Does Essence Precede Existence? A Look at Camus's Metaphysical Rebellion

By Scot N. DuFour
2017, Vol. 9 No. 05 | pg. 1/1


Albert Camus lived during a tumultuous time that included his experience of World War II and the Algerian War. Camus is most prominently known as an author of fine French literature but he was also a philosopher. While it is debatable whether Camus was an existentialist, a label he personally disliked, his analysis of rebellion in his work The Rebel serves as a relevant argument for the establishment of an ethic based on metaphysical rebellion. Camus faced and was witness to great oppression throughout his lifetime so it is no surprise that he wrote about rebellion. Camus was personally part of the rebellion of the Nazis in World War II and he also spoke out against Muslim oppression he had witnessed in his home country of Algeria. Camus formed his concept of metaphysical rebellion as a way to formulate an ethic in the face of a world that Camus described as absurd. Several authors and philosophers, like Marquis de Sade and Nietzsche, have responded to the absurd in their own way but Camus's response to the absurdity of the human condition is an evolution from the responses of those other two thinkers. While Camus constructs his ethic of rebellion he clings to a concept of human essence that not only put him at odds with existentialists like Sartre, but his idea of human essence is also unnecessary for the establishment of his ethic. Camus's metaphysical rebellion is a successful argument for the creation of a code of conduct for ethical behavior, and one that remains relevant in the world today. Rebellion is not only valuable in the past or in third-world countries; issues like slavery, women’s suffrage, ongoing conflicts in the Middle East are all examples of the need to cherish the human ability for rebellion.

Existentialism is a curious philosophy for many reasons; it is considered by some to not even be philosophy, but rather a social movement. Despite this, it is probably the philosophy that has had the greatest impact and influence outside of philosophical circles. While existentialism as philosophy can be debated, most scholars agree that existentialism is certainly not a systematic type of analytic philosophy in the usual sense (Academy of Ideas, n. pag., Marino ix, Cooper 27). Despite the fact that there is great disagreement about the nature of existentialism some of the most famous philosophical names outside of philosophy are usually placed underneath the umbrella of existentialism: Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Camus.

There are other names associated with this movement, of course, but students in disciplines outside philosophy are likely to learn some of the works from these philosophers. This paper aims to explore the concepts of Camus and his particular work, The Rebel. Camus explores the concept of the absurd life of humanity in existentialist fashion before the smoke had cleared after World War II and during the Algerian War, both of which affected him personally. Camus traces human rebellion through some of the prominent intellectuals of the past and comes to the conclusion that rebellion is humanity’s way of coping with the absurd while creating an ethic for human behavior. Camus's rebellion implies a human essence that puts him at odds with most existentialists, but this human essence is not necessary to establish the ethic of rebellion that Camus seeks to create, and which remains relevant in the world today.

Camus did not like the label of “existentialist,” and maybe he was not an existentialist. But it does not matter. Camus presents a strong argument for using rebellion as a source for a moral code of conduct.

Albert Camus's Background

It is important to understand Camus's background along with the social and political environment of his time. Like any author or philosopher these social factors played a role in Camus's work and in his philosophy, particularly the views expressed in The Rebel. Rebellion, which is the focus of The Rebel, was occurring right before Camus's eyes in the Algerian War. The rebellion that took place during the Algerian War in the 1950’s has often been seen as the result of Algerians becoming inspired by resistance to the Nazis during World War II (Evans n. pag.), another conflict that Camus witnessed during his lifetime.

Camus was born in 1913 in Algiers to an illiterate mother and a father who would be killed in World War I, but he also spent a great deal of time living in Paris. Camus grew up in poverty but was able to attend university and receive a quality education. During World War II, Camus was employed as a journalist for a newspaper associated with the French resistance to the Nazis. The resistance that the French and many other countries performed against the Nazis during World War II was seen as inspirational to Algerians who were fed up with the colonial life and thus Camus's home country of Algeria became embroiled in the Algerian War that killed approximately one million Algerians (Evans n. pag.).

Camus died tragically in an automobile accident in 1960, but during his rather short life he was surrounded by what he saw as totalitarian type regimes taking advantage of less powerful groups of people. Experiencing both World War II and the Algerian War firsthand, and being a part of the resistance in those situations likely inspired Camus to think about the human situation and about how people remedy those situations; through rebellion. This is hardly surprising; during Camus's life France had been involved in the kind of conflict that is occurring today in the Middle East and portions of Northern Africa (Royal 29). These experiences made Camus an incredibly influential writer, winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, so his influence cannot be doubted even if some choose to find no true philosophy in his works.

Camus saw murder and exploitation of people as inevitable under the rule of some kind of regime. He saw what he termed “crimes of logic” being committed all over the world in the name of some kind of future utopia with complete disregard for the present moment. This promise of some future promised land at the expense of the present was what Camus came to detest, and for that reason he saw religion and ethical systems as removing the meaning from the present in hopes of a better future state (Duran 369). Camus thought that we must come to grips with our true situation and using religious views to mask the truth was undermining the real value of life.


The debate about whether or not Camus was an existentialist is as ambiguous as the debate over what existentialism even means or the debate about the analytic and continental split in philosophy. Despite this fact it is nonetheless important to determine whether or not the views expressed by Camus are in fact within the parameters of existentialism. Since there is disagreement about the value of Camus's work as philosophy then whether or not Camus fits into the definition of existentialism, an influential and well-known philosophy is important. But is it even possible to narrow down the nature of existentialism?

Existentialism is not a philosophical system by which one can understand the world in the analytical sense or come to a morally correct solution by inputting the dimensions of an ethical dilemma in the same way one may be able to with Kant. Existentialism is more of a way of thinking or a philosophy that sees the world with a few distinct themes. These themes are: personal responsibility, an emphasis on individual experience, the importance of passion, and the concept of personal freedom (Solomon n. pag.). Existentialism has the reputation of being an atheistic philosophy but this is not the case as one of the original and most influential existential thinkers, Soren Kierkegaard, is proof. Kierkegaard happened to be a very devoutly Christian man.

Perhaps one of the most famous existentialist statements by an existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, is another important theme to add to the list and that is that “existence precedes essence” (Sartre 15). This theme is of particular importance because of the ramifications this idea has on the ideas presented by Camus in The Rebel. It is illuminating to note that Sartre, likely the most famous existentialist, and Camus were close friends until Camus published The Rebel at which time the friendship deteriorated (Royal 26). Sartre was one of the only philosophers who actually embraced the label ‘existentialist’ and he is the figure most prominently associated with the movement in general so it is safe to call the themes and tenets of Sartre’s existentialism concrete examples of the nature of existentialism.

Sartre coined the phrase “existence precedes essence” and the meaning behind this phrase is paramount in understanding existentialism and in seeing where Camus lands within the movement. To take Sartre’s example, imagine a paper-cutter. For a paper-cutter, essence precedes existence because the idea and purpose of a paper-cutter must exist prior to a craftsman creating the paper-cutter; no person would create a paper-cutter without having any idea what it was used for (Sartre 13). This same concept can be extended to any object created by humanity for use: automobiles, firearms, computers, and swimming pools are all created to fulfill an idea or serve a specific purpose. For Sartre, humanity is the opposite of these created objects; humanity is born and comes into existence but one decides what kind of person they are going to be after their birth. People are not born to serve specific purposes or for specific roles. For existence to precede essence it is obvious where the other themes of existentialism come into play; people are free to choose what to make of their lives and their individual passions are what drive them. Individuals are not born belonging to a particular political party or appreciating certain genres of music, which are choices that are made throughout one’s life. It is easy to see how this idea can be at odds with many of those in religious communities. Sartre specifically claims that this idea is what holds all of the existentialists together despite any other differences (13).

Understanding what kinds of themes run through existentialism will help explain why there was a split between Camus and Sartre after the publishing of The Rebel. Keeping the scope and perspective of all writers and philosophers in mind is important to understanding their philosophy or works, and it is important to remember that just because one encounters a value, story, or philosophy that does not neatly fit into an already established category does not mean that it does not qualify as true, persuasive, or does not make the grade as philosophy. Examining the themes and ideas in Camus's works is the next step in the investigation of Camus's philosophy and his inclusion in the group known as existentialists.

Camus's Absurdity and Suicide

The Rebel was published in 1951, well after two of Camus's most famous works, The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger. The importance of this fact is that much of Camus's philosophy is laid out in these two earlier works and The Rebel is a kind of evolution in the works or it at least begins assuming what Camus sought to establish in the two earlier works. For these reasons it is important to understand two concepts from earlier in Camus's career; absurdity and the contemplation of suicide.

The absurd for Camus is not meant in the way that the word ‘absurd’ is most commonly used in everyday language. It does not just mean that something is illogical or unreasonable; it is a very specific notion that has to do with the way humans interact with and understand the world. Human life is absurd because individuals are always seeking some kind of answers, reasons, or justifications for the wrongs and rights that occur in the world, but the universe is completely indifferent to our plight (Solomon n. pag.). Think about any time some catastrophe occurs or some good person has something terrible happen to them, the first question out of the mouths of many is, ‘why?’ Camus is pointing out that people have some kind of sense of fairness or justice that gets projected onto the universe but the universe is always disappointing us by not adhering to our created standards of fairness. Another way to look at this issue is to see how people always hope or expect that their lives will amount to something worthwhile, but in the long run it is meaningless (Solomon n. pag.). This point can be further illustrated by considering the professions that people seem to value most in society. Doctors, nurses, firefighters, military, and police officers are all striving to make the world a better place so they have a special place in society, but Camus wants to point out that it is ultimately meaningless. Doctors will never eliminate disease, doctors save people that will ultimately die in the end, firefighters extinguish fires but one day the earth may be engulfed by the sun, and police officers will never win the war on drugs.

It might be an innately human instinct to ask about the meaning of life or to try and assign value to a certain way of living. Religion and God are perfect examples of this kind of quest to answer these questions or create these values. Camus, of course, was an atheist but it does not matter whether one believes in God or not, for this concept of the absurd. It is that humanity is in this situation in the first place that makes it absurd; atheists find themselves in a world apparently without value, and the various religions fight over which values are correct or the devout may sometimes struggle with their faith. This is the absurd life that is the starting block of Camus's philosophy. It seems reasonable, some may say, especially for an atheist, to wonder what should stop them from committing suicide. Camus recognized that in a world without externally assigned value many people may think suicide is an appropriate response to this absurdity.

Camus took the prospect of suicide as a very important ethical consideration, so much so in fact that in The Myth of Sisyphus Camus can be interpreted as saying the most important philosophical question is whether or not suicide is permissible (Aronson n. pag.). Camus illustrates the answer to this question through Sisyphus and his place in the world. Sisyphus is condemned to roll a boulder up a hill every day for all of eternity just to have the boulder roll back down. Camus wants to claim that Sisyphus is a hero because Sisyphus accepts his lot in life and he continues to roll his rock up the hill every day. Sisyphus does not long for something outside his predicament and he does not try to rationalize the situation, he just accepts his situation and, as Professor Bob Solomon says, Sisyphus comes to love his rock (n. pag.). It should be reiterated here that Camus thought absurdity lay within humanity’s relationship with the world and because the world is irrational it is not understandable through reason (Aronson n. pag.). This is not to say that Camus did not think that humanity could learn factual things about the world through scientific endeavor, but that scientific endeavor could not answer the questions to which we most wanted the answers. Sisyphus is the hero because he does not kill himself, he does not seek outside justification for his situation, and he does not hide behind a false hope like religion. Camus views suicide as the same kind of escape as these things that Sisyphus avoids; suicide negates the here and now, it says that there is nothing to live for when what Camus wants to say is that life is the meaning of life.

Understanding Metaphysical Rebellion

To follow Camus's idea of metaphysical rebellion one must understand that the rebellion in The Rebel is an evolution from what Camus calls “the age of negation” (4). The age of negation is Camus's term for what has been previously discussed; the realization of the absurdity of life because there is no meaning or purpose. This age of negation brought about the question of suicide and whether or not one should take his or her own life. A significant portion of The Rebel traces philosophy and literature through history to demonstrate the evolution of human thought from the age of negation and questions of suicide to the “age of ideologies” (Camus 4) and questions of murder.

Ideologies are a way of coping with the absurd position of humanity because it allows some way for people to define themselves and to decide what is good and what is bad. Camus points out that it seems that if the human condition is absurd in the way that he describes it then it at first appears that there can be no value to anything, and to take Camus's example, a murderer is not acting correctly or incorrectly (5). With no supreme being like a god to make universal rules and without some other universal code of conduct established outside humanity itself some may say that there can be no right or wrong. Like Ivan Karamazov states in The Brothers Karamazov, if there is no god then everything is permitted, but the lesson of The Rebel and of Camus's rebellion is that this is not actually the case.

Rebellion is evidence that there is some kind of value in life despite the absurd human condition. Camus points out that when someone rebels against conduct or treatment that they deem unacceptable they are in a sense saying that the other person is crossing the line, their actions have gone too far (13). The example used by Camus, and the most easily demonstrated example of this rebellion, is that of slavery. A slave may take a certain amount of abuse and ill treatment but at what point does the slave stop the master and claim that the master’s actions have gone too far? This kind of rebellion could be triggered by different events or actions for different slaves but it seems reasonable that most people have this kind of limit within them. A mother who is a slave may submit to beatings or ill treatment but she may stand up to the master when the ill treatment becomes directed towards her children. Perhaps the cause worth rebelling for is such that the rebel would choose death over allowing that particular action to run its course.

Camus wants to make an important point here about the two examples stated above. He says that when a slave rebels against actions that result from slavery then the slave also entirely rejects slavery as a whole, for all slaves (14). It might also be the case that someone who is not the particular victim of a bad action rebels on the behalf of others. This is not an uncommon sort of rebellion seen in the world today. Demonstrations for and against abortions, protests against police brutality, and wars fought for humanitarian reasons are all current examples of this kind of rebellion. This is a very important concept for Camus's rebellion because it shows a willingness to help others and identification with the suffering of others (16).

In August 2014 many people took to the streets in Ferguson, Missouri in protest of alleged police brutality in the shooting of a man named Michael Brown. This story made headlines all over the United States and there were many days of looting, protests, rioting, and calls for justice to be served (USA Today n. pag.). Regardless of one’s viewpoint on the issues at the heart of the matter, the fact is that this is a form of rebellion and it is evidence of the form of rebellion that Camus discusses in The Rebel. The people in Ferguson, Missouri, were not the direct victims of the shooting by a police officer but they were rebelling on behalf of the man who was shot. The citizens of the area and many across the entire United States rebelled by stating that they will not stand for that kind of behavior by police officers. It is in these sorts of cases where Camus claims that people identify with another person and some kind of violation of that person (16).

So there is evidence that people do in fact act in rebellion in the way that Camus describes in The Rebel. However, Camus is not concerned with police brutality or slavery in itself but uses these types of cases as examples of the structure of metaphysical rebellion. The metaphysical rebellion is rebellion against the absurdity of life and the problem of the human condition in which Camus sees humanity. Camus has explained the absurdity of the human condition and he has also demonstrated some examples of rebellion, and he draws particular attention to importance of acting not just as an individual rebel but rebelling for the sake of others. The next question that Camus addresses in The Rebel has to do with two particular consequences of the view he has just laid out; absolute negation and absolute affirmation.

Absolute Negation and Absolute Affirmation

To truly understand what Camus means by rebellion it is important to understand what it is not. In The Rebel, Camus spends quite a bit of time explaining the philosophy of the Marquis de Sade and Friedrich Nietzsche so he can explain why his rebellion does not take either of these forms. Remember that Camus is rebelling against the absurd; against the ridiculous predicament that humanity is stuck within, the very problem of the human condition. Sade responds to this position through what Camus calls absolute negation (36).

Although Sade is not a philosopher in the usual sense of the word, Camus writes that Sade is admired for his literature and the structure for his arguments can only be found in his feelings (36). This statement about Sade is somewhat ironic since these same criticisms have been brought against Camus by many in the philosophy community. Anyway, Sade’s answer to absurdity is absolute negation because he is not only against the world but he is also against even himself (Camus 38). Sade finds himself in a world where there is no meaning or purpose and the only thing that has any sense of meaning is the “law of force” (Camus 41). This idea seems to parallel Nietzsche’s will to power but there is one difference that makes Sade the proponent of absolute negation and that is his hatred not just for nature but for himself as well. If it was up to Sade he would destroy the whole universe, himself included. Sade himself says that he hates nature and everything it has created and this total negation of everything results in what Camus calls “collective suicide” (45).

How would Sade approach the rebellious slave presented as an earlier example of rebellion? Sade sees that there is no possible way at all to say that what the slave owner does is wrong and that there is nothing inherently meaningful about the rebellion of the slave. They are both trying to act in a powerful way, to assert their power to do their will. The slave wants to destroy the master because he hates the way he is treated or because he hates slavery and the master despises the slave. Each of these characters would kill the other and in this fight for power, as there is no external meaning to say which is acting properly. Remember that the only rule is the law of power so murder can be avenged with murder. The master cannot claim that slavery is wrong if he is suddenly made the slave. Camus notes how Sade’s starting point of absolute negation seems to have evolved into a kind of absolute affirmation because there is now nothing that is forbidden (45), everything seems to be permitted now.

The discussion of absolute negation has brought us to absolute affirmation where everything is permitted. We know where Camus stands on this subject because of his stance on suicide and negation. Nietzsche comes along after Sade and with his relentless attack on Christianity explains why absolute affirmation is untenable. Nietzsche was a vehement atheist but one who was deeply concerned by the non-existence of God. Nietzsche agreed with Sade that without God there could be no basis for moral conduct, but Nietzsche thought that in a world where nothing could be forbidden, nothing could be authorized as well (Camus 71). This is a strong argument against Sade’s position that is easy to understand with many examples throughout society. Laws that explain to society what is not allowed thereby explain the kind of behavior that is acceptable. If the speed limit is 75 miles per hour then obviously driving your vehicle at a speed up to and including 75 miles per hour is acceptable. Camus says that Nietzsche’s point is to show that freedom can only exist when prohibited acts are defined along with permissible acts (71).

It is in Christianity, with its negation of this world for the hope of a future better world that Nietzsche finds his example of why absolute affirmation is untenable. The slave or the Christian, who go along with everything and does not resist but turns the other cheek, is accepting their own suffering. Nietzsche believes this shows that the slave and the master, both of whom consent to slavery or suffering, create an environment of the “glorification of murder” (Camus 76).

The reason Camus dislikes Nietzsche’s response is that Nietzsche dismisses anyone that refuses to accept the world exactly as it is (Camus 77). It is well-known that Nietzsche liked the idea of fate, what Nietzsche called amor fati. One major question that arises about the love of fate is how people cannot be complicit in evil if they are to accept everything that happens in the present (Ferry 195). This idea greatly undermines Camus's idea of rebellion against behavior that crosses the line for an individual or a group of people such as in the case of slavery or societal protests against police brutality. The discussion thus far shows that an enormous part of the debate and dialogue about where to go from the starting point of the absurd position is about the question of values.

Establishment of Value through Rebellion

It was October 1945 when Sartre uttered the words “existence precedes essence” and thereby basically created the catch phrase for existentialism. This phrase has usually been interpreted to mean that people create their own values in life because there is no extracorporeal force for guiding individual actions (Flynn 45). From the discussion thus far one finds that the question of values plays a major role in existentialism and specifically in Camus's response to the absurd. Sade’s position was that without the external guiding force or an established moral code that people could act anyway they liked because nothing could be prohibited. Camus showed how that absolute negation led to absolute affirmation but Nietzsche made a strong argument against that consequence. So what exactly is Camus's response to the absurd if it is not in line with Sade or Nietzsche and where does Camus stand on the establishment of value?

With the idea of suicide as a possible response to the absurd out of the way Camus turned to the problem of murder. Camus called the crimes and actions of the regimes and totalitarianism of his time the “crimes of logic” (Royal 28) because it was supposed to be based on a rational response to the human condition. When people stood whole heartedly behind some kind of ideology like those that Camus was personally familiar with he saw that people were willing to murder and die for those ideologies. He was personally involved in rebellion against the Nazi’s and he was a proponent of rebellion for the oppressed Muslims of Algeria.

Camus saw actions against people that he disliked and so he personally took actions that rebelled against the forces he despised. By doing so Camus made a statement or a claim about values; he thought that something immoral or wrong was occurring. Camus is able to create this value in the face of the absurd through a thorough analysis of rebellion. It is this analysis of rebellion that occurs in The Rebel.

The situation of the slave and the master that has been previously discussed can be used to further explain how Camus establishes value in an absurd world. Camus wrote that when people assign a limit to some kind of oppression that they establish a line of dignity that is common to all men (281). Camus also wrote repeatedly throughout The Rebel about the community of men and how when the slave rebels against the master the slave cries out not just for herself but for all of humanity (14). This feeling of rebellion and the act of rebellion is based on the feeling that happens to people who feel that there has been a wrong done to them. In Camus's words, the rebel stands up and “opposes what is preferable to what is not” (14). This is an establishment of value.

The examples already given about public protest and group rebellion show that not only is this feeling of rebellion real but there is also deep group identification within rebellion and within humanity. People will rebel and protest even when they are not the victims of the oppression themselves. Camus's analysis of rebellion in this way gives the impression that Camus is implying that there is a human nature or essence, and some scholars believe Camus did this to fulfill a need to establish a bond of humanity throughout history (Ehrmann 93).

Rebellion establishes a system of values for humanity because it denies the idea of total freedom of Sade and it refuses to accept poor treatment based on fate like Nietzsche might have us do. Camus wrote that freedom is limited everywhere that people exist because it is automatically limited by the power of others to rebel (284). Someone cannot go out into the streets of a major city and begin taking slaves or sexually assaulting people. The criminal in this case may be successful with a few victims but they clearly risk the rebellion of others to that sort of action. The police response to that sort of situation is not only an example of rebellion against that sort of ultimate freedom of the criminal but it also demonstrates clearly how people can rebel against acts to which they are not themselves the victim. From the initiation of a rebellion, the victim’s suffering is viewed as a shared experience (Duran 367).

It is also important to explain that Camus not only believes that rebellion establishes some value in humanity and in life, but also that he believes rebellion means that acts like murder and lying must also be wrong. The reasoning for this is that if a rebel agrees to murder and lie then through inverse reasoning, murder and violence would be justified and undermine the reasons for the rebellion in the first place (Camus 285).

Hochberg’s Criticism of Camus

Professor Herbert Hochberg has written numerous books and articles, and in one particular article he focuses on some of the problems he sees with Camus's ethic of absurdity. Primarily, Hochberg says that the fact that individuals die is what Camus sees as absurd because it is inexplicable and that death negates the only meaningful existence that humans know (94). This is a misunderstanding of Camus's absurdity and this can be demonstrated easily in another of Camus's works, The Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was a king who was punished by the gods for the crime of constant lying by rolling a huge rock up a hill every day for all eternity just to watch it roll back down at the end of the day. Sisyphus is condemned to roll this rock up the hill every day forever and it is the fact that Sisyphus is immortal that makes this absurd. If Sisyphus was mortal like humanity then his lot would not be so absurd. This example shows how death alone is not the source of absurdity because death would be the best thing that could happen to Sisyphus.

Hochberg also claims that if the universal human essence is true then the slave cannot revolt and kill the master or enslave him (99). Camus spends a great deal of time addressing the issue of freedom and murder in The Rebel and he provides adequate explanation to quash Hochberg’s criticism in this area. It is, first and foremost, important to note that Camus is often seen as a literary figure rather than a philosopher. Camus was a man who made his living through the written word and so his word choice is of the upmost importance when analyzing his work.

When Camus first explains the reason for his book The Rebel, he explains that it seems in the world of absurdity that the “murderer” is not right or wrong (5). Camus strategically uses the terms “kill” and “murder” throughout The Rebel and it is perfectly reasonable to think that this is completely intentional. When Camus discusses God punishing and repudiating mankind he uses the word “kill,” not “murder” (37). Murder, of course, suggests the illegal and unwarranted killing of someone while killing and homicide are terms that might be used for the justified taking of life of another. One can easily think of the term often used in law and even on the five o’clock news, “justifiable homicide” but one does not hear the phrase “justifiable murder” because murder by definition is the illegal or unwarranted killing of another (Merriam-Webster, n. pag.). The examples of the different times Camus uses the phrases murder and killing are numerous, including sections titled “Nihilistic Murder” (282) and “Historical Murder” (286).

When Hochberg says that the slave cannot kill the master without undermining the entire rebellion to begin with because of the universal human essence he is overlooking the important difference that Camus makes between murder and killing. Camus spends a great deal of time explaining how murder is unacceptable as a form of rebellion but there is a clear difference between murder and killing for Camus. The rebellion that Camus is claiming as the basis of value and a kind of ethic puts a prohibition on murder, not on killing in general, just like our modern society today. If someone was using physical force against a loved one with the intention of making one a slave, society would say that resistance against that act, even to the point of killing the would-be slave owner is justified.

Hochberg makes good arguments against Camus's rebellion as the basis for an ethic but only one of the aspects of his criticisms make any sense. Camus does not mean that life is absurd only because it involves inexplicable death and he also does not use the term kill as the same as the term murder. Those two words mean very different things and Camus was a man of literature who made his living by the words he chose. Camus also shows that he pays attention to semantics when he differentiates between the “spirit” of Nietzsche and the “letter” of Nietzsche (76). The fact that Camus wants to explain the difference between the spirit and letter of the literature of other philosophers shows that he is a man who pays close attention to the message and word choice of works of literature. The strongest argument by Hochberg against Camus's ethic of absurdity is the argument that undermines the human essence Camus wants to establish.

Rebellion Does Not Require Human Essence

Camus never uses the words “human essence” in The Rebel, but many scholars have suggested that Camus wanted to establish a kind of human essence to prove the truth of his ethic of rebellion (Ehrmann 93). It is hard to deny that Camus makes a claim for a common human nature in response to the absurd but that human essence, if it can be called such, is not necessary for Camus's ethic of rebellion to work. Essence means the very basic nature of something; essence is what makes something the entity that it is (Merriam-Webster, n. pag.). It is hard to even call rationality an aspect of human essence because there are examples of humans without the ability to reason such as the mentally handicapped or those in comas.

If we cannot even use rationality as a human essence then how could it possibly be said that the experience of the absurd is an aspect of human essence? The Rebel may have put Camus at odds with his friend Sartre but it looks as if Camus can be right that rebellion is a successful way of establishing a code of conduct and that Sartre is also right that existence for humanity does precede essence. One thing is for sure, no label can be fit onto Camus (Ehrmann 93) because he only writes so others find their own reasons for living, and there is not much else that can be considered more existentialist. In the end it does not matter whether Camus was an existentialist but this exploration of Camus's metaphysical rebellion brings up good reasons to consider him an existentialist, even if it was a label that he personally disliked.

Every animal in the world faces some kind of absurdity and that is obvious through the way that humanity interacts with all non-human animals. John Stuart Mill, the famous Utilitarian philosopher, made the claim that no human would be turned into a “lower” animal even if we could experience the full happiness of that lower animal (227). People often live lives that are unhappy and humanity has created an environment for itself that can breed unhappy lives. But people would not choose to live as a completely happy pig over a semi-happy human, according to Mill, and that is because humans recognize a kind of absurdity in living as a less rational beast. Absurdity might be something that every sentient being experiences regardless of genus or species but the manifestation of that absurdity is what differs. Absurdity is not what creates a human essence for several reasons that have been explained above, but this does not mean that Camus's ethic of rebellion is not relevant today.

Metaphysical Rebellion is Relevant Today

Camus did not like the label of “existentialist,” and maybe he was not an existentialist but it does not matter. Camus presents a strong argument for using rebellion as a source for a moral code of conduct. It is almost in a Hobbesian sort of way that Camus presents the idea that unlimited freedom is kept in check by the capacity for rebellion in others. Camus lived during some tumultuous times and he experienced many of these hard times firsthand. Camus lost his father because of World War I, Camus himself worked as a rebel against the Nazis in World War II, and he also sought equal treatment and justice for an oppressed Algeria (Royal 26). Some people have claimed that existentialism and the ethic proposed by men like Camus have outlived their value but this could not be further from the truth.

Picture a modern day Israel and Gaza conflict or the relatively new conflict between the Islamic State and moderate Muslims in places like Iraq and Syria. It is the same sort of conflict that was alive and well during Camus's time. It is the same type of conflict that can be seen today in so many parts of the Middle East and Northern Africa. In conflicts like these it is important for people to realize their ability to protest and rebel against the forces in their lives of which they do not approve. There is a point in the lives of all these oppressed people at which they stand up and proclaim that the treatment they have received is unacceptable. People of the world who are not the victims of the ideologies of these particular groups must rebel on behalf of those who are too close to the conflict to rebel for themselves. All of these sorts of rebellion are in accordance with Camus's metaphysical rebellion and issues in our not so distant past remind us of the importance of rebellion. These issues are not isolated to the third world countries either; women’s suffrage and slavery are issues in the recent American past that serve as a reminder that the need for rebellion has not expired. Camus wrote, “Real mastery consists in refuting the prejudices of the time” (300), and that is a lesson that will never lose its merit. The problem will remain being able to see the forest for the trees.


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Camus, Albert. The Rebel. New York: Vintage International, 1956. Print.

Cooper, David. “Existentialism as a philosophical movement.” The Cambridge Companion to Existentialism. Ed. Steven Crowell. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 27-49. Print.

Duran, Jane. “The Philosophical Camus.” Philosophical Forum. (2007): 365-372. Web. 12 August 2014.

Ehrmann, Jacques. “Camus and the Existential Adventure.” Yale French Studies 25. (1960): 93-97. Web. 12 August 2014.

Evans, Martin. “French Resistance and the Algerian War.” History Today 41.7 (1991): n. pag. Web. 20 August 2014.

Ferry, Luc. A Brief History of Thought: A Philosohpical Guide to Living. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. Print.

Flynn, Thomas. Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.

Hochberg, Herbert. “Albert Camus and the Ethic of Absurdity.” Ethics 75.2 (1965): 87-102. Web. 15 August 2014.

Marino, Gordon. Basic Writings in Existentialism. New York: The Modern Library, 2004. Print.

Merriam-Webster. “Essence.” Web. 18 September 2014.

Merriam-Webster. “Murder.” Web. 18 September 2014.

Mill, John Stuart. “Utilitarianism.” Ethics: Classical Western Texts in Feminist and Multicultural Perspectives. Ed. James P. Sterba. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Royal, Robert. “Camus between God and Nothing.” First Things (2014): 25-30. Web. 15 August 2014.

Sartre, Jean Paul. Existentialism and Human Emotions. New York: Citadel Press, 1957. Print.

Solomon, Robert. “No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life.” The Great Courses Series. Available at 2013.

USA Today. “Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO.” (9 August 2014): n. pag. Web. 20 August 2014.

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