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Albert Camus’ “Helen’s Exile” is an essay, which is a part of “The Myth of Sisyphus.” In “Helen’s Exile,” Camus brings to light the important role of beauty, specifically the view of the Greeks on beauty, in providing a solution for the European blunder – Modern Europe’s detachment from beauty and attachment to things that demean it. Camus utilized “Helen’s Exile” as a means to show how the Greeks valued beauty and how they let it guide and influence their way of life allowing them to achieve a sense of measure and realize the golden mean (Kassoul & Maougal, 2006). In the Ancient Greek mythology of Helen of Troy, the Greeks took arms for Helen, and Camus emphasizes that being driven and motivated by beauty means having the right reasons to struggle and fight for. According to Camus (1948), “Man cannot do without beauty, and this is what our era pretends to want to disregard.” Based on the essay and arguments of Camus, his concept of beauty and his belief of its important role in society will be used to study the modern Europe’s greatest blunder.
Modern Europe’s Greatest Blunder
The modern Europe’s greatest blunder is that it has lost its appreciation of beauty. The modern Europe’s culture greatly differs from that of the Greeks when it comes to their views on beauty. European nihilism reflects the differences between the modern European and Greek culture. Modern Europe denigrates history, such that society views all disciplines as they are detached to history. “The connection between metaphysics, the inquiry into the ground of being, and historical consciousness had been made… through the philosophy of history, and subsequent metaphysical inquiry into the ground of being” (Nishitani, 1990, p. 6). During this era, the modern Europe also questioned the basis of religion and beliefs based on the standards of historical consciousness. Consequently, European nihilism was dubbed as liberating because it enabled people in the European society to be freed from their bounds to Christian-Platonic heritage (Elbe, 2003). Essentially, European nihilism allowed the society to view life free from bounds and proscriptions of their history. Therefore, society nihilates the idea of history dictating whom an individual should be, and instead, viewing oneself as a blank page and thinking, acting, and making decisions as one would think, act and decide without external influences. “To disclose the nihility of the ground of the self is to live in sincerity, and within such sincerity, the self becomes truly itself” (Nishitani, 1990, p. 7). Aside from European nihilism’s stand for liberation, the modern Europe also prides itself for its value of knowledge. Modern Europe has become an intellectualized society where people value education above anything else. Moreover, people prioritize learning through various means like apprenticeship, over passion. Power, courage, and independence were also associated with an individual’s intellectual capacity, such that modern European society believes that people can function physically, socially, emotionally, and cognitively if they are learned and taught by masters or scholars (Campbell, 2004).
Camus and other philosophers, however, criticized the modern European culture, calling it their society’s greatest blunder. According to Camus, European nihilism exiles beauty and praises everything that demeans it. As a result, society has lost its grasp of what is real. Greek culture, which understands beauty, also understands that people will find beauty in everything, so they view things with balance. Unlike the modern European society that is quick to dismiss anything that does not match their standards for knowledge and detachment to beauty, the Greeks do not deny anything. For instance, Greeks attempt to understand science and religion; therefore, there is balance between what they see and what they feel. Similarly, this kind of thinking among the Greeks enables them to set limits for every thought and every discipline (Malpas, 2007). The ability of the Greeks to appreciate beauty also enables them to perceive everything in moderation, establish equilibrium and implement a sense of measure where everything can be controlled. For Camus, the sense of measure inherent in Greek culture is most valuable when it comes to conflict because during conflict, having a sense of measure means having the ability to debate, negotiate, and compromise, while the modern European culture, which values knowledge, sees modern Europeans as more knowledgeable, more superior, and thus, aggravating conflict. This, according to Camus, is modern European’s greatest blunder – that in their inability to appreciate beauty, their actions increase conflict.
Camus’ thoughts and ideas in “Helen’s Exile” prove why the appreciation of beauty is important and should be acknowledged in modern culture. The mythology of Helen of Troy show how two opposing cultures – Greeks and modern Europeans – highlight the importance of beauty. Modern Europeans denigrate beauty and value liberation and mastery of knowledge while Greeks, on the other hand, value beauty and balance. Modern Europe’s greatest blunder is its inability to appreciate beauty, because, without it, people would not be able to see the beauty in everything. People would lose sight of balance and control, which is inherent in the Greek culture; as a consequence, they would not be able to control their actions and decisions. The Greek’s sense of measure establishes equilibrium, while modern European culture creates chaos.