Camus and the Meaning of Existential Rebellion
French writer Albert Camus (1913-1960) published his famous essay, The Rebel, seventy years ago in 1951. At that time, the world stood precariously balanced between the social-democratic liberal democracies of the West and several totalitarian rivals that threatened to devour them. After two destructive world wars, Europe lay in ruins by 1945. The Allies had finally defeated one of those totalitarian rivals, Nazi Germany, but not before millions of innocent lives became puffs of smoke belched from death camp crematoriums. Meanwhile, France was still struggling to pick herself up after the collapse of 1940 and four years of Nazi occupation. And finally, looking east, the Soviet Union and Mao's China had turned communist theories into secular religions held together through terror.
It was in this context that Camus wanted to explore how the world had reached this low point. How had the act of individual revolt inspired by Enlightenment principles of free thought caused so much collective misery?
Origins of the Rebel: Metaphysical Rebellion
It isn't God I don't accept, Alyosha, it's just his ticket that I most respectfully return to him." - Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov
Camus began with a simple question, "What is a rebel?"
He explains that a rebel is:
"A man who says no: but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. He is also a man who says yes as soon as he begins to think for himself. A slave who has taken orders all of his life suddenly decides that he cannot obey some new command. What does he mean by saying 'no'? He means, for instance, that 'this has been going on too long', 'so far but no farther', 'you are going too far', or again, 'There are certain limits beyond which you shall not go.' In other words, the 'no' affirms the existence of a borderline." (Camus 1)
There's a lot to unpack in that short passage. An act of renunciation is common to all rebellion, but the direction it goes from there determines its subsequent nature. After all, what exactly is the rebel saying yes to after that initial refusal? Is it an affirmation of human dignity where solidarity encourages individual flourishing? Or is it saying yes to violent revolution and a refashioning of reality and human nature in pursuit of some utopian mirage? Camus looked around in the late 1940s and saw more of the latter. This was rebellion without moral limits, and it was a road to ruin.
One minor tweak is all it takes to transform Camus's benign formulation into this toxic kind of rebellion.
From the original: 'There are certain limits beyond which you shall not go.' In other words, the 'no' affirms the existence of a borderline."
And now with the minor tweak that changes everything: 'There are no limits at all beyond which we shall not go.' In other words, the 'no' denies the existence of a borderline." Anything is now permitted to set the world right, even if it is necessary to burn it all down to build it back better. This is a blueprint for the guillotine, the gulag, and the torture chamber.
The first rebellion of the modern world was a metaphysical one against God, exemplified by Dostoyevsky's character Ivan Karamazov. In the novel, Ivan boldly puts God on trial. He wasn't rejecting the existence of God, per se; no, he simply rejected the moral authority of a deity that allowed evil to run rampant in the world. For Ivan, all the suffering in the world contradicted the idea of an all-good, all-powerful, all-just God. It was the old question of evil resurfacing but now pursued by dogged thinkers unimpressed with the lazy assumptions that had so long upheld Christian doctrines. Worth noting, however, is that even though he rebelled against God, Ivan did not deny his existence.
In The Brothers Karamozov, Ivan engages in a heated exchange with his pious brother, Alyosha, where he claims that accepting God's Word is not worth the price of admission given all the suffering that comes with it.
"And if the sufferings of children have gone to replenish the sum of suffering that was needed in order to purchase the truth, then I declare in advance that no truth, not even the whole truth, is worth such a price." (320)
"And so I hasten to return my entry ticket. And if I am an honest man, I am obliged to return it as soon as possible. This is what I am doing. It isn't God I don't accept, Alyosha, it's just his ticket that I most respectfully return to him." (320)
Challenging God directly like this and not backing down is something new. Ivan's defiance spoke for many. What had begun as a quiet murmur of private doubt hidden away deep in the conscience became a loud and contemptuous voice demanding justice, even from God, who is now addressed as an equal. This is where it all begins, Camus argued, with open defiance toward a metaphysical order that has lost its credibility. The first rebels rejected God and set out to find a better alternative. 'If God won't make it right, then I will!'. And so they tried.
Ivan Karamazov still sounds more like Milton's Satan from Paradise Lost than the iron-hearted atheists who filled the revolutionary ranks of the twentieth century. His tone hints at a man thinking for himself for the first time and not liking what he finds. He grapples with timeless existential contradictions while rejecting irrational dogmas that don't add up. The rebels of the post-Enlightenment still paid lip service to a Supreme Being, true, but it was no longer an object of worship as before. God faded into an inert abstraction, thus making way for Man to have his turn at the wheel. This was the first step toward accepting the idea of an absurd universe with no God or purpose at all.
Rebellion and the Quest for an Absolute
"A nation regenerates itself only upon heaps of corpses." - Saint-Just
The human mind tries to impose order on the world. We do this heuristically by creating maps, models, and metaphors that shrink existence down to a level we can understand. For Camus, dethroning God came with the realization that we lived in a meaningless universe. A natural response, though not a sustainable one, was accepting nihilism. If we were sincere, he argued, then reason dictates that we should embrace the fact that nothing matters and all is permitted. Only power matters. Only raw nature is real. Now deal with it. But this is not a response that scales up nicely. A society needs something more hopeful to bind it together, whether a unifying myth, an ideology, a religion, or some combination of the three. A vacuum of meaning must be filled, and nihilism can't fill it.
When you think about it, every philosophical and religious system is a way of maintaining the illusion that we're in control. This keeps nihilism at bay, or as Blaise Pascal so eloquently wrote, it pushed back the terror induced by 'the eternal silence of these infinite spaces.' Camus realized that our need to believe in something meant that rebellion always risked replacing one oppressive heuristic with another in a recurring cycle of oppression, revolt, revolution, and back to oppression again, over and over, forever and ever, in an endlessly turning wheel.
Even after God's departure, the goal remained the same: to create some unifying principle, some new absolute, to replace the old one. A virtue that is overthrown must be replaced by a new one: The priest swaps out his robes for the commissar's trench coat. The Church changes addresses and becomes the Ministry of Justice. The mummies of saints are replaced by that of the New Faith's man-God, Comrade Lenin, whose moldering corpse became an ironic metaphor in more ways than he could have ever imagined.
Before Lenin, however, the Jacobins of the French Revolution were the first modern rebels to give revolution and rebellion without limits a try. Camus pointed in particular to Jacobin firebrand Louis Antoine de Saint-Just as representative of a new breed of rebels who wanted to swap out the divine rule by a monarch for that of a Republic governed by the People. Saint-Just was ruthless in his pursuit of republican virtues. If you didn't share his goals, you were a traitor worthy of the harshest punishment, which usually was a one-way trip to the guillotine where your body and head parted ways for good. Unfortunately, the early ideals of the French Revolution (liberté, égalité, fraternité) ended up destroyed by men like Saint-Just, the mobs they incited, the guillotine, and finally the tyranny of Napoleon.
How odd that a man like Robespierre, one of the Revolution's early leaders and a key ally of Saint-Just, could say something like this: "What is the goal toward which we are heading? The peaceful enjoyment of liberty and equality; the reign of that eternal justice whose laws have been inscribed, not in marble and stone, but in the hearts of all men, even in that of the slave who forgets them and in that of the tyrant who denies them." (Robespierre - On Political Morality 1794)
This sounds like something James Madison or Thomas Jefferson might have said. Yet while delivering such soaring rhetoric, Robespierre was condemning thousands to death. Camus saw this as a form of rebellion where any means were justified to achieve certain ends.
And who but enemies of the people could argue that the ends justified the means? Is not a Republic run by the people and for the people far superior to the ruinous exploitation of kings and priests? Both Robespierre and Saint-Just argued that only a combination of republican virtue and political terror could preserve the Revolution and its goals of liberty, equality, and fraternity for all citizens.
But in the same speech with all the flowery talk about liberty and equality he says, "If the mainspring of popular government in peacetime is virtue, amid Revolution it is at the same time [both] virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue. It is less a special principle than a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country's most pressing needs."(Robespierre - On Political Morality 1794)
We're now a long way from Jefferson and Madison. This is rebellion with a snarl. In this formulation, terror and virtue need each other to achieve justice. Some variation of this formula would be the guiding principle for subsequent rebels who refused to acknowledge limits in pursuing their ideological goals. In the name of absolute justice and total freedom, all is permitted, even murder.
The terrifying logic goes something like this: 'Violence and terror today will bring about a better world tomorrow. Just stick with the plan. Hold fast, good citizens! We go through hell today to get to heaven...eventually. Maybe. Hopefully. We'll get back to you on that... Don't worry, what are a few heads lopped off if future generations live in a better world? You know what they say about omelets! You can't make one without breaking a few eggs. So it is with the Revolution. Posterity will worship us for the hard choices we're making now. They'll name plazas and streets after us. And the victims? What about them? They got what they deserved!'
Robespierre and his fellow radicals were merely the first wave of a new breed of rebels. These were men willing to make a down payment on a better future in the currency of human suffering. Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao were all the ideological heirs to Robespierre's way of approaching rebellion, which is to say without any limits and by any means necessary. They destroyed what they rebelled against but then could not stop destroying. They were, in the end, nothing but bulldozers, not builders, even if they claimed otherwise. Lofty goals for a better future (but for whom?) are all fine and good, but if the only way to realize them is through political violence and terror, then Camus believed the cost was probably too high. Rebellion unbound by moral limitations leads to catastrophe.
Moderation vs. Hubris: Toward a Humane Philosophy of Rebellion
Camus defined what a philosophy of rebellion should look like: "If...rebellion could found a philosophy it would be a philosophy of limits, of calculated ignorance, and of risk. He who does not know everything cannot kill everything." (Camus 231) Or, put another way, a little intellectual humility goes a long way in keeping us from killing each other. The greatest mass murderers of the last two centuries, rebels one and all, were supremely confident men absolutely convinced that what they were doing was right.
Camus called for a more compassionate form of rebellion that respected human rights. When rebellion must occur, it should go no further than correcting the wrong that provoked the revolt in the first place. This kind of humane rebellion bound by limits rejects dogmatic absolutes as the dead-end path that leads to intellectual slavery and philosophical suicide. Camus wanted to show there was a different way. 'There are certain limits beyond which you shall not go.'
Rebellion needed limits; it had to stay grounded in reality and the messy day-to-day contradictions of human existence and not get lost in the fog of abstract theories from thick tomes incompatible with real life. On the other hand, if human dignity can only be upheld through violence, it's likely not worth the cost of the ticket, as Ivan Karamazov would say. Violence begets violence, and whatever noble intention sets off that initial act of revolt, it ends up corrupted by the brutal methods used to achieve those ends. The victim rebels and becomes the perpetrator; the roles reverse, and so it goes.
Virtue taken to logical extremes generates its opposite. This is a theme that Camus constantly comes back to. "Absolute freedom mocks at justice. Absolute justice denies freedom." (Camus 233) Unlimited freedom always ends with the strong preying on the weak. It ends in slavery. Remember that when someone talks of freedom as an absolute good. They make the mistake of believing that if something is good, then more of it must be better. That's a fallacy. The follow-up questions to such shallow thinking should be, 'good for whom?' or 'freedom for whom?'. Camus wrote, "On the contrary, rebellion puts total freedom up for trial. The object of its attack is exactly the unlimited power which authorizes a superior to violate the forbidden frontier." (Camus 226)
On the other side, the idea of perfect justice will forever remain a utopian illusion. There is no such thing, and its blind pursuit suffocates freedom. Robespierre argued for terror as a means of imposing perfect justice on society. Terror was not the tactic of a tyrannical government but instead an expression of the people's general will. It was a tool for meting out revolutionary justice to the enemies of the people. As he chillingly put it, "Terror is only justice: prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country."
More than anything, Camus advocated for moderation. In this, he was deeply influenced by the ancient Greeks, whose culture was shaped by a religious respect for limits. A central concept to the classical Greek worldview was that of hubris, or the crime of excessive pride and arrogance that blinded a person and hurtled them to their doom. It is known more colloquially today as the "pride that comes before the fall." Icarus and his fatal flight is a classic example. The myth of clever Sisyphus, who cheated death twice by tricking the gods, is another example of hubris.
Camus equated the political excesses of his time as criminal acts of hubris, The problem was that now no God or gods or Fate were available to balance the scales of justice when arrogant ideologues crossed the line. Man now usurped that role. According to biographer John Foley, "Camus identiﬁed as the acme of this ideological hubris, this pursuit of totality, the historical materialism inaugurated by Marx, manifested in the Soviet Union and defended by its allies in the West. (Foley 86).
"I rebel - therefore we exist" - Albert Camus
A lot has changed since Camus's time. The Soviet Union's collapse is thirty years in the past. Think about that for a moment: An entire reality-defining ideology that for decades provided real meaning for hundreds of millions of people is now a thing of the past. Only dying pockets remain. That's something to keep in mind. The living certainties of one generation that offer so much meaning and purpose become dead relics to those who come after. A stable status quo that will go on forever is another illusion we cling to so we can sleep at night. Today was like yesterday, and tomorrow will be like today, and we live as if this state of affairs will never change. But then it does, and at some level, we knew it was coming.
That said, our world now seventy years removed from The Rebel is one of profound contradictions. Billionaires fly to space for shits and giggles while over a billion people still live on about a dollar a day. The pandemic of 2020 and 2021 only widened this global wealth gap. Millions of white-collar workers with bullshit jobs could afford to cower at home and ride out the pandemic watching Netflix and getting fat on food deliveries. Meanwhile, everyone else kept the shelves stocked and the supply chains running at $12 an hour. Even so, the average citizen in the developed world, even those doing real work for bullshit pay, enjoys a standard of living surpassing anything that came before. But yeah, I know, that's little consolation.
And so the system creaks and groans from the strain of its contradictions. It gets worse. The climate now resembles the Greek god Nemesis striking back at the hubris of we mere mortals, lashing out with floods, droughts, heatwaves, and forest fires. Maybe the Greeks were on to some primal truth about how the universe operates? It wouldn't surprise me.
With no external foes like the Soviet Union to unify us (sorry, but climate change is too abstract an enemy), domestic strife now fills the void. Take the United States as a prime example: Twenty years ago, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 by foreign jihadists brought Americans together like nothing since Pearl Harbor. Today, we're not far removed from an armed mob of self-identified patriots trying to violently stop the certification of a free and fair election whose results they did not like. Indeed, change comes fast. What will 2050 look like? How many of you just silently shuddered reading that question?
Another difference from Camus's time is social media. Now everyone has a voice, not just an elite class of intelligentsia as during his life. Millions now believe they're true rebels, somehow standing removed from all the fuss and thinking it all out originally for themselves. This is seldom the case. Everyone's different in the same ways. Rebellion today is often a performance done for anonymous digital crowds, something filled with platitudes and grounded in self-deception. It's another way to craft identities and polish personal brands so we can stand out from the faceless masses. It's annoying, yes, and with very little substance, true, but it doesn't murder people.
Moreover, no grand unifying narrative exists today beyond the cult of Me, Myself, and I. The good news is that few are truly willing to rebel without limits because they have too much stake in the system as it stands. Sure, they'll roleplay rebellion from time to time and play keyboard radical online, but at the end of the day, they're going to get groceries at the Piggly Wiggly and work 9-5 jobs that pay the mortgage and credit cards. They're going live regular lives, probably somewhere in the middle class, just like everyone else. These are not real rebels but convention-embracing play actors.
This will go on until something significant happens that breaks the status quo: world war, economic collapse, a far worse pandemic, or some similar cataclysm. Then the pace of change will quicken uncomfortably, chaos will emerge from its decades-long slumber, and a new generation of wannabe Robespierres and Lenins will try to murder and terrorize their way to a better future. As we've seen in recent years, many will be all too willing to follow them into the abyss. Woe to that future, whenever it comes.
I'll finish on a more upbeat note with something that does remain relevant from The Rebel. To return to Camus's basic definition: We still need rebels who 'say no before saying yes to something better once they've learned to think for themselves.' But they need to have deep reservoirs of compassion, humility, and doubt. This is even more important today, living anesthetized as we do by technology and pharmaceuticals. You see, Camus's rebellion was a humanistic one that doesn't want to radically transform society for a far-off better future that may never come. He understood that the present is it. That's all we got, and that's what is truly real, as imperfect as it always must be. Simply put, he wanted us to look after each other with compassion and respect. He hoped that the 'me' and 'we' could reinvigorate each other in ways that promoted flourishing lives, and not end up divided in ways that cause suffering. And if others seek to cross the line with violence to achieve ends poisonous to human well-being, then these humanistic rebels must step up, stand firm, and say no.
On that note, let me finish with some wisdom from Camus. He'll say it better than me anyway.
"I have need of others who have need of me and of each other. Every collective action, every form of society supposes a discipline and the individual, without this discipline, is only a stranger, bowed down by the weight of an inimical collectivity. But society and discipline lose their direction if they deny the 'we are.' I alone, in one sense, support the common dignity that I cannot allow either myself or others to debase. This individualism is in no sense pleasure, it is perpetual struggle and, sometimes, unparalleled joy when it reaches the heights of intrepid compassion." (Camus 239)
A short video about Albert Camus, his life, and times since I did not really cover that in this essay.
A good short video explaining the background behind one of philosophy's biggest feuds: Camus vs. Sartre. Spoiler alert: Sartre hated everything about The Rebel.
Camus, Albert. The Rebel. Penguin Books, 2013.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Brothers Karamazov. Translated by David Mcduff, Penguin Books Ltd, 2003.
Foley, John. Albert Camus: From the Absurd to Revolt, Taylor & Francis Group, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=1886845.