In the coming weeks I’ll be blogging commentaries on Michel Onfray’s Hedonist Manifesto, which contains a complete summary of his intellectual legacy. Onfray is an unapologetic French hedonist and neo-Epicurean who has written dozens of books, and about whose “counter-history of philosophy” I’ve previously written for both Society of Epicurus and The Autarkist.
I defend totalizing philosophy … in a coherent way … I want to propose a counter-history that problematizes the dominant idealist historiography. – Michel Onfray
The Hedonist Manifesto is a treat to the intellect: it presents a complete and coherent contemporary Epicurean worldview, and a firm rejection of idealism, that delves into aesthetics, the problem of modern nihilism, the need to redeem the body as our “irreducible ontology”, historiography, bioethics, eroticism, politics, and other subjects. I strongly recommend reading it to anyone who has acquired a good foundation in the canon, physics, and ethics of Epicurus and who is hungry for philosophical literature by thinkers who are kindred spirits.
In the fashion of therapeutic philosophers like Epicurus and Buddha, who must first diagnose the dis-ease before they can prescribe the medicine, Onfray begins his work with a biographical introduction that helps to explain his hatred of Catholicism and its tyranny, which evolves into anti-Platonic and anti-religious zeal: he was raised in a Catholic orphanage, where he was psychologically abused for years and taught hatred of the body, of sex, of pleasure, of hygiene even, all in the name of empty, Platonic ideals of virtue.
A kind of schizophrenia always threatens philosophers who segregate theory and practice … Ethics is a matter of body, not soul. – Michel Onfray
While in the rage of battle against Plato and his idealism, Onfray argues that ideas incarnate, that there never exists a real separation between spirit and matter. He argues that both our writing and our conduct constitute our work as a philosopher: “Your life is your message”.
Idealisms produce collateral damage. – Joseph McClellan
Most of Onfray’s content is available in French, and some is in Spanish and other languages. Very little is available in English. The choice of Hedonist Manifesto as an introduction to Onfray to the English-speaking world makes sense because it summarizes Onfray’s intellectual legacy, and the translator took the time to provide a lengthy introduction that helps to place Onfray among the great “new atheists” that are widely known and celebrated in the English-speaking world. This contextualization, it seems to me, might prove extremely helpful to the uninitiated.
In the introductory commentary, the translator Joseph McClellan criticizes Sam Harris and his Moral Landscape as still idealist, not contextualized in the history of western thought, and as seeking an “objective” neurological foundation when such a thing does not exist. I had previously written on the subject of Harris’ choice to seek what he can never find, to cite Diogenes, and of how entirely sold on Buddhist doctrine he is, and I won’t say more here except to note that I agree with McClellan’s assessment of Harris, and with his assertion that Harris’ error of giving credibility to idealisms is indeed harmful and produces “collateral damage”.
Pleasure scares people. They are scared of the word and the actions, reality, and discourses around it. It either scares people or makes them hysterical. There are too many private and personal issues, too many alienating, intimate, painful, wretched, and miserable details. There are secret and hidden deficiencies. There are too many things in the way of just being, living, and enjoying. Hence, people reject the word. They produce spiteful critique that is aggressive and in bad faith or that is simply evasive. Disrespect, discredit, contempt, and disdain are all means for avoiding the subject of pleasure.
– Michel Onfray
Modern atheism is overtly nihilistic … atheistic nihilism struggles between two visions of the world: the Judeo-Christian and something not yet defined … Only time and progress through the century will permit us to discover it. For now we have nihilism. – Michel Onfray
In the lengthy introduction to Hedonist Manifesto, the translator explains and celebrates what he sees as one of Onfray’s key achievements: his neo-Epicurean worldview provides an alternative to the left’s moral relativism. It is clear that “new atheists” are typically on the left side of the political spectrum, however–like Onfray–McClellan does not shy away from being critical of the idealisms of the left, and moral relativism stands out as the great cardinal sin of the left that is tied to the nihilism of the age. While the right is happy to deal with nihilism by selling bankrupt religious creeds, the left has yet to rise to the occasion and produce a satisfying, coherent alternative worldview and morality that is widely accepted. Many Westerners are Epicureans by default, but few are Epicureans on purpose and with a clear understanding of what it means.
Beauty has a history. – Michel Onfray
Onfray, like Nietzsche, views art as a means for the creation of meaning. It is no surprise then that he takes the time to focus on and critique nihilist, psychotic art, which he perceives as a misuse of the meaning-endowing power and purpose of art.
I am not sure to what extent I agree with Onfray’s assertion that “any part of the self that is unwilled may end up psychotic or in need of therapy”. He is not just arguing for living the analyzed life: he is warning of the dangers of not doing so, and pointing to nihilist post-modern art (or what passes for art) as a symptom of what happens when we fail to philosophize. For instance, he criticizes nihilist songs and movies that offer “no overcoming”, and artifacts as “altars to consumerist nihilism”. Consider the distinction between creating content versus consuming content: authenticity versus consumerism. When art is merely an amalgam of consumer products, is there really a part of our soul in the creation?
Onfray likewise is critical of the view that art changes or informs history, arguing that instead “art comes from history”. Material conditions exist first, and only then do ideas emerge from those conditions that are able to create art. He is arguing for a materialist, non-Platonic aesthetics.
An emptied heaven allows for a full Earth. – Michel Onfray
But consumerism is not the only source of our alienation and emptiness of meaning: the God that our ancestors took refuge in to escape nihilism is itself an alienating factor. As an antidote for this, he proposes an egodicy: Derrida coined the word by saying “all philosophical discourse must proceed from a justification of the self”. The word appropriates the concept of theodicy, but turns it on its head. If we were to apply theodicy‘s conventional meaning to the self, egodicy would then mean “the vindication of the self’s goodness in view of the existence of evil“.
The philosopher attends to his Being, constitutes it, gives it structure, solidifies it, and then proposes his own autotherapy, as if it were a general soteriological path. To philosophize is to make one’s own existence viable and livable–right where one is, where nothing is given and everything is yet to be constructed. With his suffering body, sickly and frail, Epicurus came up with a way of thinking that let him live well, live better. At the same time, he proposed, to everyone, a new possibility for existence …
Each individual resides at the center of his own situation – Michel Onfray
In his efforts to move the practice of ethics and friendship from the abstract to the concrete, Michel Onfray says:
There is no such thing as Friendship, but only proofs of friendship; no Love, but only proofs of love; no Hate, but only proofs of hate; and so on.
The same goes for all the virtues: we must create tokens, proofs, instances. This resonates with the materialist theory of identity (as tied to habit) that I’ve discussed before. In this way, by manifesting tokens of one’s values, one makes real and concrete one’s ethics.
Platonic friendship does not exist, only its incarnations. Proofs of friendship bring people together, and expressions of enmity push people apart …
Politeness offers a way to realize morality … It tells the other that one has seen them … Holding a door, practicing formulaic rituals, carrying on the logic of good manners, knowing how to say thank you and you’re welcome, giving, being cheerful in lackluster company: that is how to do ethics, create morality, embody values.
Onfray identifies this migration from the abstract to the concrete as one of the great intellectual, behavioral, and philosophical tasks that the Epicureans must carry out individually and collectively, and he cites nominalist ethics as a front from which we can argue the importance of making philosophy tangible. Here is what Wikipedia says about nominalism:
There are at least two main versions of nominalism. One version denies the existence of universals – things that can be instantiated or exemplified by many particular things (e.g., strength, humanity). The other version specifically denies the existence of abstract objects – objects that do not exist in space and time.
One technique used by Epicureans to go from the abstract to the concrete is to speak in plural form: to speak of individuals instead of “man”, to speak of specific acts of kindness or heroism instead of “virtue”, to refer to our choices and avoidances instead of “morality”, and so on.
One side benefit to this migration from the abstract to the concrete is the ability to think (and speak) clearly, which we can cultivate with the help of philosophy. Philodemus’ Rhetorica contains an entire section against obscurity of speech, which is a huge problem in many of the other lineages and schools of philosophy.
Obscurity is of two kinds: intentional and unintentional. It is intentional when one has nothing to say and conceals the poverty of his thought by obscure language that he may seem to say something useful. Connected with this is the use of many digressions, poetic images, recondite allusions and archaic language. Solecisms prevent the hearer from understanding many things. Only the true philosopher is free from these faults …
One should use ordinary expressions appropriately, and not express oneself inaccurately, nor vaguely, nor use expressions with double meaning.
The man who best knows how to meet external threats makes into one family all the creatures he can; and those he can not, he at any rate does not treat as aliens; and where he finds even this impossible, he avoids all dealings, and, so far as is advantageous, excludes them from his life. – Principal Doctrine 39
Distancing oneself from a “relational delinquent” (or worse, a sociopath) when we can’t avoid that person for the sake of mental serenity is called eumetry by Michel Onfray.
The term is not entirely an Onfrayan neologism. The innovation is its use in ethics. It comes from the Greek “eu-” (good) and “-metry” is related to measure, or distance, so that it implies keeping “a good distance”, or keeping “a safe distance”–“not too close, not too far”, as Onfray puts it: an Epicurean art of diplomacy meant to guarantee peace of mind.
The term was apparently coined by aesthetician Panayotis Michelis to denote a non-mathematical and non-symmetrical harmony that can at times even be superior to symmetry–which is often considered an important standard in aesthetics, or the study of beauty. So what Michelis was saying was that sometimes beauty can be measured in non-standard ways.
Onfray accepts the logic of concentric circles that we find in PD 39–according to which some are intimate friends, others not so intimate, and others fall outside the realm of friendship–and he applies the concept of eumetry to social ethics.
A Promethean Bioethics
Human beings are a rope between apes and super-humans. – Nietzsche
When calling for a “preventative eugenics” in Hedonist Manifesto, Onfray brilliantly tackles many people’s apprehensions about the ethics of eugenics–which has become such a bad word–by calling for a compassionate, hedonist transhumanism in service of public health and preventative medicine, including gene therapy.
So the challenge that he accepts is to articulate an Epicurean morality and ethics of transhumanism. Onfray says that a libertarian, Promethean eugenics would “increase the chance of a happy presence in the world”. Consider that: being healthy is always preferable to being sick; being happy is always preferable to being chronically depressed; having all the body parts that we need is always preferable to having to live without our limbs. These are not frivolous enhancements to our bodily composition: any science (like gene therapy), technology (like bionic legs or arms), or other ways of transcending the human condition and body that help a patient to avoid or heal depression, chronic illness, or incapacity is moral if it increases the chance of a happy presence in the world, and/or decreases the chance of a miserable presence in the world.
For an even more concise definition of what is and what isn’t frivolous, we may use the tool of Epicurus’ division of desires as natural and necessary, natural but unnecessary, and neither natural nor necessary, to determine to what extent the goal of a therapy is in line with our nature.
Onfray offers us Prometheus–who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans–as a forward-looking humanist role model in this regard: a type of Nietzschean Over-Man. Although he was punished by the Olympians for his transgression on behalf of mortals, Prometheus was revered as a hero and a god by our classical humanist predecessors. Human genius, technology, and science do indeed represent an affront to the gods of the old morality and of humanity’s infancy. Onfray does not kiss the ground in awe of some ancient taboo, like many among the religious do; neither does he sink his head in the sand when confronted with the very real difficulties tied to eugenics and transhumanism–defined as the efforts by science and technology to help humans transcend their limits. Instead, he celebrates Promethean transgression, and frames the discussion of its inherent dangers within the field of Epicurean ethics.
This has to be understood as part of his broader effort to de-Christianize the flesh on the face of attempts by paternalistic clergies to control our bodies, to make important life decisions on our behalf concerning family planning, and even to impede the advance of stem-cell research and other potentially life-saving science by appealing to baseless, supernatural beliefs that attribute an immortal and immaterial soul to living cells that have yet to even attain sentience.
If we base our ethics on the study of nature and accept the Epicurean doctrine that our own nature seeks to avoid pain and to experience pleasure, then the possibility of a compassionate bioethics emerges that affirms the many gifts of science and puts science to good use for the welfare of humanity. This is not to say that there won’t remain areas of confusion and complexity when it comes to morality, or that our choices and avoidances will always and in every case be made easy by the study of philosophy. Life is complicated, and there will likely be difficult moral choices at some time or another. Epicurean ethics dignify us, and allow us greater clarity and more sober reasoning concerning what leads to a life of pleasure.
Epicureans are often stereotyped as apolitical hermits that take refuge in the isolation of their gardens among their circles of friends, and avoid public life. But history bears witness against this stereotype: many Epicureans–like founding father Thomas Jefferson and feminist abolitionist Frances Wright–have found that, in their particular circumstances, involvement in politics and activism has positively contributed to a life filled with enjoyment. Onfray calls for a renaissance of the libertarian left, arguing that politics does not need to entail intrigue or take away from our serenity and pleasure, and furthermore that it is nearly impossible to be apolitical while experiencing life in the human flesh.
True to the Epicurean focus on the unmediated experience of the individual, as it is lived in his flesh–as opposed to the Platonic focus on the “life of the state” or polis–, Epicurean politics are characterized by small acts of resistance, by personal choices that swerve in this or that direction, that constitute a lifestyle of activism and power over our world. He argues that this is no less political that other forms of activism that directly concern themselves with the state. Even by ignoring and being indifferent to the narratives of the state and articulating our own, we are engaging in libertarian politics, acting as free women and men.
Aiming for a better state, a peaceful society, and a happy civilization is a somewhat infantile desire … We need nomadic Epicurean Gardens, constructed around ourselves. Wherever we find ourselves, there should we build the world we aspire to and should avoid the one we reject… Is this a minimalist politics? Yes. A wartime politics? Of course. A politics of resisting a more powerful enemy? Clearly. But it is still politics.