that for many Western intellectuals of the 20th century Marxism was a “god that failed.”
What does Christianity say in reply to all this? If cheerfulness is central to its response, what reason or reasons does faith provide for being cheerful in a world where so much pain and suffering exist?
Start with the fact that Christianity doesn’t deny the reality of evil. Rather, it situates it in the context of faith. G.K. Chesterton put the idea succinctly. Speaking of the doctrine of original sin, he insisted that at bottom it’s good news since it means that human beings have “misused a good world, and not merely been entrapped into a bad one.”
Original sin, Chesterton explained, “refers evil back to a wrong use of the will, and thus declares that it can eventually be righted by the right use of the will.” Christian cheerfulness is rooted in this idea that what is so obviously and painfully wrong with the world can finally be overcome by placing human freedom at the service of goodness and truth. Jesus Christ showed the way. And in the Christian view, the process of setting things right that he began leads to resurrection and eternal life.
Hope in Christ
No one expresses it better than St. Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians.
“If Christ has not been raised,” St. Paul concedes, “your faith is in vain … If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all” (1 Cor 15:19).
That state of disbelief is the point reached by secular culture today. St. Paul, however, doesn’t leave it there.
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. … Then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?’” (1 Cor 15:12 ff.).
Faith in resurrection — Christ’s resurrection and ours — is the source and substance of Christian cheerfulness. Looked at from the perspective of virtue, it’s a product of faith and hope. But it’s important to grasp the difference between the virtue properly so called and merely natural cheerfulness. Both are desirable, but they’re not the same.
Natural cheerfulness comes from temperament or external circumstances or some combination of both. Some people are just naturally upbeat. It’s an attractive trait, but it can be carried too far. Think of the man who compulsively cracks jokes on solemn occasions.
Unlike natural cheerfulness, Christian cheerfulness has its eye fixed on the next life as well as this one. It can and should coexist with sorrow. The Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand makes the point in his book “Transformation in Christ”:
“True, Jesus by his crucifixion has redeemed the world and cleansed all suffering from its poisonous sting. Yet, Jesus also spoke the words, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross’ (Mt 16:24).
“The cross awaits us inescapably on our life-path; and we have to accept it. We should, however, take it in imitation of Christ. … If governed and shaped by those two eminently Christian attitudes of mind — resignation to God’s will and patience — all suffering will become transfigured and pleasing to God.”
The largest obstacle to cheerfulness isn’t sorrow but pride. “Continual peace is with the humble,” says The Imitation of Christ, “but in the heart of the proud is frequent envy and indignation.” St. James supplies practical advice: “Is any one of you sad? Let him pray” (Jas 5:13). Prayer puts us in touch with God, who is the source of our faith and hope — and humility.
Not only our own peace of mind but our effectiveness in leading others to God depends largely on cheerfulness. St. Francis de Sales tells his readers, “we should contribute to holy and temperate joy and to pleasant conversation, which may serve as a consolation and recreation to our neighbor, so as not to annoy him with our knit brows.” And of course we have Jesus’ own words about fasting: “Do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward” (Mt 6:16).
In the end, Christian cheerfulness is about much more than just feeling good. It’s a way of giving witness to faith — part of the challenge to evangelize the gloomy secular culture all around us.
Albert Camus and the existentialists weren’t the only French intellectuals who thought about these things. Paul Claudel (1868-1955), poet, dramatist, diplomat and fervent Catholic, said, “Tell them their only duty is cheerfulness! Because joy is the sign that we love God, and thus we do a great good for others and for ourselves. We must be happy, and others should know that we are.”
The name for that is “cheerfulness.”
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor. This is the fourth part of a monthly Year of Faith series on virtues that originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor.