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The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt by…
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The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt (1951)

by Albert Camus

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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The Rebel is Albert Camus's response to the idea that European leftists are obligated to follow the lead of the Soviet Union under Stalin. In this essay he discusses the various themes of revolutionary thought in a post-religious world, going back to Jacobins and the French Revolution. He also develops the idea of rebellion as distinct from revolution, and concludes with an argument that in a highly polarized era of extreme ideologies, to be a moderate is to be a rebel.

"Is it possible to find a rule of conduct outside the realm of religion and its absolute values? That is the question raised by rebellion." In the first section of the book, Camus looks at those who have proposed an answer to this question, starting with the negation of all values as proposed by the Marquis de Sade. He looks in more detail, though, at the ideas of Nietzsche, followed by those of the Romantics and other literary movements.

The longest section of the book is an examination of historical rebellion, starting with the Jacobins and continuing through the 20th century. The sharpest focus is on Marxism and, in particular, the idea embodied in the "dictatorship of the proletariat" that Marxism "aims at liberating all men by provisionally enslaving them all." This leads to the mandate that we murder men for the sake of mankind, and the grotesque idea that the victims must exalt their executioner. Camus counters this with the argument that "instead of killing and dying in order to produce the being that we are not, we have to live and let live in order to create what we are."

The problem with much of Camus's writing, as baswood aptly put it in his recent review, is that "he loved a well turned sentence more than the thought within it and he cannot resist an aphorism especially where it includes a play on words. His penchant for short punchy sentences is also not conducive when explaining complicated ideas." Instead of the methodical arguments used by most philosophers, Camus leaps from one bold assertion and generalization to the next. It's possible, however, that someone with more background than I have in the ideas of philosophers such as Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche may find some of Camus's comments more digestible.

It's also unfortunate that when Camus finally comes to his concluding remarks on moderation, he resorts more to poetic metaphors than concrete ideas and recommendations. France at that time in history seemed poised between the influence of Soviet communism and American corporate capitalism. Camus rejected both, but in The Rebel he barely mentions the latter, saying only that, like Marxism, it is a society based on industrial production and that any society based on production is "only productive, not creative."

The Rebel is obviously an important work, and there are many ideas within it which any reader can appreciate. But to understand and judge the book as a whole it is probably best to approach it with a strong background in the writers and ideas on which Camus built his thesis. ( )
3 vote StevenTX | Nov 1, 2013 |
This is not a book for the casual reader. It is a collection of essays that Camus worked up for publication in 1951. He arranged them into five sections and his aim was to make them into a definitive statements on his thinking on Europe as it emerged from yet another catastrophic world war. At times I found them difficult to follow, but then a purple passage would emerge which, made earlier struggles with the text absolutely worthwhile.

The oft quoted first couple of sentences plunges the reader straight in to Camus' world:

"What is a rebel? A man who says no: but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. He is also a man who says yes as soon as he begins to think for himself.

The short first section defines what Camus means by an act of rebellion and goes on to examine what value judgements need to be present. It leads into a longer second section titled "Metaphysical Rebellion" and it is here that Camus talks about "a man protesting about his condition and against the whole of creation" He says it is metaphysical because it disputes the ends of man and of creation. Remembering how Camus had defined his idea of an absurd world in the [Myth of Sisyphus] and his thoughts on Nihilism then this series of essays examines in what sort of state Nihilism has left modern European man. (circa 1950's). He looks at the world through the eyes and thoughts of the Marquis de Sade and Nietzsche attempting to show how they as intellectual rebels have challenged the prevailing thoughts, but have ended up in the trough of Nihilism. There are some difficult ideas to grasp here and Philip Thody in his book [Albert Camus: A study of his work] sums it up well:

It's real appeal is to the intellectual already acquainted with the thinkers it discusses and aware of the problems involved. Too frequently, the ordinary English reader feels like a stranger in the midst of a complicated family quarrel.

When reading The Rebel Camus position on the intellectual left should always be born in mind. He had experienced the German occupation in Paris, he had been an active member of The Resistance and an editor of the semi-clandestine paper Combat. His first novel [L'etranger] had garnered excellent reviews especially from left wing critics, however after the war Camus was moving closer to the political centre. He had already fallen out with Sartre and the French communists and so while he was extremely critical of German thinkers he also chose to be less than complimentary to some of the idols of the left wing. The long third section titled Historical Rebellion takes up over half of the book and examines the French and Russian revolutions as well as the rise of the Nazis. I was on surer ground here and found it easier to follow Camus, as in places he writes an almost revisionist history; this is especially true of the French Revolution where the left wing hero Saint-Just is cut down to size. Camus does at times appear like a schoolmaster lecturing the misguided left on the causes and outcomes of the Russian Revolution and it is no wonder he upset Sartre. I found some of his writing here particularly inspiring.

Camus point in rewriting the history of the revolutions of the past is to demonstrate that any revolt that does not recognise that it should transcend nihilism and establish limits of some kind is doomed to justify murder, terror and dictatorship. Revolutions are usually unsuccessful because they do not allow further rebellion. One repressive regime is followed by another equally repressive; or worse. Camus was passionate about the sanctity of human life and was horrified that Karl Marx political theories had been taken up by the left, whose slogan seemed to run along the lines of "the end justified the means" in a direct challenge to the Stalin regime he says:

What does it matter that this (the ideal of the Eternal City) should be accomplished by dictatorship and violence? in the New Jerusalem, echoing with the roar of miraculous machinery, who will still remember the cries of the victims?

In a short fourth section Camus looks at Rebellion and Art and writes about the novel's function of taking the reader into reality and beyond and leading him to a destiny of sorts. The novel can allow us to see the bigger picture. He digresses a little into themes of love and death and his writing on these again hits a purple patch.

The final section is titled "Thought at the Meridian" and is an attempt to provide a summary of his position, There is an essay on moderation and excess, where Camus again tries to come to terms with issues thrown up by rebellion. Revolutions must take cognizance of individuals, they must have limits they must have values, they have no right to commit murder. His final essay "Beyond Nihilism" takes him on a flight of fancy which is at times difficult to follow.

So apart from Philip Thody's more obvious reasons for finding this book a difficult read, I think there are other issues here. Camus challenges past philosophers ideas, but he does so on his own terms. He always claimed not to be a philosopher and he was right to say this because he rarely pauses to define his terms, he leaps from one thought to another and it is not always clear how he makes the jumps. I also get the feeling that he loved a well turned sentence more than the thought within it and he cannot resist an aphorism especially where it includes a play on words. His penchant for short punchy sentences is also not conducive when explaining complicated ideas.

So lets have some of these aphorisms, which alone are a good reason to read Camus:

"The blasphemy is reverent, since every blasphemy is, ultimately, a participation in holiness"

"Nihilism is not only despair and negation, but above all the desire to despair and to negate

"It can be said of Marx that the greater part of his predictions came into conflict withy facts as soon as his prophecies began to become an object of increasing faith"

"The future is the only kind of property that the masters willingly concede to the slaves"


Some great things in this book (I loved his critique of Capitalism) but overall a mixed bag. If you are willing to cruise through some fairly opaque passages there are rewards enough. I would rate this as 3.5 stars. ( )
6 vote baswood | Sep 9, 2013 |
The Rebel by Albert Camus is not only a work which addresses The Rebel as universal idea but also details historical "rebels" which in some cases, the reigning version of history has forgotten. Individuals like Ivan Kalyayev, who Camus brings up in his essay, and later uses as a character in his play The Just Assassins, I had never heard of. While I was taking world history and even a Russian history class in high school, the important parts of Russian history were generally thought of as the reign of the Tsars clashing with the advent of the Soviet Union, with Lenin being portrayed as "idealistic" and "outdated" and Stalin being portrayed a murderer. What mainstream history always focuses on is The Revolution, whether it be the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution(s), or the Chinese Cultural Revolution, as much of a sham as the latter was. Mainstream history, especially in middle and high school never focuses on the idea of The Rebel, the section of mankind who says "We rebel therefore we exist," and adds "And we are alone." Perhaps this seems nihilistic to the timid reader, but what Camus is essentially fighting in this essay is nihilism itself. It is only through a stark encounter with the death of the human spirit (whether it be through totalitarian, capitalist, or bureaucratic means) that mankind realizes that he must fight to retain that very spirit even in the face of his own physical death. Though adults often have trouble reading what is arguably Camus' most difficult work, I, personally, would love to distribute sections of this rather lengthy essay to high school Seniors in an AP English class in order to inspire them to "live through their work," not necessarily to preserve their legacy after death but to prove to themselves that they are currently using the full potential of their human spirit. The Rebel as an inspirational tool could be used in exercises such as writing short plays, poems, and essays, as well as drafts for novellas. I believe that the narcissism of today's youth can be utilized as an energy source for creativity; to transfer the ego of petty crime to the ego of art crime is a constructive way of saving kids and building the libraries of the future. ( )
  dhut0042 | Apr 25, 2013 |
"Negativa in apparenza, poichè nulla crea la rivolta è profondamente positiva poichè rivela quanto, nell'uomo, è sempre da difendere" ( pag. 23-4 )
Come ha potuto un socialismo, che si diceva scientifico, cozzare in tal modo contro i fatti? La risposta è semplice: non era scientifico ( pag 241 ) ( )
  Lorenzo_Giannini | Sep 10, 2012 |
"Negativa in apparenza, poichè nulla crea la rivolta è profondamente positiva poichè rivela quanto, nell'uomo, è sempre da difendere" ( pag. 23-4 )
Come ha potuto un socialismo, che si diceva scientifico, cozzare in tal modo contro i fatti? La risposta è semplice: non era scientifico ( pag 241 ) ( )
  Lorenzo_Giannini | Sep 10, 2012 |
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» Add other authors (26 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Camus, Albertprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bower, AnthonyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Meijers, J.A.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Read, HerbertForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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What is a rebel? A man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679733841, Paperback)

By one of the most profoundly influential thinkers of our century, The Rebel is a classic essay on revolution. For Albert Camus, the urge to revolt is one of the "essential dimensions" of human nature, manifested in man's timeless Promethean struggle against the conditions of his existence, as well as the popular uprisings against established orders throughout history. And yet, with an eye toward the French Revolution and its regicides and deicides, he shows how inevitably the course of revolution leads to tyranny. As old regimes throughout the world collapse, The Rebel resonates as an ardent, eloquent, and supremely rational voice of conscience for our tumultuous times.

Translated from the French by Anthony Bower.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:56:15 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

This book is a classic essay on revolution. For the author, the urge to revolt is one of the "essential dimensions" of human nature, manifested in man's timeless Promethean struggle against the conditions of his existence, as well as the popular uprisings against established orders throughout history. And yet, with an eye toward the French Revolution and its regicides and deicides, he shows how inevitably the course of revolution leads to tyranny.… (more)

» see all 3 descriptions

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141182016, 0141036621

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