The Struggle of Sisyphus: Absurdity and Ethics in the work of Albert Camus
Moralist Camus - The Rebel
Kem Stone - July 2006
After the war, the political climate in Europe again underwent a drastic shift, and Camus was compelled to write
down his thoughts about the global politics of the time. With the end of World War II, the alliance of France,
Britain, and the United States with the Soviet Union dissolved, beginning what would later be called the Cold
War. While the United States was building its nuclear arsenal and fighting communism in North Korea, the
political situation in France was split between a much wider spectrum of political ideologies (Kamber, 78).
Many of the French intellectuals, including Camus’ friends Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, sided with
the communists. Although they condemned the “excesses” of labor camps and political executions that took place
in the Soviet Block, they believed that international communism was the only system that could effectively protect
the interests of the working class. Camus, on the other hand, was in favour of social justice but believed that
communism threatened other important ideals such as personal and political liberties, and was critical of his fellow
intellectuals urging the working classes to subordinate their freedoms to the Communist party (Kamber, 79).
Published in 1951, Camus’ The Rebel traces the concept of “man in revolt” through literature and history, offering
his own perspective on the ideals of society and where the limits of government control should be. In the opening
paragraph, Camus makes his purpose clear:
There are crimes of passion and crimes of logic. The boundary between them is not clearly defined.
But the Penal Code makes the convenient distinction of premeditation. We are living in the era of
premeditation and the perfect crime. Our criminals are no longer helpless children who could plead
love as their excuse. On the contrary, they are adults and they have a perfect alibi: philosophy,
which can be used for any purpose—even for transforming murderers into judges. (Camus, Rebel,
This is to be Camus’ strike against what he sees as one of the world’s greatest evils—rationally justified murder.
The criminals he is speaking against are not the kind who take another’s life in a fit of passion, but for those who
systematically murder their enemies for the sake of a higher, ideological purpose. One of Camus’ main targets is
communism, his criticism of which would result in the end of his friendship with Sartre and Beauvoir.
The Rebel is over 300 pages long and divided into five main sections, not all of which deal specifically with
communism or even make mention of it. In the introduction Camus gives an overview of the main points he will be
making, discussing the failure of his earlier reasoning in The Myth of Sispyhpus, and how the purpose of this
book is to continue that very thought process, turning his attention away from suicide and raising the question of
whether rebellion inevitably leads to murder. In the first main section, “The Rebel,” Camus identifies what he
considers to be a rebel, what brings rebellion about, and what values arise from rebellion.
The next main section is titled, “Metaphysical Rebellion,” in which Camus discusses the metaphysical aspects of
rebellion and draws on the work of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche to analyse the concept. The subsection, “The
Rejection of Salvation” deals with the consequences of God’s removal from the moral framework of the time,
drawing on support from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In “Absolute Affirmation” he discusses the
work of Nietzsche and the concept of submitting God to moral judgment. Finally, in “Nihilism and History” he
returns to the issue of rebellion and murder.
The next and longest section of the book, “Historical Rebellion,” traces the concept of revolt and revolution
through several of its various historical incarnations. In “The Regides,” Camus examines the French Revolution,
paying particular attention to Saint-Just and his justifications for the rebellion. “The Deicides” discusses how the
ideals of the French revolution were taken to their next step by twentieth century philosophies, particular that of
Hegel. From replacing kings with abstract principles of justice, truth and reason, we begin to replace God with
the concrete principle of reason, thus making a historical force of the very thing used to explain it (Camus, Rebel,
133). “Individual Terrorism” Camus examines how German thinkers influenced the “adolescent nation” of Russia
and how this type of thought led to terrorist states. “State Terrorism and Irrational Terror” looks at Hitler’s
rebellion and the Nazi regime as an example of indoctrinated nihilism at its extremes. It is only when we get to
“State Terrorism and Rational Terror” that Camus presents his criticism of Marxism and condemns the oppressive
ideals of Russian Communism. Finally, with “Rebellion and Revolution” Camus considers his own period and
where rebellion has brought them.
The fourth section, “Rebellion and Art” analyses the concept of rebellion in art and literature, examing many works
including that of Van Gogh, Proust, and Shelley. Among the many points he makes is how people tend to view
the lives of others with a coherence that can only be found in a work of art, and thus we tend to see others’ lives
as novels. But unlike in the novel, love and misery are not eternal, that “one morning, after many dark nights of
despair, an irrepressible longing to live will announce to us the fact that all is finished and that suffering has no more
meaning than happiness” (Camus, Rebel, 261). Such sentiments echo many of the ideas Camus expresses in his
absurdist phase, most explicitly in Caligula.
But the final section, “Thoughts at the Meridian,” offers ideas that go beyond Camus’ earlier works with
conclusions regarding the ethics of society as a whole. “Rebellion and Murder” answers the question Camus
raises in his introduction—that rebellion if unchecked does in fact lead to murder. But with “Moderation and
Excess” Camus uses the ancient Greek principle of moderation to suggest that if we resist the impulse to unlimited
rebellion, we need not end up with unlimited slavery (Camus, Rebel, 294). Finally, in “Beyond Nihilism” Camus
brings his discussion to a close by concluding that rebellion practiced within its proper limitations brings us beyond
nihilism, affirms life, and serves the cause of man.
Why did Camus choose rebellion as the main theme of his book, and what is it about rebellion that brings us
beyond nihilism? According to Camus, the act of rebellion itself is an affirmation of values:
We see that the affirmation implicit in every act of rebellion is extended to something that transcends
the individual in so far as it withdraws him from his supposed solitude and provides him with a reason
to act….Why rebel if there is nothing permanent in oneself worth preserving? It is for the sake of
everyone in the world that the slave asserts himself when he comes to the conclusion that a command
has infringed on something in him which does not belong to him alone, but which is common ground
where all men—even the man who insults and oppresses him—have a natural community. (Camus,
The slave who disobeys his master is not merely trying to avoid carrying out his master’s orders, but by refusing
to obey he is setting a limit to how far his master can push him. “Setting this limit implicitly invokes a moral value,
principle, or right. The slave may be implying that there are some things even a slave should not be ordered to do,
or, more radically, that slavery itself is wrong and she will no longer obey” (Kamber, 81). Rebellion is
incompatible with a nihilist standpoint because without personal rights one cannot claim that anyone’s rights have
Yet in spite of rebellion’s affirmation of values, it may be the case that the category is both too broad and too
narrow to serve Camus’ purposes.
It is too broad because there is no persuasive basis for claiming that rebellion itself is right or wrong. What makes
rebellion right or wrong are its goals, motives, tactics, or consequences, not the fact that it is a rebellion. This
category is too narrow because ideological terror and murder can arise from established power as well as from
revolutionary fervor. (Kamber, 80)
In Camus’ defence, he does not claim that the act of rebellion is either right or wrong in all cases, but merely that it
always invokes a moral principle. Whether one sees the rebellion as right or wrong depends on one’s own
feelings about the principle behind it. Also, Camus does not suggest that only rebellion brings about ideological
terror and murder, but that these are the consequences of rebellion if it goes too far. Yet with such a broad range
of literary and historical figures examined in The Rebel, to place them all under the category of rebellion may be a
So why did Camus choose rebellion as his theme? There are many possible reasons, three being the most likely.
First, he probably wanted to salvage something from his absurdist phase. The revolt of the absurd hero had been
a main theme from his earlier work, and he found it a useful point of departure. Second, Camus’ experience in the
French Resistance had amplified his distate for ethical nihilism and nurtured in him a strong belief in the importance
of solidarity. Finally, he simply felt inclined to use dramatic imagery to illustrate his ethical vision (Kamber, 81).
But for whatever reasons he may have chosen it, and in spite of any problems with the range of the category itself,
rebellion, for the most part, works well as an underlying theme for the position Camus advances.
Christianity – Metaphysical Rebellion
Christianity plays two major roles in The Rebel, first as a target of rebellion and then as a vehicle for criticising
Marxism. Long before he reaches his discussion of Marxist ideology, Camus groups Christianity together with
other major theistic religions and discusses the metaphysical act of rebellion in which a person rejects God and
tries to formulate moral values outside a religious framework.
But before man accepts the sacred world and in order that he should be able to accept it—or before
he escapes from it and in order that he should be able to escape from it—there is always a period of
soul-searching and rebellion. The rebel is a man who is on the point of accepting or rejecting the
sacred and determined on laying claim to a human situation in which all the answers are human—in
other words, formulated in reasonable terms…. 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. (Camus, Rebel,
This is also the question that Camus struggles with through his entire career, a question that has plagued thinkers
for centuries. Trying to formulate an ethical system without God is a difficult task to say the least, but for the
metaphysical rebel, one that is absolutely necessary.
A man rebels against God in the same way that a slave rebels against his master. He looks at a world
characterized by cruelty and death and decides that if God exists, he is not worthy of worship.
He attacks a shattered world in order to demand unity from it. He opposes the principle of justice
which he finds in himself to the principle of injustice which he sees being applied in the world….
Metaphysical rebellion is a 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….The metaphysical rebel is therefore not definitely an
atheist, as one might think him, but he is inevitably a blasphemer. Quite simply, he blasphemes
primarily in the name of order, denouncing God as the father of death and as the supreme outrage.
(Camus, Rebel, 23)
With this passage, Camus is very cleverly separating values from religion by pitting the principles of metaphysical
rebellion against the cruelty of God. This type of rebellion affirms the values of order and justice, values which are
found only within the human mind and not in the world of creation. If God is responsible for the creation of a
world devoid of order and justice, God is in violation of these principles and can therefore be condemned.
Although the usual consequence of rejecting God is to deny His existence, this need not be the case for the
metaphysical rebel, who may grant that God exists but not that He is praiseworthy.
Camus cites Nietzsche as a prime example of a metaphysical rebel, who rejects God and embraces nihilism.
Nietzsche’s supreme vocation, so he says, is to provoke a kind of crisis and a final decision about
the problem of atheism. The world continues on its course at random and there is nothing final about
it. Thus God is useless, since He wants nothing in particular. If He wanted something—and here we
recognize the traditional formulation of the problem of evil—He would have to assume the
responsibility for “a sum total of pain and inconsistency which would debase the entire value of being
born.” (Camus, Rebel, 66)
The problem of evil—that suffering should not exist if the creator is omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent—is at
the heart of metaphysical rebellion. But although Camus is sympathetic to this type of view, he does not go as far
as Nietzsche by advocating ethical nihilism. He in fact blames many of the atrocities of his time period on the
twisting and misuse of Nietzsche’s thoughts, just as he blames Christianity and its adulterations for many of the
atrocities throughout history.
Christianity – Historical Rebellion
Christianity is also indirectly to blame for the fallacies of Marxism, according to Camus. In his section dealing with
“State Terrorism and Rational Terror” Camus criticizes Marxist ideology on three fronts. First, he accuses Marx
of mixing methods to arrive at his conclusions—using scientific inquiry to examine capitalism, dialectical reasoning
to explain history, and prophecy to postulate the end of history. Second, Camus is critical of Marx’s economic
determinism. Third, he accuses Marx of using contradictory ethical principles. “On the one hand, Marx scorns
those who seek guidance from moral principles rather from economic realities. On the other hand, Marx treats
the classless society as an end that justifies whatever means are employed to hasten its coming” (Kamber, 84).
The use of dialectical reasoning as well as his notion of the end of history are aspects of Marxist thought that
Camus attributes to the influence of the Christian rationalist Hegel.
Camus looks at Hegel in depth in “The Deicides”, in which he accuses the philosopher of having “rationalized to
the point of being irrational” (Camus, Rebel, 133). Hegel tried to formulate history through a framework of
dialectical reasoning, using the categories of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis to explain the progress of mankind.
Because Hegel was a Christian, Christ and his divinity play a major role in the process. Although he finds it an
impressive endeavour of thought, Camus does not believe Hegel’s ideas have anything to do with reality, though
he acknowledges their major influence on European thought. One of Camus’ main criticisms of Hegel is also his
most forceful criticism against Marx.
Nevertheless, the basis of Hegel’s claims is what renders them intellectually and forever suspect. He
believed that history in 1807, with the advent of Napoleon and of himself, had come to an end, and
that affirmation was possible and nihilism conquered. The Phenomenology, the Bible that was to
have prophesied only the past, put a limit on time. In 1807 all sins were forgiven, and time had
stopped. But history has continued. (Camus, Rebel, 147)
The fallacy of imagining history as having a definitive end is the major flaw that Camus points to in both
Hegelianism and Marxism.
But the link between Christianity and Marxism goes even farther than that. Socialism, by placing the values men
seek at the end of a historical process which man will achieve, eliminates the need for God by replacing Him with
It is for this reason that Camus insists that to understand the history of Christianity is to understand
Marxism. The Marxist prophecy is nothing more than the perennial Christian-Judaic vision of God’s
plan moving toward an apocalypse; but the vision is now totally within history….Marxism shares
Christianity’s impatience with the ‘is’ of this world in the light of a ‘should’ which is beyond history.
The apocalypse of history in the classless society is no more justified than the coming Kingdom of
Heaven….It is the promise and the certainty of the ultimate justification of the cause which make it
possible for men to give themselves willingly as a sacrifice for the cause. (Hanna, CCE, 55)
It seems that Camus has the same problems with Marxism as he has had with Christianity from the beginning. Just
as Christians will subordinate the value of their lives to something that lies beyond it, a socialist will justify rebellion
and murder by appealing to a future state of affairs in which murder is no longer necessary. However, Camus
sees no more reason to believe in the Marxist Utopia than in the Christian Kingdom of Heaven. Just as a
Christian would be misguided in sacrificing himself for a reward in another life that may only be imaginary, a
socialist would be wrong to murder for the sake of a classless society which may never be realised.
This idea is what Camus calls Marx’s “bourgeois prophecy,” and he contrasts this way of thinking with that of the
In contrast to the ancient world, the unity of the Christian and Marxist world is astonishing. The two
doctrines have in common a vision of the world which completely separates them from the Greek
attitude….The Christians were the first to consider human life and the course of events as a history
that is unfolding from a fixed beginning towards a definite end, in the course of which man achieves
his salvation or earns his punishment. The philosophy of history springs from a Christian
representation, which is surprising to a Greek mind….The Greeks imagined the history of the world
as cyclical. Aristotle, to give a definitive example, did not believe that the time in which he lived was
subsequent to the Trojan War. (Camus, Rebel, 189)
Camus wants to demonstrate that it is a distinctly Christian way of thinking to imagine history as a straight line with
a beginning and an ending. The ancient Greeks by contrast imagined history as cyclical. Modern science views
time as something of a spiral, with a question mark at the centre but no termination point. For the ideas of Marx
to have any merit, time would have to be linear, and Camus asserts (correctly, by today’s standards) that this is
not the case.
These criticisms, it should be noted, are not of the typical sort of attack levelled against Marxism. Camus does
not argue on socio-economic terms for why capitalism is ultimately the best economic system. He also does not
argue on ideological terms by asserting that free-market capitalism is the best protector of individual rights and
liberties. Camus merely highlights the errors of Marxist reasoning and asserts that trying to apply socialist
principles in reality usually leads to more harm than benefit, as was the case in Soviet Russia. Camus is not
unaware of the problems and injustices within capitalism, and he even offers Marx some praise for his essential
He rebelled against the degradation of work to the level of a commodity and of the worker to the
level of an object. He reminded the privileged that their privileges were not divine and that property
was not an eternal right. He gave a bad conscience to those who had no right to a clear conscience,
and denounced with unparalleled profundity a class whose crime is not so much having had power as
having used it to advance the ends of a mediocre society deprived of any real nobility….By
demanding for the worker real riches, which are not the riches of money but of leisure and creation,
he has reclaimed, despite all appearance to the contrary, the dignity of man. In doing so, and this
can be said with conviction, he never wanted the additional degradation that has been imposed on
man in his name. (Camus, Rebel, 209)
Like Christianity, it is not so much the basic ideals that Camus has a problem with, but the distortion and
corruption of these ideals when applied in society. The doctrines are to blame insofar as they lend themselves to
such distortions, and any doctrine which prophesies the end of the history leaves the door open to justifying all
kinds of atrocities.
In spite of Camus’ sympathetic sentiments towards Marxism, his critiques were enough to turn Sartre against him.
Six months after its publication, one of Sartre’s closest associates, Francis Jeanson, wrote a scathing review of
The Rebel in Sartre’s journal Les Temps Modernes, denouncing Camus’ arguments as superficial and moralistic
(Kamber, 87). Camus responded with a letter to the editor, challenging them to defend Marxism against his
To legitimate the position he takes toward my book, your critic should demonstrate, against the
whole collection of Les Temps Modernes, that history has a necessary meaning and a final outcome;
that the frightful and disorderly aspect that it offers us today is sheer appearance; and that, on the
contrary, in spite of its ups and downs, progress toward that moment of final reconciliation which will
be the jump into ultimate freedom, is inevitable….The truth is that your contributor would like us to
revolt against everything but the Communist Party and the Communist State. (Chiaromonte, CCE,
Neither Sartre nor any of his associates offered a direct answer, but Sartre responded with a malicious personal
reply in which he blasts Camus for being “conceited, preachy, arrogant, and moralistic—a judge rather than a
writer. He asserts that Camus detests difficulties of thought and avoids reading primary sources” (Kamber, 87).
Although he praises Camus’ earlier work, Sartre accuses Camus of being “obsessed by his hatred of God: an
‘anti-theist’ who wants to spit in the face of a blind and deaf God for the death of a child but ignores the economic
injustices that may have contributed to that child’s death” (Kamber, 88). Though this was the last time the two
would ever communicate directly, Camus would later strike back with his novel The Fall, which will be discussed
towards the end of this essay.
In the introduction to The Rebel, Camus builds a bridge between his earlier work, specifically The Myth of
Sisyphus, and his current project. He looks at the fruits of his absurdist period, salvaging what can still be used
and denouncing the rest as a failure. His main reason for rejecting the ethics of the absurd has to do with a
contradiction concerning murder (Kamber, 80). If one concludes that the world is absurd and empty of values,
they are left without a reason to murder nor a reason to condemn murder.
But logic cannot be satisfied by an attitude which first demonstrates that murder is possible and then
that it is impossible. For after having proved that the act of murder is at least a matter of
indifference, absurdist analysis, in its most important deduction, finally condemns murder. The final
conclusion of absurdist reasoning is, in fact, the repudiation of suicide and the acceptance of the
desperate encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe….But 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….In
terms of the encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe, murder and suicide are
one and the same thing, and must be accepted or rejected together. (Camus, Rebel, 6)
The final conclusion of Camus’ absurdist reasoning is a rejection of suicide, the reason being one cannot declare
life worthless without appealing to some sort of value that life lacks. That value exists only within the self, and to
kill oneself is to eliminate that value. By the same token, to kill another human is to eliminate another source of
values, and murder must therefore be rejected. The problem is that condemning any action runs counter to the
central idea of the absurd—that no action can be condemned.
This attitude is also Camus’ second reason for rejecting his absurdist ethics. With the period of disillusionment
following World War I, seeing the world as a place devoid of values had been common, but World War II
demonstrated the dire consequences of such an attitude when taken to the extreme. That values are necessary for
society became clear, and Camus felt that it was time to move beyond the period of nihilism and despair. “The
error of a whole period of history has been to enunciate—or to suppose already enunciated—general rules of
action founded on emotions of despair whose inevitable course, in that they are emotions, is continually to exceed
themselves” (Camus, Rebel, 9). Camus makes it clear that any ethical system, if it is to help more than harm, must
be based on more solid values.
Camus has already hinted at one of these values in Letters to a German Friend—that of solidarity. Rather than
viewing the absurd as an individual encounter between oneself and a world devoid of meaning or purpose, one
ought to recognise that he shares this condition with all others, and rebellion helps bring about this recognition.
In absurdist experience, suffering is individual. But from the moment when a movement of rebellion
begins, suffering is seen as a collective experience. Therefore the first progressive step for a mind
overwhelmed by the strangeness of things is to realize that this feeling of strangeness is shared with all
men and that human reality, in its entirety, suffers from the distance which separates it from the rest of
the universe. The malady experienced by a single man becomes a mass plague. In our daily trials
rebellion plays the same role as does the ‘cogito’ in the realm of thought: it is the first piece of
evidence. But this evidence lures the individual from his solitude. It founds its first value on the
whole human race. I rebel—therefore we exist. (Camus, Rebel, 22)
The type of rebellion Camus alludes to here is metaphysical, a reaction to the absurdity of a world characterized
by death and murder.
Camus returns to his image of the absurd as a universal death sentence. “Human insurrection, in its exalted and
tragic forms, is only, and can only be, a prolonged protest against death, a violent accusation against the universal
death penalty” (Camus, Rebel, 100). If all rebellion affirms a moral value, the rebellion against death affirms the
value of life. It is not merely a cowardly refusal to die, because many rebels have lost their own lives for the sake
of their cause. “The rebel does not ask for life, but for reasons for living….To fight against death amounts to
claiming that life has a meaning, to fighting for order and for unity” (Camus, Rebel, 100). Through our rebellion
against the meaninglessness of the world, we actually bring meaning to it.
The problem, however, is that rebellion of any form, even rebellion against death and destruction, usually leads to
death or destruction. Camus acknowledges that rebellion against “the creator” can lead to hatred of creation, or
to the other extreme: an exclusive love of what exists. Both extremes lead to murder, as those who hate the world
will have no qualms about destroying other people, while those who love it will see death and murder as a natural
part of the order of things and will not hesitate to participate in that order.
Apparently there are rebels who want to die and those who want to cause death. But they are
identical, consumed with desire for the true life, frustrated by their desire for existence and therefore
preferring generalized injustice to mutilated justice. At this pitch of indignation, reason becomes
madness. If it is true that the instinctive rebellion of the human heart advances gradually through the
centuries toward its most complete realization, it has also grown, as we have seen, in blind audacity,
to the inordinate extent of deciding, to answer universal murder by metaphysical assassination.
(Camus, Rebel, 101)
So although rebellion against death implicitly affirms life, it still leads to death if taken to the extreme. Camus looks
at a few historical examples of this scenario in order to find a solution to this problem—some principle to appeal
to in order to prevent rebellion from becoming tyranny.
Values – Historical Rebellion
The best example of nihilism taken to its extremes is without a doubt the Nazi regime and Hitler’s genocides. The
disastrous consequences of rebellion without appeal to any human values is self-evident in the events that occurred.
Seven million Jews assassinated, seven million Europeans deported or killed, ten million war victims,
are perhaps not sufficient to allow history to pass judgment: history is accustomed to murderers. But
the very destruction of Hitler’s final justification—that is, the German nation—henceforth makes this
man, whose presence in history for years on end haunted the minds of millions of men, into an
inconsistent and contemptible phantom. Speer’s deposition at the Nuremburg trials showed that
Hitler, though he could have stopped the war before the point of total disaster, really wanted
universal suicide and the material and political destruction of the German nation. The only value for
him remained, until the bitter end, success. (Camus, Rebel, 185)
For Hitler and his followers, the only value that mattered was the glory of the German nation, for which no
sacrifice was too great. Because the Jews stood in the way of this vision, they were exterminated. Because other
nations kept Germany’s power in check after World War I, these nations had to be taken over and drained of
their power. In the end, Germany was to be the most powerful nation in the world, a shining beacon of Aryan
glory and human perfection. However, when it became clear that they could not prevail, Hitler chose to let them
be destroyed rather than willingly accept defeat. When a nation’s only value is success, any failure deems that
nation unworthy to exist. This is the reason for the failure of Nazism, and why Hitler’s rebellion was not the right
But where Nazism fails, Camus sees potential success in the Communist rebellion going on during the time of his
writing. The Nazi movement, which Camus describes as a kind of “fascist mysticism,” was merely the reach for
an impossible dream, with no hope of world domination. Camus illustrates Hitler as a man astonished by his own
victories. On the other hand, he sees in Russian Communism an open aspiration to world domination, which he
believes constitutes its major strength.
Despite appearances, the German revolution had no hope of a future. It was only a primitive impulse
whose ravages have been greater than its real ambitions. Russian Communism, on the contrary, has
appropriated the metaphysical ambition that this book describes, the erection, after the death of
God, of a city of man finally deified. The name revolution, to which Hitler’s adventure had no
claim, was once deserved by Russian Communism, and although it apparently deserves it no longer,
it claims that one day it will deserve it forever. For the time in history, a doctrine and a movement
based on an Empire in arms has as its purpose definitive revolution and the final unification of the
world. (Camus, Rebel, 186)
The ideals on which the Communist Revolution are based have their roots in the kind of metaphysical rebellion
Camus alludes to earlier. The creation of the kingdom of heaven on earth, freedom from religious illusions, and a
society of social justice are ideals that many including Camus would claim are worth striving for. But like Nazism,
the Communist Revolution is also the wrong kind of rebellion.
Following his critique of Marxism, Camus examines the ideals of Lenin, who also does not subscribe to any
humanistic moral principles but believes only in the revolution and expediency. He chastises the totalitarian state
created by Lenin and Stalin for its addiction to servitude, terror, and world domination (Kamber, 85). While
flying the Marxist banner of social justice and equality, Communist Russia represents a horrendous hypocrisy by
subjecting its people to total servitude in the name of freedom, and is thus even more contemptible than Fascism.
It is not legitimate to identify the ends of Fascism with the ends of Russian Communism. The first
represents the exaltation of the executioner by the executioner; the second, more dramatic in
concept, the exaltation of the executioner by the victims. The former never dreamed of liberating all
men, but only of liberating a few by subjugating the rest. The latter, in its most profound principle,
aims at liberating all men by provisionally enslaving them all. It must be granted the grandeur of its
intentions. But, on the other hand, it is legitimate to identify the means employed by both with the
political cynicism that they have drawn from the same source, moral nihilism. (Camus, Rebel, 246)
Though Camus makes an enemy of the Fascists and the Communists, his discussion of historical rebellion
inevitably leads back to nihilism, which is his main target.
Values – Thoughts At The Meridian
So if rebellion is where we are to look for our source of values without appealing to religion, yet rebellion left
unchecked leads to murder and destruction, how do we resolve this problem? To illustrate the dilemma, Camus
chooses another Greek hero—Prometheus, who steals fire from the Gods to give to mankind, and is punished by
being chained to a rock and pecked at by vultures.
Here ends Prometheus’ surprising itinerary. Proclaiming his hatred of the gods and his love of
mankind, he turns away from Zeus with scorn and approaches mortal men in order to lead them in
an assault against the heavens. But men are weak and cowardly; they must be organized. They love
pleasure and immediate happiness; they must be taught to refuse, in order to grow up, immediate
rewards. Thus Prometheus, in his turn, becomes a master who first teaches and then commands.
Men doubt that they can safely attack the city of light and are even uncertain whether the city exists.
They must be saved from themselves. The hero then tells them that he, and he alone, knows the
city. Those who doubt his word will be thrown into the desert, chained to a rock, offered to the
vultures. The others will march henceforth in the darkness, behind the pensive and solitary master.
Prometheus alone has become god and reigns over the solitude of men. But from Zeus he has
gained only solitude and cruelty; he is no longer Prometheus, he is Caesar. The real, the eternal
Prometheus has now assumed the aspect of one of his victims. The same cry, springing from the
depths of the past, rings forever through the Scythian desert. (Camus, Rebel, 244)
Prometheus plays the role of the revolutionary leader, who wants to save mankind from their cruel gods, but to
compensate for man’s weakness he must take on the very characteristics of the gods that he rises against. Such is
the case in nearly all revolutions, leaving the rebel—the “eternal Prometheus”—the victim. “Camus’ switch from
Sisyphus to Prometheus is telling: Sisyphus defied the gods in service to himself, Prometheus in service to
humankind” (Kamber, 82).
So where are the values to be found? With the act of rebellion, we assign oppression with a limit and affirm the
dignity of all men. Rebellion becomes a primary value—the common spirit of men, the solidarity of chains, the
unification of mankind as a dignified whole.
By this progress it rendered still more acute the problem that it must now solve in regard to murder.
On the level of the absurd, in fact, murder would only give rise to logical contradictions; on the level
of rebellion it is mental laceration. For it is now a question of deciding if it is possible to kill someone
whose resemblance to ourselves we have at last recognized and whose identity we have just
sanctified. When we have only just conquered solitude, must we then re-establish it definitively by
legitimizing the act that isolates everything? To force solitude on a man who has just come to
understand that he is not alone, is that not the definitive crime against man? (Camus, Rebel, 281)
Because rebellion affirms the solidarity of man with man, Camus concludes that murder, which imposes on man
the ultimate isolation—that of death—rebellion should be contradictory to murder. That if a single master is killed,
the rebel slave loses the justification by which he began his rebellion in the first place.
Camus’ final resolution of the conflict comes from borrowing another classical idea: “Moderation and Excess.”
The key to preventing rebellion from becoming tyranny, Camus suggests, is simply to recognise one’s proper
limitations. The principle of moderation, so revered in the time of Aristotle, is just as vital today as it was
thousands of years ago. The major problem with rebellion is that its demand for freedom goes too far. There
should be limits to the freedom that men strive for, and these limits should be precisely where one man’s freedom
impinges on another’s.
Rebellion puts total freedom up for trial. It specifically attacks the unlimited power that authorizes a
superior to violate the forbidden frontier. Far from demanding general independence, the rebel
wants it to be recognized that freedom has its limits everywhere that a human being is to be found—
the limit being precisely that human being’s power to rebel….The rebel undoubtedly demands a
certain degree of freedom for himself; but in no case, if he is consistent, does he demand the right to
destroy the existence and the freedom of others….Unlimited power is not the only law. It is in the
name of another value that the rebel affirms the impossibility of total freedom while he claims for
himself the relative freedom necessary to recognize this impossibility. Every human freedom, at its
very roots, is therefore relative. Absolute freedom, which is the freedom to kill, is the only one
which does not claim, at the same time as itself, the things that limit and obliterate it. (Camus, Rebel,
Camus argues for the ethics of personal liberty, that all people should not only be free to follow their will, but free
from the wills of others.
The problem with revolutions and ideologies based in nihilism is their appeal to a “historical task” to which all
other values, including that of human life, must be made subservient. Under a nihilist framework, rebellion
inevitably leads to justified systematic murder. The rebel who denies the intrinsic value of a historical task (such as
the ‘end of history’ suggested by Marxism) and instead champions the absolute value of human life must recognise
the condition of the ‘limit,’ and according to Camus, the ‘limit’ of rebellion is precisely the point where it becomes
murderous (Chiaromonte, CCE, 32). And so any justifiable rebellion must aim to limit violence rather than codify
A revolution is not worth dying for unless it assures the immediate suppression of the death penalty;
not worth going to prison for unless it refuses in advance to pass sentence without fixed terms. If
rebel violence employs itself in the establishment of these institutions, announcing its aims as often as
it can, it is the only way in which it can be really provisional. When the end is absolute, historically
speaking, and when it is believed certain of realization, it is possible to go so far as to sacrifice
others. When it is not, only oneself can be sacrificed, in the hazards of a struggle for the common
dignity of man. Does the end justify the means? That is possible. But what will justify the end? To
that question, which historical thought leaves pending, rebellion replies: the means. (Camus, Rebel,
The condition Camus suggests on how to determine whether a rebellion is justified is pure and simple: the means
justify the ends.
The values that Camus advances are those central to human fulfilment: freedom, dignity and beauty. People can
only live fulfilling lives if they are capable of pursuing these interests without interference from others, and should
thus incorporate as well the classical principles of limit and moderation. “When people stray too far—personally
or politically—from what works for them as human beings with a common nature, they end up generating less
fulfulling lives” (Kamber, 86). Camus therefore reasons that we ought to oppose servitude and falsehood, and
while promoting freedom, dignity, and beauty, recognising the interests of others as our limitations, in order to
achieve fulfilling personal lives as well as a common unity with our fellow man.
Camus concludes with his vision of a future in which all men come to see things in this manner, and the spirit of
rebellion can live on without worry of being pushed to destructive extremes. Living free from religious illusion,
people can exercise their freedoms with dignity in solidarity with their fellow man. The bloody period of history
during which Camus writes this treatise, he hopes is merely the final breaking point in a process that will eventually
bring us from the misery and despair of our absurd condition to a future of happiness and personal fulfilment.
At this meridian of thought, the rebel thus rejects divinity in order to share in the struggles and destiny
of all men. We shall choose Ithaca, the faithful land, frugal and audacious thought, lucid action, and
the generosity of the man who understands. In the light, the earth remains our first and our last love.
Our brothers are breathing under the same sky as we; justice is a living thing. Now is born that
strange joy which helps one live and die, and which we shall never again postpone to a later time….
At this moment, when each of us must fit an arrow to his bow and enter the lists anew, to reconquer,
within history and in spite of it, that which he owns already, the thin yield of his fields, the brief love
of this earth, at this moment when at last a man is born, it is time to forsake our age and its
adolescent furies. The bow bends; the wood complains. At the moment of supreme tension, there
will leap into flight an unswerving arrow, a shaft that is inflexible and free. (Camus, Rebel, 306)
Through his entire discussion of rebellion Camus’ basic conclusion is simple: we must struggle against evil, but we
are all in the struggle together.