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Rollo May : The Humanity of the Rebel

Dernière mise à jour : 20 oct. 2021

Extract from :

Rollo May

Power and Innocence


"The love of violence is, to me, the ancient and symbolic gesture of man against the constraints of society. Vicious men can exploit the impulse, but it is a disaster to treat the impulse as vicious. For no society is strong which does not acknowledge the protesting man; and no man is human who does not draw strength from the natural animal. Violence is the sphinx by the fireside, and she has a human face."

— Jacob Bronowski, from The Face of Violence

In Truffaut’s film The Wild Child, we see a re-enactment of an actual event that took place in the eighteenth century but which has special poignancy for us here. A doctor tries to teach a savage boy who was found in the forest living as an animal to see if he can be brought back to the human condition. The affectionate Victor, as Truffaut has named the boy, learns to speak and to count in rudimentary fashion. But these small successes and failures only add up to ambiguity. In a moment of discouragement, Truffaut as the doctor resolves to stake all on one unambiguous test to find out whether Victor is human—will the boy fight back when he is unjustly punished ?

Knowing that Victor accepts punishment — being shut in a closet — when he has made a mistake, Truffaut tries to shut him in the closet when he has correctly done the task he was assigned. Victor puts up a great fight. With a glad sign of recognition the doctor states that there is present in the boy the central element which constitutes the human being.

What is this element ? It is the capacity to sense injustice and take a stand against it in the form of I-will-be-destroyed-rather-than-submit. It is a rudimentary anger, a capacity to muster all one’s power and assert it against what one experiences as unfair. However it may be confounded or covered up or counterfeited, this elemental capacity to fight against injustice remains the distinguishing characteristic of human beings. It is, in short, the capacity to rebel.

In the present day, when multitudes of people are caught in anxiety and helplessness, they tend psychologically to freeze up and to cast out of the city walls whoever would disturb their pretended peace. Ironically, it is during just those periods of transition when they most need the replenishing that the rebel can give them that people have the greatest block in listening to him.

But in casting out the rebel, we cut our own lifeline. For the rebel function is necessary as the life-blood of culture, as the very roots of civilization.

First I must make the important distinction between the rebel and the revolutionary. One is in ineradicable opposition to the other. The revolutionary seeks an external political change, “the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another.” The origin of the term is the world revolve, literally meaning a turnover, as the revolution of a wheel. When the conditions under a given government are insufferable some groups may seek to break down that government in the conviction that any new form cannot but be better. Many revolutions, however, simply substitute one kind of government for another, the second no better than the first—which leaves the individual citizen, who has had to endure the inevitable anarchy between the two, worse off then before. Revolution may do more harm than good.

The rebel, on the other hand, is “one who opposes authority or restraint: one who breaks with established custom or tradition.” His distinguishing characteristic is his perpetual restlessness. He seeks above all an internal change, a change in the attitudes, emotions, and outlook of the people to whom he is devoted. He often seems to be temperamentally unable to accept success and the ease it brings; he kicks against the pricks, and when one frontier is conquered, he soon becomes ill-at-ease and pushes on to the new frontier. He is drawn to the unquiet minds and spirits, for he shares their everlasting inability to accept stultifying control. He may, as Socrates did, refer to himself as the gadfly for the state—the one who keeps the state from settling down into a complacency, which is the first step toward decadence. No matter how much the rebel gives the appearance of being egocentric or of being on an “ego trip,” this is a delusion; inwardly the authentic rebel is anything but brash.

True to the meaning of the rebel as one who renounces authority, he seeks primarily not the substitution of one political system for another. He may favor such political change, but it is not his chief goal. He rebels for the sake of a vision of life and society which he is convinced is critically important for himself and his fellows. Every act of rebellion tacitly presupposes some value. Whereas the revolutionary tends to collect power around himself, the rebel does not seek power as an end and has little facility for using it; he tends to share his power. Like the resistance fighters in France during the last world war, the rebel fights not only for the relief of his fellow men but also for his personal integrity. For him these are but two sides of the same coin.

The slave who kills his master is an example of the revolutionary. He can then only take his master’s place and be killed in turn by later revolutionaries. But the rebel is the one who realizes that the master is as much imprisoned, if not as painfully, as he is by the institution of slavery; he rebels against that system which permits slaves and masters. His rebellion, if successful, saves the master also from the indignity of owning slaves.

The humanity of the rebel lies in the fact that civilization rises from his deeds. The function of the rebel is to shake the fixated mores and the rigid order of civilization; and this shaking, though painful, is necessary if the society is to be saved from boredom and apathy. Obviously I do not refer to everyone who calls himself a rebel, but only to the authentic rebel. Civilization gets its first flower from the rebel.

Civilization begins with a rebellion. Prometheus, one of the Titans, steals fire from the gods on Mount Olympus and brings it as a gift to man, marking the birth of human culture. For this rebellion Zeus sentences him to be chained to Mount Caucasus where vultures consume his liver during the day and at night it grows back only to be again eaten away the next day. This is a tale of the agony of the creative individual, whose nightly rest only resuscitates him so that he can endure his agonies the next day.

But note also that Prometheus is released from his sufferings only when an immortal renounces his immortality in Prometheus’ favor. This Chiron does. What a vivid affirmation of human life, one of the essential characteristics of which is that each one of us will some day die! It is saying: “I willingly give up immortality to affirm humanity; I am willing to die in order to affirm human civilization.” As Heidegger says time and again, it is death which humanizes us. And the fact that we die is intimately bound up with our rebellion and our creating civilization. This is a truth which can be known in its full force only by the rebel."

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