Albert Camus on Charity: Pro bono heroes?
Camus, The Fall
This is the story of a successful barrister who appears to be the epitome of good citizenship and decent behaviour. Circumstances explode his sleek self-esteem. He sees through the deep-seated hypocrisy of his existence to the condescension which motivates his every action.
The feeling of the law, the satisfaction of being right, the joy of self-esteem… I loved to help blind people cross streets. From as far away as I could see a cane hesitating on the edge of a pavement, I would rush forward, sometimes only a second ahead of another charitable hand outstretched, snatch the blind person from any solicitude but mine, and lead him gently but firmly over the pedestrian crossing amidst the hazards of the traffic towards the quiet haven of the other pavement, where we would separate with a mutual emotion… I always enjoyed telling people the way in the street, giving a light, lending a hand with heavy barrows, pushing a stranded car, buying a paper from the Salvation Army girl.
Being stopped in the corridor of the law courts by the wife of a defendant you represented for the sake of justice or pity alone – without charging a fee – hearing that woman whisper that nothing could ever repay what you had done for them, replying that it was quite natural, that anyone would have done as much, even offering some financial help to tide over the bad days ahead, then – in order to cut the effusions short and preserve their proper resonance – kissing the hand of a poor woman and breaking away…
In 1957, Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, with a prize of $42,000. He deposited the cheque in a bank in Stockholm and forgot about it until some months later, when he was asked by the bank what he wanted them to do with the funds.
Camus’ attitude to prizes and honours forms an interesting contrast with the ethos of lawyers’ charitable work. For example, in November 2009 it was reported that more than 50 “pro bono heroes” attended a Parliamentary reception hosted by the Attorney-General. She is reported to have commented that it was not in the nature of lawyers who acted pro bono to seek recognition or praise for their efforts. The reception was a way of celebrating the work of pro bono heroes. The glaring contradictions of this statement were not recognised.