A Hedonist Manifesto
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A Hedonist Manifesto

The Power to Exist

Michel Onfray, Joseph McClellan

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eBook - ePub

A Hedonist Manifesto

The Power to Exist

Michel Onfray, Joseph McClellan

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About This Book

Michael Onfray passionately defends the potential of hedonism to resolve the dislocations and disconnections of our melancholy age. In a sweeping survey of history's engagement with and rejection of the body, he exposes the sterile conventions that prevent us from realizing a more immediate, ethical, and embodied life. He then lays the groundwork for both a radical and constructive politics of the body that adds to debates over morality, equality, sexual relations, and social engagement, demonstrating how philosophy, and not just modern scientism, can contribute to a humanistic ethics.

Onfray attacks Platonic idealism and its manifestation in Judaic, Christian, and Islamic belief. He warns of the lure of attachment to the purportedly eternal, immutable truths of idealism, which detracts from the immediacy of the world and our bodily existence. Insisting that philosophy is a practice that operates in a real, material space, Onfray enlists Epicurus and Democritus to undermine idealist and theological metaphysics; Nietzsche, Bentham, and Mill to dismantle idealist ethics; and Palante and Bourdieu to collapse crypto-fascist neoliberalism. In their place, he constructs a positive, hedonistic ethics that enlarges on the work of the New Atheists to promote a joyful approach to our lives in this, our only, world.

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A Dominant Historiography
Classical historiography of philosophy is constructed by wishful thinking. Strangely, the apostles of pure reason and transcendental deduction all agree in the mythology that they create and that they perpetuate with a vengeance by teaching, compiling, lecturing, writing, and publishing fables. Through repetition, these become gospel truths. Scholarly looting, unmarked citation, conceptual regurgitation of other’s work—these are the happy practices of those who edit encyclopedias, conceive lexicons, and otherwise write the history of philosophy and the textbooks in which it is inscribed.
A staggering uniformity reveals itself in this field. It is always the same entries, the same texts by the same authors, the same biographical sketches, even the same portraits. Encyclopedias often plagiarize passages of works they pretend to describe. The author, paid a servant’s wage, whips an article off quickly, including a bibliography that frequently refers to his own pamphlets and unpublished articles. From one book to another, we reproduce myths without calling them into question.
One fable has become a redoubtable certainty: people that we call the Pre-Socratics invented Philosophy in the sixth century BCE in Greece. That single sentence contains at least three errors: one of date, one of place, and one of name. We think about those who came well before this date—people in Sumeria, Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, India, and China, and other barbarians—from the point of view of the Greeks. Pre-Socratics is a catchall term extremely useful for avoiding further investigation.
What does the term itself actually mean? De facto, it seems to denote a moment before the time of Socrates. Is it defined by his birth date, around 469 BCE? His death, 399 BCE? Or maybe his prime, around 350 BCE? We could reasonably call Pre-Socratic an event—a number of events anterior to the aforementioned dates. Could it correspond to Thales falling into his well?1 Is “Pre-Socratic” linked to a book like Empedocles’s poem On Nature?2 Is a particular philosopher the key? Perhaps Heraclitus, Parmenides, Democritus? A system of thought, such as Abderitan atomism?3 Or a special idea? One of Parmenides’s perhaps?4 At the very least, certainly nothing that follows the death of Plato’s teacher may be called Pre-Socratic.
How, then, are we to understand the integration of Democritus into that constellation? For centuries there had been a mixing of absolute materialists and total idealists, atomists and spiritualists, believers of myth and holders of reason, geographers and mathematicians, Milesians and Ionians, and so many other views.5 Or a better question: Who can explain how the philosopher from Abdera (Democritus) can be the Pre-Socratic with the largest preserved corpus, knowing that calculations place him as a rough contemporary of Socrates. He survived the latter by three decades? Why such a flagrant error (acknowledged but not corrected by Jean-Paul Dumont in his Pléiade edition)?
Another fable concerns the white, European birth of philosophy. We tend to see all barbarians as the same; we take this fantastical genealogy as a real one. All of this presupposes a lexicon of yellows, negroes, and crossbreeds. But in terms of skin, there was nothing particularly white about the racist Greeks, who also had little to do with democracy (another common trope: the Greeks invented democracy)! They celebrated pure lineage—the sole criterion for participation in the life of the city—while excluding women, nonwhite aliens, domestic aliens, and impure whites from that famous “democracy,” which really amounted to the single city of Athens.
The miracle of the Greeks was that the Logos came down from the heavens. What, then, to make of Pythagoras’s travels to Egypt and the knowledge and wisdom he found there? What about Democritus’s travels in Persia and among the Indians, Ethiopians, and Egyptians? What about his meetings with Chaldean astronomers, Persian magicians, Indian gymnosophists, both on their own lands and as they passed through Greece?6 Greek white purity denies the mixing of people and ideas. Could barbarian cosmopolitan impurity have played a determining role in their thought? Shudder to think

In the realm of official philosophy, fables rule. We don’t question the dominant historiography. This is not surprising, since historiography is never taught as an integral part of philosophy. Nobody spends time on that craft; you don’t philosophize about glossing over philosophy’s history. Why not blur out the rough spots, forcing diversity into forms that diminish the vitality of thought? Why not adopt a single, great, prepackaged story?
An epistemology of the discipline seems inappropriate, yet we love Marxist-Leninist histories of philosophy, or similar projects signed by a Christian author. Why would historiography taught in institutions be neutral? In the name of what would it defy ideological expectations? Particularly those of a civilization marked for two thousand years by the Christian worldview? When we produce a history of a given discipline, it should be objective; the point is not to preserve our own cultural episteme.
Our historiography was formed over two thousand years by conscious and determined actors; by faithful scribes and archivists; by the events of history, such as papal support, revolts, natural catastrophes, adverse conditions, and inconstant means of preservation; by the good and bad will of different actors; by personal initiatives and ideological choices of the State; by the meddling of forgers; by the campaigns of incompetents; and so forth. All of these contribute to the production of a primitive canon, which helps us carve out some kind of order.
Who writes the history of philosophy? According to what principles? With what objectives? To show what? To whom? From what perspectives? What is the beginning of the practice of History? The Encyclopedia? The Dictionary? The textbook? Who publishes, distributes, and diffuses it? Where? For what audience? What readers? When these works fall into our hands, there is a more or less well-intentioned and capable cohort in the shadows reading over our shoulders.
The Platonic A Priori
Those two terms are very telling: dominant historiography is based on an a priori in relation to which everything sensible is a fiction. The one true reality is invisible. The Allegory of the Cave is a manifesto for classical philosophy: on the one hand, the truth of Ideas, the excellence of the Intelligible World, and the beauty of the Concept; and on the other hand, the ugliness of the sensible world, the rejection of the world’s materiality, and the discrediting of tangible and immanent reality. To understand what this world-view is about, we should look at who sets up, illustrates, and follows these a priori principles.
When Whitehead joked during his Gifford Lectures that the history of philosophy in Europe is a series of footnotes to Plato, he was not altogether wrong.7 As he implied, anything not related to the Greek philosopher is forgotten, ignored, denigrated, or bullied. By not translating, by not producing critical editions, by leaving the canon scattered among the shambles of antique literature, we ignore the work going on in universities, in dissertations, articles, and other publications. We thus thwart the teaching and diffusion of what are still important ideas.
Using the principle of Christ, we write a history of philosophy celebrating the religion of the Idea and Idealism. Socrates is the messiah put to death for incarnating the revelation of the philosophically intelligible Ideal;8 Plato is the apostle—even the St. Paul—of the intelligible world. Idealist philosophy: there you have the revealed religion of occidental Reason. Consequently, we compute everything around Socrates: before him, after him; Pre-Socratic, Post-Socratic. Historiography even uses the terms minor Socratic and subsidiary Socratic to characterize Antisthenes, a cynic, and Aristippus, a Cyrenaic,9 both of whom created unique sensibilities. There is even the expression other Socratics, most notably for Simias and Cebes—both Pythagoreans!
Idealist domination over classical historiography is the main theme, but it undergoes a number of variations. For example, Christianity, having become the official religion and philosophy, discards that which generated its lineage—Abderitan materialism, Leucippes’s and Democritus’s atomism, Epicurus and the Greek Epicureans, the late Romans, cynical nominalism, Cyrenaic hedonism, sophist perspectivism and relativism—privileging its own propaedeutic: dualism, the immaterial soul, reincarnation, the denigration of the material body, antipathy for life, and the ascetic ideal. Pythagorean and Platonic postmortem salvation and damnation suited it perfectly.
Later on, Christianity watched, with unfeigned gladness, the flourishing of the spirit and tone of medieval scholasticism. It experienced the joy of its greatest hours again with the German Idealism initiated by Kant and consummated by Hegel, who is never held sufficiently accountable for the harm he committed to historiography, with his testament to arrogance, self-satisfaction, pretension, and the philosophical nationalism of his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, which contemporary followers hold as a model of a philosophia perrenis, but white, idealist, European

To say again: the dominant historiography is idealist. It can be split into three periods: the Platonic period, the Christian era, and German Idealism. In the language of official school syllabi: Plato, Descartes, and Kant; The Republic and its cave of Ideas, the Discourse on Method and its thinking substance, and The Critique of Pure Reason, with its phenomena, of course, but mainly its noumena, the German reincarnation of the Platonic Idea.10 These are enough to sell the illusion of variety while peddling the same thing under a different name

A Counterhistory of Philosophy
Constructing such a lovely garden, with its straight walkways and well-pruned hedges, takes work. We have to prune, trim, and cut often. We have to put one author ahead of another, one way of thinking before another. We have to highlight certain trends, doing everything possible to elevate one’s own thesis and relegate the names, arguments, books, and concepts of others to the dungeons. Putting one thing into the light entails putting another into obscurity. Nevertheless, important, unexploited material is left in the shadows. The purpose of my course at the UniversitĂ© Populaire de Caen (see La CommunautĂ© philosophique) is to exhume that alternative historiography.
Historiography has thus forgotten things, or at best ignored them. It has passed them over, knowingly or unknowingly. It shelves things away. Armed with prejudice, it does this without qualms. For example, we customarily do not consider the cynics as philosophers. What’s more, Hegel has written in black and white, “They offer nothing but anecdotes.” Sophists? Until their most recent rehabilitations, we have looked at them through the eyes of Plato, that is, as philosophical mercenaries for whom there is no truth and in whose eyes all that matters is triumph in debate. Historiography strives to prevent modernity from being recognized in the ideas of relativism, perspectivism, and nominalism—or in one word, Anti-Platonism.
The agents of traditional historiography realize Plato’s incredible dream. The evidence is there in the case of Diogenes LaĂ«rtius—Lives, Doctrines, and Sayings of the Eminent Philosophers (IX, 40)—and I find it strange that we never consider his history philosophically. Plato, in effect, wanted all the books of Democritus to end up in a bonfire. His work was too prolific, too successful, and too ubiquitous. It took two Pythagoreans—Amyclas and Clinias—to dissuade Plato from committing such a heinous crime. He was the philosopher-inventor of the modern auto-da-fĂ©.
This explains why in Plato’s entire corpus we don’t find the name Democritus mentioned a single time! That omission is tantamount to a conceptual auto-da-fĂ©. Democritus received this treatment because of the import of his work—especially since it is the doctrine most likely to challenge and jeopardize the fabrications of Plato. It employs clear, frank, honest, and intellectual exegesis. The antimaterialist faction took shape during the life of Plato himself and the logic of the classical and dominant historiography repeats the following trope: “We do not accord the slightest dignity to that other philosophy—the reasonable one, the rational one, the anti-mythological one verifiable only through good sense,” which is something philosophies so often lack

This seems to be the story: by reviving the materialism of the man from Abdera (Democritus), Epicurus and the Epicureans triggered an assault by the idealists. They railed against the philosophy of the Garden. And that was just during his lifetime. They called it crude, lascivious, lazy, porcine, drunk, gluttonous, dishonest, profligate, malicious, wicked, plagiaristic, arrogant, complacent, conceited, uneducated, and so on. In short, they said that Epicurus and his disciples were pigs unworthy of inclusion in the pantheon.11
Such slander persists in the canon. Ataraxia, as the definition of pleasure—that is, the absence of disturbance through a skillful management of natural and necessary pleasures—is considered the trivial pleasure of an animal lost in primitive enjoyments. Atomism—that is, reducing the world to a combination of atoms within a void—is considered a theory for those with no intelligence. Because he welcomed slaves, women, and foreigners into the Garden, it was said that they all fell victim to his unbridled sexuality, and the like. The details of these slanders haven’t changed for twenty centuries.
Only in antiquity is the counterhistory of philosophy so identifiable: it comes down to the enemies of Plato! This is almost entirely true: for example, Leucippus, the founder of atomism; Democritus; then Antisthenes, Diogenes, and other cynics; Protagoras, Antiphon, and a handful of sophists; Aristippus of Cyrene and the Cyrenaics; Epicurus and his followers. These were major players. Later on, other figures emerged to counteract the fiction built around the character of Jesus, to counteract the Fathers of the Church who turned the empire Christian, and to counteract the medieval scholastics. In the shadows were licentious gnostics (Carpocrates, Epiphanes, Simon Magus, and Valentine), followed by the brothers and sisters of the Free Spirit (Bentivenga de Gubbio, Heilwige Bloemardinne), the brothers of BrĂŒnn, and other luminaries. Those obscure unknowns, with their theoretical pantheism and practical philosophical orgies, were much more exciting than the monks of the desert, chaste bishops, and other monastic cenobites

We can say the same about the constellation of Christian Epicureanism inaugurated by Lorenzo Valla in the quattrocento in a work called De Voluptate (never translated into French until some of my friends and I rectified that). It was expanded by Pierre Gassendi and passed through ...

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