In Search of Meaning (Part 2/3): Rebellion

The unanswered question of human meaning gnaws at the collective unconsciousness like an open wound begging to be stitched. Lucid reasoning led us to the full scope of this dilemma – but it must also note its limits: it cannot reconcile the irreconcilable and one must not ‘forget’ what it has uncovered – human absurdity.

This is our uncomfortable burden… though the history of humankind consistently shows that it is largely incapable of carrying it. From a very broad analysis, our shared human history can be understood as a series of futile attempts to find relief from the problem through creation of a utopian ideal; a permanent and unshakable structure of value and meaning that might justify our existence and direct purposeful action. In light of the absurd, they can offer little more than ‘relative’ sources of meaning, but the human mind craves absolutes, and this is how they are treated, which leads to a path of justification for both suicide (as discussed in earlier posts) and even murder. What is worth living for is equally worth dying for and perhaps even worth killing for. Thus, the Holy Crusades of the Middle Ages brought death and destruction in the name of God, the atrocities of the Nazis were committed in the name of a utopian future populated by the Aryan Race, and the US Government justifies torture and numerous violations of human rights in the name of Homeland Security, protecting American Capitalism, and more generally, the ‘American way of life.’

According to Camus, the rise and fall of these ideological systems over time and throughout history can be understood in the broadest sense through their being punctuated and overthrown by movements of rebellion.

Metaphysical Rebellion

As discussed in the previous post, we rebel against our absurd human condition by asserting or defending a human value – perhaps the least questionable under scrutiny of the absurd, is the value of human life, since it is our confrontation with the world as conscious human beings that gives rise to the absurd dilemma, which we must keep intact if we are to remain logically coherent and faithful to its underlying premises. But where does this impulse to rebel originate from?

Camus compares the act of human rebellion to the dynamic between the master and slave: The master has historically dominated over the slave by use of political power or physical force. The slave is forcibly bent to the will of the master – against his own. But an impulse to rebel grows, not through an increase in physical strength or wish to dominate, but by his growing sense of injustice, inequality, and his right to relative freedom. This rebellious movement implies a growing awareness of himself as a conscious creature deserving of relative freedom and dignity; he is thus defending what he knows himself to be. To do otherwise would be to acquiesce to living not as a human, but as an animal (existing without demand for higher values and where the sole purpose is physical survival). In short, the impulse that moves the slave toward rebellion is guided by an ethic or value that in his or her mind must be upheld at any cost.

“Having up to now been willing to compromise, the slave suddenly adopts … an attitude of All or Nothing. … he is willing to accept the final defeat, which is death, rather than be deprived of the personal sacrament that he would call, for example, freedom. Better to die on one’s feet than to live on one’s knees. … If the individual, in fact accepts death and happens to die as a consequence of his act of rebellion, he demonstrates by doing so that he is willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of a common good … he considers these rights more important than himself (Camus, p. 15).”

Camus provides a few examples of metaphysical rebellion, including Dostoevsky’s fictional character of Ivan Karamazov, who rebels against God in the name of injustice. A conversation in his novel revolves around the discussion of how an all-powerful God can allow for the suffering of children – to which the Church typically responds: It is part of God’s larger plan, which we cannot possibly understand, and so we must submit to the mystery and to the Lord’s Truth. It is in this context that Ivan exclaims: “If the suffering of children, serves to complete the sum of suffering necessary for the acquisition of truth, I affirm from now onward that truth is not worth such a price (Dostoevsky, p. 245).” Leaving no room for doubt, Ivan further affirms that he would persist in his indignation even if he was wrong. In short, Ivan would not accept that truth should be paid for by injustice and the death of innocents and would sooner accept eternal damnation than condone such injustice. Modern atheists who quote Dostoevsky fail to understand the implication of this very crucial point – though I would suggest they could learn a lot from it. If the emotional force of the atheist movement originated out of a sense of profound injustice, inequality, and the demand for human dignity and free speech regardless of religious or non-religious belief, the New Atheist has seemingly forgotten it, along with the limit this movement once defended and the values it implied. In short, the New Atheists arguably undermine the same values the rebellious atheist movement initially sought to defend. They could never entertain the notion of ‘rejecting truth’ in the name of anything, since they themselves kneel at its scientistic altar – they seek to supplant the church of Christ only to replace it with the absolute worship of science (or more likely, scientism). Rather than acknowledge a shared right to human dignity and freedom of speech, many of these modern day scientific crusaders take pleasure in humiliating their religious opponents while trying to shove their own scientific Truth down their throats. Camus would assuredly say that at this point the movement loses all rights to legitimate rebellion, as it has instead become a slavish ideology.

“The rebel … limits himself, as a matter of principle, to refusing to be humiliated without asking that others should be (Camus, p. 18).”

Rebellious Unity

The true rebel thus asserts that the value they defend is owed, not only to herself, but to all humankind. She fights in defense of not just herself, but for all of humanity.

“When he rebels, a man identifies himself with other men and so surpasses himself, and from this point of view human solidarity is metaphysical (Rebel, p. 17). … 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, p. 22).”

To individually resist and overthrow another individual by physical means is not rebellion but the solitary will-to-power or the desire for domination. In a sense, it is driven by nihilism, since in its despair of transcendental values it reduces the human creature to a savage animal whose only recourse is to dominate or submit in the name of physical survival. But when we acknowledge and act in the name of a value larger than ourselves, we metaphysically join forces with the rest of humanity and simultaneously acknowledge ourselves as creatures of dignity. Rising from their existential isolation, individual human beings find recognition in the values of the unified collective.

“[N]ote that the basis of these values is rebellion itself. Man’s solidarity is founded upon rebellion, and rebellion, in its turn, can only find justification in solidarity. We have then, the right to say that any rebellion which claims the right to deny or destroy this solidarity loses simultaneously its right to be called rebellion and becomes in reality an acquiescence in murder. In the same way, this solidarity, except in so far as religion is concerned, comes to life only on the level of rebellion. … In order to exist, man must rebel, but rebellion must respect the limit it discovers in itself – a limit where minds meet and, in meeting, begin to exist. Rebellious thought, therefore, cannot dispense with memory: it is a perpetual state of tension. In studying its actions and its results, we shall have to say, each time, whether it remains faithful to its first noble promise or, through indolence or folly, it forgets its original purpose and plunges into a mire of tyranny or servitude (Camus, p. 22).

Historical Rebellion and Deification of Progress

Just as a mind conscious of the absurd will quickly seek to unburden itself by ‘forgetting’ its origins and by subscribing to an absolute (versus relative) system of meaning, the history of human rebellion has a likewise tendency toward ‘forgetting’ the relative values that initiated its movement, in search of a less weighty ‘absolute’ that can proscribe a clear course of action. As he overthrows his imprisoners, the slave forgets the limit that he had previously acknowledged and undermines the values that he sought to defend – he misplaces the value that had justified his rebellion through his connection to all of humankind. “The slave begins by demanding justice and ends by wanting to wear a crown (Camus, p. 25).”

Camus explores this process using various examples, including that of the French Revolution at the end of the 18th Century. Until then, people lived according to an ecclesiastical and monarchical society where God was believed to have granted divine power to Kings who would rule over the populace with impunity; countless thousands could starve while the King sat at a comfortable table with a full belly. Enlightenment values and a growing sense of inequality and injustice motivated a rebellion led by Robespierre and the Jacobins to overthrow the monarchy and severely limit the power of the church and religious authority. In its place, they would attempt to establish a society based on equality, citizenship, and human rights – this ‘new society’ was the envisioned goal and it would be erected at any cost. After sentencing King Luis XVI to the guillotine, Robespierre and the Jacobins operated an effectual Dictatorship and embarked on a Reign of Terror that executed anyone suspected of conspiring against this perfect society they were trying to build. In the first two years of seizing power, between 16,000 and 40,000 people were executed based on little more than rumor or circumstantial evidence. Murder was justified by the envisioned end of an unshakable French society of the future, based on absolute values of human worth, dignity, and equality, which could only be attained, it was argued, by temporarily suspending individual ‘freedom’ and ‘justice.’ When this new government was finally in place, it would all have been worth it (or so that is how the argument went). The God appointed King was thus overthrown, but a new church – one of dogmatic ideology – had been erected in its place. The terror eventually ended, somewhat ironically, with Robespierre’s death – and the rest is history.

“When the throne of God is overturned, the rebel realizes that it is now his own responsibility to create justice, order, and 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 (Rebel, p. 25)”

The source of rebellion begins in the awareness of injustice and a desired movement toward equality, but it often ends by stating those values in a purportedly unshakable ideological or socio-political structure, which in turn is used to justify his/her own unjust actions; the system is treated as an absolute – the act of rebellion forgets its limits while undermining the values it sought to uphold. The cycle arguably continues in a way that broadly predicts the rise and fall of meaning-systems, cultures, and entire civilizations. John Foley (2008) neatly summarizes the problem: “Having turned from God and the Church, accusing it of denying man what was rightfully his, the revolutionary, in turn, creates his own church, complete with his own set of dogmas or absolute truths, idolizing either history or a future vision of man himself (p. 58).”

“… these consequences are in no way due to rebellion itself, or at least they only occur to the extent that the rebel forgets his original purpose, tires of the tremendous tension created by refusing to give a positive or negative answer, and finally abandons himself to complete negation or total submission (Rebel, p. 25).”

A lucid mind that is conscious of the absurd, resists being tempted by absolute sources of meaning, just as they resist rebellious temptation in the name of absolute freedom or justice. Freedom and justice are intertwined. Absolute freedom is impossible, since its further reaches will naturally impinge on the freedom of others and undermine the value of justice. Absolute justice is also problematic as it impinges on individual and collective rights and freedoms and in some cases even human life. Camus was therefore skeptical about formalized ethics, claiming that “morality, when it is formal, devours.” A utilitarian approach, for example, seeks to rationally justify what may involve otherwise immoral actions as they relate to higher values or principles. The US Government can therefore drop atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with little moral turmoil, based on the rationalization that those actions saved many lives that would have otherwise been lost through a long and protracted war. Camus has argued that such actions cannot be justified through utilitarian reasoning. This does not necessarily mean that in such difficult circumstances another action is always possible – only that it should not be justified by reason. I will say more about this curious dilemma in the final post.

One of the most important parts of the Rebel involves Camus’ critique of ideological systems and rebellious or revolutionary movements based on the notion of ‘history’ or ‘progress.’ The idea, for example, that freedom and justice can be suspended in the name of an absolute ideological system that in the future would see an end to all injustice, inequality, and human evil. The problem is that the ideological system is not used as a relative guide, but rather an absolute goal, where success is measured in terms of the perceived progress toward that goal. Once in place, the rationality of the goal itself is seldom questioned. In addition, the goal that supposedly justifies a course of action is not something typically realized within a matter of months and years, or even an entire lifetime – it is one that is promised in some distant future and is therefore a moving target. Thus, the Russian communists could justify their crimes as a necessary step in a series of historically defined successes – the progress of which could only be realized at some future point in history through finally achieving a virtuous and classless society. Camus thus critiqued the communists (and the philosopher Hegel) for what he called the ‘deification of History.’ In modern times we fall slave to the same error… following prescriptions for cultural success and progress as defined by scientific realism, technological advancement, and the materialistic and consumer-driven assumptions of our Capitalist society. These assumptions are seldom guides, but unquestionable goals that are often sought as ends in themselves; we never stop to question what we are ‘progressing’ toward. Thus it can be argued that we are, and likely will continue to be, a highly religious society – though the new religion is one of ideology. John Foley (2008) cited a wonderful quote from Nietzsche, where he critiques Hegel and this notion of historical progress or success:

“Hegel has implanted in a generation that he has thoroughly penetrated the worship of the ‘power of history’ that turns every moment into a sheer gaping at success, into an idolatry of the actual… If each success is comprised by a ‘rational necessity,’ and every event is the victory of logic or the ‘idea,’ then – down on your knees quickly, and let every step in the ladder of ‘successes’ be revered! What? There are no more ruling mythologies? What? Religions are becoming extinct? Look at the religion of the power of history, and the priests of the mythology of Ideas with their scarred knees! (p. 64).”

Camus likewise points out the illogicality of making a definitive goal out of such an elusive target: “To base divinity on history is paradoxically, to base an absolute value on approximate knowledge. Something ‘eternally historic’ is a contradiction in terms (Camus, p. 145).” Note that we could just as easily substitute the word ‘history’ with ‘science,’ since it is also based on an evolving approximation of accumulated human knowledge. Similar to as previously discussed, the ‘scientific method’ ceases to be a guide and instead becomes an ideological goal. We ignore the limitations of science and fail to appreciate its historical context, which leads to the almost laughable situation where modern individuals aspire to live ‘scientifically,’ or where people try to make value judgments based on a presumably absolute science (e.g. as Sam Harris does in trying to define morality in accordance with ‘science’).

I will summarize this post by pointing out what should by now be obvious: we cannot justify our actions (or inactions) by rationalizing them in accordance with some unquestioned ideological system of belief or absolute value. Those who attempt to do so will likely undermine the same values that initiated their will to act, which will in turn lead to injustice, and perhaps even murder. I will offer some closing comments in the final post.

Continue to In Search of Meaning (Part 3/3): Relative Rebellion


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