“I rebel therefore I exist”

The abovementioned quote by Albert Camus, from his book L’Homme Révolté (The Rebel; 1951)[1], is a modernist existential take on René Descartes’s philosophy of cogito ergo sum[2] – “I think therefore I exist” – which implies that it is only through doubting and contemplating on the mind’s perceptions that one gets an affirmation of one’s consciousness or existence. Camus modifies this thought and posits the idea that in order to exist, one must constantly rebel against the absurdity of life and against the knowledge that one is born without any predefined meaning or purpose in life. Camus and other existentialists were of the belief that ultimately death comes to every person and while it is absurd to value life, it is possible, nevertheless, to embrace life in all its absurdity. Camus called for rebellion against death, against renunciation, and against the passive surrender to the inevitable. Thus he wrote, “Consciousness and revolt, these rejections are the contrary of renunciation. Everything that is indomitable and passionate in a human heart quickens them, on the contrary, with its own life.”

Camus found a model for this idea in the ancient story of Sisyphus, a Greek king condemned daily to roll a large boulder up a steep hill only to have it slip from his grasp as he reached the summit and roll back to the bottom of the hill. Thus he was condemned to eternal effort and futility, a paradigm of the absurd. As Camus mentions in his Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus; 1942)[3], Sisyphus’s existence is tragic and purposeless, yet he desires purpose. Through the act of rolling the boulder up the hill repeatedly, Sisyphus acts in defiance to the gods and against his absurd, purposeless existence. In other words, Sisyphus purposefully attempts to ascribe meaning to life through rebelling against suicide. In spite of being consciously aware of the fact that rolling the boulder serves no ultimate purpose, he rolls it anyway.  In this way, Sisyphus finds genuine happiness because he has accepted his fate. By claiming that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy”, Camus makes the point that all individuals must act against this meaninglessness of life by rejecting suicide (which was previously assumed to be the only way to get rid of an existential angst). If one is inactive or passive in life, they become what the poet T.S. Eliot calls “The Hollow Men”[4] (exemplified in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, 1915)[5] who have a paralysed will, who act only in accordance with societal norms, and who simply “measure out their lives in coffee spoons”. Both Camus and Eliot condemn this tendency of human beings to become passive creatures.

In Camus’s Le Mythe de Sisyphe and L’Homme Révolté one finds strains of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883)[6] where he proposed that a person’s life does not end with death, but instead recycles with exactly the same sequence of events, relationships, and decisions repeating an infinite number of times. Nietzsche not only suggests a repetitiveness in life’s events (as does Camus’s Sisyphe) but also emphasises the importance of here and now, of seizing the present moment, of Carpe Diem, of taking action and rejecting passivity by saying that since this is the only life you will ever have, you might as well make the most of it. This act of rebellion is also seen in Samuel Beckett’s existentialist play Waiting for Godot (1953)[7] where the two characters Vladimir and Estragon revolt against suicide by waiting for the arrival of an unknown man named Godot. Although Vladimir and Estragon decide to commit suicide by hanging themselves from a willow tree if Godot does not show up, they go on postponing this suicide by waiting endlessly day after day and hence finding a meaning and purpose in life through the act of waiting and finding a way to pass time. Vladimir and Estragon, in this way, exemplify the Sisyphean way of life.

Human beings can ascribe meaning to their lives through religious and educational institutions, through science, and through art, and this they must do in order to rebel against death and therefore to exist. Thus, in the rejection of passivity and in the embrace of that which gives life purpose lies the crux of Camus’s famous phrase.

[1] Camus, Albert. L’Homme Révolté. 1951.

[2] Descartes, René. Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa raison, et chercher la vérité dans les sciences.1637.

[3] Camus, Albert. Le Mythe de Sisyphe. 1942.

[4] Eliot, T.S. The Hollow Men.  1925.

[5] Eliot, T.S. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. 1915.

[6] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spake Zarathustra. 1883.

[7] Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. 1953.