Onfray and Shining: Turn up the Lights

“Turn up the Lights” exclaims Michel Onfray in his book on the enlightenment: “Les Ultras des Lumières”. He shows that the enlightenment contained many figures that were not very radical despite their rhetoric. He points out that many enlightenment figures were not atheists at all but deists who find religion useful for maintaining the people in their place. He distinguishes the pale Enlightenment figures who defend deism, distrust the people, and accomodate to the official power from the more radical figures (the “ultras”) who defend a thoroughgoing immanence (that Onfray further specifies in terms of atheism, materialism, hedonism and communism) and who defend the free exercise of reason by everyone and in all domains  :

“This is why all these deists, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot … and d’Alembert are indefatigable in their critiques of materialist thought: La Mettrie comes under fire from all that clique, which further does not hesitate to attack Meslier and Helvetius, d’Holbach and Sade. For what motive? Their atheism, their materialism, their critique of the Church, their refusal of religions – so many radical condemnations that the pale Enlightenment find distasteful”. (p24, my translation)

Onfray contrasts Voltaire who denies that an atheist can be moral and Bayle who declares that this is perfectly possible. He ties this to the pale Enlightenment that makes its peace with religion as a form of social control, even if it criticises historical Christianity. Further there s the difference between those (the pale, the dull) who think that the free exercise of reason must be limited to the élite and their “salons”, and the others (the bright, the intense) who believe that the free exercise of reason is for everyone and for all of life, not just in special contexts. That being said, in a time of persecution only a fool would cry from the rooftops his unbelief. But the excuse of prudence and dissimulation cannot cover all the deviations we discover from the myth surrounding certain figures. Galileo was right to renounce, Descartes was probably right not to publish his Treatise on Light, but Voltaire was wrong to justify the death penalty for atheists.

So I think that Levi Bryant’s idea that Enlightenment is immanence is a useful rule of thumb for sorting out those tendencies that really are enlightening (as Enlightenment in this sense is a process), from those that are half-measures and compromises, shining with only the pallid light of their continued submission to transcendence. The problem comes from not enough enlightenment, not enough immanence.

Onfray’s criteria for characterising the radical Enlightenment come quite close to Levi’s: he speaks explicitly in terms of immanence and of the free and democratic use of reason (which corresponds to Levi’s epistemological immanence). He spells these two criteria out in his four subcriteria of atheism and materialism (which correspond to Levi’s refusal of a hierarchy of being, his « flat ontology »), communism (a politics of immanence), and hedonism (an ethics of immanence). So the two accounts are quite close.

One should never forget that Onfray is a nominalist and so does not think in terms of unitary essences but rather in terms of assemblages and of processes in and operations on assemblages. For example, for him there is no essence of Europe, rather « Europe » is the name for an assemblage of juxtaposed elements in continual variation and whose relations  and interactions themselves are variable. So the only unity comes from a political and ideological process of unification that Onfray calls « christianisation ». This process was of course always incomplete and succeeded only in creating a majoritarian fact constantly worked over by its own marginalised minorities and whose fragile unity was always threatened from within by these same minorities. Other processes of unification have always coexisted with the process of Christianisation, for example the radical Enlightenment with its values of immanence, the free and democratic exercise of reason. In the next part of the interview I am summarizing he claims that Camus gave a possible solution to the « death of Europe » by proposing a blueprint for a a completely different political construction on totally different principles than those implemented in the construction of the European Union. So no essence is implied, nor intrinsic destiny. As to « religion » Onfray says that liberalism itself is a religion, and he does not restrict the word exclusively to those based on transcendence. An immanent religion is possible. In fact in one of his books « Contre-histoire de la philosophie 3: Les libertins baroques » he devotes a chapter to Spinoza and declares
« to put an end to all the transcendences and the hinterworlds consubstantial with religion, Spinoza proposes an immanent religion, even more a religion of immanence » (p253, my translation).
It would be conceivable, but probably not desirable, to qualify the Enlightened libertarian immanentist sensibility that Onfray finds in Camus a « religion of immanence » that could if widely adopted give new life to the European process. But this new European civilisation would imply a new cartography. For example « Europe » would include Maghreb.

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3 commentaires pour Onfray and Shining: Turn up the Lights

  1. dmf dit :

    I’ll try one more time and than leave it alone, there are (have been) no « majoritarian » facts. When you ask (let alone watch to see what they actually do) any group of people how they define/relate to any fact/idea/event you will get as many opinions as you have people, ask the same people at a later date,and or in another setting and you will get even more diversity. No one has yet been able to explain to me either what the « more » is that a designated group has than the sum of the individuals involved or how (by what means) people supposedly come to share orientations. Any one who has tried to institute norms/standards and or otherwise organize people can tell you that it is a nearly impossible task even often for simple time limited matters. This is why it is so hard to scale up (and or have « centralized » leadership for) efforts like healthcare and education and why much of manufacturing and other fields have turned to mechanization. We have always been lead by minority (and fractured/tense ones at that) groups and until someone comes up with a way for masses of people to overcome their cognitive-biases we always will.


  2. terenceblake dit :

    there are two points in the background assumptions of your last two comments,(1) an ethical point and (2) an epistemological point
    (1) somehow you feel yourself authorised to tell me that what I write is « gibberish » and when I go to some pains to explain the sense of it you seize on one phrase and declare superbly:

    there are no « majoritarian » facts

    After, you give what is supposed to be an argument against all my writing and all my concepts, so basically you are telling me that everything that I have written on this blog is BS.

    2)your argument is based on some crude combination of naïve individualism (« No one has yet been able to explain to me either what the “more” is that a designated group has than the sum of the individuals involved ») along with primitive nominalism (« There never was a Europe except on some maps and such »).
    The basic idea seems to be: only exists what you esteem exists. So to refute my talk about majoritarian facts, Europe, civilisations, religions etc you proceed by fiat: They don’t exist, you say, there are only the behaviours of individual people (what they do), including their verbal behaviour (what they say).
    But then you immediately go on to contradict yourself by blithely talking about such abstractions as: orientations, leadership, healthcare, education, and mechanization.
    You quote Wittgenstein, who gave a concerted critique of the idea that the world could be reduced down to elements. You quote Rorty who said that there is no one basic « true » vocabulary for describing the world, to which all other vocabularies must be reduced or be deemed « gibberish ». You participate in a blog about a book that takes its starting point in the idea of incommensurate understandings of being and whose every page rejects the dogmatic assumption of a single commensurating understanding (as you know, this is the aspect of the book I like and wish to encourage the authors to go even further). So you seem to be in pragmatic contradiction with yourself, to say the least. And you give me stern lessons in what exists or not.
    You even go so far as to say that Europe does not exist, knowing full well that I live in Europe (let me quote it again: « There never was a Europe except on some maps and such »). I can assure you that I can go anywhere in Europe freely, but I need a visa if I want to travel to any non-European country, and that can be time-consuming and costly. So a simple argument from causality, Europe and other countries have real effects on my life, would suggest that Europe exists.
    Also, I live in France. Noone has tried to institute the basic norm of francophonie, but everyone speaks French as a majoritarian fact (of course there are tourists, immigrants, aphasics and mutes, but you get the idea). Of course, it is conceivable that many officially « majoritarian » (notice I didn’t say « majority », but you glossed over that nuance) standards may in fact represent minority practices (to take a trivial example, this is how grammars and dictionaries evolve).
    I must admit that I was quite surprised and hurt by your accusation of gibberish and by your seeming exasperation at my incomprehension and my persisting in the errors of my ways. I began this blog to speak in my own name and to enter into dialogue with people who want to speak in their own name. So the idea is discussion and dialogue, not lesson-giving; understanding, not necessarily agreement. I want to open more doors than I shut. So I would be sad if we could no longer understand each other.
    Cheers, Terry.


    • dmf dit :

      terry, certainly meant no offense and apologize if you felt attacked, my overly aggressive verbiage was aimed at what/who you quoted and not at your person. it appears I have reached a personal limit for the limits (or at least my capacity for it) of blog commenting and will be withdrawing before offending anymore folks like yourself who are kindly putting yourself and your ideas out there. take care, d.


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