The Rebel Critical Essays

Albert Camus


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The Rebel is a book of immense learning, reflection, and literary skill. Camus writes in the tradition of the French moralists that includes Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Voltaire, and Emile Zola. This, his largest work, is an analysis of Western tradition and a plea for liberty, enlightenment, and moderation.

Camus tried to salvage and re-create the Western tradition of liberal humanism. As an existentialist, he held that man must discover values by his own efforts, bereft of religion and ideological dogma. Camus himself was an activist in the cause of truth and justice. His entire life, reflected in The Rebel, was a model of courage, decency, and integrity.

In the main, the broad arguments and illustrations of The Rebel are probing, stimulating, disturbing, and often brilliant. Camus’ insights are frequently couched in striking aphorisms in the tradition of the great French moralists. He provides an impressive framework for explaining the excesses and horrors of the twentieth century.

Yet a work that has set for itself the very ambitious goal of charting and explaining more than two centuries of Western revolutionary development is bound to have some flaws. The book is almost too rich in its references to writers, historical characters, and fictional and mythical personages. This book of more than three hundred pages mentions an almost equal number of names. Unless the reader is unusually well-read, it will be difficult to make sense of all Camus’ arguments in one reading.

Paradoxically, the illustrations that Camus uses to emphasize his points are too selective. His main examples are drawn from the French and Russian revolutions and emphasize German thinkers such as Hegel, Karl Marx, and Nietzsche. Unfortunately, Camus fails to consider the American experience. The American revolution was bloody, yet this struggle for freedom resulted in a tradition of gradualist reform, liberty, toleration, and stability—the same values and practices that Camus...

(The entire section is 827 words.)