Stanford University

Albert Camus (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

There are various paradoxical elements in Camus’s approach to
philosophy. In his book-length essay, The Myth of Sisyphus,
Camus presents a philosophy that contests philosophy itself. This
essay belongs squarely in the philosophical tradition of
existentialism but Camus denied being an existentialist. Both The
Myth of Sisyphus
and his other philosophical work, The
Rebel
, are systematically skeptical of conclusions about the
meaning of life, yet both works assert objectively valid answers to
key questions about how to live. Though Camus seemed modest when
describing his intellectual ambitions, he was confident enough as a
philosopher to articulate not only his own philosophy but also a
critique of religion and a fundamental critique of modernity. While
rejecting the very idea of a philosophical system, Camus constructed
his own original edifice of ideas around the key terms of absurdity
and rebellion, aiming to resolve the life-or-death issues that
motivated him.

The essential paradox arising in Camus’s philosophy concerns
his central notion of absurdity. Accepting the Aristotelian idea
that philosophy begins in wonder, Camus argues that human beings
cannot escape asking the question, “What is the meaning of
existence?” Camus, however, denies that there is an answer to
this question, and rejects every scientific, teleological,
metaphysical, or human-created end that would provide an adequate
answer. Thus, while accepting that human beings inevitably seek to
understand life’s purpose, Camus takes the skeptical position that the
natural world, the universe, and the human enterprise remain silent
about any such purpose. Since existence itself has no meaning, we must
learn to bear an irresolvable emptiness. This paradoxical situation,
then, between our impulse to ask ultimate questions and the
impossibility of achieving any adequate answer, is what Camus calls
the absurd. Camus’s philosophy of the absurd explores the
consequences arising from this basic paradox.

Camus’s understanding of absurdity is best captured in an image, not
an argument: of Sisyphus straining to push his rock up the mountain,
watching it roll down, then descending after the rock to begin all
over, in an endless cycle. Like Sisyphus, humans cannot help but
continue to ask after the meaning of life, only to see our answers
tumble back down. If we accept this thesis about life’s essential
absurdity, and Camus’s anti-philosophical approach to philosophical
questions, we cannot help but ask: What role is left for rational
analysis and argument? Doesn’t Camus the philosopher preside over the
death of philosophy in answering the question whether to commit
suicide by abandoning the terrain of argument and analysis and turning
to metaphor to answer it? If life has no fundamental purpose or
meaning that reason can articulate, we cannot help asking about why we
continue to live and to reason. Might not Silenus be right in
declaring that it would have been better not to have been born, or to
die as soon as
possible?[1]
And, as Francis Jeanson wrote long before his famous criticism of
The Rebel that precipitated the rupture between Camus and
Sartre, isn’t absurdist philosophy a contradiction in terms, strictly
speaking no philosophy at all but an anti-rational posture that ends
in silence (Jeanson 1947)?

Was Camus actually a philosopher? He himself said no, in a famous
interview with Jeanine Delpech in Les Nouvelles
Littéraires
in November of 1945, insisting that he did
“not believe sufficiently in reason to believe in a
system” (Camus 1965, 1427). This was not merely a public
posture, since we find the same thought in his notebooks of this
period: he describes himself as an artist and not a philosopher
because “I think according to words and not according to
ideas” (Camus 1995, 113). Still, Jean-Paul Sartre saw
immediately that Camus was undertaking important philosophical work,
and in his review of The Stranger in relation
to Sisyphus, had no trouble connecting Camus with Pascal,
Rousseau, and Nietzsche (Sartre 1962). After they became friends
Sartre spoke publicly of his friend’s “philosophy of the
absurd,” which he distinguished from his own thought for which
he accepted the “existentialist” label that Camus
rejected. In the years since, the apparent unsystematic, indeed,
anti-systematic, character of his philosophy, has meant that
relatively few scholars have appreciated its full depth and
complexity. They have more often praised his towering literary
achievements and standing as a political moralist while pointing out
his dubious claims and problematic arguments (see Sherman 2008). A
significant recent exception to this is Ronald Srigley’s Albert
Camus’ Critique of Modernity
(Srigley 2011).

This entry will negotiate Camus’s deliberate ambivalence as a
philosopher while discussing his philosophy. It is not just a
matter of giving a philosophical reading of this playwright,
journalist, essayist, and novelist but of taking his philosophical
writings seriously—exploring their premises, their evolution,
their structure, and their coherence. To do so is to see that his
writing contains more than a mood and more than images and sweeping,
unsupported assertions, although it contains many of both. Camus
takes his skepticism as far as possible as a form of methodical
doubt—that is, he begins from a presumption of
skepticism—until he finds the basis for a non-skeptical
conclusion. And he builds a unique philosophical construction, whose
premises are often left unstated and which is not always argued
clearly, but which develops in distinct stages over the course of his
brief lifetime. Camus’s philosophy can be thus read as a sustained
effort to demonstrate and not just assert what is entailed by the
absurdity of human existence. In the process Camus answers the
questions posed by The Myth of Sisyphus, “Why should I
not kill myself?”, and by The Rebel, “Why should
I not kill others?”

Camus’s graduate thesis at the University of Algiers sympathetically
explored the relationship between Greek philosophy and Christianity,
specifically the relationship of Plotinus to Augustine (Camus 1992). Nevertheless,
his philosophy explicitly rejects religion as one of its foundations.
Not always taking an openly hostile posture towards religious
belief—though he certainly does in the novels The
Stranger
and The Plague—Camus centers his work on
choosing to live without God. Another way to understand Camus’s
philosophy is that it is an effort to explore the issues and pitfalls
of a post-religious world.

Camus’s earliest published writing containing philosophical thinking,
Nuptials, appeared in Algeria in 1938, and remain the basis
of his later work. These lyrical essays and sketches describe a
consciousness reveling in the world, a body delighting in nature, and
the individual’s immersion in sheer physicality. Yet these experiences
are presented as the solution to a philosophical problem, namely
finding the meaning of life in the face of death. They appear
alongside, and reveal themselves to be rooted in, his first extended
meditation on ultimate questions.

In these essays, Camus sets two attitudes in opposition. The first
is what he regards as religion-based fears. He cites religious
warnings about pride, concern for one’s immortal soul, hope for
an afterlife, resignation about the present and preoccupation with
God. Against this conventional Christian perspective Camus asserts
what he regards as self-evident facts: that we must die and there is
nothing beyond this life. Without mentioning it, Camus draws a
conclusion from these facts, namely that the soul is not immortal.
Here, as elsewhere in his philosophical writing, he commends to his
readers to face a discomforting reality squarely and without
flinching, but he does not feel compelled to present reasons or
evidence. If not with religion, where then does wisdom lie? His answer
is: with the “conscious certainty of a death without hope”
and in refusing to hide from the fact that we are going to die. For
Camus “there is no superhuman happiness, no eternity outside of
the curve of the days…. I can see no point in the happiness of
angels” (N, 90). There is nothing but this
world, this life, the immediacy of the present.

Camus is sometimes mistakenly called a “pagan” because he
rejects Christianity as based on a hope for a life beyond this life.
Hope is the error Camus wishes to avoid. Rejecting “the
delusions of hope” (N, 74), Nuptials contains
an evocation of an alternative. Camus relies for this line of thought
on Nietzsche’s discussion of Pandora’s Box in Human, All Too
Human
: all the evils of humankind, including plagues and disease,
have been let loose on the world by Zeus, but the remaining evil,
hope, is kept hidden away in the box and treasured. But why, we may
ask, is hope an evil? Nietzsche explains that humans have come to see
hope as their greatest good, while Zeus, knowing better, has meant it
as the greatest source of trouble. It is, after all, the reason why
humans let themselves be tormented—because they anticipate an
ultimate reward (Nietzsche 1878/1996, 58). For Camus, following this
reading of Nietzsche closely, the conventional solution is in fact the
problem: hope is disastrous for humans inasmuch as it leads them to
minimize the value of this life except as preparation for a life
beyond.

If religious hope is based on the mistaken belief that death, in the
sense of utter and total extinction body and soul, is not inevitable,
it leads us down a blind alley. Worse, because it teaches us to look
away from life toward something to come afterwards, such religious
hope kills a part of us, for example, the realistic attitude we need
to confront the vicissitudes of life. But what then is the appropriate
path? The young Camus is neither a skeptic nor a relativist here. His
discussion rests on the self-evidence of sensuous experience. He
advocates precisely what he takes Christianity to abjure: living a
life of the senses, intensely, here and now, in the present. This
entails, first, abandoning all hope for an afterlife, indeed rejecting
thinking about it. “I do not want to believe that death is
the gateway to another life. For me it is a closed door”
(N, 76).

We might think that facing our total annihilation would be bitter,
but for Camus this leads us in a positive direction: “Between
this sky and the faces turned toward it there is nothing on which to
hang a mythology, a literature, an ethic, or a religion—only
stones, flesh, stars, and those truths the hand can touch”
(N, 90). This insight entails obstinately refusing
“all the ‘later on’s of this world,” in
order to lay claim to “my present wealth” (N,
103), namely the intense here-and-now life of the senses. The
“wealth” is precisely what hope cheats us out of by
teaching us to look away from it and towards an afterlife. Only by
yielding to the fact that our “longing to endure” will be
frustrated and accepting our “awareness of death” are we
able to open ourselves to the riches of life, which are physical above
all.

Camus puts both sides of his argument into a single statement:
“The world is beautiful, and outside there is no
salvation” (N, 103). Only in accepting death and in
being “stripped of all hope” does one most intensely
appreciate not only the physical side of life, but also, he now
suggests, its affective and interpersonal side. Taken together, and
contrary to an unverifiable faith in God and afterlife, these are what
one has and one knows: “To feel one’s
ties to a land, one’s love for certain men, to know there is
always a place where the heart can find rest—these are already
many certainties for one man’s life” (N, 90).

Only if we accept that Nietzsche is right, that God is dead and
there is only nothingness after we die, will we then fully
experience—feel, taste, touch, see, and smell—the joys of
our bodies and the physical world. Thus the sensuous and lyrical
side of these essays, their evocative character, is central to the
argument. Or rather, because Camus is promoting intense, joyous,
physical experience as opposed to a self-abnegating religious life,
rather than developing an argument he asserts that these experiences
are the right response. His writing aims to demonstrate what life
means and feels like once we give up hope of an
afterlife, so that in reading we will be led to “see” his
point. These essays may be taken as containing highly personal
thoughts, a young man’s musings about his Mediterranean
environment, and they scarcely seem to have any system. But they
suggest what philosophy is for Camus and how he conceives its
relationship to literary expression.

His early philosophy, then, may be conveyed, if not summed up, in
this passage from “Nuptials at Tipasa”:

In a moment, when I throw myself down among the absinthe plants to
bring their scent into my body, I shall know, appearances to the
contrary, that I am fulfilling a truth which is the sun’s and
which will also be my death’s. In a sense, it is indeed my
life that I am staking here, a life that tastes of warm stone, that is
full of the signs of the sea and the rising song of the crickets.
The breeze is cool and the sky blue. I love this life with
abandon and wish to speak of it boldly: it makes me proud of my human
condition. Yet people have often told me: there’s nothing
to be proud of. Yes, there is: this sun, this sea, my heart
leaping with youth, the salt taste of my body and this vast landscape
in which tenderness and glory merge in blue and yellow. It is to
conquer this that I need my strength and my resources. Everything
here leaves me intact, I surrender nothing of myself, and don no mask:
learning patiently and arduously how to live is enough for me, well
worth all their arts of living. (N, 69)

The intense and glistening present tells us that we can fully
experience and appreciate life only on the condition that we no longer
try to avoid our ultimate and absolute death.

After completing Nuptials, Camus began to work on a planned
triptych on the Absurd: a novel, which became The Stranger, a
philosophical essay, eventually titled The Myth of Sisyphus,
and a play, Caligula. These were completed and sent off from
Algeria to the Paris publisher in September 1941. Although Camus would
have preferred to see them appear together, even in a single volume,
the publisher for both commercial reasons and because of the paper
shortage caused by war and occupation, released The Stranger
in June 1942 and The Myth of Sisyphus in October. Camus kept
working on the play, which finally appeared in book form two years
later (Lottman, 264–67).

3.1 Suicide as a Response to Absurdity

“There is only one really serious philosophical
problem,” Camus says, “and that is suicide. Deciding
whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental
question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that”
(MS, 3). One might object that suicide is neither a
“problem” nor a “question,” but an act. A
proper, philosophical question might rather be: “Under what
conditions is suicide warranted?” And a philosophical answer
might explore the question, “What does it mean to ask whether
life is worth living?” as William James did in The Will to
Believe
. For the Camus of The Myth of Sisyphus,
however, “Should I kill myself?” is the essential
philosophical question. For him, it seems clear that the primary
result of philosophy is action, not comprehension. His concern about
“the most urgent of questions” is less a theoretical one
than it is the life-and-death problem of whether and how to
live.

Camus sees this question of suicide as a natural response to
an underlying premise, namely that life is absurd in a variety of
ways. As we have seen, both the presence and absence of life
(i.e., death) give rise to the condition: it is absurd to continually
seek meaning in life when there is none, and it is absurd to hope for
some form of continued existence after death given that the latter
results in our extinction. But Camus also thinks it absurd to try
to know, understand, or explain the world, for he sees the attempt to
gain rational knowledge as futile. Here Camus pits himself
against science and philosophy, dismissing the claims of all forms of
rational analysis: “That universal reason, practical or ethical,
that determinism, those categories that explain everything are enough
to make a decent man laugh” (MS, 21).

These kinds of absurdity are driving Camus’s question about
suicide, but his way of proceeding evokes another kind of absurdity,
one less well-defined, namely, the “absurd sensibility”
(MS, 2, tr. changed). This sensibility, vaguely described, seems
to be “an intellectual malady” (MS, 2) rather
than a philosophy. He regards thinking about it as
“provisional” and insists that the mood of absurdity, so
“widespread in our age” does not arise from, but lies
prior to, philosophy. Camus’s diagnosis of the essential human problem
rests on a series of “truisms” (MS, 18) and
“obvious themes” (MS, 16). But he
doesn’t argue for life’s absurdity or attempt to
explain it—he is not interested in either
project, nor would such projects engage his strength as a
thinker. “I am interested … not so much in absurd
discoveries as in their consequences” (MS, 16).
Accepting absurdity as the mood of the times, he asks above all
whether and how to live in the face of it. “Does the absurd
dictate death” (MS, 9)? But he does not argue this
question either, and rather chooses to demonstrate the attitude
towards life that would deter suicide. In other words, the main
concern of the book is to sketch ways of living our lives so as
to make them worth living despite their being meaningless.

According to Camus, people commit suicide “because they judge
life is not worth living” (MS, 4). But if this
temptation precedes what is usually considered philosophical
reasoning, how to answer it? In order to get to the bottom of things
while avoiding arguing for the truth of his statements, he
depicts, enumerates, and illustrates. As he says in The
Rebel
, “the absurd is an experience that must be lived
through, a point of departure, the equivalent, in existence, of
Descartes’s methodical doubt” (R, 4). The Myth of
Sisyphus
seeks to describe “the elusive feeling of
absurdity” in our lives, rapidly pointing out themes that
“run through all literatures and all philosophies”
(MS, 12). Appealing to common experience, he tries to render
the flavor of the absurd with images, metaphors, and anecdotes that
capture the experiential level he regards as lying prior to
philosophy.

He begins doing so with an implicit reference to Sartre’s novel,
Nausea, which echoes the protagonist Antoine Roquentin’s
discovery of absurdity. Camus had earlier written that this novel’s
theories of absurdity and its images are not in balance. The
descriptive and the philosophical aspects of the novel
“don’t add up to a work of art: the passage from one to the
other is too rapid, too unmotivated, to evoke in the reader the deep
conviction that makes art of the novel” (Camus 1968, 200). But
in this 1938 review Camus praises Sartre’s descriptions of
absurdity, the sense of anguish and nausea that arises as the ordinary
structures imposed on existence collapse in Antoine Roquentin’s
life. As Camus now presents his own version of the experience,
“the stage sets collapse. Rising, streetcar, four hours in
the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal,
sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday and
Sunday according to the same rhythm …” (MS,
12–3). As this continues, one slowly becomes fully conscious and
senses the absurd.

3.2 The Limits of Reason

Camus goes on to sketch other experiences of absurdity, until he
arrives at death. But although Camus seeks to
avoid arguing for the truth of his claims, he nevertheless concludes
this “absurd reasoning” with a series of categorical
assertions addressed to “the intelligence” about the
inevitable frustration of the human desire to know the world and to be
at home in it. Despite his intentions, Camus cannot avoid
asserting what he believes to be an objective truth: “We must
despair of ever reconstructing the familiar, calm surface which would
give us peace of heart” (MS, 18). Turning to experiences
that are seemingly obvious to large numbers of people who share the
absurd sensibility, he declares sweepingly: “This world in
itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said”
(MS, 21). Our efforts to know are driven by a nostalgia for
unity, and there is an inescapable “hiatus between what we fancy
we know and what we really know” (MS, 18).

“With the exception of professional rationalists, people today
despair of true knowledge” (MS, 18). Camus asserts that
the history of human thought is characterized by “its successive
regrets and its impotences” (MS, 18), and that
“the impossibility of knowledge is established”
(MS, 25). When writing more carefully, he claims only to be
describing a certain “climate,” but in any case his
bedrock assumptions appear again and again: the world is unknowable
and life is without meaning. Our efforts to understand them lead
nowhere.

Avi Sagi suggests that in claiming this Camus is not speaking as an
irrationalist—which is, after all, how he regards the
existentialists—but as someone trying to rationally understand
the limits of reason (Sagi 2002, 59–65). For Camus the problem
is that by demanding meaning, order, and unity, we seek to go beyond
those limits and pursue the impossible. We will never understand, and we will
die despite all our efforts. There are two obvious responses to
our frustrations: suicide and hope. By hope Camus means just what
he described in Nuptials, the religion-inspired effort to
imagine and live for a life beyond this life. Or, second, as taken up
at length in The Rebel, bending one’s energies to living
for a great cause beyond oneself: “Hope of another life one must
‘deserve’ or trickery of those who live not for life itself
but for some great idea that will transcend it, refine it, give it a
meaning, and betray it” (MS, 8).

What is the Camusean alternative to suicide or hope? The
answer is to live without escape and with integrity, in
“revolt” and defiance, maintaining the tension intrinsic
to human life. Since “the most obvious absurdity”
(MS, 59) is death, Camus urges us to “die unreconciled
and not of one’s own free will” (MS, 55). In
short, he recommends a life without consolation, but instead one
characterized by lucidity and by acute consciousness of and rebellion
against its mortality and its limits.

3.3 Criticism of Existentialists

In his statement of the problem and its solution, Camus’s
tone, ideas, and style are reminiscent of Nietzsche. “God
is dead” is of course their common starting point, as is the
determination to confront unpleasant truths and write against received
wisdom. At the same time Camus argues against the specific
philosophical current with which Nietzsche is often linked as a
precursor, and to which he himself is closest—existentialism.
The Myth of Sisyphus is explicitly written against
existentialists such as Shestov, Kierkegaard, Jaspers, and Heidegger,
as well as against the phenomenology of Husserl. Camus shares
their starting point, which he regards as the fact that they all
somehow testify to the absurdity of the human condition. But he rejects
what he sees as their ultimate escapism and irrationality, claiming
that “they deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in
what impoverishes them. That forced hope is religious in all of
them” (MS, 24).

Sartre, too, is subject to Camus’s criticisms—and not
just politically as will be described in the following section.
Although some of the ideas in The Myth of Sisyphus drew on
Sartre’s Nausea (as noted above), in 1942 Sartre was not
yet regarded as an “existentialist”. But as Sartre’s
philosophy developed, he went on to explore how human activity
constitutes a meaningful world from the brute, meaningless existence
unveiled in his
novel[2]
(Aronson 1980, 71–88). In the process, the absurdity of Nausea
becomes the contingency of Being and Nothingness, the fact
that humans and things are simply there with no explanation or
reason. As Sartre described it, the absurd is “the
universal contingency of being which is, but which is not the basis of
its being; the absurd is the given, the unjustifiable, primordial
quality of existence” (quoted in Sagi 2002, 57). Having rooted
human existence in such contingency, Sartre goes on to describe other
fundamental structures of existence, core human projects, and
characteristic patterns of behavior, including freedom and bad faith,
all of which arise on this basis. The original contingency leads
to our desire to undo it, to the futile project to “found
being,” in other words the “useless passion” of the
project to become God.

For Sartre absurdity is obviously a fundamental ontological property
of existence itself, frustrating us but not restricting our
understanding. For Camus, on the other hand, absurdity is not a
property of existence as such, but is an essential feature of our
relationship with the world. It might be argued that
Sartre and Camus are really quite similar, and that the core futility
of Sartre’s philosophy parallels the “despair” Camus
describes. After all, if Sisyphus’s labor is ultimately
futile, so is the project to become God. But Sartre rejects the
“classical pessimism” and “disillusionment” he
finds in Camus and instead possesses an unCamusean confidence in his
ability to understand and explain this project and the rest of the
human world. Camus, on the contrary, builds an entire worldview on his
central assumption that absurdity is an unsurpassable relationship
between humans and their world (Aronson 2013). He postulates an inevitable
divorce between human consciousness, with its “wild longing for
clarity” (MS, 21) and the “unreasonable silence of
the world” (MS, 28). As discussed above,
Camus views the world as irrational, which means that it is not
understandable through reason.

According to Camus, each existentialist writer betrayed his initial
insight by seeking to appeal to something beyond the limits of the
human condition, by turning to the transcendent. And yet even if we
avoid what Camus describes as such escapist efforts and continue to
live without irrational appeals, the desire to do so is built into our
consciousness and thus our humanity. We are unable to free ourselves
from “this desire for unity, this longing to solve, this need
for clarity and cohesion” (MS, 51). But it is urgent to
not succumb to these impulses and to instead accept absurdity. In
contrast with existentialism, “The absurd is lucid reason noting
its limits” (MS, 49).

Camus clearly believes that the existentialist philosophers are
mistaken but does not argue against them, because he believes that
“there is no truth but merely truths” (MS,
43). His disagreement rather takes the subtler and less assertive form
of an immanent critique, pointing out that each thinker’s
existentialist philosophy ends up being inconsistent with its own
starting point: “starting from a philosophy of the world’s lack
of meaning, it ends up by finding a meaning and depth in it”
(MS, 42). These philosophers, he insists, refuse to accept
the conclusions that follow from their own premises. Kierkegaard, for
example, strongly senses the absurd. But rather than respecting it as
the inevitable human ailment, he seeks to be cured of it by making it
an attribute of a God who he then embraces.

Camus’s most sustained analysis is of Husserl’s
phenomenology. Along with Sartre, Camus praises the early
Husserlian notion of intentionality. Sartre saw this notion as
revealing a dynamic consciousness without contents—the basis for
his conception of freedom—while Camus is pleased that
intentionality follows the absurd spirit in its “apparent modesty
of thought that limits itself to describing what it declines to
explain” (MS, 43). However, Camus criticizes
Husserl’s later search in Ideas for Platonic
extra-temporal essences as a quasi-religious leap inconsistent with his
original insight.

3.4 Happiness in Facing One’s Fate

How then to remain consistent with absurd reasoning and avoid
falling victim to the “spirit of nostalgia”? The
Myth of Sisyphus
finds the answer by abandoning the terrain of
philosophy altogether. Camus describes a number of absurdist fictional
characters and activities, including Don Juan and Dostoevsky’s
Kirolov (The Possessed), theater, and literary creation.
And then he concludes with the story of Sisyphus, who fully incarnates
a sense of life’s absurdity, its “futility and hopeless
labor” (MS, 119). Camus sees Sisyphus’s
endless effort and intense consciousness of futility as a
triumph. “His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death,
and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the
whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing”
(MS, 120). After the dense and highly self-conscious
earlier chapters, these pages condense the entire line of thought into
a vivid image. Sisyphus demonstrates that we can live with
“the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that
ought to accompany it” (MS, 54). For Camus,
Sisyphus reminds us that we cannot help seeking to understand the
reality that transcends our intelligence, striving to grasp more than
our limited and practical scientific understanding allows, and wishing
to live without dying. Like Sisyphus, we are our fate, and our
frustration is our very life: we can never escape it.

But there is more. After the rock comes tumbling down,
confirming the ultimate futility of his project, Sisyphus trudges after
it once again. This “is the hour of consciousness. At each
of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks towards
the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger
than his rock” (MS, 121). Why use the words
“superior” and “stronger” when he has no hope
of succeeding the next time? Paradoxically, it is because a sense
of tragedy “crowns his victory.” “Sisyphus,
proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole
extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his
descent” (MS, 121). Tragic consciousness is the
conclusion of “absurd reasoning”: living fully aware of the
bitterness of our being and consciously facing our fate.

What then is
Camus’s reply to his question about whether or not to commit
suicide? Full consciousness, avoiding false solutions such as
religion, refusing to submit, and carrying on with vitality and
intensity: these are Camus’s answers. This is how a life without
ultimate meaning can be made worth living. As he said in
Nuptials, life’s pleasures are inseparable from a keen
awareness of these limits. Sisyphus accepts and embraces living
with death without the possibility of appealing to God. “All
Sisyphus’s silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to
him. His rock is his thing” (MS, 123).

Lucidly living the human condition, Sisyphus “knows himself to
be the master of his days.” By becoming conscious of it,
Camus is saying, he takes ownership of it. In this sense Sisyphus
reshapes his fate into a condition of “wholly human
origin.” “Wholly” may be an exaggeration,
because after all, death is “inevitable and despicable,”
but by acknowledging this, Sisyphus consciously lives out what has been
imposed on him, thus making it into his own end. In the same way,
Meursault, protagonist of The Stranger, comes to consciousness
in that book’s second part after committing the inexplicable
murder that ends the book’s first part. He has lived his
existence from one moment to the next and without much awareness, but
at his trial and while awaiting execution he becomes like Sisyphus,
fully conscious of himself and his terrible fate. He will die
triumphant as the absurd man.

The Myth of
Sisyphus
is far from having a skeptical conclusion. In response to
the lure of suicide, Camus counsels an intensely conscious and active
non-resolution. Rejecting any hope of resolving the strain is
also to reject despair. Indeed, it is possible, within and
against these limits, to speak of happiness. “Happiness and
the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable”
(MS, 122). It is not that discovering the
absurd leads necessarily to happiness, but rather that acknowledging
the absurd means also accepting human frailty, an awareness of our
limitations, and the fact that we cannot help wishing to go beyond what
is possible. These are all tokens of being fully alive.
“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a
man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”
(MS, 123).

3.5 Response to Skepticism

We can compare his
conclusion with Pyrrho’s skepticism and Descartes’s
methodical doubt. First of all, like Pyrrho, Camus has solved his
pressing existential issue, namely, avoiding despair, by a kind of
resolution entailed in accepting our mortality and ultimate
ignorance. But there are two critical differences with Pyrrho:
for Camus we never can abandon the desire to know, and realizing this
leads to a quickening of our life-impulses. This last point was already
contained in Nuptials, but here is expanded to link
consciousness with happiness. For Camus, happiness includes
living intensely and sensuously in the present coupled with
Sisyphus’s tragic, lucid, and defiant consciousness, his sense of
limits, his bitterness, his determination to keep on, and his refusal
of any form of consolation.

Obviously, Camus’s sense of happiness is not a conventional
one but Sagi argues it may place him closer to Aristotle than to any
other thinker insofar as he is championing the full realization of
human capacities (Sagi 2002, 79–80) Camus is also similar in this
to Nietzsche, who called upon his readers to “say yes to
life,” and live as completely as possible at every moment.
Nietzsche’s point was that to be wholly alive means being as
aware of the negative as of the positive, feeling pain, not shunning
any experience, and embracing life “even in its strangest and
hardest problems” (Nietzsche 1888/1954, 562). But how is it
possible that, by the end of The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus has
moved from skepticism (about finding the truth) and nihilism (about
whether life has meaning) to advocating an approach to
life that is clearly judged to be better than others? How does he
justify embracing a normative stance, affirming specific values?
This contradiction reveals a certain sleight of hand, as the
philosopher gives way to the artist. It is as an artist that
Camus now makes his case for acceptance of tragedy, the consciousness
of absurdity, and a life of sensuous vitality. He advocates this
with the image of Sisyphus straining, fully alive, and happy.

This meditation on absurdity and suicide follows closely on the
publication of Camus’s first novel, The Stranger, which
also centered on individual experience and revolves around its
protagonist’s senseless murder of an Arab on a beach in Algiers and
concludes with his execution by guillotine. And it is often forgotten
that this absurdist novelist and philosopher was also a political
activist—he had been a member of the Algerian branch of the
French Communist Party in the mid-1930s and was organizer of an
Algiers theater company that performed avant-garde and political
plays—as well as a crusading journalist. From October 1938 until
January 1940 he worked on Alger républicain and a sister
newspaper. In June 1939 he wrote a series of reports on famine and
poverty in the mountainous coastal region of Kabylie, among the first
detailed articles ever written by a European Algerian describing the
wretched living conditions of the native population.

After the start of World War II, Camus became editor of Le Soir
républicain
and opposed French entry into the war. The
spectacle of Camus and his mentor Pascal Pia running their left-wing
daily into the ground because they rejected the urgency of fighting
Nazism is one of the most striking but least commented-on periods of
his life. Misunderstanding Nazism at the beginning of the war, he
advocated negotiations with Hitler that would in part reverse the
humiliations of the Treaty of Versailles. His pacifism was in keeping
with a time-honored French tradition, and Camus reported for military
service out of solidarity with those young men, like his brother, who
had become soldiers. Intending to serve loyally and to advocate a
negotiated peace in the barracks, he was angered that his tuberculosis
disqualified him (Lottman, 201–31; Aronson 2004,
25–28).

These biographical facts are relevant to Camus’s philosophical
development after The Myth of Sisyphus. Moving to France and
becoming engaged in the resistance to the German occupation, in two
“Letters to a German Friend” published clandestinely in
1943 and 1944, Camus pondered the question whether violence against
the occupiers was justified. He spoke of the “loathing we
[French] had for all war,” and the need “to find out if we
had the right to kill men, if we were allowed to add to the frightful
misery of this world” (RRD, 8). Despising war, suspicious
of heroism, he claimed that the occupied French paid dearly for this
detour “with prison sentences and executions at dawn, with
desertions and separations, with daily pangs of hunger, with emaciated
children, and above all, with humiliation of our human dignity”
(RRD, 8). Only when we were “at death’s door,” and
“far behind” the Germans, did we understand the reasons
for fighting, so that henceforth we would struggle with a clear
conscience and “clean hands.” Our moral strength was
rooted in the fact that we were fighting for justice and national
survival. The subsequent letters continued to contrast the French with
the Germans on moral grounds drawn directly from Camus’s
philosophy, and suggested the transition from The Myth of
Sisyphus
to The Rebel: if both adversaries began with a
sense of the world’s absurdity, Camus claimed that the French
acknowledged and lived within this awareness, while the Germans sought
to overcome it by dominating the world.

Camus’s anti-Nazi commitment and newspaper experience led to him
succeeding Pia in March 1944 as editor of Combat, the main
underground newspaper of the non-Communist left. However, after the
Liberation the question of violence continued to occupy him both
politically and philosophically. His allegory of the war years, The
Plague
, depicts a nonviolent resistance to an unexplained
pestilence, and in 1945 his was one of the few voices raised in
protest against the American use of nuclear weapons to defeat Japan
(Aronson 2004, 61-63). After the Liberation he opposed the death
penalty for collaborators, turned against Marxism and Communism for
embracing revolution, rejected the looming cold war and its
threatening violence, and then in The Rebel began to spell
out his deeper understanding of violence.

4.1 Absurdity, Rebellion, and Murder

At the beginning of The Rebel, Camus picks up where he left
off in The Myth of Sisyphus. Writing as a philosopher again, he
returns to the terrain of argument by explaining what absurdist
reasoning entails. Its “final conclusion” is “the
repudiation of suicide and the acceptance of the desperate encounter
between human inquiry and the silence of the universe”
(R, 6). Since to conclude otherwise would negate its very
premise, namely the existence of the questioner, absurdism must
logically accept life as the one necessary good. “To say that
life is absurd, consciousness must be alive” (R, 6,
tr. changed). Living and eating “are themselves value
judgments” (Camus 1968, 160). “To breathe is to
judge” (R, 8). As in his criticism of the
existentialists, Camus advocates a single standpoint from which to
argue for objective validity, that of consistency.

At first blush, however, the book’s subject seems to have more
of a historical theme than a philosophical one. “The
purpose of this essay is … to face the reality of the present,
which is logical crime, and to examine meticulously the arguments by
which it is justified; it is an attempt to understand the times in
which we live. One might think that a period which, in a space of
fifty years, uproots, enslaves, or kills seventy million human beings
should be condemned out of hand. But its culpability must still
be understood” (R, 3).

Do such questions represent an entirely new philosophy or are they
continuous with The Myth of Sisyphus?. The issue is not
resolved by the explanations that Camus gives for his shift in the
first pages of The Rebel—by referring to the mass
murders of the middle third of the twentieth century. “The age
of negation,” he says, once fostered a concern for suicide, but
now in “the age of ideologies, we must examine our position in
relation to murder” (R, 4). Have the “ages”
changed in the less than ten years between the two books? He may be
right to say that whether murder has rational foundations is
“the question implicit in the blood and strife of this
century,” but in changing his focus from suicide to murder, it
is also clear that Camus is shifting his philosophical optic from the
individual to our social belonging.

In so doing Camus applies the philosophy of the absurd in new, social
directions, and seeks to answer new, historical questions. But as we
see him setting this up at the beginning of The Rebel the
continuity with a philosophical reading of The Stranger is also
strikingly clear. Novelist Kamel Daoud, retelling The Stranger
from the point of view of the victim, correctly calls the murder of
his Arab “kinsman” a “philosophical crime”
(Daoud, 19). At the beginning of The Rebel Camus explains:

Awareness of the absurd, when we first claim to deduce a rule of
behavior from it, makes murder seem a matter of indifference, to say
the least, and hence possible. … There is no pro or con: the
murderer is neither right nor wrong. We are free to stoke the
crematory fires or to devote ourselves to the care of lepers. Evil and
virtue are mere chance or caprice. (R, 5)

If historically “murder is the problem today” (R,
5), the encounter with absurdity tells us that the same is true
philosophically. Having ruled out suicide, what is there to say about
murder?

Starting from the absence of God, the key theme of Nuptials,
and the inevitability of absurdity, the key theme of The Myth of
Sisyphus
, Camus incorporates both of these into The
Rebel
, but alongside them he now stresses revolt. The act of
rebellion assumes the status of a primary datum of human experience,
like the Cartesian cogito taken by Sartre as his point of departure.
Camus first expressed this directly under the inspiration of his
encounter with Being and Nothingness. But in calling it
“revolt” he takes it in a direction sharply different than
Sartre, who built from the cogito an “essay in phenomenological
ontology.” Ignoring completely the ontological dimension, Camus
is now concerned with immediate issues of human social
experience. Revolt, to be sure, still includes the rebellion against
absurdity that Camus described in The Myth of Sisyphus, and
once again he will speak of rebelling against our own mortality and
the universe’s meaninglessness and incoherence. But The Rebel
begins with the kind of revolt that rejects oppression and slavery,
and protests against the world’s injustice.

It is at first, like The Myth of Sisyphus, a single
individual’s rebellion, but now Camus stresses that revolt
creates values, dignity, and solidarity. “I revolt,
therefore we are” (R, 22) is his paradoxical
statement. But how can an I lead to a we? How
does “we are” follow from “I revolt”? How can
the individual’s experience of absurdity, and the rebellion
against it, stem from, produce, imply, or entail the wider social sense
of injustice and solidarity? The we in fact is the subject of
The Rebel, although the title L’Homme
revolt
é suggests that one’s original
motivation may be individual. Acting against oppression entails
having recourse to social values, and at the same time joining with
others in struggle. On both levels solidarity is our common condition.

In The Rebel Camus takes the further step, which occupies
most of the book, of developing his notion of metaphysical and
historical rebellion in opposition to the concept of revolution.
Applying his philosophical themes directly to politics in the years
immediately after the Liberation of France in 1944, Camus had already
concluded that Marxists, and especially the Communists, were guilty of
evading life’s absurdity by aiming at a wholesale transformation
of society, which must necessarily be violent. And now, in
The Rebel, he describes this as a major trend of modern
history, using similar terms to those he had used in The Myth of
Sisyphus
to describe the religious and philosophical
evasions.

What sort of work is this? In a book so charged with political
meaning, Camus makes no explicitly political arguments or revelations,
and presents little in the way of actual social analysis or concrete
historical study. The Rebel is, rather, a historically framed
philosophical essay about underlying ideas and attitudes of
civilization. David Sprintzen suggests these taken-for-granted
attitudes operate implicitly and in the background of human projects
and very rarely become conscious (Sprintzen 1988, 123).

Camus felt that it was urgent to critically examine these attitudes
in a world in which calculated murder had become common. Applying his
absurdist ideas and insights to politics, in The Rebel Camus
explains what he regards as the modern world’s increasingly
organized and catastrophic refusal to face, accept, and live with
absurdity. The book provides a unique perspective—presenting a
coherent and original structure of premise, mood, description,
philosophy, history, and even prejudice.

4.2 Against Communism

Camus’s hostility to Communism had its personal, political, and
philosophical reasons. These certainly reached back to his expulsion
from the Communist Party in the mid-1930s for refusing to adhere to
its Popular Front strategy of playing down French colonialism in
Algeria in order to win support from the white working class. Then,
making no mention of Marxism, The Myth of Sisyphus is
eloquently silent on its claims to present a coherent understanding of
human history and a meaningful path to the future. His mutually
respectful relations with Communists during the Resistance and the
immediate postwar period turned bitter after he was attacked in the
Communist press and repaid the attack in a series of newspaper
articles in 1946 entitled “Neither Victims nor
Executioners” (Aronson, 2004, 66-93).

In The Rebel Camus insisted that both Communism’s appeal and
its negative features sprang from the same irrepressible human
impulse: faced with absurdity and injustice, humans refuse to accept
their existence and instead seek to remake the world. Validating
revolt as a necessary starting point, Camus criticizes politics aimed
at building a utopian future, affirming once more that life should be
lived in the present and in the sensuous world. He explores the
history of post-religious and nihilistic intellectual and literary
movements; he attacks political violence with his views on limits and
solidarity; and he ends by articulating the metaphysical role of art
as well as a self-limiting radical politics. In place of striving to
transform the world, he speaks
of mésure—“measure”, in the sense of
proportion or balance—and of living in the tension of the human
condition. He labels this outlook “Mediterranean” in an
attempt to anchor his views to the place he grew up and to evoke in
his readers its sense of harmony and appreciation of physical
life. There is no substantive argument for the label, nor is one
possible given his method of simply selecting who and what counts as
representative of the “Mediterranean” view while excluding
others—e.g., some Greek writers, not many Romans. In place of
argument, he paints a concluding vision of Mediterranean harmony that
he hopes will be stirring and lyrical, binding the reader to his
insights.

As a political tract The Rebel asserts that Communism leads
inexorably to murder, and then explains how revolutions arise from
certain ideas and states of spirit. But he makes no close analysis of
movements or events, gives no role to material needs or oppression, and
regards the quest for social justice as a metaphysically inspired
attempt to replace “the reign of grace by the reign of
justice” (R, 56).

Furthermore, Camus insists that these attitudes are built into
Marxism. In “Neither Victims nor Executioners” he declared
himself a socialist but not a Marxist. He rejected the Marxist
acceptance of violent revolution and the consequentialist maxim that
“the end justifies the
means.”[3]
“In the Marxian perspective,” he wrote sweepingly,
“a hundred thousand deaths is a small price to pay for the
happiness of hundreds of millions” (Camus 1991, 130). Marxists
think this, Camus asserted, because they believe that history has a
necessary logic leading to human happiness, and thus they accept
violence to bring it about.

In The Rebel Camus takes this assertion a further step:
Marxism is not primarily about social change but is rather a revolt
that “attempts to annex all creation.” Revolution
emerges when revolt seeks to ignore the limits built into human
life. By an “inevitable logic of nihilism” Communism
climaxes the modern trend to deify man and to transform and unify the
world. Today’s revolutions yield to the blind impulse, originally
described in The Myth of Sisyphus, “to demand order in
the midst of chaos, and unity in the very heart of the ephemeral”
(MS, 10). As does the rebel who becomes a revolutionary who
kills and then justifies murder as legitimate.

According to Camus, the execution of King Louis XVI during the
French Revolution was the decisive step demonstrating the pursuit of
justice without regard to limits. It contradicted the original
life-affirming, self-affirming, and unifying purpose of revolt. This
discussion belongs to Camus’s “history of European
pride,” which is prefaced by certain ideas from the Greeks and
certain aspects of early Christianity, but begins in earnest with the
advent of modernity. Camus focuses on a variety of major figures,
movements, and literary works: the Marquis de Sade, romanticism,
dandyism, The Brothers Karamazov, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche,
surrealism, the Nazis, and above all the Bolsheviks. Camus describes
revolt as increasing its force over time and turning into an ever more
desperate nihilism, overthrowing God and putting man in his place,
wielding power more and more brutally. Historical revolt, rooted in
metaphysical revolt, leads to revolutions seeking to eliminate
absurdity by using murder as their central tool to take total control
over the world. Communism is the contemporary expression of this
Western sickness.

In the twentieth century, Camus claims, murder has become
“reasonable,” “theoretically defensible,” and
justified by doctrine. People have grown accustomed to “logical
crimes”—that is, mass death either planned or foreseen, and
rationally justified. Thus Camus calls “logical crime” the
central issue of the time, seeks to “examine meticulously the
arguments by which it is justified” (R, 3), and sets out to
explore how the twentieth century became a century of slaughter.

We might justly expect an analysis of the arguments he speaks of,
but The Rebel changes focus. Human reason is confused by
“slave camps under the flag of freedom, massacres justified by
philanthropy or by a taste for the superhuman” (R,
4)—the first two refer to Communism, the third to Nazism. In the
body of the text, Nazism virtually drops out (it was, he says, a
system of “irrational terror”—not at all what
interested Camus), sharply narrowing the inquiry. His shift is
revealed by his question: How can murder be committed with
premeditation and be justified by philosophy? It turns out that the
“rational murder” Camus was concerned with is not
committed by capitalists or democrats, colonialists or imperialists,
or by Nazis—but only by Communists.

He does not address the Holocaust, and although his had been a voice
of protest against Hiroshima in 1945, he does not now ask how it
happened. As a journalist he had been one of the few to indict French
colonialism, but he does not mention it, except in a footnote. How was
it possible for Camus to focus solely on the violence of Communism,
given the history he had lived, in the very midst of the French
colonial war in Vietnam, and when he knew that a bitter struggle over
Algeria lay ahead? It seems he became blinded by ideology, separating
Communism from the other evils of the century and directing his animus
there. Camus’s ideas, of course, had developed and matured over the
years since he first began writing about revolt. But something else
had happened: his agenda had changed. Absurdity and revolt, his
original themes, had been harnessed as an alternative to Communism,
which had become the archenemy. The philosophy of revolt became
Cold-War ideology.

Because The Rebel claimed to describe the attitude that lay
behind the evil features of contemporary revolutionary politics, it
became a major political event. Readers could hardly miss his
description of how the impulse for emancipation turned into organized,
rational murder as the rebel-become-revolutionary attempted to order an
absurd universe. In presenting this message, Camus sought not so much
to critique Stalinism as its apologists. His specific targets
were intellectuals attracted to Communism—as he himself had been
in the 1930s.

One of these targets was Jean-Paul Sartre, and toward the end of
The Rebel Camus now took aim at his friend’s evolving
politics. Camus focuses on “the cult of history”
against which the entire book is directed and his belief that
“the existentialists,” led by Sartre, had fallen victim to
the idea that revolt should lead to revolution. Within Camus’s
framework, Sartre is challenged as trying, like the predecessors
criticized in The Myth of Sisyphus, to escape the absurdity
with which his own thinking began by turning to Marxism. This is a bit
of a stretch because Sartre was still several years from declaring
himself a Marxist, and it shows Camus’s tendency towards sweeping
generalization rather than close analysis. But it also reflects his
capacity for interpreting a specific disagreement in the broadest
possible terms—as a fundamental conflict of philosophies.

4.3 Violence: Inevitable and Impossible

The concluding chapters of The Rebel are punctuated with
emphatic words of conclusion (alors, donc, ainsi,
c’est pourquoi), which are rarely followed by
consequences of what comes before and often introduce further
assertions, without any evidence or analysis. They are studded with
carefully composed topic sentences for major ideas—which one
expects to be followed by paragraphs, pages, and chapters of
development but, instead, merely follow one another and wait
until the next equally well-wrought topic sentence.

As often in the book, the reader must be prepared to follow an
abstract dance of concepts, as “rebellion,”
“revolution,” “history,”
“nihilism,” and other substantives stand on their own,
without reference to human agents. The going gets even muddier as we
near the end and the text verges on incoherence. How then is it
possible that Foley judges The Rebel philosophically as
Camus’s “most important book” (Foley, 55)?

In these pages Camus is going back over familiar ground, contrasting
the implicit religiosity of a future-oriented outlook that claims to
understand and promote the logic of history, and justifying violence
to implement it, with his more tentative “philosophy of limits,” with
its sense of risk, “calculated ignorance,” and living in the
present. However the strain stems from the fact that he is doing so
much more. As he tries to bring the book to a conclusion he is
wrestling with its most difficult theme—that the resort to
violence is both inevitable and “impossible.” The rebel lives in
contradiction. He or she cannot abandon the possibility of lying,
injustice, and violence, for they are part of the rebel’s condition,
and will of necessity enter into the struggle against oppression. “He
cannot, therefore, absolutely claim not to kill or lie, without
renouncing his rebellion and accepting, once and for all, evil and
murder.” In other words, to not rebel is to become an accomplice of
oppression. Rebellion, Camus has insisted, will entail murder. Yet
rebellion, “in principle,” is a protest against death, just as it is a
source of the solidarity that binds the human community. He has said
that death is the most fundamental of absurdities, and that at root
rebellion is a protest against absurdity. Thus to kill any other human
being, even an oppressor, is to disrupt our solidarity, in a sense to
contradict our very being. It is impossible, then, to embrace
rebellion while rejecting violence.

There are those, however, who ignore the dilemma: these are the
believers in history, heirs of Hegel and Marx who imagine a time when
inequality and oppression will cease and humans will finally be
happy. For Camus this resembles the paradise beyond this life promised
by religions, and he speaks of living for, and sacrificing humans for,
a supposedly better future as, very simply, another
religion. Moreover, his sharpest hostility is reserved for
intellectuals who theorize and justify such movements. Accepting the
dilemma, Camus is unable to spell out how a successful revolution can
remain committed to the solidaristic and life-affirming principle of
rebellion with which it began. He does however suggest two actions
which, if implemented, would be signs of a revolution’s commitment to
remain rebellious: it would abolish the death penalty and it would
encourage rather than restrict freedom of speech.

In addition, as Foley points out, Camus attempts to think through the
question of political violence on a small-group and individual
level. Both in The Rebel and in his plays Caligula
and The Just Assassins, Camus brings his philosophy to bear
directly on the question of the exceptional conditions under which an
act of political murder can considered legitimate. (1) The target must
be a tyrant; (2) the killing must not involve innocent civilians; (3)
the killer must be in direct physical proximity to the victim; (4) and
there must be no alternative to killing (Foley 93). Furthermore,
because the killer has violated the moral order on which human society
is based, Camus makes the demand that he or she must be prepared to
sacrifice his or her own life in return. But if he accepts killing in
certain circumstances, Camus rules out mass killing, indirect murder,
killing civilians, and killing without an urgent need to remove
murderous and tyrannical individuals. These demands turn on the core
idea of The Rebel, that to rebel is to assert and respect a
moral order, and this must be sustained by the murderer’s willingness
to die.

In The Rebel, a complex and sprawling essay in philosophy,
the history of ideas and literary movements, political philosophy, and
even aesthetics, Camus extends the ideas he asserted in
Nuptials and developed in The Myth of Sisyphus: the
human condition is inherently frustrating, but we betray ourselves and
solicit catastrophe by seeking religious solutions to its limitations.
“The rebel obstinately confronts a world condemned to death and
the impenetrable obscurity of the human condition with his demand for
life and absolute clarity. He is seeking, without knowing it, a
moral philosophy or a religion” (R, 101). Our
alternatives are to accept the fact that we are living in a Godless
universe—or to become a revolutionary, who, like the religious
believer committed to the abstract triumph of justice in the future,
refuses to live in the present.

Having critiqued religion in Nuptials, Camus is
self-consciously exploring the starting points, projects, weaknesses,
illusions, and political temptations of a post-religious universe. He
describes how traditional religion has lost its force, and how younger
generations have been growing up amid an increasing emptiness and a
sense that anything is possible. He further claims that modern
secularism stumbles into a nihilistic state of mind because it does
not really free itself from religion. “Then the only kingdom
that is opposed to the kingdom of grace must be founded—namely,
the kingdom of justice—and the human community must be reunited
among the debris of the fallen City of God. To kill God and to build a
church are the constant and contradictory purpose of rebellion”
(R, 103). Our modern need to create kingdoms and our
continuing search for salvation is the path of catastrophe. This is
the path of the metaphysical rebel, who does not see that “human
insurrection, in its exalted and tragic forms, is only, and can only
be, a prolonged protest against death” (R, 100).

Although it is much more than that, Camus’s work can be seen as a
precursor to postmodernism. The postmodernists never wholly embraced
Camus as their predecessor, no doubt because of his central
metaphysical concern with absurdity and revolt, and his penchant for
sweeping judgments and reductive analyses—which
differentiates The Rebel from far less ambitious and more
descriptive books like Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of
Enlightenment
. But in many ways The Rebel was a model
“genealogy” describing the appearance of intrinsic
contradictions of the modern spirit, and Camus’s vision of
self-limiting revolt is a prescient articulation of a post-Marxist and
postmodern leftist politics.

As Ronald Srigley describes it, Camus’s is a complex and profound
philosophical project, one that is both neglected and
misunderstood—seeking not only to critique modernity but reach
back to the ancient world to lay the basis for alternative ways of
thinking and living. Thus in the twenty-first century Camus remains
relevant for having looked askance at Western civilization since
classical times, at progress, and at the modern world. At the heart of
his analyses lie his ambivalent exploration of what it is like to live
in a Godless universe. “When the throne of God is overturned,
the rebel realizes that it is now his own responsibility to create the
justice, the order, and the unity that he sought in vain within his
own condition, and in this way to justify the fall of God. Then begins
the desperate effort to create, at the price of crime and murder if
necessary, the dominion of man” (R, 25). But to
restrain oneself from this effort is to feel bereft of justice, order,
and unity. Camus recognizes that hope and the revolutionary drive are
essential directions of the post-classical Western spirit, stemming
from its entire world of culture, thought, and feeling.

This leads to one of the most interesting and perplexing aspects of
Camus’s thought: his determination to criticize attitudes that he
finds to be natural and inevitable. The possibility of suicide haunts
humans, as does the fact that we seek an impossible order and an
unachievable permanence. Camus never directly attacks existentialist
writers, but largely confines himself to describing their inability to
remain consistent with their initial insight. Similarly, he is clear
throughout The Rebel that the metaphysical need that leads to
Communism’s terror and Gulag is universal: he describes it and its
consequences so that we can better resist it in ourselves as well as
others. His reflexive anti-Communism notwithstanding, an underlying
sympathy unites Camus to those revolutionaries he opposes, because he
freely acknowledges that he and they share the same starting points,
outlook, stresses, temptations, and pitfalls. Although in political
argument he frequently took refuge in a tone of moral superiority,
Camus makes clear through his skepticism that those he disagrees with
are no less and no more than fellow creatures who give in to the same
fundamental drive to escape the absurdity that we all share.

This sense of moral complexity is most eloquent in his short novel
The Fall, whose single character, Clamence, has been variously
identified as everyman, a Camus-character, and a
Sartre-character. He was all of these. Clamence is clearly
evil, guilty of standing by as a young woman commits suicide. In
him Camus seeks to describe and indict his generation, including both
his enemies and himself. Clamence’s life is filled with good
works, but he is a hypocrite and knows it. His monologue is filled with
self-justification as well as the confession of someone torn apart by
his guilt but unable to fully acknowledge it. Sitting at a bar in
Amsterdam, he descends into his own personal hell, inviting the reader
to follow him. In telling Clamence’s story, Camus was clearly
seeking to empathize as well as describe, to understand as well as
condemn. Clamence is a monster, but Clamence is also just another human
being (Aronson 2004, 192-200).

Camus won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, after The
Fall
was published. The story, a literary masterpiece,
demonstrates a unique capacity at the heart of his philosophical
writing. Life is no one single, simple thing, but a series of tensions
and dilemmas. The most seemingly straightforward features of life are
in fact ambiguous and even contradictory. Camus recommends that we
avoid trying to resolve them. We need to face the fact that we can
never successfully purge ourselves of the impulses that threaten to
wreak havoc with our lives. Camus’s philosophy, if it has a single
message, is that we should learn to tolerate, indeed embrace the
frustration and ambivalence that humans cannot escape.

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