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WHAT IS THE Good Life?
By Luc Ferry THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS
Copyright © 2005
The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter One Beyond Morality, After Religion
The New Age of the Question
In The Angel and the Octopus, Simon Leys shares with his reader his disappointment with contemporary philosophical works. An eminent specialist in Chinese calligraphy, Leys had long been looking forward to the publication of a certain work on his favorite topic, and he bought the book as soon as it was published. After several attempts to read it, however, he was so discouraged by the weight of the conceptual apparatus that he gave up. At this point he recounts how his failure brought to mind an anecdote of Elie Wiesel's: A rabbi has to attend a marriage in a nearby village. He hires a carriage to take him there, and the coachman takes him on with no hesitation. At the first rise in the road, however, he politely asks the rabbi to get down and help him push the carriage, because his horse is old and tired and hasn't the strength to pull it by himself. The rabbi, a helpful man, agrees, and with his assistance they arrive at his destination, but very late. Disappointed but still wise, he tries to give a meaning to this unexpected turn of events, and he says to the coachman, "I can understand why you came: you needed to earn your payment. I can understand why I came: I needed to attend a ceremony. But I cannot understand why we brought a horse along."
Philosophical works in place of the old horse? The lesson is a harsh one. I am not sure that it is always unjust. At the least, it invites us to be clear about how philosophy will be examined here. Philosophy today is all too often reduced to a "discourse on"; a commentary with little connection to the prime aspiration of "love of wisdom" that its etymology reveals. When it originated among the Greeks, however, philosophy was seen as an intellectual activity inseparable from an attitude toward life. Its ultimate concern was the "good life," and "How should one live?" was its most pressing question. Even when it digressed into highly sophisticated speculations on physics, mathematics, or logic, the ultimate aim of philosophy was to procure a "practicable" (in the literal sense of the term) response that would provide real guidance in the conduct of life.
It was by reconnecting with that tradition that André Comte-Sponville defined philosophy as "thinking one's life and living one's thoughts." The formula not only is well turned but states clearly the necessary integration of reflection and life. I happily adopt it as my own, on the condition, however, of adding a complement that seems to me decisive. The life that we are called upon to think, and the thought that is ours to live when we adopt a philosophical attitude, are neither everyday life nor everyday thought, but rather life and thought inasmuch as they are conscious of being mortal. As the Greeks were acutely aware, it is because we are destined to die and we know it, because we will lose those who are dear to us, because banality constantly threatens daily life, that the question of the "good life"-of what is truly worthwhile in this existence and not in another-deserves to be posed. It is also why all the great philosophies have wrestled with the question. Shocking as it might seem today, those great philosophies have, perhaps always, been linked to the problematic of salvation.
It might be objected that assigning a saving dimension to philosophy in this manner is to risk confusing philosophy and theology. What is more, by associating philosophy too closely with the theme of finitude and the drawbacks it entails (boredom, banality, ignorance, evil, sickness, suffering, death, etc.), do we not risk turning it into an equally inappropriate therapeutics? In this perspective, how can we be fair to the philosophies of language, the sciences, morality, law, politics, and more, the rise of which so strongly affected the twentieth century? Is the epigram "To philosophize is to learn how to die" too dated to still be applicable to contemporary thought, which-we should not forget-has concentrated as never before on "deconstructing" the illusions of metaphysics and religion?
Perhaps. But this would be to misunderstand what I mean here by "salvation," which in no way presupposes the existence of a realm beyond real life that is the dwelling place of gods capable of offering the means to that salvation. Put bluntly, the difference between religion and philosophy in this regard can be stated thus: religion offers the promise that we will be saved; philosophy invites us to save ourselves. Humility and pride, faith and reason, heteronomy and autonomy: this short list of contrasting pairs barely hints at the breadth of the abyss that separates the two attitudes or the ties that unite them. It is clear that religion cannot be reduced to heteronomy, nor can modern individualism be reduced to autonomy. Faith can also be a free act, a deliberate response, willingly assumed, to a call that, even if it emanates from the Most High, nonetheless leaves the human being full responsibility. As for the liberty of the Moderns, everything indicates that it does not exclude determination from without, beginning with the influence of the social and historical unconscious. The very existence of psychoanalysis and sociology, to say nothing of biology, bears ceaseless witness to such determination. Still, the more the world becomes disenchanted, the less it is inhabited by the gods, and the more legitimate it seems to have to save oneself by one's own efforts rather than wait for the Savior. In this connection, even the most materialist philosophies, from Spinoza to Nietzsche, have been unable to forego some sort of relationship to "beatitude" or an "eternal recurrence"-in short, to what transcends the sphere of daily life. How, in fact, are we to respond to the inquiry regarding the good life if there is nothing that is absolutely worth being lived? On the other hand, how can we admit an absolute without falling back into a religious problematic? This is the whole question.
In order to define that question better, let us for a minute imagine that Mephistopheles comes to see us and, as he did to the aging Faust, offers us everything-absolutely everything-that one could possibly hope for in the way of earthly success. Let us also suppose that he does so, like any demon worthy of the name, in exchange for our "soul" or whatever we might, rightly or wrongly, call by that name, such as moral or spiritual conviction, political loyalties, affective or other attachments. Is it then certain that when he tries to carry off that "soul" he encounters no escape clause in the contract, no proviso? It is possible, and the hypothesis deserves to be taken seriously. It's not a sure thing, however. I know some people who I think would say, perhaps even without hesitation, that he would not succeed. Why so? By which I mean, in the name of what? Although the proposition might seem simplistic, perhaps even trivial, and one might easily find other ways to state it, it seems to me truly profound. It urges us to ask ourselves about the status of what seems to us "non-negotiable" and in that sense absolute, in the age of the purely terrestrial, an era when the will to power prevails, where the relative seems the only horizon of our universe. Can one do without thought of this sort in a meditation on the good life? I think not. I am not even sure that Nietzsche believed it possible. He seems to have held many things as "non-negotiable" and by no means relative or indifferent. But let us consider the inverse hypothesis for a moment: that the question of the good life can be imagined without respect to any of the visages-whatever they may be-of the absolute. If that were the case, how could one avoid ceding to the cult of means, of the calculable, of pure performance, of the negotiable-in short, of what used to be called "merchandise," the empire of entertainment and consumption? Is that really what we want to hold sacred in the name of the desacralization of everything?
When we pose the question of the good life-the "successful" life-we place ourselves in that perspective. This is why the great philosophies have been unable to do without a relation to the absolute, even if in an agnostic or anti-religious sense. We are speaking of a genuine absolute, not of half measures, compromises, or subterfuges. There is an Arab proverb that puts it well: A man who has never risked losing everything is a poor man. It is a sign that he has never had an opportunity to test his relation to what is absolutely worthwhile, and not just relatively so, following the dictates of the times. It is not by chance that Nietzsche (to return to him), although the great adversary of metaphysico-religious illusions, placed his whole thought under the sign of eternity. His doctrine of eternal recurrence had no other aim than that of distinguishing, even in the most ordinary human experiences, between those that do not merit being relived and others that we might want to recur an infinite number of times. Thus Nietzsche, who liked to describe himself as resembling the Antichrist, cultivated a relation to the infinite, the absolute, and eternity.
I am not saying that the question is closed-far from it-or that it is easy to think about. Only that it deserves full consideration. It is the question that will be the guiding thread to this inquiry. In this sense, the opposite of the philosopher is not the manual laborer, as might be implied if we speak of "intellectuals," but the tourist, the person who sees the world exclusively as a playground, just a collection of places in which to exercise his will to power and liberate his infinite aptitudes for consumption. The conviction that animates the present book is perhaps naïve, but at least it has the merit of being clear: entertainment is one of the greatest pleasures on this earth, but it is not the alpha and omega of our existence. Leaving aside all moralization, it's impossible to rid ourselves of the feeling that we can't just stop there. Why? For what reasons? That is the whole question, and it seems to me that today the question is posed in new terms, beyond morality and religion.
The Contemporary Status of the Question: Beyond Morality and Religion
Investigation of the good life did not frighten the Ancients. As if by enchantment-or out of disenchantment-such investigation seems to have deserted the pages of contemporary thought. The very question seems immodest, beyond the scope of a disillusioned politics, inaccessible to the positive sciences by its very nature, but just as prohibited to a philosophy that is often reduced to "reflections" on historical, political, or scientific realities that always elude its grasp. It is as if even in the best of circumstances the ancient question of the good life no longer has any pertinence outside the subjective and intimate dimension of the private sphere.
Perhaps contrary to appearances, this notion is not an invitation to pessimistic rumination. It does not aim at surreptitious legitimation of the logic of the "step backward" or any rehabilitation of past and outmoded figures of thought in face of some sort of decline of the West-a return to the Greeks, to the wisdoms of the East, to the ancien régime, to a virgin nature, to the Republican Idea, to messianic utopias, or to who knows what. Whatever its powers of seduction, such an attitude always cedes to facility in the end: it is easier to sacrifice to the nostalgia of a paradise lost than to think about what is, for us, here and now. In La sagesse des modernes, André Comte-Sponville and I suggested a direction in which we believed contemporary philosophy needs to expand, "after religion and beyond morality." Despite some basic disagreements, we agreed on this crucial point. The formula has given rise to some misunderstandings, but it still seems to me as pertinent as ever. Since I would like to situate the current volume within the sphere of thought delimited by that formula, I need to explain it more fully than I did previously.
To begin with "beyond morality." Certain critics have chosen to see that statement as a "renunciation of ethics," a sudden conversion to "immoralism," and a shift in attitude all the more surprising-we are told with scholarly gravity-because each of us had written several works devoted to moral and political philosophy. False naïveté? Genuine misunderstanding? I have no idea. The fact remains that the "beyond" in question obviously has nothing in common with a rejection that would, incidentally, be both futile and inappropriate. The phrase was intended to announce, not a "strategic retreat," but a new route for reflection, one that each of us had, in his own way, sketched out in the very works that the same critics wrongly forced into the mold of "moralistic" works.
It seemed to us obvious that morality is quite simply insufficient to the conduct of life and that it fails to exhaust all the possible points of view toward existence. Many others have said as much before us, beginning with the giants: Spinoza, to be sure, but Kant himself, in his writings on art and religion, not to mention Hegel and his constant effort to reach beyond the principles of a formal morality toward a broader doctrine of ethical custom. Today, however, at the heart of a resolutely secular world, that insufficiency seemed to us to be taking on a new dimension. Clearly, venturing "beyond morality" could no longer mean (at least for us) turning toward the consolations of art or religion. If the "good life" is indeed situated in this ethical "beyond," how are we to understand it or to measure the challenges it puts before us today? This is the first thing to be examined.
One might quite simply define the moral sphere, at least in its modern form-let's say, since the appearance in the eighteenth century of great secular visions of the world-as a set of values expressed by precepts or imperatives that invite us to the minimum of respect for others without which a peaceful life in common is impossible. What our societies marked by the ideal of democracy and the rights of man oblige us to consider in the figure of the other, if only through the civics courses provided to children, is (to the limits of the possible) man's dignity and his right to liberty and happiness. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that our formal values here are almost entirely circumscribed by the familiar dictum that "my liberty stops where that of others begins." This, after all, is the primary axiom of that "respect for others" without which no peaceful coexistence is possible. It also explains the relative simplicity of the rules of the democratic ethic: Do not treat others as a means, but always as an end as well. This implies not using others instrumentally, as an object or a thing-for example, as a pack animal, or as a source of organs that I can buy and set aside for myself or my family. It also implies leaving others free to think their own thoughts; to hold opinions that differ from mine or religious or philosophical beliefs that I do not share; to seek well-being as they see fit, provided that no one is harmed; and so forth.
One might also show how the less formal imperatives of solidarity, even of fraternity, are virtually included in these minimal requirements of a modern humanism. It is not by chance that the first declarations of the rights of man raised the questions of charity and public assistance. All this may seem simple, or at least familiar territory, and there is little need to be a historian of philosophy to form a concrete idea of it: we all know those founding texts of our republics, which can rightly be considered charters of common morality. They are, so to speak, the popular and public equivalent of the great philosophical treatises in which, beginning in the eighteenth century, utilitarian philosophers in Great Britain, Kant and his German followers, and even the republicans in France gave abstract and conceptual expression to the fundamental principles of respect for others.
What seems to me essential is that such great moral visions, focused on a respect for the liberty and well-being of others, be considered indispensable, as anyone claiming to be a democrat can hardly doubt. In their absence, all-out war looms on the horizon. They thus appear as the necessary condition of the peaceful common life that democratic societies attempt to engender. It is equally clear that such visions do not constitute a sufficient condition of that life. Far from it. Respect for others in no way prejudges the actual, concrete nature of the relations with others that alone confer meaning and worth to commerce among people. This is why one can legitimately state that morality does not "suffice," but rather indicates, as it were in itself, a need to go beyond morality.
Excerpted from WHAT IS THE Good Life? by Luc Ferry Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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