The Rebel, first published on October 18, 1951, represented the culmination of the intellectual and spiritual development of Albert Camus, the great Algerian-born French novelist, essayist, dramatist, journalist, existentialist philosopher, and Nobel Prize winner. This massive philosophical essay on the meaning and development of Western rebellion and revolution was the product of at least nine years of intense work. His motives for writing this study were both intellectual and personal. Camus struggled to understand the origins and the character of the age of confusion and upheaval into which he had been born. He concluded that the first half of the twentieth century had been an age of fear, servitude, and mass murder perpetrated by states in the name of abstract ideologies. He sought to understand how noble Western aspirations and traditions of rebellion and freedom had come to be betrayed by two hundred years of revolutionary fanaticism, bloodshed, and dictatorship. Yet Camus also strove to find a means to improve the lot of humanity without adding to the violence of the past.
Camus’ starting point is the absurd. While humans desire meaning, he says, the world is fundamentally irrational. For Camus, the true rebel is in revolt against the absurdity of oppression, cruelty, and suffering. The rebel says no to slavery and tyranny for the sake of others, and affirms his solidarity with other human beings. For the true rebel, oppression and injustice represent the violation of limits; the rebel seeks to create a freedom that respects the rights of all, rather than approving the mindless destruction of societies and individuals.
Camus then sets out to compare revolt to its sequel and its extreme form, revolution. He surveys the entire tradition of Western revolt and revolution from the Greeks to the mid-twentieth century, with an emphasis on the eighteenth through twentieth centuries. Unfortunately, says Camus, revolutions destroy the original intention of rebellion. Revolutions respond to the absurd by defining a variety of ideologies that justify murder. They sacrifice the present happiness of imperfect individuals to a hypothetically perfect future, and thus justify sacrifice of liberty to tyranny.
The Rebel was written in the immediate aftermath of Nazism and in the last terrible years of Stalinism in...
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