Thursday, March 4, 2010

My Initial Thoughts on Camus’ “The Rebel”


The first four or five times I sat down to really read and consider Camus’ “The Rebel,” I only got to the third page or so, being interrupted by something or another. Last night, when I finally read it slowly, letting it sink it as I took some notes, I was glad I had read and reread the beginning quite often. I feel I understood the essay’s content, as well as Camus’ intent. I would like to finish the book, but I am pretty sure I know where he’s going.

Motivations to the Essay/Book

I would like to begin a brief initial reflection on Camus by diving first into what I consider the impetus to the essay. Camus, in life, was an outspoken critic of all forms of oppression; in this, he sided with the rebel and revolutions, to a certain extent. But he was presented with the moral dilemma of finding a reasonable justification for rooting for the rebel – a reasonable justification for his disgust with oppression. Without the sacred, religion, or tradition, for Camus categorically rejects these, the “normal” or conventional justifications for human dignity, worth, and value are missing. For Camus, we aren’t made in the image and likeness of God; nor is there an omniscient being who hands out a rulebook.

On the one hand, there are numerous philosophers and thinkers that perceive in the rejection of the sacred and tradition the death of all transcendental or objective values; in light of Nietzsche’s “God is dead,” there is no ethics, for there is no right or wrong. Camus rejects these thinkers. Now, what is almost seems like Camus does is pulls a fast one; I initially scoffed at his logic because I thought it followed like such: a) I reject the non-human answers of the sacred, tradition, and religion; b) I don’t like the normal logical result of this line of thinking – i.e. there is no ethics; there is no value – so c) it can’t be true, as if one can simply will something out of truth.

But I don’t think that’s what Camus does; and that’s why I like the essay. I think his syllogism (the entire essay is really a work of logic) follows more like this: a) both the oppressed and viewers of oppression have “gut reactions” against oppression; b) although we can’t rely on non-human answers such as the sacred and tradition, c) nihilists’ answer that nothing has meaning also doesn’t explain point A; d) therefore, it is within this feeling itself, within the act of rebellion against oppression, that we can prove human life has value and dignity – and then a lot more comes from that last point. Camus begins with a simple emotion that leads to action, for this act of rebellion is a human, experiential proof, to get to human dignity, without appealing to a priori metaphysics. I think it’s neat, even if deeply flawed.

A More Specific Look at the Essay

Since Camus’ work in this essay is essentially a work in logic, I find it easy to relate the major points. Of course, his reasoning behind each point is missing from this; but that’s why the essay is longer than this next set of points: a) observation: the act of rebellion is a recognition that I, as a human being, have value; b) observation: the true rebel is willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of this value; c) from B: the act of rebellion is a recognition that all human life has value, not just my individual life. This is how we get to his ending, “I rebel – therefore we exist.”

Who Camus is Rejecting

Although he makes a few jabs at religion, he doesn’t take much of the essay to argue against it. He simply calls religious answers non-human. Who he is specifically arguing against is Max Scheler. I guess Scheler called all humanitarian feelings or ideals essentially “fake” in that they are founded on a desire to avoid loving humans in a specific fashion. I am reminded of one of the characters from Brothers K who looks for guidance from Fr. Zossima. He tells the mystic that, while he is coming more and more in love with mankind, he is becoming more and more annoyed at specific human beings. Scheler seems to represent the cynical atheist, who sees no justifiable reason one human being would truly care for another. It is either founded on lies – i.e. religion, etc. – or it isn’t really real – i.e. humanitarian ideals are founded more on hate than love. To disprove this line of thinking, Camus takes time to reveal the difference between his idea of rebellion and Scheler’s idea of resentment. I guess we could throw Nietzsche’s resentemente in there, too.

Speaking of Nietzsche, Camus also indirectly disapproves of his nihilism. It almost seems as if Camus is attempting to turn the tide of atheism from the statements of “nothing matter,” “nothing has value,” etc. to a more positive realization that we can still find value through human means and answers.

Implications / Where I Think Camus is Going / Limit to Rebellion

The last few pages of the essay begin what I think will be an important point going forward in the book. While Camus praises rebellion, and while he was involved in actively rebelling and fighting against oppression, he disapproves of many historical rebellions. Once again, it can almost look as if he’s emotionally responding to the response of “Well, a lot of rebellion is awful and not even better than what it fought against” by saying, “Well, those rebellions weren’t good.” But there’s so much more here. In his actual proof for rebellion lies the limit to rebellion. If rebellion presents us with an awareness that life has value, and not just our own, then it follows that true rebellion does not lead to taking away other people’s rights, nor does it lead to a replacement or reflection of the previous tyranny. In this, Camus is knocking communism for sure; but all rebellion that doesn’t accept as its foremost duty to protect the value of life that its very inception proved is tossed aside as false or incomplete.

Final Punch Line

Basically Camus wants to get to an ethics of right and wrong without religion or tradition. He thinks rebellion gets us there via its experiential proof that all human life has value.

1 comment:

  1. I already need to temper my comments; my ignorance on most issues becomes palpably clearer every day.

    I don’t think Camus disapproved of Nietzsche. I believe he thought people have over-dramatized Nietzsche, or taken him out of context. People, and this is true, cling to his “God is dead,” and conclude that nothing matters, there are no values, etc. But, and this I remember from my seminar on the same, Nietzsche did not consider himself a nihilist: he considered himself “beyond” nihilism.

    I think what Camus takes the real Nietzsche to mean (and this is why he likes him) is that he doesn’t passively reject all values; he proactively creates a new system of belief. Nietzsche called people fools who tear him down without building anything of their own. So the modern atheistic philosophy which claimed that Nietzsche proved that nothing matters and all is permitted are incorrect, in that they take one aspect of Nietzsche, and they take it out of context.

    Camus disliked valueless nihilism, but not completely associate Nietzsche with this.