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

This post follows the previous two entries (part 1, part 2) exploring the human desire for meaning and its natural flow into Camus’ notion of rebellion.

Rebellion emerges from the rebel’s growing awareness and sensitivity to forms of injustice, slavery, or rational murder. To do nothing is to acquiesce to this state of affairs, or to be an implicit accomplice. There is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ or ‘innocent’ bystander. By recognizing a limit that has been crossed, the rebel defends a value that they believe must be upheld.

We discussed in the previous posts how historical acts of rebellion and revolution have fought to displace corrupt governments, regimes, or ideological systems of belief based on absolute sources of meaning or value. We saw some of the problems with such absolute systems, including the fact that they tend not to be treated as guides, but are instead regarded as objective goals. This means that ‘progress’ is not measured by the degree of adherence to the initial value one sought to defend, but by the degree that one realizes the absolute system that claims to protect this value absolutely and for all of time. In this way, the path toward the utopian end goal can be rationally justified through almost any means, but in doing so, one undermines the values they claimed to uphold – including freedom and justice. It has often been argued, for example, that justice and freedom can be temporarily suspended for segments of today’s society, since doing so brings the promise of a utopian future of tomorrow where freedom and justice will belong to everyone. But the future, and those who will populate it, is based on a faith, a hope, or a wishful dream. Meanwhile the people of flesh and blood are allowed to suffer.

“He who loves his friend loves him in the present, but the revolution wants to love only a man who has not yet appeared” (Camus, Rebel, p. 239).

The incipient rebel senses the hypocrisy of this situation and seeks to end it. But the problem with historical rebellion is cyclical. It again rationally justifies its own means, including murder and injustice, to achieve the end to the prevailing regime or ideological system (thus undermining the values it sought to defend), and upon displacing the dysfunctional system, it effectively replaces it with a new one, based again on some absolute system of ideas claiming to ‘finally’ bring unity, justice, and freedom into the human fold. But absolute systems of meaning, value, or purpose are prone to the issues already discussed. And again, the end result, along with the justification of the means that bring it into fruition… is only attainable in the elusive future – it is therefore a moving target, and an illusion. It is incapable of justifying anything.

“… if the revolution is the only positive value, it has a right to claim everything – even the denunciation and therefore the sacrifice of the friend. Henceforth, violence will be directed against one and all, in the service of an abstract idea. … the revolution was more important than the people it wanted to save…” (Camus, Rebel, p. 162)

Camus argues that the only way out of this dilemma is to avoid buying into absolute sources of meaning or value, while resisting the temptation toward absolute resolution to the question of human freedom or justice. As stated by Jean Grenier: “Absolute freedom is the destruction of all value; absolute value supresses all freedom.” Thus, authentic rebellion is only capable of being sustained by never losing sight of the value that initially justified its movement. Authentic forms of rebellion, like authentic sources of meaning, can only be ‘relative.’ We must not allow them to become absolutes – they can be a guide, but never a goal.

“… if he is a rebel, he ends by taking sides against the revolution. So much so that there is absolutely no progress from one attitude to the other, but coexistence and endlessly increasing contradiction. Every revolutionary ends by becoming either an oppressor or a heretic. In the purely historical universe that they have chosen, rebellion and revolution end in the same dilemma: either police rule or insanity” (Camus, Rebel, p. 249).

The slave must not seek to become the master by forgetting the limit they acknowledged; to do otherwise means to undermine the values they intended to defend and uphold. The true rebel protects the value in question, and the limit it implies, not only for him/herself, but for all humankind. The rebel is neither a slave nor master, but one who protests on behalf of a unified humanity, against the dialectic of both slave and master.

“The rebel undoubtedly demands a certain degree of freedom for himself; but in no case, if he is consistent, does he demand the right to destroy the existence and the freedom of others. He humiliates no one. The freedom he claims, he claims for all; the freedom he refuses, he forbids everyone to enjoy” (Camus, Rebel, p. 284).

The above quote beautifully illustrates my personal frustration with many modern day atheists. They rightfully rebel in ways to defend their own freedoms: to think and say what they wish without fear of oppression, judgment, or pressure to conform. But many in their protest seek to taunt, ridicule, and humiliate religious believers. I suspect that many would also secretly wish to wipe religion from the face of the earth – sincerely believing that it would solve many of the world’s problems. Countless modern day atheists believe so strongly in their cause that they seem desperate to convince their opponents of the veracity of their views, which are regarded as infallible and unshakable – and so they challenge those who do not agree with their views at every turn. But when anyone believes anything so strongly, it will inevitably lead to the rational justification of oppression, suspension of personal freedoms, and perhaps even murder. Camus chooses an apt quote from Palante: “If there is a single and universal truth, freedom has no reason for existing.” Atheism is rational, but even reason must note its limits… there is something in the tactics of the new atheists that make me, and many others, uncomfortable.

Rebellious Action: Necessity versus Justification

All of this talk about values and limits leads to an important question: must one always be consistent with the values one seeks to defend? Would that not in many cases cause us to become paralyzed to act – preventing us from being able to take necessary actions to protect the rights of ourselves or others? Camus argues that while actions inconsistent with our values may in rare cases become ‘necessary’ if we are to uphold that value, they ought not to be justified. Camus explores this curious idea in a very insightful and moving discussion of some of the key players sparking the Russian revolution in the early part of the 20th Century. Established in 1902, the Socialist Revolutionary Party was a rebellious effort to end the tyrannical and corrupt Russian government of that era. Some of its members planned and carried out government assassinations and acts of terrorism. They rebelled against a murderous government by allowing themselves to commit murder. Is this not contradictory? Did they not undermine the values that they sought to defend? What is important here, and what appears to have separated them from modern day anarchists, terrorists, and in many cases entire governments, is that they never attempted to defend or rationally justify their actions. They regarded their actions as necessary, but nonetheless wrong and never justifiable; no justification or rationalization could remove their guilt. This is why many were more than willing to walk to the gallows after committing their deeds. The moment they decided to act, they accepted that they would eventually pay for their deeds with their own lives. Blood must be paid for in blood.

“… they were incapable of justifying what they nevertheless found necessary, and conceived the idea of offering themselves as a justification and of replying by personal sacrifice to the question they asked themselves. … murder is identified with suicide … A life is paid for by another life, and from these two sacrifices springs the promise of a value.” (Camus, Rebel, p. 169).

Unlike modern-day terrorists, these Russian assassins did not rejoice in the success of their deeds – they were instead solemn and resolute in what needed to be done for the sake of upholding a value. And unlike modern-day martyrs, they did not find comfort in some illusionary afterlife full of joyful reward. “Martyrs do not build Churches; they are the mortar, or the alibi. Then come the priests and bigots” (Camus, Rebel, p. 172). Most of these men and women were atheists; they had no illusion about the finality of their acts. But even more impressive is that they were not looking to resurrect an absolute ideological system of their own. So unlike the Nazis or Communists, who could commit murder and even accept their own death believing that they took part in the near holy act of contributing to a utopian future of either a Thousand-Year Reich or a ‘classless society,’ many of these Russian assassins had nothing to rely on but the relative values of freedom and justice, which for them, were universal rights. For these reasons, Camus seems to regard them as an exemplary model, if only in how they were most consistent with the values that motivated them.

“The rebel has only one way of reconciling himself with his act of murder if he allows himself to be led into performing it: to accept his own death and sacrifice. He kills and dies so that it shall be clear that murder is impossible” (Camus, Rebel, p. 282).

There will be situations that call for actions (or inactions) that have the effect of causing death and destruction. However, we must recognize our guilt, and not seek to justify such acts, or else we undermine the value we sought to uphold. The US use of the atomic bomb is a case in point: if such use was indeed necessary (and that is open for debate), it ought not to have been justified – meaning that the US government was indeed guilty of mass murder. However, the government did not accept its guilt – it tried to rationally justify its actions, and in doing so, undermined the values (human life, justice, and freedom) that it sought to defend… committing itself instead to an idea or doctrine – namely, Capitalism and the North American way of life.

Concluding Comments

Readers of this blog will be aware of Camus’ influence on my way of thinking about the world. I wanted to create these foundational posts as an introduction to that way of thinking. So how do we summarize these ideas? First, we must understand that the world is devoid of absolute meaning. If we are to remain lucidly aware of our human condition, we must always ‘remember’ that, while recognizing the never-ending temptation toward mental distractions that psychologically deaden us, or by subscribing to absolute systems of meaning that provide a comfortable ‘false structure’ for living. The only meaning we have is the relative kind – and we must learn how to live with that and tolerate the anxiety it brings. Secondly, we must recognize that we are all in the same metaphysical boat, and in keeping the absurd condition intact, we must value the relative rights and freedoms of other conscious creatures. Thirdly, we must recognize that the values that we create through our connection with other human beings – such as freedom and justice, are likewise relative. We cannot have absolute freedom or justice without negating the other term. And while there are times when we must uncomfortably defend a shared human value, we must not undermine it through our choice of action, and when we do, we must accept our guilt, and not try to justify it, or else we undermine those values yet again. The take home message: whatever your worldview, try not to treat it as an absolute. ‘Entertain’ the possibility that you could be wrong, and do not force your ideas on others. If you are in a position of strength, defend those who are weaker. And what freedoms you want for yourself, ensure you are willing to defend them for us all.

4 Responses to “In Search of Meaning (Part 3/3): Relative Rebellion”

  1. Alicia Says:

    This is a beautifully written article. I liked the summary at the end of the article. I share your problem about the modern day atheists or “militant atheists” who walk in “blind faith” in their atheism. While it does make sense to adopt atheism, they think it is an absolute. Absolutes do not work in this system of absurdity.

    Brad Reply:

    Thanks for your comments Alicia. Just to clarify a couple things here… The atheists I describe would not consider their position as one based on ‘blind faith’ – it infuriates them to be characterized that way. They would insist that their position is one based on ‘reason,’ and would argue that we could overcome many of the world’s problems if we were all more reasonable and did not base so many of our decisions and actions on faith, belief, or comfortable ignorance. To this point I would agree, and I do not see a problem with this approach if it is used as a general ‘guide’ or point of departure. However the problem arises when they treat their views as doctrine. ‘Truth’ or ‘reasoning’ becomes the end goal. It is treated as an absolute, and so they can justify the means by which they seek to attain it; the indoctrination of others into their worldview becomes more important than maintaining respect for others or acknowledging the freedom for others to hold dissimilar views without treating them as inferior beings. This is how they can comfortably provoke, ridicule, and humiliate those who do not readily accept their unshakable ‘truths’ (e.g. about evolution or the non-existence of God). But the worship of a religious God is simply replaced by a worship of doctrine. Camus would argue, and I think I would agree, that reason and truth must also note their limits. They must be willing to bow down the moment they begin to infringe on the rights, freedoms, and dignity, of the other person. Otherwise, we become absolute defenders of doctrine. In our actions and attitudes, we will end up undermining the very rights and freedoms that were supposed to be saved by Truth and Reason. In short, the doctrine becomes more important than the human values it was supposed to defend.

    Alicia Reply:

    Thanks for replying. I think that’s what I meant when I wrote it, but I was very exhausted when I wrote the comment, so I did not make a lot of sense. Also, thanks for clarifying.

  2. Hakim Says:

    Good series, Brad! I especially agree with your take home message, that we must always entertain the possibility that we could be wrong, however strongly we believe in something. In other words, to have a healthy dose of scepticism.