In 1951, Albert Camus published The Rebel, a book-length essay aimed at diagnosing the metaphysical significance of rebellion and revolution. Primarily centered around Western Europe, Camus adopts a riveting existentialist position on why man rebels. In this paper, I will summarize the arguments laid forth in his book, as well as provide my own thoughts. I argue that while Camus makes an interesting case for purpose in life through a well-constructed historical lens, he ultimately provides a nebulous position on what it means to be ethical. The Rebel, therefore, is best interpreted not as an ethical guide but as an existential instruction manual for how we navigate the universe.
The book begins in section one, with posing the seemingly basic question: what does it mean to rebel? While we normally think of this as physical action, Camus offers an existential view instead. The act of living is an affirmation of existence—our life adopts a positive value. When we rebel, we are acting out the affirmation of life. It is a statement that something about existence is worth fighting for. That worth is considered good by the subject, and thus the rebel is always ethical. Because the rebel always acts ethically, any idea, belief, or ethical claim begins as a rebellion— “with rebellion, awareness is born”. In turn, Camus argues that before ethics, politics, or any metaphysical claim, there is a rebellion by the rebel seeking to create affirmation in the world. This rebellion is like Nietzsche’s ressentiment, but is a swift and surprising act of freedom. The rebellion is what makes one free— “in order to exist, man must rebel.” Camus then moves on to a deeper analysis of the metaphysical rebellion.
In part two, Camus examines the lives of metaphysical rebellions. The metaphysical rebel is always rebelling against the creation and condition in which he finds himself. In this way, they are a blasphemer: “The metaphysical rebel is therefore not definitely an atheist, as one might think him, but he is inevitably a blasphemer. Quite simply, he blasphemes primarily in the name of order, denouncing God as the father of death and as the supreme outrage”. Jesus blasphemed against Rome, the founding fathers against Britain, Marx against capitalism, etc. It is a rejection of the current God and all his values and constraints on man. In other words, the contemporary culture is what the rebel seeks to destroy. The rebel is in search of a new God; one whose values replace the current ones. Again, Camus is quick to compare this to and build off Nietzsche’s work. Nietzsche replaces God with man, an act of rebellion, but does not go far enough, as he still accepts evil as a part of the world. The real metaphysical rebel aims to completely reject what they deem evil, and supplant it with superior values: “One hundred and fifty years of metaphysical rebellion and of nihilism have witnessed the persistent reappearance, under different guises, of the same ravaged countenance: the fact of human protest”. This understanding of the metaphysical motivation for the rebels of history leads to his part three, concerning the historical rebellion.
Camus dives into specific analysis of the rebels of history. First, he makes a distinction between rebellions and revolutions. The motive behind all revolutions is freedom. The rebel always rebels for freedom. On the other hand, the revolutionary may suspend the end of freedom on behalf of justice. Regardless, the revolutionary or rebel both are “killing off God,” leaving behind just its history. Camus clarifies however that rebellion isn’t any time someone strives for freedom— “Rebellion is, by nature, limited in scope. It is no more than an incoherent pronouncement. Revolution, on the contrary, originates in the realm of ideas.” Camus later continues: “The revolutionary puts ideas into history, while the rebel is an individual experience into ideas… revolutions shape actions to ideas to make the world fit into some theoretical framework, they kill men and principles in the process. The rebel only kills men.” This is where we begin to see the differences between the rebel and the revolutionary. In a historical context, it has been the story of revolutions, whereby prior world values are destroyed and replaced with what the revolutionary sees fit. The rebel, a specific experience into ideas, is therefore the creator of values.
Next, Camus considers contemporary instances of what we would consider to be a rebellion or revolution, specifically Hitler and Mussolini. However, Hitler and Mussolini were not true rebels, for they both were irrational, and placed their supreme goods in historical ethnic values. Because they weren’t actually rejecting these old norms in order to bring about new values, Camus argues they, and subsequently their states, aren’t acceptable examples of ethical rebellions. To suggest they were rebels would be a categorical error that fails to take into consideration what their beliefs represented. They were not creating a new set of values, but rather trying to broaden the existence of might and power representing what is right in the world. Karl Marx, on the other hand, remains a rebel per Camus’ definitions. He rebelled against capitalist society, and wished to deconstruct the cash value externalized to every human and every object, in favor of a classless, stateless, equal society. However, just as the revolutionary can suspend certain freedoms as aforementioned, even communism’s path of disruption of the state begins as a rejection of freedom with the long-term goal of human equity. The rebel rejects how history defines values and systems. They create and destroy values. This is the history of the rebel.
In part four, Camus spends a brief amount of time detailing the relationship between rebellion and art. The artist, and their art, is constantly challenging and pushing the envelope of how society perceives the universe and what we consider to be acceptable: “Artistic creation is a demand for unity and a rejection of the world. But it rejects the world on account of what it lacks and in the name of what it sometimes is”. Therefore, the artist is forcing us to reconsider our historical values and beliefs. The true artist is the rebel, because they, like the artist, are creating something. The artist creates an image; the rebel creates a value. The artist destroys what we originally thought about the world; the rebel destroys prior values regarding the world. This parallel between art and rebellions demonstrates just how deep the metaphysics of the rebel goes: “The revolution and art of the twentieth century are tributaries of the same nihilism and live in the same contradiction. They deny, however, all that they affirm even in their very actions, and both try to find an impossible solution through terror.” With this in mind, Camus is now ready to present the theses of the book.
Book five, titled “Thought at the Meridian,” details just where humanity now stands in reference to history. The 20th century has seen a dramatic shift in man: no longer are we constrained by God and religion but instead tragedies and world violence. Two world wars have ravished the planet, bringing death, destruction, and genocides. Camus argues that man is becoming more tolerant and conforming to societies that allow this, and the consequences are worrying: the rebel is now considered a tyrant, a police state is acceptable, and appeals to history and rigid ethical values are becoming more rampant. However, there is still hope. So long as there are injustices, suspensions of freedom, and violence in the world, the rebel will always exist, ready to challenge our norms and replace them with higher values. In fact, it is these very problems that even allows the rebel to exist in the first place. Camus argues that contradiction is a requisite to freedom. It is only when there is some dialectal historical force that opposes new values that the rebel can exist. And because this contradiction is fated to always be present, so too will the rebel, constantly challenging our ethical norms. Therefore, there will never be one standard of ethics.
This means that we cannot, and should not, understand ethics through affirmative claims such as you should do this, but rather through negative claims that reject prior ethical positions: you should not do this. Only when there is a rejection of ethical positions is there a rebellion: “a man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. He is also a man who says yes, from the moment he makes his first gesture of rebellion.” It is a no to what society says is ethical, and a yes to life, to the rebel’s opposition to history. Finally, the existential position of Camus comes to fruition. True, ultimate freedom, only happens when you relinquish the idea of purpose, as purpose alludes to historical standards, humanity, or something along those lines. The rebel must challenge what our limits and standards are. When we challenge that, we find meaning. This is the only way to truly live your life: dedicating it to yourself and your own beliefs. This is why the rebel is always acting ethically and in accord with themselves. This is the thrust of Camus’ existential argument: reject what history tells you, and rebel. Find and create your own values. To rebel is to become aware. To become aware is to become free. To become free is fulfill your purpose.
I sympathize with Camus’ goal of constructing some unique metaphysical and existentialist claims, but I think there are some serious consequences that he tries to squeeze out of but ultimately fails. The biggest issue I have is with his section analyzing the 20th century. He attempts to argue that the fascist stage can’t really be considered rebellion, and that Hitler and Mussolini aren’t true rebels because they’re valuing irrationality over reason. But I don’t buy this claim on two accounts. First, to appeal to reason as the grounds for rebellion seems entirely antithetical to his existential claims. Camus emphasizes that the rebel is challenging historical notions of accepted norms and ethics. Accepted norms and ethics almost certainly lie under reason. Even if you or I don’t agree with accepted norms, society does agree and they have a justification for them. Therefore, reason inheres itself in society, and thus history. This means that if Hitler and Mussolini aren’t acting under reason, they must be going against the grains of history. Per Camus’ definitions and extrapolations, this most certainly makes them rebels, and their actions ethical. So, for Camus to appeal to reason as a way of absolving his implication in essentially condoning fascism, he is being extremely contradictory. In fact, I would almost go as far as to say that the only correct interpretation of ethical rebels are ones that are entirely irrational. This is not a position Camus wishes to adopt, but I think he is pigeonholing himself into it.
The second reason for not buying his argument is that, quite simply, he very clearly states that ethics lies in the subject. For Camus to argue how or why irrational actors behave in a certain way is to assign a type of thinking or ethical paradigm to the actor, and compare it to his. In other words, the only way for Camus to claim Hitler is irrational is by first considering Camus’ own body of reasoning, and contrasting it with Hitler’s. This now means that ethics is a dialectic between the observer and the observed. But again, if ethics is completely constructed, created, and dictated by the subject, as he makes very clear in the first part of the book, then he can’t successfully get away from excusing and practically embracing the rebelliousness nature of historical individuals he would almost certainly still want to call evil. These two accounts make Camus’ ethical position very weak.
However, I do think there is still a silver lining to The Rebel. Distancing myself from the ethics section, and focusing on some of the underlying existential points, I find a lot of great takeaways. My favorite takeaway and unfortunately the least fleshed out section of the entire book is his discussion on art and rebellion in part four. I love his notion of the artist being a creator, challenging history and society’s values. I see a lot of Nietzsche in this argument, and I think there’s a very good case to be made that Camus and Nietzsche are compatible with the position that art is the highest good in the world. It is a comforting position, one that gets us away from the never-ending quest for objective epistemology, and allows to embrace ourselves and find affirmation in life. Though it is sometimes unclear in this section whether he’s talking about a physical rebellion or art, the parallel is clear and its cross-application to how we approach life is captivating. Art lets us break down cultural norms, oppressions, and injustices. We can rebel non-violently through our ideas, and create an experience that places our inner rebellion onto a canvas. Rejecting history with the stroke of a brush or the stroke of a key has the power to existentially change the world. I find this to be a beautiful approach to the absurd universe we live in.
Similarly, another important takeaway and interpretation of mine is that purpose isn’t something externalized in the world. We can’t point to history or humanity as a whole and say “that is the meaning of the world.” It is something that must come from within. Before we create a society, before we make a metaphysical claim, there is a rebellion. There is an affirmation of something in life that we agree with, and a rejection of something we don’t. There must always be a yes and a no, and this can only come from within. Camus writes:
“At the end of this tunnel of darkness, however, there is inevitably a light, which we already divine and for which we only have to fight to ensure its coming. All of us, among the ruins, are preparing for a renaissance beyond the limits of nihilism. But few of us know it.”
It is this symbiotic relationship between the universe and ourselves that demonstrates that purpose inheres itself in ourselves, even if we are not yet aware. It is waiting within us to be realized; and once we do realize it, we create values, affirm life, and perhaps approach total happiness. It is a sense of a finality in the universe that can’t be found in history or in objects other than ourselves. It is a powerful, sublime expression of identity that says “you will not define who I am”. This is the existential drive for mankind: through the tunnel, out of the ruin, and into the light.
In conclusion, The Rebel is a very interesting read with a fresh take on how metaphysics, history, ethics, and existence intertwine. There is a lot to praise for how Camus observes man’s affirmation for life, and where our motivations and desires to change the course of history come from. Much of this provides fascinating and useful strategies for dealing with existential questions we all have. The biggest gripe with his book-length essay I have is his positions on ethics and those who have committed real, objectionable, despicable crimes. Camus simultaneously presents an accepting ethical framework that doesn’t condemn evil, while hypocritically arguing his framework doesn’t apply. It is not enough to simply assert these actors followed irrationality as their supreme value. I do not agree with Camus’ position here, and think that we should look elsewhere for a better and logically consistent understanding of ethics. Fortunately, it is very possible to separate the existentialism from the ethics, and in that I find genuine solace.