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The Rebel is a book by French writer and philosopher Albert Camus. The book is composed of a singular essay about the history and philosophical foundations of rebellions in Europe. In particular, The Rebel analyzes the act of rebellion as an individual and as a collective. Camus references many philosophers and historical figures to compose a multi-perspective view of man's desire to rebel, which, in essence, is the human desire to reach spiritual, social, and political liberation from the systems that oppress us.

These oppressive systems could be something as fundamental as the human condition (i.e. pain and tragedy), or something on the macro level, such as dictatorships and the political suppression of ideas. Camus also references art and literary movements that contributed to the development of rebellion.

Rebellion also stems from our desire to create a perfect society. When people see flaws in the justice or political system, they are measuring reality with what they believe is ideal. When reality does not match a person's idea of a harmonious, fair society, then rebellion inevitably becomes a reaction to that. Camus uses well-known revolutions in history, most prominently the French Revolution, as an example for his theories. He believed that revolutionary action stems from our mortal desire to kill God or the idea of a cosmic king that controls our lives.

This is why, Camus posited, that the French revolutionaries overthrew and guillotined Louis XVI, who was the last king of France before monarchy was abolished as a result of the revolution. The kings and queens of the past represented god-like figures on earth. When the people realized that the noblemen were made of flesh and blood just like them, the illusion of the hierarchy—king and subject, or god and believer—was shattered. In this sense, rebellion is not just a political act, but a spiritual one as well.

Form and Content

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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 the Soviet Union and the Stalinization of Eastern Europe. At this time some former allies of Camus, such as the important French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, were still defending Communism as a hope for humanity. By writing this book, Camus himself became a rebel against the extremes of the Left and the Right.

After defining authentic rebellion, Camus discusses what he calls metaphysical rebellion. The danger of such revolt is to negate everything, inevitably establishing an absolute alternative system of belief. An example of the metaphysical rebel is the eighteenth century Marquis de Sade. Sade denied God in the name of nature, glorified sexual desire, and practiced libertinism rather than liberty. Camus also considers the dandified heroes of Romantic literature metaphysical rebels. They began as rebels but then created a make-believe world and became a law unto themselves.

Fyodor Dostoevski and Friedrich Nietzsche illustrate the appeal and dangers of nihilism. Dostoevski’s character Ivan Karamazov denies the possibility of a merciful God who can tolerate the murder of innocent children, yet makes the dangerous assertion that all revolt is therefore permitted. Nietzsche openly proclaimed that God was dead and urged men to define their own values through becoming an elite of supermen. The Nazis easily perverted this idea into racial murder.

The final portion on metaphysical rebellion discusses literary revolt and focuses on the Surrealist movement. Some of the extreme Surrealists exalted random crime and murder as a way of attacking bourgeois society. Rebellion could now become an end in itself.

Camus then turns to the more concrete and serious forms of historical rebellion: revolutions. While rebellion starts with experience and creates ideas, revolution begins with absolute ideas and imposes them on a complex reality. The result is crimes justified by reason. For Camus, modern history begins on January 21, 1793, the date of the execution of King Louis XVI by French revolutionaries. They called divine-right monarchy a crime and sought to create a heaven on earth patterned after reason and created by terror. The revolutionary government executed in the name of the people.

The process begun by the French Revolution led eventually to the ideas of the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, who identified God’s purposes with the unfolding of history and the development of the state. There are no values outside history. Salvation lies at the end of history, and the state can commit crimes in order to hasten this salvation. Hegel thus became the spiritual ancestor of both Soviet Communism and German Nazism.

Though Camus displays sympathy with some nineteenth century anarchists and fighters against tyranny, he concludes that individual terrorism paved the way for state murder, which reached its most extreme forms in the Nazi and Bolshevik movements. Nazism arose out of a philosophy of racial hatred and purported to save the world by exterminating the Jews. Soviet Communism arose from the more rational and humane ideas of Marxism, but resulted in a monstrous tyranny. A true rebel wants to live and let live, while the revolutionary is willing to kill in the attempt to produce a perfect human being.

Camus concludes that the true rebel is the artist. Art corrects reality and inspires human beings to improve society, but also creates limits and affirms life.

The final section, “Thought at the Meridian,” is a passionate, lyrical exhortation to rediscover a truly humane rebellion, to reject excess and affirm moderation, and to choose the Mediterranean love of life, the sea, and the sun over the murky search for the absolute that characterizes German thought. Man must go beyond nihilism not through absolute beliefs but through freedom.

Additional Reading

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 386

Brée, Germaine. Camus and Sartre: Crisis and Commitment. New York: Delacorte, 1972. This book accurately describes similarities and differences between Albert Camus and French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Brée disagrees with other Camus biographers who contend Camus was insensitive to the situation of Arabs in Algeria.

Bronner, Stephen Eric. Albert Camus: The Thinker, the Artist, the Man. Impact series. New York: Franklin Watts, 1996. This title provides a thorough, detailed account of the life and work of Camus. Bronner assumes, however, that the reader is familiar with key places and figures in Camus’s life. Black-and-white photos and chronology put events and Camus’s influence on history and literature into perspective.

Fitch, Brian T. The Narcissistic Text: A Reading of Camus’ Fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982. This creative book examines Camus’s major works of fiction from the perspective of reader-response criticism. Fitch stresses the numerous ambiguities in The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall.

Lazere, Donald. The Unique Creation of Albert Camus. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1973. This fascinating psychoanalytic reading of Camus’s works enriches appreciation of Camus’s style. Lazere’s final chapter summarizes American critical reactions to Camus’s works.

Lottman, Herbert R. Albert Camus. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. This is an extremely well-documented biography of Camus. Lottman based this book on extensive interviews with people who knew Camus well.

Merton, Thomas. Albert Camus’ ‘The Plague’: Introduction and Commentary. New York: Seabury Press, 1968. This book proposes a profound theological interpretation of The Plague. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and a famous writer, shows that the two sermons delivered by Friar Paneloux in this novel distort the traditional Christian concept of grace.

Rhein, Phillip H. Albert Camus. New York: Twayne, 1969. This excellent general study of Camus’s works defines well the originality of his contributions to French literature and philosophy.

Todd, Olivier. Albert Camus: A Life. Translated by Benjamin Ivry. New York: Knopf, 1997. A captivating account of the philosopher’s life. The book includes a great many details and anecdotes of Camus’s life in Algeria before moving to France. Fewer details are given for the subject’s later life, however. Todd uses interviews with those who knew Camus, drawing on details, memories, and anecdotes to portray the depth and character of this existentialist philosopher.

Edmund J. Campion Lisa A. Wroble

Context

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From French revolutionist Maximilien Robespierre to Soviet political leader Joseph Stalin, lovers of justice and equality have fallen time and again into contradiction and ended by outraging the humanity they were committed to save. The Rebel seeks to understand the failure of a century and a half of revolution and, by returning to its source in the spirit of revolt, to recover the ideal that has eluded the ideologues.

Albert Camus’s book is, in one respect, a history of the whole anti-God, antiauthoritarian movement in literature, philosophy, and government. The historical study is divided into three parts. The first, entitled “Metaphysical Rebellion,” examines a gallery of “immoralist” authors beginning with the Marquis de Sade and ending with André Breton. A longer section, called “Historical Rebellion,” traces the fortunes of political nihilism both in its individualist and collectivist forms. A third part, “Rebellion and Art,” briefly indicates the manner in which the same analysis may be carried over into the fine arts, particularly the history of the novel. Thus, the body of this considerable work is a series of essays in literary and historical criticism.

However, the introductory and concluding essays are of a different sort. In them, Camus conducts a phenomenological investigation into the data of revolt, analogous to German philosopher Max Scheler’s study of resentment and Camus’s own earlier analysis of the absurd. These essays, which are the most original part of the book, provide the norm by which the failures of nihilism are judged and point the direction of a more humane and creative endeavor.

Nihilism

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The essay Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942; The Myth of Sisyphus, 1955) was addressed to the problem of nihilism that engrossed the minds of intellectuals at the close of World War I. In it, Camus presents his variant of existentialism, according to which one who has been confronted with the meaninglessness of existence gives one’s own life a modicum of dignity and significance by holding the posture of revolt. Honest people, says Camus, act according to their beliefs. If one affirms that the world is meaningless, one is bound to commit suicide, for to go on living is to cheat. According to Camus in this youthful work, the only honest reason for one’s putting up with the irrationality of things is to be able to feel superior to the forces that crush one. To the person of the absurd, the world becomes as indifferent as one is to the world. One bears one’s burden without joy and without hope, like Sisyphus, who was condemned to roll his rock up the hill anew each day; but one preserves a titanic fury, refusing any of the palliatives offered by religion or philosophy or by the distractions of pleasure or ambition.

When The Rebel was written, ten years later, the fashionable nihilism of the period between the wars was no longer relevant. The fall of France led to the taking of sides by many intellectuals, including Camus. The problem of suicide gave way to that of collaboration. People who had cultivated indifference suddenly found that they could not overlook the difference between Nazi collaborator Pierre Laval and Charles de Gaulle, leader of anti-Nazi forces outside France.

The new concern is plainly evident in Camus’s novel La Peste (1947; The Plague, 1948), where it is abundantly clear that those who are strong ought to bear the burdens of the weak. In this pest-hole of a world, no individual can stir without the risk of bringing death to someone. However, although all people are contaminated, they have the choice of joining forces with the plague or of putting up a fight against it. The immediate objective is to save as many as possible from death. However, beyond this, and, in Camus’s eyes even more important, is the task of saving people from loneliness. It is better to be in the plague with others than to be isolated on the outside.

Rebellion

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In The Rebel, Camus tries to show that solidarity is logically implied even in the absurdist position; for to perceive that life is absurd, there must be consciousness, and for there to be consciousness, there must be life. However, the moment human life becomes a value, it becomes a value for all people. In this way, absurdism may be extended to prohibit murder as well as suicide. However, it offers no creative solution to an age of wholesale exportation, enslavement, and execution. People must turn, instead, to a different kind of revolt—that which on occasion is born in the heart of a slave who suddenly says, “No; there is a limit. So much will I consent to, but no more.” At this moment, a line is drawn between what it is to be a thing and what it is to be a person. Human nature is delineated, and a new value comes into being. To be sure, the universe ignores it, and the forces of history deny it. However, it rises, nonetheless, to challenge these; and in so doing creates a new force, brotherhood. Out of rebellion, Camus wrenches a positive principle of politics as French philosopher René Descartes had found certitude in the midst of doubt. “I rebel,” says Camus, “therefore we exist.”

Although the first stirrings of rebellion are full of promise, the path they create is straight and narrow, and few follow it to the end. Like the moral virtues in Aristotle’s Ethica Nicomachea (second Athenian period, 335-323 b.c.e.; Nicomachean Ethics, 1797), it is a mean between two extremes. If rebels think out the implications of the impulse that moves within them, they know that they must never kill or oppress or deceive other people. However, in the actual world, such a policy makes them accessory to the crimes of others. Therefore, they must on occasion perform acts of violence in the interest of suffering humanity. The difficulties of taking arms against oppression without becoming an oppressor are so great that it is small wonder most would-be rebels slip into one false position or another.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus went to great lengths to show the inauthentic responses to the absurd made by the existentialists Søren Kierkegaard, Franz Kafka, and Jean-Paul Sartre, who, according to Camus, rejected literal suicide, but substituted a kind of “philosophical suicide” by making believe that it is possible to escape absurdity. In The Rebel, Camus’s chief line of argument is to show that the great heroes in the literature of revolt and in the history of revolution, almost without exception, fall away from authentic rebellion. For some, the dominant impulse is to negate the forces that frustrate humanity’s development: With them rebellion passes into hatred, and they can think of nothing but destruction. For others, the impulse is to enforce order and realize a standard good: Love of their fellow man gives place to an abstract goal that they must achieve at any cost. The former are nihilists, the latter utopians.

World Deniers and Affirmers

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Camus’s discussion in “Rebellion in Art” provides a clear instance of the two kinds of false rebellion. All art, in his opinion, is essentially a revolt against reality. Art both needs the world and denies it. However, contemporary art has allowed itself to be sidetracked. Formalism gravitates too exclusively toward negation, banishing reality and ending in delirium. Realism, however (he specifies the “tough” American variety), by reducing humans to elemental and external reactions, is too eager to impose its own order on the world. Both arise, in a sense, out of the spirit of revolt, protesting the hypocrisy of bourgeois conventionality; both fail as art, inasmuch as they lose touch with the springs of revolt. Marcel Proust is Camus’s example of a genuine artist: Rejecting those aspects of reality that are of no interest to people while lovingly affirming the happier parts, he re-creates the universe by redistributing its elements after the heart’s desire. This suggests that the creative way is not that of “all or nothing” but that of moderation and limit. The order and unity that make for genuine art do minimal violence to the matter they undertake to re-form. The artist remains, above all, a friend of humanity.

Camus’s classification of rebels into world deniers and world affirmers provides only a rough basis for division when he comes to consider the great figures in the history of revolt. The difficulty is that the contradictions into which their extremism leads renders them at last almost indistinguishable. Nevertheless there is merit in retaining the groupings. Under “Metaphysical Rebellion,” the Marquis de Sade’s advocacy of universal crime and Alfred de Vigny’s Satanism exemplify rebellion that took the way of negation. With them can be placed Arthur Rimbaud, who made a virtue of renouncing his genius, and the Surrealist André Breton, who talked of the beauty of shooting at random into a street crowd. On the other side are the partisans of affirmation: Max Stirner with his absolute egotism and Friedrich Nietzsche with his deification of fate. In “Historical Rebellion,” Camus looks at anarchists and nihilists such as Mikhail Bakunin and Dmitry Pisarev, for whom destruction was an end in itself. However, they are more than balanced by the revolutionaries, whose ambition in overthrowing the present order was but a means toward fulfilling the destiny of a race or of humankind—Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and German Nazi Adolf Hitler, German philosopher Karl Marx and Russian Communist leader Vladimir Ilich Lenin.

The Problems of Rebellion

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The section “Metaphysical Rebellion” deals with those whose revolts were centered in the realm of imagination. Camus finds their archetype not in Prometheus, the figure from Greek mythology who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humankind, but in the biblical figure Cain, who killed his brother Abel, because rebellion presupposes a doctrine of creation and a personal deity who is held to be responsible for the human condition. Their temper is that of blasphemy rather than of nonbelief; and when these rebels go so far as to deny that there is a God, their protest, lacking an object, turns into madness. The fictional Ivan Karamazov, from Fyodor Dostoevski’s Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912), is more instructive than real-life rebels. Indignation causes him to reject God on the grounds that a world that entails suffering ought never to have been permitted. However, he discovers that, having rejected God, there is no longer any limit; ”everything is permitted.” Ivan acquiesces in the murder of his father—before going mad. Ivan rejects grace and has nothing to put in its place. This is the tragedy of nihilism.

“Historical Revolt” was directed less immediately against God than against the absolutism of divine right kings and the prerogatives of feudal lords and bishops. However, it has its metaphysical dimension. In rejecting the old order, the revolutionaries were also rejecting grace, without, however, falling into nihilism; for instead of concluding that all things are permitted, they immediately divinized justice. They repudiated Christ, but retained the apparatus of an infallible institution within which alone salvation is possible. In place of the madness of Ivan Karamazov, they find themselves swallowed up in despair. Their conclusion is a direct contradiction of their original premises: Starting from unlimited freedom they arrive at unlimited despotism.

In Camus’s opinion, just as the nineteenth century revolted against grace, the twentieth must revolt against justice. The kingdom of humanity that the revolutionaries sought to substitute for the kingdom of God has retreated into the distance, and the goal has been brought not a step nearer. The fault is in the nature of revolution itself, which, as the word indicates, describes a full cycle. In rebellion, the slaves rise up against their master; in revolution, they aspire to take their masters’ place. Thus, the champions of justice have merely substituted a new domination for the old. In many ways, the new is less tolerable than that which it replaced. For the rule of God at least allowed humanity to preserve the human image; but when the sacred disappeared, humanity’s dignity disappeared with it. It is a principle of all revolutions, says Camus, that human nature is infinitely malleable; in other words, there is no special human nature. Under the kingdom of grace there was; and rebels insist that there still is. Rebellion rediscovers humanity, affirms that people are not mere things, insists that a distinctive nature sets people apart from all other beings and, at the same time, unites each person with every other human. From this point of view, the only alternative to grace is rebellion.

The Values of the Spirit of Rebellion

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No doubt enough has been said about the defections into which rebels are prone to fall. Like many a preacher, Camus finds it easier to criticize the failures of others than to present a clear-cut statement of what authentic rebellion entails. We have, of course, his stories and dramas to fill out the picture. However, so far as the present essay is concerned, the only vivid illustration of genuine revolt is found in his account of a group of Russian terrorists (the most exemplary were brought to trial in 1905) who combined nihilism with definite religious principles. Camus calls them “fastidious nihilists.” “In the universe of total negation, these young disciples try with bombs and revolvers and also with the courage with which they walk to the gallows, to escape from contradiction and to create the values they lack.” They did not hesitate to destroy; but by their death they believed they were re-creating a community founded on love and justice, thus resuming the mission the church had betrayed. They combined respect for human life in general with the resolution to sacrifice their own lives. Death was sought as payment for the crimes that the nihilists knew they must commit.

Transposed into a more moderate key, what Camus seems to be advocating is a life of tension in which contradictions may live and thrive. There must be a way between that of the Yogi and that of the Commissar, between absolute freedom and absolute justice. In this world, people have to be content with relative goods; but they do not have to give them anything less than their absolute commitment. This is humanism, though hardly of the Anglo-Saxon utilitarian variety. The values born of the spirit of rebellion are essentially spiritual. The rebel wills to serve justice without committing injustice in the process, to use plain language and avoid falsehood, to advance toward unity without denying the origins of community in the free spirit.

Politically, Albert Camus takes his stand with syndicalist and libertarian thought: Opposed to the revolutionists who would order society from the top down, he favors a society built out of local autonomous cells. Far from being romantic, he holds that a communal system is more realistic than the totalitarian, based as it is on concrete relations such as occupation and the village. His stand is not new: From the time of the Greeks, the struggle has been going on (especially around the Mediterranean) between city and empire, deliberate freedom and rational tyranny, and altruistic individualism and the manipulation of the masses. It is the endless opposition of moderation to excess in people’s attempt to know and apply the measure of their stature, their refusal to be either beast or god.

Bibliography

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Additional Reading

Brée, Germaine. Camus and Sartre: Crisis and Commitment. New York: Delacorte, 1972. This book accurately describes similarities and differences between Albert Camus and French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Brée disagrees with other Camus biographers who contend Camus was insensitive to the situation of Arabs in Algeria.

Bronner, Stephen Eric. Albert Camus: The Thinker, the Artist, the Man. Impact series. New York: Franklin Watts, 1996. This title provides a thorough, detailed account of the life and work of Camus. Bronner assumes, however, that the reader is familiar with key places and figures in Camus’s life. Black-and-white photos and chronology put events and Camus’s influence on history and literature into perspective.

Fitch, Brian T. The Narcissistic Text: A Reading of Camus’ Fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982. This creative book examines Camus’s major works of fiction from the perspective of reader-response criticism. Fitch stresses the numerous ambiguities in The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall.

Lazere, Donald. The Unique Creation of Albert Camus. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1973. This fascinating psychoanalytic reading of Camus’s works enriches appreciation of Camus’s style. Lazere’s final chapter summarizes American critical reactions to Camus’s works.

Lottman, Herbert R. Albert Camus. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. This is an extremely well-documented biography of Camus. Lottman based this book on extensive interviews with people who knew Camus well.

Merton, Thomas. Albert Camus’ ‘The Plague’: Introduction and Commentary. New York: Seabury Press, 1968. This book proposes a profound theological interpretation of The Plague. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and a famous writer, shows that the two sermons delivered by Friar Paneloux in this novel distort the traditional Christian concept of grace.

Rhein, Phillip H. Albert Camus. New York: Twayne, 1969. This excellent general study of Camus’s works defines well the originality of his contributions to French literature and philosophy.

Todd, Olivier. Albert Camus: A Life. Translated by Benjamin Ivry. New York: Knopf, 1997. A captivating account of the philosopher’s life. The book includes a great many details and anecdotes of Camus’s life in Algeria before moving to France. Fewer details are given for the subject’s later life, however. Todd uses interviews with those who knew Camus, drawing on details, memories, and anecdotes to portray the depth and character of this existentialist philosopher.

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