In his book, 'The Rebel', Albert Camus asserts the above mentioned sentence. Can you explain this quote in the best way possible, since it somehow seems to summarize the whole book, or rather, his whole philosophy? Furthermore, what does rebellion mean to you?
Mauro has said it nicely. I would like to add, that according to existentialism (eg Sartre), the person is confronted with her freedom. The person can only act, and can act freely in that. This is existence in the final analysis.
Rebellion is an act of freedom par excellence. Leaving aside for a moment socio-historical reasons that might make such an act even mandatory, it is however an assertion that makes the whole community conscious of it, even if only one person does it. (Compare: "None of us is free, if even one is chained").
Camus sees in the act of rebellion a way that values can originate in an absurd world. When the slave rebels against the master, the slave, in a sense, rebels in the name of all slaves. The slave draws a line that should not be crossed further not only by his master but by any master against his slaves. This act with far-reaching consequences sets a limit and a value in the absurd world and at the same time destructs both absolute negation ("nothing can be done") and absolute affirmation ("everything can be done") which Camus sees as amounting to the same thing, ie lack of freedom. This has similarities to Sartre's "we are condemned to be free" in the sense that Sartre as well denies both absolute negation ("we are free") and absolute affirmation ("we cannot become unfree").
Absolute Negation and Absolute Affirmation
To truly understand what Camus means by rebellion it is important to understand what it is not. In The Rebel, Camus spends quite a bit of time explaining the philosophy of the Marquis de Sade and Friedrich Nietzsche so he can explain why his rebellion does not take either of these forms. Remember that Camus is rebelling against the absurd; against the ridiculous predicament that humanity is stuck within, the very problem of the human condition. Sade responds to this position through what Camus calls absolute negation.
Although Sade is not a philosopher in the usual sense of the word, Camus writes that Sade is admired for his literature and the structure for his arguments can only be found in his feelings. This statement about Sade is somewhat ironic since these same criticisms have been brought against Camus by many in the philosophy community. Anyway, Sade’s answer to absurdity is absolute negation because he is not only against the world but he is also against even himself. Sade finds himself in a world where there is no meaning or purpose and the only thing that has any sense of meaning is the “law of force”. This idea seems to parallel Nietzsche’s will to power but there is one difference that makes Sade the proponent of absolute negation and that is his hatred not just for nature but for himself as well. If it was up to Sade he would destroy the whole universe, himself included. Sade himself says that he hates nature and everything it has created and this total negation of everything results in what Camus calls “collective suicide”.
How would Sade approach the rebellious slave presented as an earlier example of rebellion? Sade sees that there is no possible way at all to say that what the slave owner does is wrong and that there is nothing inherently meaningful about the rebellion of the slave. They are both trying to act in a powerful way, to assert their power to do their will. The slave wants to destroy the master because he hates the way he is treated or because he hates slavery and the master despises the slave. Each of these characters would kill the other and in this fight for power, as there is no external meaning to say which is acting properly. Remember that the only rule is the law of power so murder can be avenged with murder. The master cannot claim that slavery is wrong if he is suddenly made the slave. Camus notes how Sade’s starting point of absolute negation seems to have evolved into a kind of absolute affirmation because there is now nothing that is forbidden, everything seems to be permitted now.
The discussion of absolute negation has brought us to absolute affirmation where everything is permitted. We know where Camus stands on this subject because of his stance on suicide and negation. Nietzsche comes along after Sade and with his relentless attack on Christianity explains why absolute affirmation is untenable. Nietzsche was a vehement atheist but one who was deeply concerned by the non-existence of God. Nietzsche agreed with Sade that without God there could be no basis for moral conduct, but Nietzsche thought that in a world where nothing could be forbidden, nothing could be authorized as well. This is a strong argument against Sade’s position that is easy to understand with many examples throughout society. Laws that explain to society what is not allowed thereby explain the kind of behavior that is acceptable. If the speed limit is 75 miles per hour then obviously driving your vehicle at a speed up to and including 75 miles per hour is acceptable. Camus says that Nietzsche’s point is to show that freedom can only exist when prohibited acts are defined along with permissible acts.
It is in Christianity, with its negation of this world for the hope of a future better world that Nietzsche finds his example of why absolute affirmation is untenable. The slave or the Christian, who go along with everything and does not resist but turns the other cheek, is accepting their own suffering. Nietzsche believes this shows that the slave and the master, both of whom consent to slavery or suffering, create an environment of the “glorification of murder”.
The reason Camus dislikes Nietzsche’s response is that Nietzsche dismisses anyone that refuses to accept the world exactly as it is. It is well-known that Nietzsche liked the idea of fate, what Nietzsche called amor fati. One major question that arises about the love of fate is how people cannot be complicit in evil if they are to accept everything that happens in the present. This idea greatly undermines Camus's idea of rebellion against behavior that crosses the line for an individual or a group of people such as in the case of slavery or societal protests against police brutality. The discussion thus far shows that an enormous part of the debate and dialogue about where to go from the starting point of the absurd position is about the question of values.
Rebellion Does Not Require Human Essence
Camus never uses the words “human essence” in The Rebel, but many scholars have suggested that Camus wanted to establish a kind of human essence to prove the truth of his ethic of rebellion. It is hard to deny that Camus makes a claim for a common human nature in response to the absurd but that human essence, if it can be called such, is not necessary for Camus's ethic of rebellion to work. Essence means the very basic nature of something; essence is what makes something the entity that it is (Merriam-Webster). It is hard to even call rationality an aspect of human essence because there are examples of humans without the ability to reason such as the mentally handicapped or those in comas.
If we cannot even use rationality as a human essence then how could it possibly be said that the experience of the absurd is an aspect of human essence? The Rebel may have put Camus at odds with his friend Sartre but it looks as if Camus can be right that rebellion is a successful way of establishing a code of conduct and that Sartre is also right that existence for humanity does precede essence. One thing is for sure, no label can be fit onto Camus because he only writes so others find their own reasons for living, and there is not much else that can be considered more existentialist. In the end it does not matter whether Camus was an existentialist but this exploration of Camus's metaphysical rebellion brings up good reasons to consider him an existentialist, even if it was a label that he personally disliked.
Without claiming insight into Camus's thinking, we can examine such a statement with logic.
"I rebel" can be taken to mean that there are people - as opposed to merely situations or environments - against whom to rebel.
Rebellion in such a context implies there is more than the mere "I". There is a "we".
In other words, the act of rebellion can be seen to necessitate the existence of more than one person; hence "I rebel" = "we exist".
Or: If there are not others, I cannot rebel, for there is no-one against whom to rebel.