Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 827
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 defines as true rebellion. Was the violence justified by the freedom that it gained? Camus does not address this question.
It is possible to take issue with Camus’ methodology. His narrative can be wonderfully eloquent and insightful, but it lacks the rigor that a familiarity with the social sciences would have brought to it. The emphasis is mainly on thinkers and writers. Camus simplistically believes that men and women have been led astray from true rebellion by extremist ideas. He overlooks the fact that evil can also result from abuse of power and human corruptibility. Upheavals can be caused by more than simply a sense of the absurd or a belief in nihilism; economic, social, political, and geographic forces are often crucial. Revolutions can also spring from personal problems and dissatisfactions. In addition, the disasters of the twentieth century cannot simply be laid at the feet of certain important thinkers of the nineteenth century. The contributions of Marx, Hegel, and the Surrealists were wide-ranging and not limited to the negative effects Camus draws from them. Thus, Camus sometimes engages in oversimplification of historical forces and of moral issues.
There seems to be a marked dissonance between the body of The Rebel and its conclusion. The main portion of the book is concerned with the degeneration of revolt into despotism. The closing portions of the book are completely devoid of analysis; here Camus sounds a lyrical call for moderation, tolerance, and respect for individual freedom. There is nothing new about such a plea; these are the basic values of Western liberal humanism. Short of advocating trade unionism, organized protest against evil, and artistic integrity, Camus does not show how true revolt can be realized. He defines the Mediterranean ethos as...
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a love of life and moderation, but ignores the convulsions of the ancient Greek world, Italian Fascism, and the violent oscillations of French history.
It may also be asked whether there can be such a thing as moderate revolt. The economic and social conditions of European peasant societies were far more desperate than the stabilized conditions of Europe in the 1950’s. Camus does not seem to realize that revolution is a profoundly tragic phenomenon: While without revolution many societies would be doomed to widespread misery and slow, unrecorded death, with revolution there is a different price to be paid in the deaths of the innocent and in the danger of tyranny and fanaticism. In any case, by 1950 the age of revolution was over in Europe. Camus’ desire that Europe abandon nihilism and excess was already on its way to being fulfilled in 1951, the year The Rebel was published.
Despite its shortcomings and contradictions, The Rebel was one of the few books of its time to address the question of where and how Europe and its intellectuals had gone astray. Camus’ exposure of the traditions and dangers of dogmatic extremism of any kind is a warning that is as timely in the late twentieth century, especially for Third World countries, as it was in midcentury. Man can least of all afford to play God in a nuclear age.