“Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
“You say you want a revolution,” the Beatles sang in 1968 as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was erecting the pillars of nonviolence on the other side of the Atlantic, “Well, you know / We all want to change the world… But when you talk about destruction / Don’t you know that you can count me out… If you want money for people with minds that hate / All I can tell you is brother you have to wait.”
Perhaps such is the curse of our species: Only in violent times do we remember, in our bones and our sinews, that hate is not a weapon of rebellion but of cowardice; that no true revolution is achieved through destruction and nihilism; that the only way to change the world is through constructive and life-affirming action. No one has made this point more persuasively and elegantly than Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) in his sublime and sublimely timely 1951 book The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt (public library).
Six years before he became the second-youngest person to receive the Nobel Prize, 38-year-old Camus writes:
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.
Rebellion cannot exist without the feeling that, somewhere and somehow, one is right… The rebel … says yes and no simultaneously… In every act of rebellion, the rebel simultaneously experiences a feeling of revulsion at the infringement of his rights and a complete and spontaneous loyalty to certain aspects of himself.
* Let not the gendered language detract or distract from the lucidity of Camus’s wisdom, for it is a function of his era — something on which Ursula K. Le Guin has commented brilliantly.
Nearly two decades after his assertion that “there is no love of life without despair of life,” Camus adds:
Despair, like the absurd, has opinions and desires about everything in general and nothing in particular. Silence expresses this attitude very well. But from the moment that the rebel finds his voice — even though he says nothing but “no” — he begins to desire and to judge… Not every value entails rebellion, but every act of rebellion tacitly invokes a value… Awareness, no matter how confused it may be, develops from every act of rebellion: the sudden, dazzling perception that there is something in man with which he can identify himself, even if only for a moment.
Why rebel if there is nothing permanent in oneself worth preserving?
And yet true rebellion, Camus argues, is an act motivated by concerned with the common good rather than by self-interest:
The affirmation implicit in every act of rebellion is extended to something that transcends the individual in so far as it withdraws him from his supposed solitude and provides him with a reason to act.
An act of rebellion is not, essentially, an egoistic act. Of course, it can have egoistic motives… The rebel … demands respect for himself, of course, but only in so far as he identifies himself with a natural community.
When he rebels, a man identifies himself with other men and so surpasses himself, and from this point of view human solidarity is metaphysical.
With an eye to the osmotic relationship between construction and destruction, Camus adds:
Rebellion, though apparently negative, since it creates nothing, is profoundly positive in that it reveals the part of man which must always be defended.
While this essay is a particularly spirited expression of his lifelong mission to defeat nihilism, Camus uses the writings of Nietzsche — who proclaimed himself “the first perfect nihilist of Europe” — as a springboard for exploring the constructive potentiality of rebellion. He writes:
Because his mind was free, Nietzsche knew that freedom of the mind is not a comfort, but an achievement to which one aspires and at long last obtains after an exhausting struggle. He knew that in wanting to consider oneself above the law, there is a great risk of finding oneself beneath the law. That is why he understood that only the mind found its real emancipation in the acceptance of new obligations. The essence of his discovery consists in saying that if the eternal law is not freedom, the absence of law is still less so.
The sum total of every possibility does not amount to liberty… Chaos is also a form of servitude. Freedom exists only in a world where what is possible is defined at the same time as what is not possible. Without law there is no freedom.