Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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 entire section is 963 words.)

Additional Reading

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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World Deniers and Affirmers

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 416 words.)

The Problems of Rebellion

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 518 words.)

The Values of the Spirit of Rebellion

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 454 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 382 words.)