Image description: Camus stands in front of a collection of newspapers, with two hands on his left and right holding out phones with social media.
Image description: Camus stands in front of a collection of newspapers, with two hands on his left and right holding out phones with social media.

Illustrated by Milena Bisenic

On “Defense of Intelligence” by Albert Camus

In “Defense of Intelligence", Albert Camus champions active citizenship and open critique — highlighting the role of media in healing social divides. Nearly a century later, his call for intelligent discourse remains eerily relevant.

Mar 25, 2024

In March 1945, the Second World War was still raging without any sign of its end. The recently liberated France was just beginning to recover from the German occupation. As with any occupation, it had been a dark time for the arts and sciences since intellectuals were heavily censored and opportunities to gather, write, publish and interact with the public were scarce. Albert Camus, a key existentialist French philosopher, made this worrisome trend the focus of his address to members of the L'Amitié Française (literally meaning “the French friendship,” an intellectual association formed by the French in the early 20th century) and the editorial board of the Temps present weekly publication.
The purpose of L'Amitié Française was to create an avenue for young intellectuals to meet and discuss modern politics and philosophy. It was also key in the re-establishment of the Temps present toward the end of the German occupation of France. Playing on the meanings of the word “amitié”, Albert Camus delivered his speech before the members of the association around the idea of friendships in the political sphere. He defines these friendships as something more than the “effusion of feeling among agreeable people,” rather as a union of people standing together against “hatred and falsehood.”
This hatred is all that is leftover from the four-year-long Nazi occupation: “For four years, every morning, each Frenchman would receive his ration of hatred and his slap in the face as soon as he opened his daily paper. Inevitably, something of all that was left behind.” This commentary on the power of publications and the media was a deliberate effort by Camus to address the editorial of a weekly magazine. It was also strategically placed right before a discussion about recent events of violence that carried the signature of the former occupier’s actions. This section of Camus’s address culminates with the somber conclusion that “the hatred of the executioners is matched by the hatred of the victims.” The solution to this vicious cycle lies with the “amitié,” the kind of friendship that takes effort and is planned, almost forced, for the purpose of “heal[ing] those poisoned hearts” and “transform[ing the] appetite for hatred into desire for justice” the main form of communication between the “friends” being the newspaper. There are quite a few parallels we can draw between Camus’s reality and current events. In terms of the media sphere, it is quite clear that the tactics of both connecting people and dividing them still rely on controlling the recipient of that collective hatred. Whoever determines the enemy of the day and goes unquestioned, holds almost ultimate power. To reach that state where anger and hate become secondary and are mere products of a desire for justice, one must be aware of these tactics and find other avenues for receiving information and contributing to content creation.
Therefore, Camus calls for a “remake in our political mentality,” which requires the preservation of intelligence. His definition of intelligence in the speech does not relate to the level of education or a separate erudite class. It is instead the idea of being an active citizen with the capacity to critique authoritative powers openly in a way that forms unions. To him, being well-informed and communicating ideas would be the ultimate blow against the occupier whose philosophy is anti-intelligence and culture. This view was exemplified by the Nazi Chief of the Luftwaffe High Command Hermann Göring: “When people talk to me about intelligence, I take out my revolver.” Camus calls it a “philosophy of instinct,” and it is the reason why with the suppression of intelligence, war reigned unquestioned. Elitism permeated the media, permitting hatred of the occupation to take root in the occupied communities and drive them further apart than ever before. Camus warns about this elite “intelligence” which, to keep its position of higher class, worked with the occupying forces. He calls it the type of intelligence that betrays. Its antithesis is the intelligence “which relies on courage,” one that forms friendships and “friendship is the knowledge of free men[, and] there is no freedom without intelligence and without mutual understanding.”
It has been exactly 79 years since that March day when Camus stood in front of the Amitié Francaise and gave this lecture, titled “Defense of Intelligence.” Yet, it seems like its messages remained bouncing from wall to wall in the hall of the association but did not reach any further. It is sad that nearly eight decades later, we still wake up to a daily dose of hatred speedily delivered through social media with no way of escaping it. Now that Meta has also decided to automatically limit the exposure of Instagram and Threads users to political content, it takes an even bigger effort to escape messages that dismiss the struggles of people under occupation across the globe. It would be much harder to foster “friendships” that are based on common values of humanity instead of politics. Even until now, it was difficult for anybody to find factual information. It took deliberate curating of our feeds, tricking algorithms and training ourselves in media literacy. It took breaking friendships, blocking toxicity and choosing sides. There is no Albert Camus today to defend intelligence, and perhaps we are past the point of thinking that courage-based intelligence can get us anywhere.
If violence is the only thing that can make it past censorship, if hatred is the fuel of the modern media, if gore is the only believable “fact” and the only unfiltered images we can consume, then is the “[healing] of those poisoned hearts” possible? Acts of courage are called madness, acts of love are called weakness, and acts of opposition to the injustices we witness are “threats” to national security. I am left wondering what acts of intelligence will be labeled next and whether I would have the heart to accept it.
Yana Peeva is Senior Columns Editor. Email her at
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