Book Review: The Rebel by Albert Camus, Part I: The Rebel

This really isn’t a book review per se, but since this is a challenging book, this review is more for myself.  It’s a restatement of Camus’ arguments and my own two cents.  So this will be a combination of a summary of Camus’ book and my response to it.  I also understand this is a long post.  You’ll have to bear with me.  It’s a very complex essay and so I want to write down as much as I can on Camus’ thoughts as well as my own thoughts on this as well.  At the same time, I was thinking of doing the whole book but that would be too big of a post.  Thus, I’m just going to post it part by part and see if that makes things simpler.

Part I: The Rebel

What does it mean to rebel?  To live means that our existence takes on a positive value.  Rebellion means that we value something in human society.  Thus, the rebel is always ethical.  But the downside is that these values are “given.”  This book is about politics and ethics.  One must be familiar with Camus philosophy to understand this book. It’s a metaphysical revolt.  This isn’t a revolution.  Revolutions are planned out.  The rebel has no plan.  He just acts.

The essay feels like it’s a sequel to his The Myth of Sisyphus.  In there, he talks briefly about rebellion.  Since the rebel acts, what is he acting toward?  Imagine if there was no meaning or purpose.  What then?  Suicide?  Murder?  Nihilism?  Camus advocates rebellion.  Why is that?  It’s because the universe and life itself is absurd.  Can we prove it?  No.  But I can still act on it and show why that’s the “right” belief.  How do I do that?  By rebellion.  All beliefs are like that.  All beliefs and ideas start of as rebellions and they strive and push to become known.  But there’s no reason behind it.  There’s no calculated rationale.  It’s a blind push.  Thus, the rebel can only find reasons within himself, not from without.  It’s the feeling that “I’m right” and establishes a borderline where crossing this borderline is a “no.”  To remain silent is amounting to wanting it.  Notice it’s not tolerating it, but literally wanting it.  Camus states: “With rebellion, awareness is born” (p. 15).  And with this rebellion, he’ll take on this value (even though it’s from within) and live for it.  Perhaps even die for it.  With rebellion, it’s a shift from descriptive to normative; before there’s ethics, there’s rebellion.  Before there’s politics, there’s rebellion.  Before there’s value, there’s rebellion.  The rebel finds something to value in order for that thing to be valuable.  From this, before there’s metaphysics, there’s rebellion.  Is it possible to find values in a meaningless world?  That’s what the rebel wants to find out.  That’s why in The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus starts with the essay that there’s only one true philosophical problem, and that is suicide.  With these values, the rebel takes on these values so deep and ingrained that he believes that these values are now more important than his own individuality.  Thus, he’ll fight for these values because he considers these values more important than himself.  Ahh, but there’s one thing you must accept: there’s no human nature.  If there was a human nature, you couldn’t rebel.  As Camus puts it: “Analysis of rebellion leads at least to the suspicion that, contrary to the postulates of contemporary thought, a human nature does exist, as the Greeks believed.  Why rebel if there is nothing permanent in oneself worth preserving?” (p. 16)

We come together through rebellion.  Camus states: “In order to exist, man must rebel” and “I rebel–therefore we exist” (p. 22).  This isn’t resentment.  Resentment is slow.  Rebellions are quick and surprising.  The resenter resents himself.  The rebel imposes his ideas onto others.  With this, rebellions far surpass resentments.  The rebel makes people aware of their freedom.  Sartre was wrong.  Being aware of your freedom doesn’t make you free; the rebel makes you aware that you’re free.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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14 Responses to Book Review: The Rebel by Albert Camus, Part I: The Rebel

  1. thekillerj says:

    I’m not sure I understand the human nature/rebellion thing. First, what does he mean by human nature. Second, why can’t you rebel if you believe in human nature?

    • shaunmiller says:

      This is reminiscent of Sartre’s notion of existence precedes essence. So let’s start with the notion of essence. An essence means that those features must be in that object. If that object didn’t have those features, then the said object isn’t essentially that object anymore. Confused? Let’s do an example. What is the essence of a triangle? In other words, what do all triangles have in common? Here are some features: a three-sided figure where the interior angles equal 180 degrees. Ok, so that’s the essence of a triangle. Now think of an existing triangle. That existing triangle has the essence within it. If there was no such thing as “the essence of a triangle” then strictly speaking, triangles could not exist. If there was no such thing as three-sidedness, then again, triangles could not exist. So with this formulation, the essence has to be there first, and then you can have existence.

      Let’s do another example. How about a square? What’s the essence of a square? In other words, what do all squares have in common? A square is a four-sided figure where all of the sides are equal and the opposite sides must be parallel, the adjacent sides must be perpendicular and the interior angles must equal 360 degrees. Ok, now think of an existing square. The existing square has the essence within it. If there was no such thing as “the essence of a square,” then squares could not exist. Again, the essence must be there first, and then you can have existence.

      Now, think of humans. What do all humans have in common? What is the essence of humanity? Here have been a few answers from philosophers: we are naturally selfish and evil (Hobbes), we are naturally rational (most Greek philosophers), we are naturally good it’s just that society messes us up (Rousseau), we are naturally workers (Marx), we are naturally creatures in search of recognition (Hegel), we are social creatures (Confucius), etc. But here’s the thing: this is just armchair philosophy. These existentialists say that having a nature (essence) is restricting us to a pre-set blueprint that we must have. A triangle must be a triangle; it can’t choose to be something else. A square must be a square; it doesn’t have the freedom to be something different. However, we have the ability to choose. And because of this, we don’t have a pre-determined formula that we must follow. If we did, then we wouldn’t be free. So here’s the upshot, if something has an essence (or a nature) it has to be that thing and nothing else. It can’t decide to do something different because it’s stuck in that pre-formulated essence. Thus, if we had a human nature, we wouldn’t be free. This is what Camus’ getting at. To rebel means you can choose, but if you had a human nature, then you were set to be that thing and nothing else. If that’s the case, then you couldn’t rebel. Thus, to rebel (or simply, to have freedom) means that one cannot believe in human nature. There is no human nature. We made it up.

      • Handsome Matt says:

        This is also Plato’s concept of the “Idea” of something ( I think it was Plato). Trees all share a sense of “treehood” that enables us to recognize and differentiate trees from flowers, dogs, tofu, etc.

  2. thekillerj says:

    Dude, that just gave me one of those, “Holy SHIT!” moments. That’s true. I don’t know what else to say other than I need to think about that one.

  3. rebel123 says:

    I just finished reading The Rebel. But I think you meant that a human nature doesw exist. In the quote you showed Camus says himself, “Why rebel if there is nothing permanent in onself worth preserving?” The rebel feels compelled to fight for the things that are universal and bigger than himself. And in the end he chooses total freedom or moderation. The freedom he claims he claims for all, but the freedom he denies he forbids any to claim. Every rebellion has the opportunity to overthrow whatever oppressor, but once overthrown and total freedom is in his grasp, will he become the successor to his oppressor?

    • shaunmiller says:

      Hi rebel123.

      No, I actually mean to say that human nature does NOT exist. Yes, the rebel fights for things bigger than himself, but I’m not so sure about the universal aspects. Can you point out to me where Camus says this?

      You also ask if he will become the successor of the oppressor. He can, but then he is no longer the rebel, he’s now the oppressor. The true rebel is always fighting for freedom. Thus, if he’s fighting so that HE can become the oppressor, that’s not rebellion. That may be more like a revolution.

  4. Praiffs says:

    what’s the mean of camus’s absurdism’ ??? is there any diffrence between jean paul sarte and albert camus’s existentialism.??

    • shaunmiller says:

      I’m not sure what you mean by the first question. But the second is a good one. Let’s start with what you think the differences are (if any). What are the differences that you can discover?

  5. j grub says:

    Dear Shaun,
    Boomer underemployed handyperson waiting out a rainy day here. So I was surfing along this wave of rebellion starting out with Chris Hedges here

    So as the curl developed I was taken by this return to this writer Camus, enamored of by a high school english teacher of mine. As I caught up with his ideas and personal history I ran across this commentary on The Rebel. This guy G. J. McAleer wants to put Camus through a Catholic lens- remember Hedges has put in three years in seminary himself. As a scholar can you deconstruct this tract?
    I think it has bearing on the position of Scalia vis a vis capital punishment as a mandate from g*d.

  6. joe says:

    What happened to my comment shaun?

  7. shaunmiller says:

    Hi Joe,

    It’s been a busy week. Apologies for not getting your comment on earlier. I’m somewhat familiar with Hedges but not enough to make a full opinion of what he’s trying to do. At the same time, I’m barely getting my feet wet with Augustine while I’m learning about him in school right now. Sorry to say but I can’t make an opinion because I don’t know much about the issue. Plus, I’m in the middle of school and that’s taken first priority. I promise you that I will think about this issue and get back to it once school is out for the semester.

  8. Hi Shaun,

    I read your whole thing and also read your response to some of the questions and I wanted to tell you that you did a great job and after reading your analysis, I feel that I can put my thoughts in order about Camus’s whole attempt with “The Rebel”.

    I have one question though since you are arguing for Camus here: If there’s no human nature, and and there should be no pre-formulated essence to people, why the oppressor is portrayed as bad or evil or in best cases un-rebel! if there should be no formula for human beings telling them how they SHOULD BE, shouldn’t the same principle apply to telling them what they HSOULD NOT BE? wouldn’t that be considered also as pre-formulated essence to human being? Thus, reinforcing the pre-formulated essence that “we are naturally good it’s just that society messes us up (Rousseau)” !!!

    I really hope you would find few minutes to respond to me at as any inspiration you would provoke in me would help me a lot in my writings!


    • shaunmiller says:

      Hi Haifa,

      Sorry I haven’t gotten to your comment. It’s been a busy semester and I’ve had a lot of work to do.

      In answering your question, there is not pre-formulation on what we should or should not be. In that, you are correct. However, this is because we shouldn’t ascribe to some abstract ideal that we are aiming toward outside of us. If we have an essence, then any “shoulds” must be aiming toward some sort of ideal that we aim towards and anything that deviates from this is going against what we are supposed to be doing. However, there is a sense of rebellion and fighting oppressors without having an essence. If we have no nature, we can still fight and still have “shoulds” and “oughts” but not because of an essence. Rather, it is because of existence. We fight for one’s existence and this has no appeal for something outside of ourselves. We fight because it is part of the human condition that we are free. If not, we don’t exist. This is part of the key in existentialism. We are always free and any sense of non-freedom is a denial of one’s existence. Thus, we fight because our existence is threatened.

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