The Rebel Hero: Albert Camus and the Search for Meaning Amidst the Absurd
IN THIS ARTICLE
Man in his search for meaning—everyman— is Albert Camus’ rebel. In The Rebel man must accept and seek to encounter the universe as it presents itself in absurdity. He encounters the universe out of a strange love and a need for something in which he can place his hope: “a moment comes when the creation ceases to be taken tragically; it is merely taken seriously. Then man is concerned with hope.”1 Rebellion in the face of absurdity finds hope in the beauty of solidarity which is rooted in the dignity of man, namely, that there is value in human life. In the darkness of an apparently meaningless universe, Camus is presenting a new humanism.
In Camus’ humanism man must look within and without in order to feel relief from his suffering in seeing himself as part of the whole of mankind: “When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that a man can have no vocation but to awaken the light on the faces surrounding him. In the depth of the winter, I finally learned within me there lay an invincible summer.”2 In order to demonstrate that rebellion is an action that aims at the good of mankind in the face of absurdity, Camus uses the rest of his book to unmask action that claims to be rebellious, but proves to be destructive. This other kind of movement Camus calls revolution. This essay seeks to distinguish rebellious movement from all other types of action.Camus’ work The Rebel, by distinguishing rebellious action from the rest, seeks to institute a new humanism as a response to a meaningless world in order to instill solidarity, freedom, and hope amidst absurdity.
The rebel is a warrior and an artist. As a warrior, he struggles for the sake of man’s freedom in preserving the dignity of human life and the law of moderation within the limits of his capacity as a man. As an artist, his desire for unity and meaning seeks to bring the beauty of human dignity to life in creating a canvas of action that paints the reality of the rebel’s acceptance of and desire for his struggle.
In order to bring to light Camus’ new humanism it is first necessary to understand the kinds of humanism that have emerged from history. These three views on what brings about human flourishing speak differently on matters of transcendence and teleological man. These humanisms stem from antitheistic, Christian, and secular thought. The antitheist develops his philosophy of action on the thought that the universe is devoid of meaning. He places man as the crown of all existence and imposes metaphysical principles upon nature that will lead to an immanent immortality and perfection of man. Simultaneously this concept of man destroys any idea of a divinely transcendent being. Killing God and divinizing man in His place took many forms throughout history, but all of the particular forms of this humanism are unified in their atheistic character. Henri de Lubac in The Drama of Atheist Humanism describes this antitheistic humanism as claiming that
Christianity responds to the antitheist that “the ‘death of God’ was bound to have fatal repercussions…. Atheist humanism was bound to end in bankruptcy. Man is himself only because his face is illumined by a divine ray.”4
In response to the atheistic humanism which destroys an authentic identification with the Divine, Christianity upholds that
John Paul II expounds upon “created imago Dei” by stating that man “is capable of knowing and loving his Creator, and was appointed by Him as master of all earthly creatures that he might subdue them and use them to God’s glory.”6
Secularity falls between the antitheistic and Christian thought in so far as it takes on a Gnostic view of reality in which God is neither dead nor present, but rather not brought into question. There is no teleological understanding of or meaning for the secular man. He lives an ever changing life defined by relativistic beliefs.
Secularity is the most passive humanism of these three in so far as it avoids all definitive claims. Understanding the anti-theistic, Christian, and secular views on humanism, Camus’ new humanism will emerge in contrast based on an absurdist view of existence. This view takes a paradoxical form for in the meaninglessness of absurdity man finds value, namely, the dignity of human life as the pinnacle of meaning on earth.
The Rebel: Meaning in Absurdity
Camus draws us into The Rebel at the height of modernity. It is the age of the perfect alibi in which philosophy has become the “new science” that allows man to “justify” all of his actions. Camus states that when crime roots itself in reason it becomes universal to the extreme of no longer classifying murder as an inexcusable rarity. Thus, in The Rebel Camus seeks to respond to the danger of man’s alienation that he sees as the resulting trap of modern thinking. His solution to this problem is raising a new man to institute hope in recognizing that he is meant to live in solidarity with other men. In desiring his own human life to be respected, man comes to the conclusion that there is value in all human life even in the face of absurdity. At the root of this solidarity and value of humanity he claims is man who brings about this value by living in a state of rebellion. There, however, exists an eternal tension for the rebel in accepting the indefinite burden of encountering the absurd.
Camus presents absurdism in the universe as a belief in contradiction where all is valueless. Although in this valuelessness human life is given precedence, for man must be living in order to encounter the universe. Thus there arises a logic within absurdism that mandates the good of human life, for without the possession of one’s life man is unable to interact with the absurdity: “it is obvious that absurdism hereby admits that human life is the only necessary good since it is precisely life that makes this encounter possible and since, without life, the absurdist wager would have no basis. To say that life is absurd, the conscience must be alive.”7
He contrasts this view with the permissibility of modernity where absolute meaninglessness except for subconscious egoism on the part of modern thinkers colors what he believes to be a nihilistic age. In nihilism all are nominally and relatively equal. In this view, therefore, there is no objective argument against killing. The absurdist, however, must encounter what Camus calls the silence of the universe where one sees the silence not as a state of indifference and nothingness, but rather a passive existence. In the universe’s passivity man recognizes and is called upon to accept that it has a limited existence. In these limitations of the universe man, also, comes to see himself as limited. If man does not encounter the absurd universe he will impose his own metaphysical principles that go beyond a limited universe.
As a proponent of man’s encountering the absurd, Camus is attempting to cleanse modern man of “belief” in a lack of nature in the nihilistic generation and replace a valueless man with one who sees the importance of life as the first principle of existence: “in wanting to uphold life, it excludes all value judgments, when to live is, in itself, a value judgement. To breathe is to judge. Perhaps it is untrue to say that life is a perpetual choice. But it is true that it is impossible to imagine a life deprived of all choice”8 where life itself is the value judgment. The absurd becomes “a way of life”9 rather than a philosophy per se. In its purest form, in its silent essence, it “attempts to remain dumb;”10 it is mysterious, both passive in its silence and active in something that is unavoidably experienced, for it cannot help but be as it is which is meaninglessness. This, again, demonstrates that it is contrary by nature, for it is incomprehensible, but necessitates that it is experienced, and so it is unavoidable; it cannot be categorized, but only encountered in living, for “it is an experience to be lived through, a point of departure.”11
In awakening the absurd sensibility within man he seems to be alone, and so he finds himself staring in a mirror assessing his pathogenic state in the blinding lights of modernity. After examining his state, however, Camus says the mirror must be broken so that nothing remains that can help man to answer the question he has confronted. He must look without towards others. This situation is of necessity, for man is a product of this malady, and needs a new perspective. Hence absurdism in breaking the mirror presents a Cartesian methodical doubt: “it leaves us in a blind alley. But, like methodical doubt, it can, by returning upon itself, open a new field of investigation.”12
Much like Descartes’ “cogito, ergo sum” a return to the absurd leads to value in living, in other words, “I cannot doubt the validity of my proclamation and I must at least believe in my protest.”13 This belief is at the heart of the rebel – a rallying of self to fight the apparent meaninglessness of reality – it is “to demand order in the midst of chaos, and unity in the very heart of the ephemeral . . . and that what has up to now been built upon shifting sands should henceforth be founded on a rock.”14 Man does not like the inconsistencies of the universe, especially in its presentation of suffering, thus he constantly seeks to find a rock of clarity in what Camus pronounces to be an apparently meaningless world. Thus, man becomes a rebel in rising to action that will transform the world by instilling a new hope of action wherein man must be recognized as “the only creature that refuses to be what he is.”15
This struggle for man results out of his lack of accepting the limitations of his existence. The task of the rebel, therefore, is to instill an understanding of limitation in saying “yes,” but only up to a point and then responding with “no” as the slave who feels an intrusion has been committed that is intolerable and can no longer be endured based on his understanding of his human existence.16 In seeing the underlying principle of limitation in relation to his existence an awareness of a standard of human value is born in the rebel, namely, that he possesses a particular kind of existence. This Camus states he must maintain as the threshold of all his actions in his rebellion.17 In his first steps of rebellion, the rebel adopts an “all or nothing” state of living in which it is greater to face death for the sake of the common good than to return to his enslavement.18 In this statement Camus has established a goodness inherent in man based on a human nature which is rooted in limitedness. The goodness, however, is projected onto the world immanently. It is a kind of Homeric concept in which goodness is sought through action pertaining to the present rather than seeking to transcend towards an ultimate good which looms over existence.
In characterizing the rebel’s action as inherent in a kind of human nature, Camus implies that it pertains to all mankind. Thus, he derives from human nature an intrinsic solidarity that unites mankind in rebellion. In rebellion “therefore, the individual is not, in himself alone, the embodiment of the values he wishes to defend. It needs all humanity, at least, to comprise them. When he rebels, a man identifies himself with other men and so surpasses himself.”19 Thus in transitioning from his enslavement into a state of rebellion the rebel’s plate of values becomes twofold, namely, there exists something intrinsically good within him and that this good transfers to all men as a collective whole.
In recognizing the two dwelling places of this inherent good, the rebel is awakened to a kind of love in which he fights to impose universal acknowledgement of this dignity in man. Camus exemplifies this kind of love in the action of Ivan Karamazov in his fight for the good of humanity at odds with the pains of suffering. Ivan’s love can find no explanation in God and, therefore, it takes its rest in “human beings as a generous act of complicity.”20 In Ivan’s love we recognize the heart of the rebel, for Ivan’s action is a desire for harmony of man’s existence with the rest of reality; it does not seek to create something new, but to unveil the sacred part of man.21
The world to Camus is sacred, but modern man has destroyed hope and true human identity so that “what is at stake is humanity’s gradually increasing self-awareness as it pursues its course.”22 Hence Camus believes that all reality culminates in the question of what is man moving towards in coming to this self-awareness, and in particular, “is it possible to find a rule of conduct outside the realm of religion and its absolute values?”23 In his early stages of rebellion, the rebel totters between a metaphysical sacredness and the sacredness within humanity whose words and actions will always be of an immanently human kind.24 Camus, however, will ultimately deny any kind of movement that is metaphysical or historical for both deny man’s reality.
Rebellion, therefore, will be shown as the only answer to man’s dilemma in life, through the anecdote of Ivan Karamazov, for it is the action that Camus sees as adequately supplying salvific consolation for his suffering. In this redemption of man’s suffering The Rebel is not only a universal answer to man’s plea, but also a personal consolation for Camus,25 for he will attempt to show that through a perpetual state of struggle in rebellion man will no longer be alone but find solidarity in humanity, and that suffering, differing for the modern mind, is not individualistic, but “is seen as a collective experience.”26 Rebellion, therefore, allows for hope in so far as its first steps move towards a fraternity among men in which suffering loses its sting in departing from the burden placed on man in seeing himself as trapped in solitude27; this first step towards rebellion through solidarity is as necessary for Camus’ argument as was Descartes “cogito” (for Camus, “I rebel, therefore, we exist”28), for it instills a new hope in seeing man as a necessarily communal being. The concept of man as part of something greater than himself, namely, the whole of mankind was lost with the Enlightenment through the individualistic aspect of Cartesian rationalism.29
In order to show that this self-awareness is rooted in a new kind of action, namely, rebellion, Camus must show why God and philosophy cannot support man in his present state and how his response of rebellion is different from the rest of modernity’s answers. At the root of these objections to Camus’ proposal is unmasking revolution so that rebellion, its opposite, can be realized: “our task will be to examine what becomes of this positive content of rebellion in the actions that claim to originate from it and to explain where the fidelity or infidelity of the rebel to the origins of his revolt finally leads him.”30
Rebellion vs. Revolution
Camus begins the process of elucidation by discussing two different kind of rebellion: metaphysical and historical. The former “does not appear, in coherent form, in the history of ideas until the end of the eighteenth century . . . it is no exaggeration to say they have shaped the history of our times.”31 Modernity, Camus states, takes root in a Promethean mindset in which man chooses to overcome the divine even if it means his eternal punishment.32 He believes certain elements categorized by this myth to coincide with the heart of modernity in so far as man kills God in order to self-divinize.33 For the metaphysical rebel there will always exist a universal struggle between good and evil, namely, between a personal god who is responsible for everything and man who is looking upwards.34 Building upon this Promethean mindset that exerts itself over the divine in the struggle between good and evil: “metaphysical rebellion is claim, motivated by the concept of a complete unity against the suffering of life and death and a protest against the human condition both for its incompleteness, thanks to death, and its wastefulness, thanks to evil.”35
Sade, the romantics, Ivan Karamazov, and Nietzsche provide examples of a historical progression within metaphysical rebellion which will inevitably result in revolution. Camus believes at the core of metaphysical principles is a need for unity. This displaced unity, however, culminates in a form of absolutism. Sade is the instigator of absolute negation born out of rebellion. The intensity of Sade’s intelligence versus a lucidity of nature results in a “logic of his feelings.”36 Based on this logic, and Sade’s miserable demeanor, he denies God’s existence as part of an antitheistic humanism, for God is “wicked, indifferent, or cruel” which is irreconcilable for Sade. God is, therefore, a murderous criminal for Sade.37 Losing faith in the divine leads Sade to lose faith in humanity. He asks the question if God is not good why then should man be virtuous: “if God kills and repudiates mankind, there is nothing to stop one from killing and repudiating one’s fellow men.”38
Camus associates Romanticism with Sadism in so far as its rejection of God and emphasis on the emotions of the individual is “Lucifer-like.”39 The rebel flees so far away from this “miser of a divinity” that he takes solace in the other extreme of evil and inwardness. Man, nonetheless, longs for a semblance of something to unify his existence as was presented in a divine Being but had to be rejected. In his sensitive, melancholic nature, the romantic “plays” at life because he cannot accept living it, and so finds unity in an image of what he sees as aesthetic harmony to sustain him self: “he plays at it until he dies, except for the moments when he is alone and without a mirror. . . to be alone is to not exist.”40 The romantic rebel, therefore, engages in the fight against slavery, but only in his imagination, for out fear in his “philosophy of feelings” and in living isolated he surrenders to the servitude rather than engaging in combat alone.41
In both Sade and the romantic’s response to existence God has yet to be killed, but merely the relationship between man and the divine is severed and God is dethroned. Ivan Karamazov’s response, ultimately, brings man nearer to absolute nothingness and deicide, but before he rejects God like Sade and the romantics he begins by searching for a sense of justice for the injustice of the suffering innocent.
In Ivan’s understanding, if God is just and compassionate then he would not allow the suffering of the innocent. In experience, however, the innocent’s suffering continues and the inflictor is forgiven by God alongside the victim. Thus, Ivan must reject God.42 Camus in Ivan’s rejection presents the idea of an even if clause of instilling one’s own conditions, that is, “under these conditions, even if eternal life existed, Ivan would refuse it.”43 If one were to have true compassion as compassion is associated with God, then it seems like the quest would be to annihilate suffering rather than learn to “accept it,” according to Ivan. Under these terms God seems to be lacking compassion, and so Ivan rejects God because he cannot reconcile that “if he had faith, he could, in fact, be saved, but others would be damned and suffering would continue,” thus, “there is no possible salvation for the man who feels real compassion. Ivan will continue to put God in the wrong by doubly rejecting faith as he would reject injustice and privilege. One step more and from All or Nothing we arrive at Everyone or No One.”44
Although, based on his conclusion, if Ivan seeks to reject God he is rejecting immortality and with it eternal reward or punishment. In this kind of rejection everything becomes permitted and justifiable, even murder. Camus, like Ivan, must reject God and Christianity on the basis of an inexplicable and a permanent state of suffering, but Ivan will cease to be a rebel at the point when he becomes an absolutist by destroying any standard of permissibility. In order to be objective in his actions in line with his conclusion Ivan distinguishes himself from the romantics in so far as he moves closer to acts of nihilism: “the romantics allowed themselves moments of complacence, while Ivan compelled himself to do evil so as to be coherent. He would not allow himself to be good. Nihilism is not only despair and negation, but above all, the desire to despair and to negate.”45
In metaphysical rebellion man plays God, but in becoming God he takes mastery upon himself, for there can only be one God. This metaphysical action, therefore, begs the question whether it is right to speak rebellion nominally of this action, for “one can live in a state of rebellion only by pursuing it to the bitter end. What is the bitter end of metaphysical rebellion? Metaphysical revolution. The master of the world, after his legitimacy has been contested, must be overthrown. Man must occupy his place.”46 Ivan’s action, however, has not reached the pinnacle of revolutionary absolute negation, for his action is out of a strange love for mankind, a love which is destined to starve:
Terrorism will always exist for the rebel, but metaphysical rebellion tries to dispense with the struggle rather than expect it and finds him self accepting solitude as the price.
Nietzsche in philosophy and historically is the climatic point at which metaphysical rebellion terminates the tension in revolutionary movement of absolute negation of everything, for Nietzsche places God into a new schema of moral judgment in a confrontation with absurdity: “morality is the ultimate aspect of God, which must be destroyed before reconstruction can begin. Then God no longer exists and is no longer responsible for our existence, man must resolve to act, in order to exist.”48 Nietzsche’s slogan surmounts to “the advantages of our times: nothing is true, everything is permitted.”49
The only value for Nietzsche is morality, but a morality that is not rooted in God or the world, but in individual lucidity.50 Thus, man is alone for Nietzsche. Freedom and unity does not exist among many, but only for the individual and only for the certain individual, the superman. Thus, freedom and unity exist in the mind and in intentional solitude for Nietzsche: “freedom of the mind is not a comfort, but an achievement to which one aspires and at long last obtains after an exhausting struggle.”51
In this struggle Nietzsche replaces God in order to say yes to the world and finally become its re-creator, an artist.52 This, however, kills rebellion,53 for the struggle ends in this divinization of man; the evil is exalted along with the good, and man can be both the slave and the master as long as he lives in the solitude and freedom of his mind.54 Nietzsche, therefore, in killing God turns to absolute negation where there is no objective value in the world, all is nothingness. In this kind of living all must be achieved in the world through a Caesarian dictatorial power which is realized in the power of the will to free one’s mind from all constraints.
In this final blow to rebellion through Nietzsche’s nihilism we must reject metaphysical rebellion, for it masquerades as the “face of the human protest”55 claiming objectivity in its affirmation of “the solitude of man and the nonexistence of any kind of morality.”56 Realistically, however, these men either self-divinize by reconstructing the world to fit their desires and gain themselves power even at the cost of murder or others go mad and flee reality.57 Life is reduced to a world of death and destruction. Sade, the romantics, Karamazov, and Nietzsche sought to respond to this culture of death, and at the heart of their tasks was a genuine appeal to order.58 Although in their metaphysical rebellions they departed from the universe of limitations unwilling to carry the tension of the rebellious burden leading to the destruction of freedom and returning man to his prior slavery.59
At its height metaphysical rebellion ceases to be worthy of the name rebellious movement and loses itself to revolutionary action. In trying to reconcile reality with absurdity, the absolute man imposes his principles upon nature. This reduces all of his acts to destroying death and instilling a kind of false unity in its place out of the fear of nonexistence, so that “the rejection of death, the desire for immortality and for clarity, are the mainsprings of all these extravagances.”60 In distinction with the revolutionist, the rebel’s action remains noble in so far as he “does not ask for life, but for reasons, for living.” 61 In other words, the rebel is not concerned with the pangs of death, rather, he accepts them and turns his focus to finding meaning within living even if death still must be endured he will have lived well. In its intense devotion to action in desiring meaningful unity in living—in its accepting a life of tension—Camus characterizes rebellion as a kind of asceticism. Metaphysical rebellion’s incapacity to self-discipline in refusing to accept the absurdity reduces all to revolutionary action in which life is destroyed:
This destruction is the reign of nihilism in the world in place of Camus’ rebellion. At the height of metaphysical rebellion is the recognition of Ivan’s “even if,” and in its nihilist attitude metaphysical rebellion destroys any hope of authentic rebellion taking root.63 Camus argues that this culture of death began when the ancient world ended in which man decides to “exclude himself from grace and live by his own means.”64 Thus, the remains of the fallen must be reunited, according to Camus in a new kingdom of justice in which freedom is granted allowance to “embrace all mankind.”65 This new kingdom seeks to combat revolutionary destruction of nihilism in which the “will to power” is the life sustaining force. Hence metaphysical rebellion must be forgotten because in man’s genuine search for order
This antitheistic humanism, therefore, consists in autonomous action in which creation is smothered, God is dead, and so man exists alone. Man lives in solitude in this selfish humanism, rather than in freedom and solidarity as Camus is suggesting by means of rebellion: “to the “I rebel, therefore, we exist,” he adds, with prodigious plans in mind which even include the death of rebellion: “And we are alone.””67 In this destructive humanism, Nietzsche’ “will to power” is the leading force which compels men to believe they are untied in the strength of freedom in rising to power by means of their own abilities. Under the influence of this lifestyle, however, it becomes apparent that there can only be one free man, for all fall into servitude under the power of the strongest will. This servitude and solitude is that from which rebellion seeks to remove men.
There are two aspects that taunt man in this metaphysical rebellion, namely, a need for freedom and unity. Camus states at the heart of revolution was at first the protest of the rebel who desires his freedom from servitude and looks for meaning, a unity; in its culmination of nihilism, revolution “obedient to the dictates of nihilism, has in fact turned against its rebel origins. Man, who hated death and the god of death, who despaired of personal survival, wanted to free himself in the immortality of the species”68 to the point of necessitating the justification of homicidal actions towards those who stand in the way of that immortality.
Man seeking to impose his metaphysical principles on humanity changes his gaze from the abstract to history. Camus sees history as the basis of practical context in which the future of instilling metaphysical principles into reality for the sake of absolute freedom is man’s active response to past evils. Hence Camus turns to a chronology of death through historical rebellion to demonstrate how value through a “logic of history” cannot be found within or imposed upon history, for “the logic of history, from the moment that it is totally accepted, gradually leads it, against its most passionate convictions, to mutilate man more and more and to transform itself into objective crime.”69 The history of this murderous action leads into “the beginning of modern times” with the regicides in 1789 during the French Revolutions. The revolutionists were interested in “attacking the person, not the principle, of the king. They wanted another king and that was all.” 70
With the death of a king in France, Camus endeavors to show that man secularized mankind in usurping the king on his throne of divine office by replacing Christianity with a “feast of reason” displaying a similar religious asceticism in practice to Christian worship devoted to a rationally “holy humanity.”71 In this shift to secular humanism Saint-Just is the vicar of anthropocentricism as an advocate of Rousseau’s social contract thinking. The claim to freedom from oppression of kings and a societal unity of men are the transcendent principles rooting themselves in this historical context. The revolutionary mindset of Saint-Just redefines divine transcendence as that which cannot “be cited before ordinary judges. It is above everything. The inviolability and the transcendence of the general will are thus proclaimed.”72
Under the absolutism of the “omnipotent” universal will, without concise reason, “every king is guilty.”73 Thus God is disincarnated74 and idealistically the divinity of all peoples is affirmed “to the degree in which the will of the people coincides with the will of nature and of reason.”75 Absolute freedom justifying regicide becomes the transcendentally uniting principle in France. This institutes a state of terror in 1789 in which “the scaffold represents freedom.”76
Hegel at the height of nineteenth century German philosophy adopts terrorism as a necessary result of absolute freedom whose “rule of abstract law is identical with oppression;”77 in order for man to be truly free he must first live under the terrorism of “a world spirit” in history which has yet to be revealed in its full fruition. In bringing his metaphysical principle, the “world spirit,” into a historical setting of three stages of revelation, Hegel kills transcendence along with God. A sense of the divine is still contained within the concept of transcendent principles, but in order to make popular divinity strictly anthropocentric Hegel must subject his metaphysical principle to the immanence of historical time.78
In giving man heightened dominance Hegel’s historical action changes from rebellious to revolutionary in so far as he takes the “slave-master” dichotomy further than intended by becoming the master rather than rejecting the servitude as the necessary act.79 Hegel in the assertion of mastery demonstrates the mutilation of man brought about by the implications of “a logic of history,” for he has isolated himself subconsciously in an autonomous manner in which “mastery is a blind alley.”80
Marx, among other emerging philosophers, adopts the Hegelian anthropocentric community as the basis for his political utopia. The emphasis for Marx, however, is that history needs to be altered—it is not naturally realized in and of itself—so that the true future of a universal freedom can flourish. Communism and totalitarianism by removing all personal property will destroy class struggle, the true vision of freedom for Marx. Communism is not his ideal political structure, but initially society “aims at liberating all men by provisionally enslaving them all”81 because man cannot realize his freedom except in being forced to change. Although when this structure is ascetically practiced by Hitler freedom, again, becomes a scaffold:
In Hitler’s movement we are given historical evidence for an egotistical, personal imposition of man upon metaphysical principles claiming to be acting objectively in his philosophy. The absolute destruction of all existence as found in the desolation of the concentration camps is rooted in the nihilistic “will to power” and is standing on the edge of absolute revolution theoretically even if it cannot be claimed as being seen practically:83 “the nihilist revolution, which is expressed historically in the Hitlerian religion, thus only aroused an insensate passion for nothingness, which ended by turning against itself . . . for himself, for his people, and for the world, he was nothing but the epitome of suicide and murder.”84
Hence through these examples Camus has provided evidence that historical rebellion is rooted in absolutes that culminate in the absolute nothingness of nihilism. Metaphysical rebellion, which supplies the “logic” of principles that govern men’s actions within history, leads to a desire for mastery above action meant to simply remove man from his servitude. These principles, therefore, are rooted in a false, egotistical reality.
Thus, both historical and metaphysical rebellion may not rightly be called rebellion, according to Camus, for they are rooted in the absolutism of nothingness found in nihilism: “this is an evil common to all times and a product of servitude . . . The tragedy of this revolution is the tragedy of nihilism—it confounds itself with the drama of contemporary intelligible, which, while claiming to be universal, is only responsible for a series of mutilations to men’s minds.”85
Conclusion: The Reign of the Rebel, a New Humanism
Camus in his final rejection of metaphysical and historical rebellion marks the end of his argument in The Rebel. At this point we as the readers are called to return to the silently absurd universe— “the point of departure”— a stage upon which the hero, a man of action, emerges, the rebel. The rebel is a warrior and an artist. As a warrior, he struggles for the sake of man’s freedom in preserving the dignity of human life and the law of moderation within the limits of his capacity as a man. He must accept these limits in order to properly continue to struggle against absurdity. In this fight
Freedom, therefore, is not absolute, but is focused due to the inherently limited nature of man. To annihilate and live in excess would be to give in to revolution and contrary to his responsibility as the rebel to preserve life.
As an artist, his desire for unity and meaning seeks to bring the beauty of human dignity to life in creating a canvas of action that paints the reality of the rebel’s acceptance of and desire for his struggle.87 Camus calls this action a new humanism in which the new man, the rebel, is born and decides to sacrifice himself in his rebellion, for it is the only action that allows for meaning in life in which he may find hope and love amidst his suffering:
The rebel’s love is that of Ivan’s strange love for humanity and his hope is in the solidarity of sharing the burden of life communally89 in which Camus must reject the compassionate-less God. This strange love presents the rebel with an identity of self, a new, positive individualism, in which man’s identity in light of solidarity is understood as “I have need of others who have need of me and of each other.”90 The rebel’s life differs from the rest of modernity living in antitheistic and secular humanisms in so far as his struggle remains forever in the present;91 he does not look to the future but fights always in the immediate.92 The revolutionary always believes the present must conform to the “better” future to come, where all is justified in light of its being ordered towards something greater than itself.
Thus, the rebel, keeping in mind the secularity of his character, takes on an analogous martyrdom in acceptance of all suffering for the sake of the common good of man, to bear the load together, but his suffering to the degree that it is his task eternally in the immanent rather than his salvation from a transcendent concept makes his suffering all the more horrific. He does not flee death nor does he try to destroy it like the revolutionist. The rebel accepts death as an unavoidable tension (“rebellion proves in this way that it is the very movement of life”93) and leaves it to the future, again, focusing on his love and hope within the moment of the present to illustrate the beauty of the dignity of mankind:
The end of the rebel is not to accept meaninglessness in the absurdity, but to find meaning while still acknowledging that because there is no transcendent cause that draws one into the future it is necessary to accept life as it is and to live presently. The task of the rebel is to find a reason to live even if he still must accept death. Camus is not just building a society in language, however, he is calling all men, you and I, to rebel, for “we are at the extremity now. At the end of this tunnel of darkness, however, there is inevitably a light . . . we only have to fight to ensure its coming. All of us, among the ruins, are preparing a renaissance beyond the limits of nihilism. But few know of it.”95 In departing from our ideological ways Camus is calling us to heroically bend to the eternal tension of the absurd and courageously give of ourselves in rebellion, like the strength of Odysseus’ bow, to be in love as new men identifying ourselves with a longing for this new humanism that was thriving within us all along, and, most importantly, to not give up in our struggling to achieve hope within the present:
Suffering has come to an end for Camus, for he is no longer alone. He has become the inflexible shaft of hope taking on the apparent meaninglessness of the universe in establishing man as meaningful. The absurd will never cease to exist for Camus, but man will learn to bend and accept the tension of its essence through the support of solidarity with other men. This new man, therefore, the rebel, has found his freedom in the face of a silent universe through strength from within and without. In this moment, there is hope for everyman, for Camus in his work The Rebel has instituted a new humanism as a response to a meaningless world through solidarity, freedom, and hope in the face of absurdity.
Abbott, Walter M. The Documents of Vatican II: In a New and Definitive Translation. New York: Herder and Herder, 1996.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
Camus, Albert. The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. New York: Vintage Books, 1956.
Lubac, Henri De. The Drama of Atheist Humanism. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995.