Michel Onfray is a French intellectual, born in Normandy, France in 1959.
He is almost to his 90th published book and has had 14 years of service teaching philosophy at the Free University of Caen, Normandy, which he founded in 2002 as a riposte to the ascension of the extremist Front Populaire. Starting with five companions, more than 20 academics have joined him at the Free University teaching a range of subjects. All for free.
Michel Onfray’s own course , the counter-history of Philosophy (2002-2014) covered the history of the Western philosophical tradition with as much emphasis on what was thrown out of this tradition and why as on what is within the tradition.
In 2015 he published a book, entitled ‘Cosmos’, the first of a tetralogy to comprise a ‘brief encyclopedia of the world’. He calls ‘Cosmos’ his first book because he has begun to assemble and concentrate the practical philosophy that it has taken him his life to evolve.
Michel Onfray’s work has not, save his bestseller, Atheist Manifesto, been translated into English. I do not know why. More people read Michel Onfray in France than read any other ‘philosophe’.
The reasons for this popularity are not difficult to fathom.
Born into rural poverty, Michel Onfray is the rare Frenchman who has achieved liberty and equality in a country in which these remain a dead letter for many millions of citizens. Discovering that he was entitled to go to university, he went and finished with a PhD. in philosophy. He is the foremost disciple of his teacher (maître), Lucien Jerphagnon, even if, in the best philosophical tradition, Michel Onfray long since struck out on a different path from his teacher.
He criticizes again and again those historical, cultural, economic and structural conditions of French society which sustain the hegemony of its tiny elite(s). And he considers himself, as he says, ‘the happiest of men’ if he has been able through his lectures and books to lead anyone to an understanding of the creative life-defining uses of the Western philosophical tradition
Secondly, Michel Onfray’s research methods are very thorough and scrupulous. It is difficult to contradict him on the facts which does not mean that he has not been frequently and severely attacked for the interpretation of these facts.
Thirdly, he does not use jargon when talking to people without philosophical training; and explains technical terms if they cannot be avoided. The mastery of his material, his intellectual agility and consistency over decades, and his verbal fluency are such that complex ideas and sequences are rendered as clear as a summer sky.
Then there is his insistence that facts must take precedence over ideas. Anglo-Americans might think this self-evident. The French intellectual tradition, however, places the highest value on just that: the intellectual tradition. That is, the history of ideas. Michel Onfray points out that this is where all the ‘isms’ of the world come from and some of them killed millions of people. The one ‘ism’ which he forwards as useful is empiricism. Ideas that do not conform with facts, he says, need to be discarded.
Finally, he believes that he must walk his own talk and, from what is visible, he has indeed lived the undivided life which he continues to live.
He is an atheist, a follower of Democritus and Epicurus; a feminist, a materialist (in the sense that he does not believe in transcendence).
He is a hedonist (in the sense that you should do what you can to enjoy yourself and to give joy to others following Nicolas de Chamfort: “Jouis et fais jouir, sans faire de mal ni à toi ni à personne, voilà toute morale”). This is not hedonism in in the popular raunchy usage of the word; but a disciplined education of the senses for the fullest experience of the world.
We are here in the body and the earth, the sky, the world as we know it, the universe are what we have. Let us live with this.
He is with Nietzsche: love your fate (amor fati). If there is another world to which we are going, we know nothing about it and it need not concern us.
Between human adults everything is permitted so long as it is agreed between the parties and there are not imbalances of power or hidden agendas.
His politics run to the left and to libertarianism. Firmly situated on the left which does not believe that the majority of people do best with our current neo-liberal capitalism, and an admirer of Proudhon, he is all for the many associations and co-operatives which are trying to wrest back the control of some part of our world from corporations and international finance.
He has also started a ‘university of taste (goût). The main impulse of this institution is to democratize access to the education of those of our senses involved with cooking, eating, drinking. Hedonism in practice.
Michel Onfray ends the preface of ‘Cosmos’ using the wonderful economy and rigour of the French language to discuss what are his beliefs and what he inherited from his peasant father who died, standing in front of him, at 88. This death, he says, cut his life into two.
From the preface of ‘Cosmos’:
‘I do not believe in the immortal soul and in its heavenly trajectory. I do not believe in any of the religions which would have us believe that death does not exist and that our life will continue when the void has taken everything. I do not believe in the survival of our souls or in any form of metamorphosis of the body. I do not believe in signs after death.
I believe, because I lived it and experienced it, that in that moment, on that evening, on that occasion, my father transmitted a heritage to me. His invitation to me was to continue straight when cross-roads appear; to rectitude and against zig-zagging; to the lessons which nature provides and not to the erroneous blandishments of culture; to stand up straight; to speak amply; to the riches of a lived wisdom. My father gave me a life force without name, a force which binds me to specific obligations but which gives me no rights or permissions.’
For myself I have found only one area in which I completely disagree with him. He does not believe in gender theory and thinks the Anglo-Americans have gone overboard in the area of choices now available in this area. I cannot go along with this for two reasons.
Studies of how gender is developed biologically, psychologically and socially are in their infancy as is the interaction of these three in the experience of gender.
Until much more is known a condemnation is from a place of ignorance or ideology. Not good.
Secondly, the ability to choose gender has made some people more free without diminishing any part of their human responsibilities.
People must be able to come into their whole freedom as they define it. This expanding understanding and implementation of individual freedom is the promise of the civilization which is anchored in the Western tradition. Of course, this freedom cannot be defined in a way such as to diminish the lives or freedom of others; And, of course, this requirement to do no harm to others is for everyone.
For the rest, his work is the most vivifying and heartening thing I have ever read. His vast endeavor is almost beyond description.
I post this again because his year’s lectures are broadcast during July and August every year on France Culture and those for 2015-2016 – ‘Brève encyclopédie du monde’ – are due to be broadcast beginning this second weekend of July 2016.
These are photos of Mangakaa owned by the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. Wood, glass, brass, nails, metal and iron.
They were created by master sculptors in the watershed of the Congo River by speakers of Kicongo (Bantu ethnic group) in the 18th and 19th centuries to protect themselves from the predations of incoming colonizers, traders, missionaries.
They were confiscated by these colonizers and were ritually desacralized before being handed over. Less than 20 are known to have survived.
Michel Onfray would be very familiar with this story.
In his presentation of the ideas of ‘Cosmos’ before it was published, he pointed out that the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac represents, in part, the vast spiritual spoliation of a large number of peoples whose ritual artifacts were confiscated by those who had come to ‘civilize’ them.
And that these artifacts represented a way of living, a system of thinking and believing and of relating to the world and to the gods. And are not merely objects to be admired for their formal aesthetic values.
For this statement alone I am in Michel Onfray’s debt because to hear it articulated is rare.