Camus On Rebellion And The Master-Slave Dialectic Of Life
Between the definitions of Camus’s rebellion and Hegel’s master-slave dialectic is a strong argument for the authentic life.
You could say that rebellion is a feature of humanity. It’s a desire to say “no” to prevailing conditions, to stand up to reality, to face certain circumstances and to want to change them. Rebellion, in this sense, can be expressed in different arenas, from the personal and the subjective to the social and the historical.
In the history of thought, one of the authors who best explored, both in theory and in practice, the implications of being a rebel, was Albert Camus. The existentialist philosopher, dedicated a book to the subject and was generally interested (in his intellectual career and in his life) in the conditions that make movements of revolt possible, within what are by the same token, impulses at one with human existence.
In L’Homme révolté (1951, published in English as The Rebel), Camus defines revolt from a perspective that greatly recalls Hegel’s “master-slave dialectic” elaborated in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). Hegel argued that history is a constant struggle between a master who seeks to impose his conditions on reality, and a slave who at some point becomes aware of his bondage, renounces the conditions imposed by the master and fights to create his own. Similarly, Camus wrote:
What is a rebel? A man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. He is also a man who says yes, from the moment he makes his first gesture of rebellion. A slave who has taken orders all his life suddenly decides that he cannot obey some new command. […]
He means, for example, that “this has been going on too long,” “up to this point yes, beyond it no,” “you are going too far,” or, again, “there is a limit beyond which you shall not go.” In other words, his no affirms the existence of a borderline. The same concept is to be found in the rebel’s feeling that the other person “is exaggerating,” that he is exerting his authority beyond a limit where he begins to infringe on the rights of others. Thus the movement of rebellion is founded simultaneously on the categorical rejection of an intrusion that is considered intolerable and on the confused conviction of an absolute right which, in the rebel’s mind, is more precisely the impression that he “has the right to . . .” Rebellion cannot exist without the feeling that, somewhere and somehow, one is right.
In this couple of paragraphs, a clear similarity is apparent between the two perspectives. Since the beginning of this text we’ve held that, in essence, rebellion can be understood as saying “no.” But it’s also interesting to note that this is accompanied by a “yes.” While they say “no” to one thing, we say “yes” to something else which may not be clearly in sight but in which we place deep confidence. From a Hegelian perspective, we can say that the slave, though he doesn’t know well what he’ll find, will resist the master’s domination, brave the risk and the uncertainty, and this is largely because he has lost the fear of death that has, until now, kept him subdued.
We’re all masters and slaves, and sometimes we can even hold both categories in different parts of our lives. We can be the masters of our desire but slaves to our ghosts. Perhaps the most truly desirable though nearly utopian ideal would be to belong to neither one nor the other, not imposing our world view onto others but also not living blinded by the domination of someone else.
After all, the true end of rebellion (its objective and also its conclusion) will be in reaching a state of total freedom where rebelliousness itself is no longer necessary.
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