Update on January 19, 2018
After a recent series of webcam interviews with the young French scholar, Pierre Vesperini, Michel Onfray says that he understands that the work of this young man has overtaken his own and that of a number of eminent scholars on the question, for instance, of the nature of the work of Epicurus.
Pierre Vesperini applies anthropological methods to the history of ideas. That is to say that, reading the Latin, he looks at the lives and work of scions of the Western tradition as they were lived in their time using the methods of an anthropologist. The lives and works of lesser mortals, too.
In this way he has shown that Epicurus, for instance, could not have been the philosopher we have been taught he is. He is something else: a poet who wrote poems sometimes on order, the last of the mystic poets and not the first of the moderns. A man bounded by the status and client needs of his time. Not an Epicurean at all.
When asked if he, Michel Onfray, intended now to revise his own work, the answer was yes. Of course.
He notes that Pierre Vesperini will undoubtedly continue to astonish and appall because, in all native modesty, the young scholar is overturning pieces of an entire tradition: ours.
This intellectual rectitude and emotional control on the part of Michel Onfray, in a civilisation whose intellectuals often go at each other with extreme verbal violence, is all Michel Onfray.
Michel Onfray is a French intellectual, born in Normandy, France in 1959.
He is to his 100th published book and has had 15 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. The Front Populaire which reached the second round of the elections for the French presidency this year, 2017.
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 trilogy 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.
The second in this trilogy has also been published and deals with the decadence of our Western civilization (Decadence published in 2016 by Flammarion).
Michel Onfray’s work has not, save his Atheist Manifesto and a couple of others, been translated into English. This is mysterious and regrettable. More people read Michel Onfray in France than read any other ‘philosophe’. The evidence is that his work has allowed many people to fashion their thoughts. And their lives, to the extent that that is possible.
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 superlatively educated and articulate but tiny elite(s), concentrated overwhelmingly in Paris. He criticizes the fierce centralization of political and cultural life (French Jacobinism). 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 thorough, comprehensive 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”). Not wishing ill and not doing ill to others is folded into this.
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 lucid 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 a couple of areas 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.
I find strange the idea that gender is something immutable which should not and cannot be changed when everything in the known universe is on a continuum.
In addition, I am aware of the large effort that was taken in my own childhood socialization to stamp out or diminish the effects of aspects of my character which were not considered ‘feminine’.
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.
And, Michel Onfray is very harsh with Noam Chomsky, linguist and political activist. The reasons are not clear to me.
For the rest, his work is the most vivifying and heartening thing I have ever read.
His vast endeavor is almost beyond description.