Sophrosyne, the Greek ideal of self-restraint, girds Camus’s distinction between rebellion and revolution. Just as self-restraint implies a constant tension between two opposing forces — a straining in two directions at the center of which is the space for creation and progress — the act of rebellion thrives on a similar stress.
…Most critically, however, the rebel seeks to impose a limit on his own self. Rebellion is an act of defense, not offense; it is equipoise, not a mad charge against an opponent. Ultimately, like Weil’s notion of attention, it is an active watchfulness in regard to the humanity of others as well as oneself. Just as the absurd never authorizes despair, much less nihilism, a tyrant’s acts never authorizes one to become tyrannical in turn. The rebel does not deny his master as a fellow human being; he denies him only as his master. The rebel denies those who have treated him as less than an equal, but also denies the inevitable temptation to dehumanize his former oppressor.
…[T]his tension cannot be maintained indefinitely; sooner or later, ideals will crumble, leaders will grow deluded, followers become disillusioned. Yet, Camus maintains, this tension is as good as it gets for humankind. For the author of The Rebel, those who wish to remain in the party of humanity have no choice but to live their lives with this tension. While it is always possible that the end justifies the means, the rebel never fails to reply that the means alone justified the end. Toward the end of his essay, Camus concluded the rebel’s logic is “to serve justice so as not to add to the injustice of the human condition, to insist on plain language so as not to increase the universal falsehood, and to wager, in spite of human misery, for happiness.” When the book first appeared, this phrase was dismissed as easy grandiloquence disguising an ethical hollowness within. Yet we are now confronted with the truth that there is nothing at all easy, much less hollow, to Camus’s claim. Instead, it recognizes the doubts and desperation filling an effort at true rebellion. It demands that we live with provisional outcomes and relative claims, all the while remaining alive to the one absolute: never to allow our rebellion to turn into a revolution.