Réflexions Sur La Guillotine

I read this last year and wow. The most persuasive and logical argument I have ever heard on the subject. I read it in the book "Resistance, Rebellion, and Death"

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reflections_on_the_guillotine :
Reflections on the Guillotine
"Reflections on the Guillotine" is an extended essay written in 1957 by Albert Camus. In the essay Camus takes an uncompromising position for the abolition of the death penalty. Camus’ view is similar to that of De Sade who also argued that murder premeditated and carried out by the state was the worst kind. Camus states that he does not base his argument on sympathy for the convicted but on logical grounds and on proven statistics. Camus also argues that capital punishment is an easy option for the government where remedy and reform may be possible.

Analysis of the text


The essay opens with a description of Camus' father's reaction to witnessing the execution of a convicted murderer. At first Camus' father fully supported the decision, but after witnessing the event he was left in a state of shock for several days. Throughout the essay Camus expresses his own shock and disgust at the brutality of the guillotine. Camus also quotes from several sources where the guillotine had been less than ‘humane and instant’ as it was claimed to be and uses this in his argument for its discontinuation.


Camus' main point in his argument against capital punishment is its ineffectiveness. Camus points out that in countries where the death penalty has already been abandoned crime has not risen. He explains this by arguing that the world has changed so that capital punishment no longer serves as the deterrent that it may once have been. In Camus's father's day the guillotine was still used to execute criminals in public but by the time Camus wrote his essay executions took place privately in prisons. Although Camus approved of conducting the executions in private he argued that it removed the element of deterrence and rendered the death penalty as merely a means for the state to dispose of those whom it saw as irremediable.

Camus also argued that the threat of death is insufficient to prevent people from committing crimes as death is the common fate shared by all, regardless of guilt. He also believed that because most murders are not premeditated no deterrent can be effective and in the case of premeditated murder the deterrent would be insufficient to stop those who have already decided to act.

Without serving a purpose Camus argued that Capital punishment is reduced to an act of revenge that only breeds further violence, fueled only by sadism and perpetuated by tradition. He likened this act of state revenge to the concept of an eye for an eye and stated that justice should be based on law and principles and not instinct and emotions; such is revenge.

Although Camus opposes the use of capital punishment today, he gives examples in the essay of how it may have been logical and appropriate in pious civilizations. In such civilizations Camus states that the death penalty was usually administered by the Church in order to deprive the convicted of the divine gift of life. However, by doing so, the convicted would then face judgment and have the chance of atonement at the hands of God. In an unbelieving world, Camus argues, the convicted is given no chance of atonement. The process takes place completely separate from the convict and simply dismisses him as beyond salvation or remedy.

Camus also stated that in an unbelieving world there is no absolute authority capable of delivering judgment as no man possesses absolute innocence himself. Because of this Camus suggested that the maximum penalty should be set at life labor due to the possibility of judicial error. Life labor in Camus’ opinion being harsher than death but more easily reversed. The convicted would then also always have the option of choosing death via suicide.

Camus also argued that capital punishment was inappropriate as by effecting revenge for grievances it simultaneously hurts the family and loved ones of the convict in the same manner as those being avenged were hurt by the initial crime.

Author's suggestions for the future

Camus suggested that instead of effecting capital punishment as a cure for the problem the French government would do better to improve living conditions and prohibit alcohol which Camus claimed was directly linked and responsible for many of the murders which lead to use of Capital Punishment in France.

At the end of the essay Camus stated that action must be taken immediately. Camus proposed that France lead the way for the rest of the world by adopting a trial period of ten years in which capital punishment be replaced by life labor. As a half measure Camus suggested that the option of self-administered lethal injection (a modern equivalent of Hemlock in Ancient Greece) would at least be a first step in a more humane direction.


Albert Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in the year that 'Reflections on the Guillotine' was published.

In 1981 the death penalty was abolished in France, the last execution having taken place four years earlier in Marseille.

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6 Responses Jan 9, 2008

Thanks for posting Camus's remarks. I think they're interesting. I really agree with the part about him wanting France to address social living conditions. I think poverty and upbringing are really the root of the problem, in many cases.

PS. Typing in haste, I've done something that I wouldn't have believed I could ever do; I've used a "Greengrocer's possessive apostrophe" to pluralise the word "eyes". Since I'm weeks away from my 50th birthday, treat this as an early harbinger of approaching senility!


Wanting to gouge somebody's eye's out with a spoon and removing their genitals with scissors doesn't sound like the sort of thing that a normal, well-balanced person would want to do to anybody, however wickedly that other person had behaved.<br />
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This is the whole point of a criminal justice system: that it replaces emotion-driven blood-vengeance on the part of the individual with disinterested (in the true sense of that much-abused word) justice on behalf of the whole society. (This is why it is such a perversion of disinterested justice to invite family members and friends to witness executions (quite apart from their inherent barbarity), as if the state were merely delivering a personalised revenge service to them, rather than acting - as penal sanctions ought - on behalf of the whole community.)<br />
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I've not yet read the whole of Camus's essay. My French is inadequate to read the original with complete understanding, and until today I didn't know where to find an English translation. I shall read it with the greatest of interest, although I'm unimpressed by Camus's suggestion that penal servitude for life (or optional suicide) should replace the death penalty; these merely substitute alternative barbarities for the original one.<br />
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Incidentally, I am no bleeding-heart liberal or soppy sentimentalist who cares more for the perpetrators of crime than their victims (and the victims' families). I am all in favour of real law and order, but this must stop short of the kind of extreme cruelty that all forms of torture and capital punishment entail.

http://www.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/04/15/michigan.child.torture/index.html?hpt=T2<br />
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This motherf***er Tortured and murdered a 4 year old because he wet his pants!<br />
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I used to be liberal and totally against capitol punishment because there have been numerous<br />
cases of people who were executed mistakenly, there are numerous cases of people being<br />
executed without due process. And mostly, because I don't believe that courts should presume<br />
to be god. Life in prison is OK with me. But read the story linked above and I challenge you to be<br />
liberal! This as*hole tortured a little boy FOR DAYS and ultimately killed him, because the boy wet his pants. I not only want him to be executed, I want to do it myself. No drugs, no electric chair<br />
...I want to make this bastard suffer for days like he made that poor little boy suffer. I'm thinking to start, gouging his eyes out with a spoon. Then cutting his genitalia off with safety scissors. I want him to suffer. You must link to the CNN story above before you think I'm insane

I have never been able to make my mind up on the death penalty issue. This,sorts out some of my confusions. Thanks for the contribution.

i found this a fascinating contribution. im in france right now hah.<br />
camus=genius. ive always revered the french philosophs (not to sound pretentious, but they were good thinkers).