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Conversations with Jeannie Carlier
and Arnold I. Davidson
Pierre Hadot
Translated byMarc Djaballah
. I
Stanford University Press
Stanford) California
The Present Alone Is Our Happiness: Conversations withJeannie Carlier andArnold
J. Davidson was originally published in French under the title La Philosophic
comme maniere de vivre. Entretiens avecJeannie earlier et Arnold I. Davidson
2001, Editions Albin Michel.
~ ~ ~
~ L ( 3 0
, H'334- English translation 2009 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford
A- 5" Junior University. All tights reserved.
~ q
Publication assistance for this book was provided by the
French Ministry of Culture-National Center for the Book.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any
means) electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or in
any information storage or retrieval system without the prior written permission
of Stanford University Press.
The translator wishes to thank Cheri Lynne Carr for her assistance in the
translation of this volume.
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free, archival-quality paper
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Hadot, Pierre.
[Philosophie comme maniere de vivre. English]
The present alone is our happiness: conversations with Jeannie Carlier and
Arnold I. Davidson / Pierre Hadot, Marc Djaballah.
p. em. - (Cultural memory in the present)
Originally published in French under the title La Philosophie comme maniere
de vivre.
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN 978-0-847-4835-3 (cloth: alk. paper)
ISBN 978-0-8047-4836-0 (pbk, : alk. paper)
I. Hadot, Pierre-Interviews. 2. Philosophers-France-Interviews.
3. Philosophy, Ancient. 4. Philosophy-History. I. Djaballah, Marc, 1975-
II. Carlier, Jeannie. III. Davidson, Arnold Ira. IV. Title. V. Series.
I Tied to the Apron Strings of the Church
2 Researcher, Teacher, Philosopher
3 Philosophical Discourse
4 Interpretation, Objectivity, and Nonsense
5 Unitary Experience and Philosophical Life
6 Philosophical Discourse as Spiritual Exercise
7 Philosophy as Life and as Quest for Wisdom
8 From Socrates to Foucault. A Long Tradition
9 Unacceptable?
10 The Present Alone Is Our Happiness
To change life. Even to change a life. Few books have this effect.
And yet, after reading Qu'est-ce que la philosophie antique? [What is An-
cient philosophy?], this is what a young American, who was not a philoso-
pher but a historian, wrote to Pierre Hadot: "You changed my life." This
reader anticipated a question that I asked Hadot in these interviews: "Be-
yond their great erudition, are your books not protreptics, that is, books
that aim to turn ttrepein in Greek) the reader toward philosophical life?"
Carrying out this aim involves two distinct projects: on the one hand, to
inform the reader of a set of facts that decisively show that for the Greeks
philosophy was not the construction of a system but a choice of life; and
on the other hand, to allow the reader to turn toward philosophy thus
understood. The distinction is captured by the difference between the
French title of Hader's book Exercices spirituels etphilosophie antique [Spir-
itual exercises and ancient philosophy], which certainly does not grab one's
attention (although it sold well), and the title of the English translation,
Philosophy as a Way ofLife. This unfaithful title is certainly not mislead-
ing, however. In the interviews contained in this volume, Hadot explains
what might be called the indirectly protreptic character of his three great
works of erudition on ancient philosophy: Exercices spirituels et philosophie
antique (1981), La Citadelle interieur[The inner citadel] (1992), and Qu'est-
ceque faphilosophie antique?(1995). He invokes Kierkegaard's "method of
indirect communication) and suggests that rather than telling people to
"do this," one "allows a call to be heard"; by describing the "spiritual ex-
ercises lived by another, [one can] give a glimpse of and suggest a spiritual
attitude, allow a call to be heard" (Chapter 9). These three books do this
with irreproachable erudition that remains clear and is never weighty. Let-
ters that Hadot has received from readers are) as it were, proof that the call
has been heard. Perhaps the present book goes slightly beyond these dis-
x Introduction
crete suggestions. The discussions presented in it do not attempt to answer
the question What isancient philosophy?even though they do often discuss
Greek and Latin philosophers. "The main problem that poses itself to the
philosopher," Hadot maintains-not at the beginning of these interviews,
as a program, but at the end, as an assessment-"is ultimately to know
what it is to do philosophy" (Chapter 8). To this central question-What
is it to do philosophy?-Hadot ultimately gives only one answer, but an an-
swer that is modulated in rather diverse forms, as though variations on a
theme. These modulations of his response are inscribed in his intellectual
and personal "path" of development, which is retraced in the first inter-
views and revisited in subsequent interviews in the course of discussing
how to read and interpret ancient philosophy, what is perennial in it and
what might no longer be acceptable for us; about the value we can find in
the "experimental laboratories" that are the ancient philosophies; and in a
word, about how they can help us to live better.
In its first form, Hader's response is extraordinarily precocious: he
was practically still a child when the sky-the starry sky-granted him
an unforgettable, inexpressible experience (remarkably, the idea that what
is most important cannot be said appeared already) that he subsequently
recognized as what Romain Rolland called the "oceanic sentiment": "1
was filled with an anxiety that was both terrifying and delicious, provoked
by the sentiment of the presence of the world, or of the Whole [Tout], and
of myself as part of this world" (Chapter I). "1 think that I have been a
philosopher since that time," Hadot says some sixty years later (Chapter
I). Thus he did not wait for his encounter with ancient philosophers (he
studied Thomism first, a systematic philosophy if ever there was one) to
discover that philosophy is not the construction of a system but a lived
experience. Hador identifies Rolland's "oceanic sentiment" with Michel
Hulin's "savage mysticism," which he discusses several times in the con-
versations presented here. To the mysticism of negation and separation
that in his youth had so fascinated him in Plotinus (aphele panta, "remove
everything") he prefers a mysticism of welcoming: "welcome all things."
Hadot's superb anthology that concludes this volume makes it clear that
the "oceanic sentiment," felt many times throughout his life, has not
ceased to nourish his philosophical reflection. This is the only theme that
does not originate in ancient thought: in their admirable texts the ancients
Introduction Xl
expressed their amazement before the cosmos and" the lived awareness of
belonging to the great chain of being that puts us into solidarity with
stones, trees, animals, men, and the stars; but if they felt this sense offu-
sion with the whole, they did not say so.
Hadot's first real contact with ancient philosophy was indirect. It
was through Montaigne that he discovered the famous Platonic defini-
tion: Philosophy is an exercise in dying. "Perhaps I did not understand' it
properly at the time," Hadot says today, "but it was in fact one of the texts
that led me to represent philosophy as something other than a theoretical
discourse" (Chapter 8). Montaigne's text is rich precisely because, when it
is not taken absolutely and out of context, it supports several interpreta-
tions, and it gradually migrates to the heart of Hader's reflection both as a
scholar and as a human being.
Yet it was not this Platonic phrase from Monraigne that allowed
Hadot to discover that ancient philosophical discourses did not aim to
construct systems; he came to see this through what (on reflection and
without worrying about adhering to current trends, which is never a
concern for him) he called "spiritual exercises." It was rather the realiza-
tion of a Frenchman who by grade 9 had already been taught to write a
well-formed essay with a clear discourse and without repetition or con-
tradiction. Ancient philosophical discourse, by contrast, did not respond
to criteria of order and clarity. The works of Aristotle and Augustine are
poorly written, and those of Plato contradict themselves. Although Hadot
is obviously not the first to have pointed out these facts, he calls our atten-
tion to a particularly important consequence. In the present interviews,
addressing himself to the nonspecialist more directly than in perhaps any
of his previous works, Hadot shows that the inconsistencies of ancient
philosophers are explained by the fact that they are addressed to a specific
audience or listener. Hadot aimed not to inform but rather to persuade,
transform, or produce a "formative effect"-in short, to persuade the lis-
tener that the ancient treatises are, almost without exception, protreptics,
and that at the same time these discourses, whether dialogues or not, are
also "experiences of thought" or exercises in "how to think," for the benefit
of the listener and sometimes with his or her collaboration. For the an-
cients, philosophy was above all a way of life, and this is why they called
not only the Cynics, who had no theoretical discourse, philosophers, but
XlI Introduction
also anyone-including women, simple citizens, and political men-who
lived as a philosopher, even without writing or teaching, These people
were called philosophers because the ancients considered philosophy to
be above all a way of life. They admired Socrates for his life and his death
more than for his doctrine, which was not written and was immediate-
ly captured and modified by those who used his name. In the present
conversations, Hadot gives brief indications of this theme's resurgence
beyond the Christian Middle Ages. He also emphasizes the temptation,
for all philosophers, to believe that to do philosophy is to construct an
impeccable and absolutely new theoretical discourse. "The more or less
skillful construction of a conceptual edifice will become an end in itself"
(Chapter 3), and "the philosopher always has a tendency to be content
with his own discourse" (Chapter 8). This slope is especially steep in a
country in which the formal philosophical essay sows the first seeds of
many honorable merits.
Hadot's interpretation of Plato's text on the exercise of death, re-
inforced by years of extensive work with the ancient texts from both the
Platonic and the Stoic traditions, departs entirely from the fascination
with death, from the Christian memento mori as from all exegesis that
would make death preferable to life. For Hadot, to exercise death is re-
ally to exercise life, that is, to overcome "the partial and biased self" [Ie
moi partiel et partial], to elevate oneself to a "vision from above," to a
"universal perspective." This triadic, but ultimately unified theme is-like
a leitmotif-constantly taken up in the course of these interviews, for
Hadot sees possible applications in all the dimensions and situations of
everyday life, for all human beings. To overcome the "partial and biased
self" is first to become aware of our belonging to the human community,
and of the necessity to keep the good of this koinonia in view when we
act. Hadot masterfully shows the importance of this theme both in the
discourse of ancient philosophy and in the practice of the ancient philoso-
phers, from Socrates to Plotinus, as well as of all those who, without being
"professional" philosophers, have been inspired by their precepts. Was it
known that the Scaevolas, adepts of Stoicism, showed themselves to be
honest magistrates? Or that governor Mucius Scaevola paid for his trips
out of his own pocket rather than use his position to fill his pockets, and
even demanded that his subordinates share this integrity? Or that when
Introduction xru
Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, who was accountable for millions of sub-
jects, learned of the deaths of child trapeze artists, he went to the trouble
of commanding that these exercises should henceforth be protected by
nets? Or that he asked himself about the legitimacy of the war in which
he was involved as he defended the Roman borders against the Sarmatians
somewhere in the Balkans? These principles and examples are useful for
application to contemporary contexts without having to be updated.
In line with the ancient philosophers, perhaps especially Aristotle,
Hadot considers this rule-the overcoming of the "partial and biased
self,' and the "look from above" or the "universal perspective"-also to
constrain the scholar: "In order to study a text or microbes or the stars,
one must undo oneself from one's subjectivity" (Chapter 4). Both in the
practice ofdemocracy and in scientific work, "one must undo oneself from
the partiality of the individual and impassioned self in order to elevate
oneself to the universality of the rational self" (Chapter 4). Hadot breaks
a spear on the timely idea that all discourses are of equal value, that all in-
terpretations are equally subjective, that is, incapable not only of attaining
objectivity but even of attempting to do so. Let there be no mistake, how-
ever: because the historian-in particular the historian of philosophy-is
in question, it is clear that adopting a universal perspective can in no way
imply the aim to interpret texts as though they were outside time, place,
or the society in which they were produced. Hadot explains the shift in
his course of development from an atemporal and atopical conception of
philosophical discourse, which he considers to be. nefariously widespread,
to one that takes its historical inscription into account with precision
(Chapter 8).
For the ancients, this self-overcoming or universal perspective con-
cerns not only the scholar and the politician but the entire human genre.
The Greeks were the first to conceive of the unity of the human com-
munity, slaves included, and to proclaim themselves citizens of the world.
When asked about the meaning of chis "universal perspective," and about
its relation to Kant's "universal law" (Chapter 8), Hadot underlines their
resemblances: in Kant, "morality creates itself in the unexpected and, in a
sense, heroic leap that brings us from a limited perspective to a universal
perspective" (Chapter 8), or "from a self that sees only its own interest to a
self open to other humans and to the universe" (Chapter 8). This is indeed
XIV Introduction
the heritage ofSocrates, who said to the Athenians, "Who more than I has
forgotten his personal interest to take care of you?"
Three further, related themes are admirably expressed-much more
effectively than I could do here in a few lines-in the small collection of
texts that closes the volume. Hadot initially encountered the first theme
in high school when writing an essay on a text by Henri Bergson that
defined philosophy as "the decision taken once to look at the world naively
in and around oneself." He found this naive perception in the ancients,
for example, in Seneca's text that he cites, as well as in painters and po-
ets closer to our time. Another connected theme is related to the aware-
ness of the importance of the instant constantly expressed by the Stoics
and the Epicureans (this is the actual meaning of the Epicurean Horace's
carpe diem), but also by certain modern authors, such as Montaigne and
Goethe-the present alone is our happiness. This wealth of the instant
is tied to what Hadot calls "the pure happiness of existing"-wonder,.
but also, for the moderns, anxiety and even terror before the enigma of
These themes are quite obviously intertwined. The "oceanic senti-
ment" is the fine point of what Hadot calls cosmic conscience: to experi-
ence the present instant-s-the only time and the only place we can grasp
in the immensity of the times and places to which we belong-means "to
live as though we were seeing the world both for the last and for the first
time" (Chapter 10), as though looking at the world naively for the first
time. And the consciousness of belonging to the world is also inclusion
in the community of humans, with the ensuing duties. Will we say that
Hadot has ceded in turn to the temptation to construct an impeccable
system? In no way. Metaphysics and ontology are entirely absent from the
present volume. Plato had previously attempted to prove rationally that
virtue is more advantageous than vice, that it is in our interest to do good.
This is not the case here. Nothing is proven. Happiness is not promised.
In fact, nothing at all is promised. We are told only that today, as in the
day of Socrates or Marcus Aurelius, a certain number of principles that
guided the everyday life of these philosophers can also produce for us a
life that is "more conscious, more rational, more open to others and to the
immensity of the world" (Chapter 7).
Introduction xv
Thus this is a book written for everyone. Does this mean it holds
no interest for professional philosophers? I do not think so. A mix of co-
incidences and predictable consequences has given this book three voices,
united by friendship. Arnold I. Davidson is professor of philosophy at the
University of Chicago; he is the person primarily responsible for introduc-
ing Pierre Hadot to the United States, and for arranging for his works to be
translated into English. For some time he had had the project of conduct-
ing interviews with Hadot. When Helene Monsacre, our editor-aware of
my very old friendship with Hadot and his wife-approached him about
a series of interviews, the four of us decided that Davidson and I would
share the task. We were well aware that our questions, our interests, and
our spheres ofcompetence were not the same. Davidson is really a philoso-
pher and very attuned to all of the contemporary philosophical problems.
For my part, I evoked themes that were only marginally philosophical,
such as the critique of astrology, prayer, and Stoic determinism, as I do
in my seminar at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. The
result is that, like ancient philosophical discourses, this book contains, if
not contradictions, at least repetitions, themes approached from different
points of view-one could almost say, answers that address the listener,
whether "profane" or "professional" philosopher. Its unity is closer to that
of a sonata than to that of an essay. Thus it is clear that the question here
is not about the construction of a system but about philosophy as a way
of life.
Jeannie Carlier
Tied to the Apron Strings
of the Church
Jeannie earlier: You were born in Paris to French parents, but your
cousins spoke German. May we assume that it is not an accident that you are
asfond ofGoethe asyou are of'Montaigne?
My mother was the daughter of a man from Lorraine who had re-
fused to opt for Germany at the time of the annex of Alsace-Lorraine
in 1871. She had found work at Rheims as a cellar worker in a country
house. Every year during my childhood, around 1930, we would go on
vacation to the Lorraine repossessed by France afterthe First World War.
My cousins lived in villages or in small cities close to the German border,
not far from Sarreguemines and Sarralbe. Many of them spoke not French
but a German dialect. In the train stations, for example, all the instruc-
tions for the travelers were written in German. The parish priests, who did
not hide their hostility toward secular France, delivered their sermons in
high German, which was also used by the children to say their prayers in
Church. Catholicism was very rigorist. My shorts were scandalous. The
boys of my age wore pants that fell below the knee, in order to hide their
"pieces of flesh," as the Bliesbri.ickpriest would say. The parish priests, de-
cently paid thanks to the concordat with the Vatican that was maintained
in Alsace-Lorraine by France after the war, were absolute masters in their
parish. For example, in the 1920S, the priest ofZetting had refused to give
2 Tiedto theApron Strings ofthe Church
my cousin Communion, humiliating her in front of the other parishioners
because, as was the fashion after the war, she had cut her hair.
So I encountered the problem of the complex relations between
France and Germany very early, during my childhood, through the expe-
rience of Lorraine vacations, but also by way of the stories of my grand-
father and my parents, who had had to leave Rheims on foot in 1914 and
had finally found refuge in Paris, where I was born in 1922. They returned
to Rheims a month after my birth, to a city almost entirely destroyed by
the bombings. It took twenty years to repair the cathedral, inaugurated in
1939-on the eve of the Second World War. I have always loved the good
city of Rheims, famous for its cathedral and its champagne, where I lived
from 1922 to 1945.
To get back to Lorraine, I have always been annoyed by the igno-
rance of the French de l'interieur ["mainland"] (as those from Lorraine
say) about the part of France in which German was spoken. At the begin-
ning of the war, in 1939, Lorraine had been completely evacuated. One
of my cousins from Lorraine, who was able to return to his village under
exceptional conditions, found his house ransacked; stupidly, the pigs had
even been locked in the closets. The French, seeing German inscriptions,
thought they were in Germany.
Speaking more generally, the ignorance that many French have of
German realities irritates me. I think, for example, of a rather dramatic
event that took place around 1970. A young German professor had been
invited to give a paper in Paris. On this occasion, he met a professor, a
French and Jewish historian, whose parents had died in the Holocaust.
He refused to shake his German colleague's hand. He later told me this,
and that he had suffered from it terribly because his own father, a com-
munist, had died in a concentration- camp. Why would one have the sys-
tematic and blind attitude of this French historian, ignorant of or ignoring
the fact that others in the opposing camp might have suffered' as well?
But I think that everything worth saying on this subject has been said
in Alfred Grosser's admirable book Le Crime et La memoire [Crime and
memory], which addressed in certain intellectuals a "display of the will
not to know."
Tied to the Apron Strings ofthe Church 3
]. C.: Your mother was a practicing Catholic?
My mother was very pious; she went to Mass every morning. She
was a very complex person: she was very happy, sang a great deal, and
sometimes amused herself by making appalling grimaces. Despite being
very sociable (as opposed to my father, who never wanted to see anyone),
she was hostile to young people and to exaggerated" mortifications, but
she was of an almost fanatical faith. In my childhood I felt that there was
conflict between my parents. My mother made me pray for the conversion
of my father, who no longer went to Mass and who sometimes made bi-
zarre allusions to my mother's confessor, the father of Bretizel, Since then,
I have come to understand that after my birth, my mother, who had been
very ill, could not have children. As a result, her confessor had forbidden
her to have conjugal relations, according to the doctrine of the Church:
no union if it does not aim at procreation. My father and my mother slept
in separate rooms. Eventually, my father went back to Sunday Mass, but
always alone, at six or seven in the morning. Every year he also took his
eight days of vacation, always alone, which, incidentally, was a privilege of
the employees of country houses; it took until 1936 for the employees and
the workers to be allowed paid vacations. He spent these vacations either
in Alsace or in the Sarre.
J C.: What memories do you have ofthis somewhat removedfather?
lowe him a great deal because of everything he taught me about the
most diverse subjects. He was self-taught. He..was from a village in the area
of Vertus in the Marne. His family was very poor and he had begun to
work at the age of eleven or twelve, at Chdlons-sur-Marne (as they said at
the time). This did not stop him from learning German and English, ste-
nography and accounting. It was also the period of Esperanto, the attempt
at a universal language. He had correspondents in Esperanto in various
European cities. He owned a good library of German books and had done
a study of the physical education associations (Turnvereine) in Germany.
He drew and painted well; I kept one of his self-portraits. An accident left
him blind toward the age of fifty. He endured this suffering with exem-
plary patience for twenty years, until his death. I learned braille from him.
We were very complicit: I often read to him, took walks with him.
4 Tied to theApron Strings ofthe Church
]. c.: Yourfather had thus somewhatmovedawayfrom religion, but you
received a veryreligious education nonetheless?
Yes, I would say, to invoke the title of a novel by Denise Bombardier,
that 1 had a "holy water childhood." I went to the grade school of the
Freres des Ecoles chretiennes, on rue de Contrai at Rheims. These reli-
gious men were very devout and gave us what seemed to be a very good
education. They also went to the effort of organizing our games at recess.
But we were quite scared by what they told us in the moral education that
took place every morning. There was, for example, the question of the ap-
pearance of the devil in the seances at the Masonic lodges, and of the nun
who appeared to another in a dream in order to reveal to her that she was
suffering eternal torments because, despite her exemplary Christian life,
she had hidden a mortal sin in confession.
My mother had had three sons (I was the last, ten and fifteen years
younger than my older brothers) and decided that her three sons would be
priests. She had decided this with such passion that when one of my broth-
ers, the one who she perhaps loved the most, asked her what she would
say if he left the priesthood, she replied, "I would rather see you dead,'
thereby repeating a phrase attributed in sermons to Blanche of Castile,
who is alleged to have said it to her son, Saint Louis, about "mortal sin."
In any case, I never imagined that I could do anything in life other than
what my two brothers did, and thus I naturally found myself at the Petit
Seminaire de Rheims at the age of ten.
I boarded there for two years, and then I lived at home because of
my delicate health. The priests who taught at the Petit Seminaire were
very devoted and qualified, especially those who were in the upper classes,
grades II and 12. They were really humanists who instilled in me the love
of antiquity. But some of the teachers of the "grammar" classes [roughly
grades 7 to 9] were not as qualified, and sometimes were of inferior moral
character. One of them, a uniformly detested eighth-grade teacher by the
name of Beuge, was even downright sadistic. Naively, I had taken him as
a confessor. When I would confess in his room, sometimes he would leave
me kneeling until I was so uncomfortable that I had to ask him to let me
sit down. In his eighth-grade class it was not rare to see an unfortunate
student sitting on the ground, holding a dictionary up in front of him in
a position knowingly chosen to hurt the most. This type of attitude was
Tied to theApron Strings ofthe Church 5
not, for that matter, foreign to the way the school was run in general.
Besides the public spanking I witnessed in seventh grade, administered by
the superior to a child who had misbehaved in the dormitory, on Monday
nights-Monday being the day that grades were given for conduct and
work from the previous week-one could see the elevated platform of
the refectory, where the professors had their meal, decorated by punished
children on their knees facing the other students or standing in a corner,
deprived of their meal.
J C.: Were you apious childyourself?
Yes, I had a faith that was completely naive but, I must say, without
enthusiasm. For example, the day ofmy first Communion my grandfather
said, "This is the happiest day of your life," and I wasn't happy at all that
he had told me that, because I did not feel anything special. When, at the
age of twelve, I went to Rome on a pilgrimage with my two brothers and
the pope appeared on the sedia gestatoria [portable throne], my brother
Henri began to scream, "Long live the pope!" and I was completely sur-
prised by this enthusiasm. I thought that it was interesting but that he did
not need to put himself into such a state.
Things changed at the time of my adolescence. Indeed, for a long
time I have had the impression of having been in the world only from the
time of my adolescence. I will always regret having thrown away-out of
Christian humility-s-the first notes written that were like the echo of my
personality, for it is very difficult for me now to rediscover the psychologi-
cal content of the overwhelming discoveries I made then. I do remember
their framework. One happened on rue Ruinart, on the path I took home
to my parents' house every day from the Petit Serninaire, Night had fallen.
The stars were shining in the immense sky. At this time one could still
see them. Another took place in a room of our house. In both cases I was
filled with an anxiety that was both terrifying and delicious, provoked by
the sentiment of the presence of the world, or of the Whole, and of me
in that world. In fact, I was incapable of formulating my experience, but
after the fact I felt that it might correspond to questions such as What am
I? Why am I here? What is this worldI am.ini i experienced a sentiment of
strangeness, of astonishment, and of wonder at being there. At the same
time I had the sentiment of being immersed in the world, of being a part
6 Tied to theApron Strings ofthe Church
of it, the world extending from the smallest blade of grass to the stars. This
world was present to me, intensely present. Much later I would discover
that this awareness of belonging to the Whole was what Romain Rolland
called the "oceanic sentiment." I believe that I have been a philosopher
since that time, ifby philosophy one means this awareness of existence, of
being-in-the-world. At that time I did not know how to formulate what I
felt, but I experienced the need to write, and I remember very clearly that
the first text I wrote was a sort of monologue in which Adam discovers
his body and the world around him. From this moment on I have had the
sentiment of being apart from others, for it did not seem possible that my
friends or even my parents could imagine things of the kind. It was only
much later that I realized that many people have analogous experiences,
_ but do not speak of them.
I began to perceive the world in a new way. The sky, the clouds, the
stars, the "evenings of the world," as I would say to myself, fascinated me.
With my back on the window ledge, I looked toward the sky at night with
the impression of being plunged into the starry immensity. This experi-
ence dominated my entire life. I experienced it many times again-several
times, for example, in front of Lac Majeur at Ascona: or at the sight of
the chain of the Alps from the bank of Lake Geneva at Lausanne or from
Salvan, in Valais. This experience has been the discovery for me of some-
thing overwhelming and fascinating that was absolutely not connected
to Christian faith. Thus it played an important role in my inner develop-
ment. Moreover, it considerably influenced: my conception of philosophy.
I have always conceived of philosophy as a transformation of one's percep-
tion of the world.
Since then, I have been strongly impressed by the radical opposition
between everyday life-which is 'lived in semiconsciousness and in which
we are g u i d e d ~ by autornatisms and habits without being aware of our exis-
renee in the world-and of the privileged states in which we live intensely
and are aware of our being in the world. Bergson as well as Heidegger
clearly distinguished these two levels of the self: the self that remains at
the level of what Heidegger calls the "they," and the one that rises to the
level ofwhat he calls the "authentic." I did not dare tell anyone what I had
experienced: I felt for the first time that there are things that cannot be
said. I also remembered that when the priests spoke about God or about
Tied to the Apron Strings ofthe Church 7
death, crushing or terrifying realities, they recited ready-made phrases
that appeared conventional and contrived to me. What was most essential
for us could not be expressed.
J C.: What is the relationship between the experience that would be-
come the leitmotif ofyour philosophy-what you often also call "the pure
joy ofexisting" and the certainty that what is most important cannot be said,
which you hadalready hadas an adolescent-and the religious educationyou
receivedat the Seminaire and at home?
It was an experience that was entirely foreign to Christianity. This
seemed much more essential, much more fundamental than the experi-
ence I could have in Christianity, in the liturgy, in the religious offic-
es. Christianity seemed to be tied rather to everyday banality. The two
worlds, the one of secret experience and the one of social convention, were
ultimately juxtaposed for me because at this age Christianity did not pose
any problems. Things were like that, and that is all there was to it. Later
I encountered someone for whom this situation posed a problem. It was
Reiner Schiirmann [the author of Principe d'anarchie [Principle of anar-
chy], Le Seuil, 1982], who attended my courses for at least a year at the Ecole
Pratique des Hautes Etudes in the 1970s, when he was a Dominican novice
at Saulchoir.' He was highly influenced by Heidegger, and his Christian
faith was juxtaposed without harmony onto his experience of "authentic"
existence, of the openness to Being. He shared with me personal notes in
which he expressed his helplessness, and I remained rather perplexed, not
knowing how to help him. I tried to put myself into his Christian perspec-
tive and to persuade him of the possibility of accepting this coexistence in
himself but I believe he ultimately renounced the Christian faith.
Moreover, while still at the Petit Seminaire, thanks to my excellent
professors, I also discovered Greek and Latin antiquity, Greek tragedy,
Virgil, and his Aeneid. In the tenth grade we studied the episode of Dido
and Aeneas. Although everything that had to do with love was hidden
from us, here there were very moving verses about this theme. Again I had
the confused impression-I did not clearly realize it-that there was an
experience here that was also entirely foreign to Christianity,
8 Tied to the Apron Strings ofthe Church
J c.: What you follow Romain Rolland in calling "oceanic sentiment, "
one might be inclined to call "cosmic sentiment," because it is more general.
Has it not, moreover, happened to e v e r y o n e ~ undoubtedly with less intensity?
But one does nothing about it, as though it is just something that falls on us
in this manner. Furthermore, you say that this "sentiment" is entirely foreign
to Christianity. In fact, with the exception ofthe Old Testament (the heavens
and the Earth tell the glory of'death), in all the Christian texts you cite-most
notably the Christian spiritual exercises-this sentiment does not appear a
great deal, whereas in antiquity, the sentiment ofwonder before nature is re-
peated with an extraordinary lyricism, not only amongpoets such as Lucretius,
but even among the driest ofphilosophers, such as Epictetus. Is this not ulti-
mately a deep rupture?
I would defend the expression "oceanic sentiment" used by Romain
Rolland, and on this basis I would distinguish this experience from the
experience of wonder in the face of nature, which I have also experienced.
In speaking of the oceanic sentiment, Romain Rolland wanted to express
a very particular nuance, the impression of being a wave in a limitless
ocean, of being part of a mysterious and infinite reality. Michel Hulin, in
his admirable book La Mystique sauvage [Savage mysticism] (and for him,
"savage mysticism" is nothing other than the oceanic sentiment), charac-
terizes this experience as "the sentiment of being present here and now in a
work that is itself intensely existing," and also speaks of a "sentiment of an
essential co-belonging between myself and the ambient universe.'? What
is capital is the impression of immersion, of dilation of the self in Another
to which the self is not foreign, because it belongs to it.
The sentiment of nature exists in the gospel. Jesus speaks of the
splendor of the lilies of the field. But I said that the oceanic sentiment-
as I experienced it, which is different from the sentiment of nature-is
foreign to Christianity because it does not involve either God or Christ.
It is something situated at the level of the pure sentiment of existing. I am
not certain that it was familiar to the Greeks. You are right to say that they
had the sentiment of nature, and they had it to the highest degree, but
they speak very rarely of immersion in the Whole. It is true that there is
this phrase by Seneca-toti se inserens mundo, "plunging into the totality
of the world"-with regard to the perfect soul." But in fact one cannot be
sure that it corresponds to the experience we are talking about. Perhaps
Tied to theApron Strings ofthe Church 9
there is also an allusion to this experience when Lucretius speaks of the
chill and of the divine will that seized him when thinking about infinite
spaces." The absence of literary testimony does not signify the absence of
the experience, but we are reduced to ignoring it.
This experience is, in any case, by no means exceptional. The most
diverse of writers allude to it, for example, Julien Green in his journal,
Arthur Koestler in Darkness at Noon, Michel Polac in his journal,
Jacqueline de Romilly in Sur les cheminsde Sainte-Victoire [On the paths
of Sainte-Victoire], Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, and perhaps
Rousseau in The Reveries ofa Solitary Walker(the fifth reverie), to mention
only a few names from a very long list. It is found in other cultures-such
as Hindu (in Ramakrishna, for example)! or Chinese: one can see it in
certain aspects of Chinese thought and painting.
j. C.: At the ageoffifteen, you enteredthe Grand Seminaire. What were
your impressions at the time? What wasa Grand Seminaire like at the end of
the I930s?
After the first part of my high school diploma, which included a
French essay, I entered the Rheims Grand Seminaire in 1937. I was very
happy there. We each had a room of our own, a luxury that had not
been allowed before then. Once night had fallen, the electricity was cut.
Often, before falling asleep, I looked at the immensity of the starry sky.
Intellectually speaking, the setting we worked in was agreeable. There
was meditation every morning, and we attended two Masses. The rest of
the day was divided between courses and reading and studying works of
spirituality. The philosophy class lasted two years. Thomist philosophy
was studied, but so was Bergson, who, after having been condemned by
the Church for writing L'euolution creatrice [Creative Evolution], had all
but become a Church Father since writing Les Deux Sources de la Morale
et de la Religion [The Two Sources of Morality and Religion]. Bergson has
had a considerable influence on the development of my thought insofar as
his philosophy centers on the experience of a bursting forth of existence,
of life, that we experience in ourselves in the exercise of willpower and
in duration, and when we see ourselves at work in the elan [motivating
force] that produces living evolution. I passed my high school examina-
tion in philosophy in 1939, and the subject of the essaywas this sentence by
10 Tied to theApron Strings o/the Church
Bergson: "Philosophy is not the construction of a system, but the resolu-
tion made once to look naively at the world in and around onesel" I have
often, too often perhaps, told about the enthusiasm I felt while treating
this subject. But this also testifies to the fact that it was a considerable
event for me, and it shows that in 1939 philosophy professors also ques-
tioned themselves about the problem of the essence of philosophy.
J c.: The war would break out the sameyear. How didyou experience
After the period that was called the Phony War, there was the offen-
sive of May 1940. All the inhabitants of Rheims had to be evacuated. The
Grand Seminaire sought refuge in Lucon, in Vendee. This gave me the
opportunity to discover the incredibly reactionary mentality of the clergy
from Vendee. During Sunday Mass at the Lucon Cathedral, prayer for
the Republic (in Latin at the time, Domine saluamfac rempublicam [God
save the Republic]) was not said. I played the organ during the proceed-
ings, and when the time came, I played the first notes and my co-disciples
made a scandal by breaking into this, one might say, revolutionary prayer.
I also think of a comment by a professor from the Lucon seminary when
he announced the armistice ofJune 1940 and the formation of the Petain
government: "At last we have a Catholic minister of national education!"
Millions of French were thrown into the street, hundreds of thousands of
soldiers were taken prisoner, France was defeated, humiliated, and that is
all they could come up with to tell us!
Shortly thereafter, I joined my parents, who had taken refuge near
La Rochelle. We stayed in the village of Croix-Chapeau until October,
during the course of which we were able to go back to Rheims. Then I
went back to the Grand Serninaire.
J c.: Didyou stay therethroughout the Occupation?
No, only between 1940 and 1942. In our ivory tower, life continued
as it did before. The only problem was nourishment, but the priests given
this task proved themselves very skilled at transporting meat and potatoes
into hiding, and the farmers were very generous. One day a German pilot
who was doing acrobatics above the high school nearby in order to impress
Tied to the Apron Strings ofthe Church I I
his mistress crashed into the steeple of the Grand Seminaire-s-but fortu-
nately not into the adjacent refectory, where we were eating! The Germans
rushed in and took over the seminary. We barely had time to hide the
sheep and calves in a classroom, where they did their business copiously. this way from famine, we could read the works of mys-
tic writers. I was especially interested in the monumental Histoire litteraire
du sentiment religieux [A literary history of religious thought] by Abbe
Bremond. But there was also Jean de la Croix [John of the Cross] and
his admirable poems, and Teresa of Avila, and Therese of Lisieux. Then
I fervently experienced the desire for mystical union. The idea of a direct
contact with God fascinated me. Ever since, I have asked myself the fol-
lowing question: "Given that God is absolute, how can there be contact
'and especially identification between what is relative and what is abso-
lute?" In the books of mysticism that we read, the director of conscience
played a considerable role: he was the guide on the path of purgatory, or
on the path of illumination, or on the path of unity-three steps, inci-
dentally, inherited from Neoplatonism. I was thus very disappointed to
discover that my director of conscience did not seem to be very interested
in this. I even changed my director of conscience, thinking that the new
one would be somewhat more inclined to address these questions, but they
were all very reserved.
J c.: Did you have the impression that the Churchs reserve toward
mysticism was rather typical? Although there had been such great Christian
mystics, mysticism was considered with suspicion. Was it not discouraged, just
as today, when a miracle appears, the Church becomes involved as little as
I believe that there is a historical problem here. It seems to me that in
the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, at the time ofJean de la Croix, or
later, of Fenelon, a great deal of attention was given to mystical phenom-
ena and to the classical paths inherited from Neoplatonism: the purgative,
illuminative, and unitary paths. The mentality has changed, but I do not
know the reasons for this. Whatever the case may be, we were not at
all encouraged to attain mystical experience, because ultimately it was
thought to be a matter of exceptional phenomena. What mattered was to
12 Tied to theApron Strings ofthe Church
do one's duty. In any case, given that Christian mystical experience was
a divine gift, one that cannot be attained by human forces alone, it was
thought that God himself would take care of giving it according to his
good graces.
Whatever the case may be, I never had a mystical experience in the
Christian sense, which is not surprising, but I had a very sentimental pi-
ety. During Holy Week, I participated in Christ's suffering so intensely
that when he arrived at church on Holy Saturday or Easter Sunday, I
had the impression of a real deliverance. During the night between Holy
Thursday and Good Friday we took turns praying all night, and I tried to
participate in Christ's agony. I had in fact read in Pascal that Christ would
be in agony until the end of the world and that one should not sleep dur-
ing this time.
J C.: What haveyou retainedfrom your theologicalformation?
All of the studies in theology that I had begun at the time included
a part devoted to biblical exegesis. Our professor of exegesis personified
prudence, but we were nevertheless able to get a glimpse-notably in the
exegesis of the New Testament, but of the Old Testament as well-that
there was an important human element in this inspired text. At this point
I read Jean Guitton's admirable book Portrait de Monsieur Pouget, which
is devoted to the life and ideas of a blind Vincentian priest who seems in-
deed to have been an extraordinary character. His superiors had forbidden
him to give his exegesis course because he used a historical and critical-
let us say, scientificv--merhod to study the books of the Bible. He said that
in these studies one must take into account the collective mentalities that
had influenced the authors of the sacred books. This was the first stage
of my education in the interpretation of texts, to which I have devoted a
considerable part of my life.
The superior ofthe Grand Seminaire had decided that for the 1941-42
year I would have to interrupt my theological studies because of my young
age (there was a chance that I would be ordained at the age oftwenty-one),
and that I would be a supervisor at the Petit Serninaire, At the same time, I
was to begin my philosophy degree (incidentally, without being able to go
to Paris to follow classes). In June and July of 1942, while supervising the
study of the older boys [les grands] during the day and the younger boys
Tied to theApron Strings ofthe Church 13
[Ies petits] during the evening, I passed the Certificat d'Etudes litteraires
classiques [certificate of classical literary studies] (which required me to
read all of Balzac's novels, the Arthurian novels, and the works ofChenier)
and the Certificate d'Histoire de la philosophie [certificate of history of
philosophy]. (The essay was on the cogito in Descartes and in Kant, and
the Latin version with commentary of a text by Seneca). I came back to
the Grand Serninaire in October 1942, where I spent the 1942-43 school
year. But that year Service du Travail Obligatoire (STO) [compulsory
work service] was decreed, and after a medical examination I was put into
this service in Germany. I was supposed to leave in July 1943. Now, there
were many of us in this situation and the superior had to give us, cata-
strophically and in a single sitting, the courses of initiation to the realities
ofsexual life (wecalled them the diaconals) so that we would not seem too
foolish. This entire world that had been totally unknown revealed itself to
me that evening, and l must say that I was totally floored.
One ofmy older brothers, who was a professor at the Grand Seminaire
of Versailles, knew of channels one could take to do the STO in France.
It was intended for the students of the major schools (the Centrale and so
on). Officially it was for metal specialists, who were exempted from going
to Germany because they were indispensable to French industry. I came
to Paris to undertake the administrative procedures of which I no longer
remember the details but that resulted in my assignment to the SNCF
[the Societe Nationale des Chemins de fer Francais, or French National
Railway Company]. Thus I found myself in the locomotive repair factory
of Vitry-sur-Seine, not far from the Rhone-Poulenc factory, which stunk
and continues to make the whole city smell of-the strong odor of chlorine.
Because while being welcomed I had made a naive remark that had made
all my pseudo metal specialist companions laugh, the director of the fac-
tory put me in the most difficult workshop, in which locomotives are
taken apart. We worked under the machines in order to take the differ-
ent very heavy pieces apart while being splashed with mud. I did what I
could, but I dragged down the team, for which my blunders made output
levels plunge. The workers did not hold it against me. At the same time,
I was made to take the metalworkers apprenticeship certification, which
was granted to me even though I had to adjust my pieces with a hammer,
having sawed everything crooked.
14 Tiedto theApronStrings ofthe Church
J c.: You are not thefirst philosopher to have worked with his hands:
Cleanthes wasaporter, I believe. But a metalworker-what a symbol!
This allowed me to learn at least one important thing. Until then, in
my literary, philosophical, or theological essays, I had adjusted not metal
but ideas. In this case, one can always manage, in one way or another.
Concepts are easily malleable. But with matter, things became more se-
rious. No more give, no more approximating, no more or less artificial
arrangements. This does not mean that no rigor is possible in the works
of the spirit, but it is very rare, and it is very easy to delude both oneself
and others.
J C.: Soyou were in Paris, far from Rheimsandfar from the ecclesiasti-
cal milieu?
Dead tired every evening, I got up every day at about five o'clock
in the morning to go to six o'clock Mass at the Peres du Saint-Esprit, on
rue Lhomond. Afterward, I took the train to Vitry, On Sunday I got up
early to spend my day at the Grand Seminaire of Versailles, where Ply
brother was. I tried to remain tied to the Church's apron strings as much
as possible.
In September I was moved to another factory. Now I worked at the
Massena station, repairing wagon bellows. It was less difficult. In October
there was another change. As a result of the actions of the Resistance,
trains were often derailed. To raise them back up there was a very power-
ful crane-the so-called most powerful crane in Europe-that was also
stationed, I believe, at Massena. Obviously it might have been a target
of destruction for those in the Resistance. The Germans thus required
that it be guarded day and night. This guard remained close to it, in
order to be blown up with it, in the event that it was destroyed. In sum,
I became a hostage. When it left-accompanied by workers-to pull up
a locomotive, we had to go with it, and even, in principle, to stay inside
it. Only once a foreman obliged me to stay inside during the transport,
even during the night, in the roar and the vibrations of this machine. But
all the other trips were quite pleasant, all things considered. During the
trip, which lasted several days, we slept in the freight car, we cooked-
Tied to theApron Strings ofthe Church 15
French fries, for example, which were an extremely rare dish in this time
of restriction.
This hostage situation had its advantages. Often I could read, be-
cause of the inattentiveness of the guards. I remember discovering Plato's
Phaedo for the first time in this way. When I was on night duty, during
the day I could go to the Parisian libraries, such as the one at the Guimet
Museum. I was interested in Hindu mysticism at the time.
Toward the end of the year it became clear that ultimately everyone
would have to go to Germany. The exceptions were no longer accepted.
Once again, the Grand Serninaire of Versailles intervened. I no longer
remember the details, but I was summoned by a work inspector who,
as I discovered afterward, belonged to the Resistance. He sent me for a
medical visit. The doctor discovered a heart murmur, which was quite
real. This was the beginning of cardiac problems that have followed me
throughout my life. As a result, I was "posted at the Grand Seminaire," a
statement that figured on my work card.
I believe that the experience I had' just lived, and that had been lived
by a certain number of seminarians, was one of the causes that provoked
the development of the priest-worker movement at the time. They had
come to the realization that there was an all but insuperable gulf between
the workers' world and the ecclesiastical world, the latter being too tied to
the prejudices and values of the bourgeoisie.
J C.: Your lastyear ofseminary school tookplacein Versailles in I944?
Yes, and this issued in my ordination as apriest at Rheims, in a semi-
nary entirely occupied by American soldiers. I was twenty-two at the time,
and normally I should have obtained an age dispensation from Rome, but
it was impossible to communicate with Rome. If I was ordained quickly,
it was because a philosophy professor was needed at the Grand Seminaire
of Rheims for the 1944-45 school year.
J C.: YOu enteredthepriesthood without hesitation and without qualms?
This event should be situated in the framework of my childhood and
youth. As I have said, my mother wanted her three sons to be pastors. I
did not imagine that I could do anything else. There was pressure, not at
16 Tied to the Apron Strings ofthe Church
all on the part of my father but on the part of my mother. When I was at
Grand Serninaire, I felt certain that I would not be made a parish priest-
professor at the most. I was too intellectual to take care of the patronage
of children, to do catechism, and so on. I told myself that the best would
be to be a monk, perhaps a Dominican. I also thought of the Carmelites,
because of Jean de la Croix. I did not consider the Jesuits because we
were swayed by Pascal's dark depiction of them in his Lettres prouinciales
[Provincial letters]: "There is nothing like Jesuits!" But when I spoke to
my mother about it, she exclaimed, "That is impossible, it would be the
death of your father" (my father was blind and very attached to me). In
fact, she absolutely wanted to have us at her disposal. She could not allow
me to be closed up in a convent, no longer able to visit her.
My future was thus programmed from a very young age. I did not
imagine anything else. One could say that everything that was not eccle-
siastical was completely foreign to me, and my six months of military ser-
vice did not allow me to see the allure of the outside world. But it remains
that I was extremely reticent to take the Oath Against Modernism. I had
not been warned of this formality and I was made to read a text almost
every line ofwhich repelled me. I believe that this oath is no longer in use.
It had been introduced in a directive by Pius X dated September I, 1910.
I was to declare, among other things, that I believed that the doctrine of
faith transmitted by the apostles and the Fathers had remained absolutely
immutable since its origins and that the idea of the evolution of dogma
was heretical. I also had to declare that a purely scientific exegesis of the
Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers was inadmissible and that
freedom of judgment in this situation was forbidden. I remember that I
was terribly perplexed in this unexpected situation, but I finally told my-
self: "Let us see how things turn aut"-an attitude that I can now, with
the perspective of age, say is, like pity, disastrous and engenders many
tragedies. Ultimately, aside from this doubt at the moment of the Oath
Against Modernism, I had no hesitation; I simply had no idea what my
commitment entailed. I did not make the decision in light of knowledge
of what was involved. I only discovered the realities of life little by little.
J C.: So hereyou are, in the autumn ofI944, a freshly ordainedpriest,
assigned to teach philosophy before having completed your degree. Under
Tied to the Apron Strings ofthe Church 17
what conditions did you lead this double life, that ofa teacher and that ofa
I spent the 1944-45 school year teaching philosophy, not only in the
Grand Seminaire but also in a young girls' boarding school (I was barely
older than some of them) kept by nuns. In the back of the class, a sister
watched over the orthodoxy and decency of my remarks.
The archbishop of Rheims sent me to complete my degree in Paris at
the end of this year of teaching. I was to follow courses at both the Institut
Catholique and the Sorbonne. This is how I arrived in Paris in October
1945. I lived on rue Cassette, in a house that received the priests studying
at the Institut Catholique, and where one can still see the door where the
September massacres took place during the Revolution.
At the Institut Carholique I followed courses, notably by Father
Lallemand, an ultra-Thomist; by Verneaux, a scholar of Kant; and by
Simeterre, a plato specialist. At the Sorbonne, Poirier taught modern logic
(we were introduced to formal logic, that is, ultimately Scholastics, at the
Institur Catholique)." It was written in the stars that I would never acquire
a mastery of modern logic. Poirier spoke about everything but logic, and
when he did deign to speak of it, it was without pedagogy. This did not
stop me from getting my logic certificate in February 1946, during a spe-
cial session reserved for residents and those who refused to work for the
STO during the war. Now I had received, without requesting it, a docu-
ment concerning my visit to the work inspector of Versailles at the end of
1943. It attested that I was entitled to the status of rifractere au Service du
Travail (a French civilian who worked in Germany during the war). This
document was certified by the Association de Resistance "Les Negriers,'
14 rue Vergniaud, Paris. This was obviously completely false. In my life
I used this fake, which I did not request, for no other purpose than to
pass this exam quickly and easily. Easily because Poirier-whom some,
I do not know why, accused of collaboration (by circulating tracts in his
classes)-had decided that on the program for the semester there would
be only formal logic. I was thus punished for this weakness by a serious
flaw in my formation. I have since attempted to rectify this lacuna, but in
all very poorly.
There was also Albert Bayer, who gave ethics courses.' He spoke
with a bit of a cocky tone, fervently believed in progress, and predicted
18 Tied to the Apron Strings ofthe Church
that we would see men go to the moon. Rene Le Senne gave admirable
courses, written as formal essays, with an introduction, a development,
and a conclusion. I also learned a great deal from his Traite de morale
generale [Treatise 01) general morals]." Georges Davy taught us sociology,"
and Raymond Bayer, aesthetics, with projections of works of art." As a
result of a scheduling conflict, I unfortunately was not able to follow Jean
Wahl's course on Heidegger."
1945-46 was a year of dense intellectual activity, in the effervescence
of the end of the war and of existentialism. Aside from two educarions-s-
from the Institut Carholique and from the Sorbonne-and from com-
pleting the two corresponding certificates, I also attended many lectures,
by Henri-Irenee Marrou, Berdyaev, and Albert Camus, among others.'?
Every Friday, I went to the circle led by Gabriel Marcel. I had read several
of his books at the Grand Serninaire, and even his dramatic play, The
Broken World, and I had learned a great deal. I was admitted, by way of
an intermediary I no longer recall, to the discussions he held late in the
afternoon every Friday. I attended them for a year, but his personality seen
close-up, as well as the people around him, displeased me by its artificial
J C.: So your first contact with existentialism was through Christian
I tried to reconcile Thomism and existentialism. I thought I was
following Jacques Maritain. In his Sept leconssur I' etre [Seven lectures on
being], he said that in order to have the sense of being, which is the object
of metaphysics, speculation was insufficient. One must "feel things vividly
and deeply." I especially intended to follow the example of Etienne Gilson,
who proposed a version of the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas that was
strongly tainted by the philosophy of the moment. Real existentialism, in
his eyes, was found in the Thomistic distinction between essence and ex-
istence. He also gave a sustained homage to Merleau-Ponty: For the first
time in a long time, philosophy decides to speak of serious things." On
this point he also evoked an experience of the whole being in which "the
body is vitally interested." For him, philosophy consisted in knowing, and
not in constructing and producing a system. I do not regret, incidentally,
having begun with Thomism. It was at least a philosophy that attempted
Tied to the Apron Strings ofthe Church 19
to speak "formally," and I have always been disappointed by the vagueness
of the concepts of modern philosophy.
Then I met Father Paul Henry, Jesuit and editor ofworks ofPlot inus,
who would playa very important role in my choice of thesis topic for the
Institut Catholique and for the Sorbonne, but especially in the general
orientation of my methods of study and perhaps even in my spiritual
This stage in my development also involved a nun who was also
preparing her certificate at the Institut Catholique and whom I would
see regularly. I felt a love for her that was as Platonic as it was passionate.
Father Louis, having noticed this, asked us not to see each other any lon-
ger. But in fact we continued to correspond and we remained friends.
J c.: Paul Henry suggesteda thesis topicthat did not really correspondto
your wishes and which, assuredly, was not designed to guarantee large print-
ings and a career sustained bythe interest ofa vast audience.
In effect. I hesitated between a thesis on Rilke and Heidegger,
under the direction of Jean Wahl, and a thesis on Marius Victorinus, a
Neoplatonic Christian writer from the fourth century of our era who is
far from having given up all his secrets, which would have been officially
under the direction of Raymond Bayer but in fact under the direction of
Paul Henry. I ultimately opted for Victorinus.
Since my youth I had experienced a great attraction to mysticism in
all its forms, which, it seemed to me, would open me to the inexpressible
experience of God. Saint Jean de la Croix but also Plotinus were among
my favorite authors. As a result, I thought I could unify my university
work and my interest in mysticism. When I went to see Father Henry, I
was expecting him to propose a thesis on Plotinus. To my great surprise,
he recommended that I study an obscure Latin author, Marins Vicrorinus.
He thought that in the Latin I would be able to make sense of this author,
taken to be almost incomprehensible on the basis of the pieces translated
by Plotinus, Thus I worked on this author for more than twenty years,
until the publication of my doctoral thesis. In it I found neither mysticism
nor Plotinus, but, it seemed to me, traces of his disciple Porphyry.
The archbishop of Rheims had granted me a supplementary year
(1946-47) to begin this work, but at the beginning of the academic year
20 Tied to theApron Strings ofthe Church
there was an emergency and he called me back. The priest and professor
of philosophy at Saint-Remy College in Charleville had left with a young
girl. Thus I found myself in the cold Ardennes, teaching in a boys' school
and in a boarding school for young women. The library of the city owned
the old nineteenth-century translations of Proclus and of Damascius, po-
tentially very useful for my thesis research. I still remember reading these
two Neoplatonic writers during lunch break, at the summit of Mount
Olympus, beside the Meuse.
The following year (1947-48) I felt it was necessary to go to Paris
to work on my thesis seriously. Thus I traveled back and forth between
Paris and Charleville every week. During my Parisian sojourns, I stayed
at Antony, where I gave classes in a girls' boarding school to pay for my
travels and lodging. But I did not hold to this regimen and had to stop all
teaching as a result of extreme fatigue. After resting in the Vosges and in
Switzerland, I was received that year and the next at Saint-Germain-en-
Laye by the sisters responsible for the nursing services in that city.
It was in 1949-50 that I began to follow Henri-Charles Puech's
courses in the fifth section," and Pierre Courcelle's course in the fourth
section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes." It was also in 1949 that
Raymond Bayer had me admitted to the Centre National de la Recherche
Scientifique (CNRS) [National Center for Scientific Research], to work
on both a doctoral dissertation, still on Victorinus, and the catalog of
philosophical vocabulary of the Middle Ages that he directed. The same
year, my thesis at the Institut Catholique was accepted. It was a study of
the notion of God causa sui in Marius Victorinus. My thesis director was a
very mysterious character, the priest Cadiou." Paul Henry and, I believe,
Dominique Dubarle were on the committee. I gave a doctoral lecture on
an eminently Thomistic subject, but treated it in an existentialist spirit, as
the real distinction between essence and existence. Henri-Charles Puech
and Pierre Courcelle attended this defense. The same study relating to
Victorinus served as my Diplome d'etudes superieurs [post-master's, pre-
doctoral degree of advanced studies], presented at the Sorbonne under
the direction of Raymond Bayer. Puech encouraged me to apply for a
degree at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, still on Victorinus. The
required text was submitted to Alexandre Koyre, This time I presented
a translation of the Christian works of Victorinus. I devoted myself to it
Tied to the Apron Strings ofthe Church 21
from 1950-60. The work was published in 1960 in the collection Sources
Cbretiennes [Christian sources].
J C.: The year I949-50 thus marked a turning point: a thesis for the
Institut Catholique, a degree of Etudes Superieurs, and especially entering
the CNRS. YOu left secondary teaching definitively, and, with a salary, you
became less dependent on the Church. What have your relations with the
ecclesiasticalworld been since I949?
In 1949 I obtained authorization from the parish priest (of the
"students' parish") to live in the presbytery, which was very close to the
Sorbonne, and to participate in the communal life of the parish. Thanks
to him, I lived in this magnificent context for two years. I never tired of
this beautiful church, with its forest of pillars. In exchange for this hos-
pitality, I was expected to offer certain services, including to take charge
of the parish newspaper. In this manner I discovered what it is to make a
newspaper. It is very interesting. I wrote several articles in it-notably, a
rather lengthy review of L'Homme reuolte [The Rebe{J, by Albert Camus,
who on this occasion wrote me a letter that I have unfortunately since lost.
I was working on my dissertation and I attended Jean Hyppolite's courses
on Hegel and on Heidegger. He explained, most remarkably, the chapter
in Heidegger's Holzwege [Offthe beaten track] devoted to Holderlin: "Why
Poets in a Time of Distress?" I greatly admired the clarity with which he
explained difficult texts.
The years I spent at Saint-Severin represent a turning point in my
life. During this period I began to adopt a critical attitude toward the
Church. I had more than one reason for this. For example, there was a
vicar in the clergy of the parish who wanted to reestablish February 2 as
the day of purification for women who had just givep birth, a ceremony
analogous to the one to which Mary had submitted herself in conformity
with Jewish law. For this vicar-who incidentally was a medical doctor-
the ceremony implied that women were impure as a result of sexual rela-
tions and of childbirth. This seemed crazy to me. There were also two
seminarians there who were supposed to be initiated into parish life and
who, in their juvenile ardor, were revolted by the ecclesiastical mentality,
which they did not consider to be evangelical. I must say that I agreed
with them completely. They often showed a zeal that the parish priest
22 Tiedto theApron Strings ofthe Church
found untimely, especially on certain days, or rather on certain nights,
when he discovered that people in difficulty, homeless people, were lodged
on all of the floors of his presbytery, and he had to throw them out. The
seminarians reproached him then for lacking an evangelical spirit. But the
practice of the Gospel would have required a complete upheaval of our
mode of life!
There was also Jean Massin, the future musicologist, who directed
spiritual teams. They assembled many students, a good number of them
from the Ecole Normale. He gradually developed a criticism ofthe Church
as well. I was assigned by the parish priest to bring a more orthodox di-
mension to these teams. Thus 1participated in the movement that offered
the students, among other things, an initiation into biblical problems by
using historical and exegetical methods that aimed to be rigorous. Here
again, especially in the domain of exegesis, I recognized that there was a
basis to Massin's criticisms. I struck a pale figure next to his personality,
next to his eloquence (I heard students from the Ecole Normale cry while
listening to him; I heard him talk for a whole hour, if not two, about these
simple words from Genesis: "Abraham sits")-and next to "his satirical
spirit, often inspired by what was perhaps a somewhat broad psychoanaly-
sis (he would say "well oedipalized" instead of "well educated").
A terrible shock added itself to this: the encyclical Humani Generis
of August 12, 1950. Everything that was keeping me in the Church was
condemned: Teilhard de Chardin's evolutionism, and ecumenicalism. (I
also read the Protestant journal Riformewith great interest.) Moreover, the
proclamation of the dogma of Assumption on November I, 1950, added
itself to my disappointment. This development of martial theology had
deviated, it seemed to me, from the very essence of Christianity. Why
attempt to attach Mary to the human condition? Finally, a sentimental
problem added itself to this. Since 1949 I had loved the one who for more
than ten years would be my wife and I thought I did not have the right, as
many of my colleagues did, to lead a double life. All these factors together
resulted in my decision to leave Saint-Severin and the Church in June of
1952, and I was married in August 1953, despite the warnings from people
in my entourage who knew the one I would marry and told me that our
marriage was a very poor match from every point ofview. (It would in fact
end in divorce eleven years later.)
Tied to the Apron Strings ofthe Church
J C.: Was this a terrible disappointment for your mother, and even
maybe, for her, afeelingoffailure?
I must say that I did Dot have the courage to go to Rheims to con-
front her face-to-face. I wrote her a letter, feeling as though I had com-
mitted a murder. I had in my mind the image of an aviator who drops his
bombs on a city. For her it was the crumbling of all her hopes. The idea
that she would not have the right to see me anymore added itself to this.
But finally the tension calmed, and in the following years I visited her
from time to time at Rheims.
J C.: J imagine that in addition to all the heartbreak involvedin your
decision, you also had to deal with crassly materialproblems?
In fact, when I informed the CNRS of the change in my situation,
the result was a rather substantial increase in salary. This was because, if
I recall correctly, the CNRS attributed only a quarter of its research al-
location to ecclesiastics, on the basis of the principle that they have other
revenues available to them. But my material situation was rather difficult
nonetheless. I was lodged in a maid's room in the sixth arrondissement [the
Parisian administrative circumscriptions], at 14 rue des Pyramides, which
Jean Massin lent to me. During the 1952-53 year, I was able to appreciate
the comfort that the good Parisian bourgeoisie provided for its help: one
or two toilets for twenty rooms or so, no heating, and torrid heat in the
summer. One day when I had invited someone over for lunch, the books
balanced precariously atop the cupboard fell.into the bowl of fries, still
full of oil. ...
After I was married, I moved to Vitry-sur-Seine, where the smell of
the chlorine from Rhone-Poulenc was always floating in the air. We were
with my mother's aunt, but under very uncomfortable material conditions.
These years were very difficult. Beyond family problems, I was always
worried about my future. At the time, CNRS researchers did not have the
comfortable security of the functionary that they now know. They were
submitted to a yearly renewal, and it was understood that one could stay at
CNRS only temporarily. One year, their decisional committee, overtaken
by untimely zeal, fired a great number of researchers. 1 was saved from
shipwreck and welfare by Maurice de Gandillac, who intervened so that
24 Tiedto theApron Strings ofthe Church
I would be retained. I am very grateful to him for this, as I am for the
very understanding letter he wrote to me when I informed him that I was
leaving the Church. Pierre-Maxime Schuhl, whose seminar I attended,
became worried about my plight.
? He told me that I had no hope for a
position at the university because I was not a certified teacher [agrege1. He
recommended that I take the exams to become a librarian, which I did,
and during the year of preparation I learned many things. But the career
of a librarian did not attract me. So I stayed at CNRS and continued to
work on my doctoral dissertation.
J C.: In short, you stayed tied to the apron strings of the Church for
twenty years, from your tenth to your thirtieth year. What do you now think
ofthis ecclesiastical world that you knew well from the inside?
I must say first that I have a great deal of gratitude for the complete
intellectual education that I received from most of the professors who de-
voted themselves to giving it to me-c-all the more so in that, I realized
only much later, all my studies, secondary and advanced, were financed
by the archbishop of Rheims. If I had not gone to the Petit, then to the
Grand Seminaire, my parents would surely not have been able to pay for
my studies.
Moreover, I would say that my rupture with the Church was not a
rupture with myfriends, who continued to display much sympathy toward
me, especially Paul Henry, Jean Daniele, and Claude Mondesert, as well
as my very good friend Georges Folliet. I moved away from Christian faith
very slowly. For a time I would sometimes attend religious ceremonies,
but they always seemed rather artificial because, following the council
of Vatican II, they were recited or sung in French. I was not opposed to
the translation in principle, bur it always seemed to reveal the immense
distance between the world of the twentieth century and the mythical or
stereotypical formulas of Christian liturgy-a distance that was sensed
less when the people did not understand what was being said. I believe
that Henri-Charles Puech had the same impression I did when he told
me with a big smile, "Jesus, God's sheep," alluding to the translation of
the Agnus Dei. It was not the Latin that was incomprehensible, but the
concepts and the images hidden behind Latin for centuries.
Tied to the Apron Strings ofthe Church 25
The ecclesiastical world that I knew from 1930-50 is obviously ex-
tremely different than the actual ecclesiastical world. Since then, there has
been the Council ofVatican II, which took the unfortunate experiences of
the first half of the century and the biblical criticism of great theologians
from that period into account. I had read with enthusiasm the writings of
Father Henri de Lubac, Father YvesCongar, and Father Marie-Dominique
Chenu, who played important roles in the reform brought about by the
But I also have certain grievances. My main reproach to the clergy
of the past is aimed especially at the Sulpicians, a society of priests estab-
lished in the seventeenth century, who directed most of the large seminar-
ies in France. Whether at Rheims or at Versailles, one might say that,
for the most part, they still lived in the time of their founding father,
Jean-Jacques Olier, a bizarre character whom the curious reader can read a
page about in Father Mugnier's [ournal." To give a single example, every
day before eating, both in Rheims and in Versailles, we gathered for read-
ings of the examinations of conscience of Monsieur Tronson, a Sulpician
from the seventeenth century. These examinations had been somewhat
modernized, the stagecoaches had been removed, but all the situations
envisaged in fact supposed the daily life of the seventeenth and not the
twentieth century. We irreverently called these exercises the tronsonnade;
it was the Sulpicians' aperitif But this is merely an amusing detail. What
is more serious is this artificial space, entirely isolated from the exterior
world, where all personal initiative, all originality, all taking responsibility
were repressed. We were totally ignorant of the reality of the world, and
especially of the reality of the feminine world/ When my mother offered,
much to my surprise, to ask Mademoiselle Chevrot, the young and beauti-
ful organist of the Rheims cathedral, to give me organ lessons, I refused
out of fear, because in my subconscious th-ere was something diabolical
about women. The result of this confined education is that, for my part,
when I was ordained as a priest in 1944, I was absolutely not prepared to
face the concrete realities of the daily life of normal people. It is only little
by little that I freed and affirmed myself. We were capable, at the limit,
of exercising our ministry in the conservative, chic world of a bourgeois
parish, but, for example, completely disarmed in the face of the sad reality
of the suburbs of the big cities.
26 Tied to the Apron Strings ofthe Church
I believe that things have changed considerably now. However, I
think the real source of harm is what I would call surnaturalism. What I
understand by surnaturalism is the idea that it is especially by supernatu-
ral means that one can modify one's way of conducting oneself: It is the
blind confidence in the omnipotence of grace that allows one to face all
situations. On television these days, one hears stories of pedophile priests.
On this occasion one can very clearly see what surnaturalism is. The con-
fessors and the bishops too often have the tendency to think that if some-
one cannot dominate certain impulses, it is enough to pray, especially to
the Virgin Mary, and he will end up being cured of these impulses. In
fact, there is a total lack of psychology in this attitude, and in these recent
matters of pedophilia ofwhich I was speaking, one can say that those who
are really responsible are the confessors who had these priests believe that
confidence in the grace of God was enough, that one can through prayer
easily get out of these difficulties; and also the bishops, who should-it is
simple common sense, for that matter-find a ministry for these priests
that keeps them far from contact with children. In the ,past I have seen
situations in which the priest, conscious of his weaknesses, asked to be
taken away from the place in which he was exposed to dangers, and the
bishop or the superior responded, "If God put you here, it is that he also
gives you the grace to overcome your difficulties; all you need to do is pray,
and" everything will be well."
In fact, in Thomistic theology-and perhaps even in a general way
in all Christian theology-surnaturalism is based on the idea that since
the Revelation and the Redemption there is no longer a natural morality.
In the scholastic philosophy textbook that I used in my studies, all the
parts of philosophy were treated, except morality, for it was expressly said
that it was useless to teach purely natural morals to seminary students-on
the one hand, because the only true morality is theological morality; and
on the other hand, because if one explained natural morality, one would
risk exposing the students to the danger of naturalism, which consists in
believing that one can practice virtues without grace. This tendency has
another noteworthy aspect. One says to oneself: What counts is faith in
God, and the fact that one remains a sinner is of little importance. Father
Henry sometimes cited, approvingly, Luther's phrase, Peccafortiter et crede
Tied to the Apron Strings ofthe Church 27
fortius ("Sin with all your forces, but believe even more forcefully"). This is
fundamentally the theme of Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory.
It is all well and good to confess that one is a sinner, but it would be
even better to think of the harm that one does to another through one's
sin. In Le Canard enchaineof December 6, 2000 (yes, I do read Le Canard
enchain! from time to time), the following remarks of Monseigneur
Jacques David, bishop of Evreux, who had advised a pedophile priest to .
turn himself in, were reported: "I had also advised colleagues [that is, oth-
er bishops] confronted by priests in difficulty to do the same thing." This
is all well and good but, Le Canard added, accurately, "It is especially the
kids who are in difficulty." Here we are in fact in the presence of a rather
ecclesiastical reaction. What counts above all, in the aim of the Church, is
the priest in difficulty, and the Church he puts into difficulty. The victims
are not considered first; it is not thought that the danger to which they are
exposed should be put to an end immediately. One can imagine all the
unhappy children who, in the past were, and still now are, victims of the
conspiracy of silence that surrounded such actions. The Church is not, for
that matter, the only one practicing hypocrisy. In analogous situations, the
army or the police are not outdone; they also have esprit de corps. Reasons
of state, reasons of the Church-there are always good reasons.
One of the consequences of this surnaturalism is also that priests
often consider themselves to be excused from practicing the natural vir-
tues if it is useful to the Church, or to themselves-hence the pious lies,
the infringements on the virtue of justice. For example, the employees
in the businesses run by the clergy are often poorly paid because these
employees are in the service of the Church and are expected to sacrifice
themselves for it; or as I myself observed, the readers who cut pages out of
Migne's Pathologie in the library of the Institut Catholique are most likely
On this score, it is perhaps useful to recall an old history, that of
Americanism. Americanism was a movement that corresponded to cer-
tain characteristics proper to American Catholicism at the end of the
nineteenth century: attention to moral and social problems more than
to dogmas and devotions, and respect for the individual freedom and re-
sponsibility of laymen. By translating the works of an American bishop,
Monseigneur Ireland, in 1894, and by prefacing a translation of Walter
28 Tied to the Apron Strings ofthe Church
Elliott's Life ofFather Heeke (1897), arguably the inspiration for tendencies
proper to American Catholicism, in France, Father Klein had provoked a
quarrel that Pope Leon XIII thought he could end in 1899 by issuing Testem
Benevolentiae, which condemns Americanism, to Cardinal Gibbons, bish-
op of Baltimore. According to this letter, the Americanists maintained,
among other things, that in order to attract dissidents more effectively, it
is appropriate to leave in the shade or to attenuate certain elements of the
doctrine as being of lesser importance. They also maintained the need to
let go of the relation that the faithful have to ecclesiastical authority, in
order to guarantee laymen's freedom of thought and to leave them greater
freedom to follow the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I remember that the
opposition between clerical domination and the initiatives of laymen had
always been a problem in the Church, as one can see, for example, in
Ruedi Imbach's book Dante, laphilosophie et les laics [Dante, philosophy,
and laymen]. Finally, the Americanists think that natural and active vir-
tues are better suited to the present day than surnatural and passive vir-
tues. This Roman wariness with regard to naturalism is still alive today,
a century later, and I believe that the ecclesiastics still too often neglect
natural morals.
J C.: You have briefly evoked the Oath Against Modernism that was
imposed on you in the course ofyour ordination, and at the beginning of
the movement ofpriest-workers. How didyou experience the attitude ofthe
Church on these matters?
I have just evoked Roman condemnations. I believe that the brutal-
ity of these condemnations is to be deplored. Notably, this began with
modernism, at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twen-
tieth centuries. Alfred Loisy, accused of modernism, was hit with excom-
munication. This means, for example, that as a professor at the College
de France, he was not able to attend the religious burial of the admin-
istrator, because his presence alone would have obliged the officiator to
interrupt the religious ceremony. After the Second World War, under the
pontificate of Pious XII, the priest-workers were condemned. On this sub-
ject, I would mention Francois Leprieur's utterly remarkable book Quand
Rome condamne: Dominicains et pritres ouvrier [When Rome condemns:
Dominicans and priest-workers], which shows how the Dominicans, tied
Tied to the Apron Strings o/the Church 29
to the movement of priest-workers, were condemned in a way that is "prej-
udicial to natural law.'"? Many were sanctioned (banned from teaching,
exiled sometimes) without knowing the exact reasons that something was
happening to them. And when there was a trial, the accused, entering the
tribunal, did not know what he was accused of; he had not been previously
informed about his dossier, he did not even know that, at the end of the
trial, he would be imposed with the obligation to keep secret everything
that was said during the interrogation and the condemnation. Leprieur, in
his conclusion, speaks of the unhealable wound left in their hearts by the
Roman condemnation. I cannot enter into all the details, but one must
indeed recognize that we are in the presence here, and probably since Pope
Pious IX, of a both centralist and dictatorial system that, if fortunately it
no longer turns the guilty over to the secular arm to be executed, never-
theless retains an inquisitional mark and, too often, shows a serious lack
of respect toward the human person. A worthy effort was made at the
Council ofVatican II to remedy this attitude. But it seems, unfortunately,
that this system, which has nothing evangelical in it, continues to be used
today. What is extraordinary is that since Galileo (to take a famous ex-
ample), Roman theologians-persuaded that the truth is their own and
absolutely immutable-at given times have severely condemned opinions
or methods that a few years later everyone, including Roman theologians,
has recognized are correct. The most flagrant case is in the domain of
Researcher, Teacher, Philosopher
Jeannie Carlier: Wereyoufree todevoteyourselfentirelytoyour doctoral
dissertation as ofI953?
I began preparing the critical edition ofMarius Victorinus with Father
Henry. This collaboration marks a decisive turning point in the method
of my work. Until then I had been a "pure philosopher." I was interested
in metaphysics and, truth be told, in mysticism, especially Plotinus. But
from that point on, I undertook training as a philologist and historian.
I discovered philological disciplines that I had never practiced-the cri-
tique of texts, the reading of manuscripts, at least of Latin manuscripts. To
prepare for this reading, I took courses at the Ecole des Chartes and at the
Fourth Section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (EPHE).
Many philosophers do not realize what is involved in the study of
ancient texts. When translating Marcus Aurelius, for example, it is pos-
sible to spend an entire day determining what a particular Greek word can
mean in a given context. Thus, with Paul Henry, I edited the complete
theological works ofMarius Victorinus. Alone I edited Ambrose ofMilan's
ApologyofDavid, and the fragments of the commentary On Parmenedes
that I attributed to Porphyry. I collaborated in the preparation of the criti-
cal edition of a very interesting Greek fragment found at Ai-Khanoum,
at the border of Afghanistan, and which may be a passage from a lost
dialogue of Aristotle. Finally, I edited the first book of Marcus Aurelius'
Meditations. I am currently undertaking further editing projects.
Researcher, Teacher, Philosopher 31
During this period I also discovered the methodology of the his-
tory of philosophy. Previously I treated philosophical texts, whether of
Aristotle, Saint Thomas, or Bergson, as though they were aternporal, as
though words had the same meaning in every philosophical period. I un-
derstood that the evolution of thoughts and mentalities throughout the
centuries had to be taken into account. Henri-Irenee Marrou once dedi-
cated an offprint to me by writing, "To the philosopher who has become
a historian. A historian who has become a philosopher." The discipline of
philology is exhausting, but it often gives a certain pleasure, for example,
when one realizes that the text that is accepted by everyone is obviously
mistaken, and that, thanks to the examination of manuscripts or of the
context or of the grammar, one has rediscovered the right lesson, which
has happened to me a few times with Marcus Aurelius, and with Ambrose.
It is a discipline that is useful to the philosopher in that it teaches humil-
ity; the texts are very often problematic and one must be prudent when
one attempts to interpret them. It is also a discipline that can be dangerous
to him, to the extent that it runs the risk of being satisfied with itself: and
holds up real philosophical reflection. I think that for Paul Henry himself
it was a way to avoid asking serious theological questions.
J C.: Who is thisMarius Victorinus with whom no oneisfamiliar?
He is a rhetorician from the city of Rome who translated the trea-
tises of Plotinus and finally converted to Christianity. He left an apologet-
ics oeuvre, in which he defends the doctrine of the consubstanriality of
the three persons of the Trinity, affirmed at the council of Nicea. This is
a very enigmatic oeuvre. He cites Plotinus, and develops a Neoplatonic
metaphysics that I thought I could attribute to Porphyry, the disciple of
Plotinus; but recently Michel Tardieu discovered that entire passages of
Victorinus' oeuvre correspond literally to a Gnostic text, the Apocalypse de
Zostrien[Apocalypse ofZostrien], which we know only through its copied
version. There is also likely a common source to this passage ofVictorinus
and the passage from the Gnostic text, but which one?
I spent twenty years of my life (from 1946 to 1968), at least in part,
translating Victorinus and writing a doctoral dissertation about him.
Ultimately this has not been time totally lost. I have learned many things
by working on it, from the point of view of historical method as well as
32 Researcher, Teacher, Philosopher
critical method, I discovered little-known aspects of Neoplatonism, nota-
bly, the magnificent fragments of a commentary on. the Parmenedes that
I attributed to Porphyry. But finally, perhaps I spent too much time on
this enigma. I would like to see someone solve the enigma of Victorinus'
sources nonetheless.
]. C.,, In I959 you wereamongthefirst in France to speakofWittgenstein.
Is therea relation to Victorinus?
In a certain sense. In effect, my research on Victorinus in no way
satisfied my passion for philosophy, This is why, especially during the
years 1958-60, I participated in different research circles: the philosophi-
cal research group of the journal Esprit, led by Paul Ricoeur, where I met,
most notably, Jean-Pierre Faye; Ignace Meyerson's Centre de Recherches
de psychologie comparatives [Research center of comparative psychology],
where I met, among others, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Madeleine Biardeau, and
the doctor Hecaen. In 1960, Ignace Meyerson organized at Royaumont
a very interesting colloquium on the person, in which I participated and
during which I became friends with Louis Dumont, with whom I have
remained in contact. I also discovered Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-
Philosopbicus, then his Philosophical Investigations. I was quite surprised
to observe that this philosopher, who was presented as a logical positivist,
spoke of mysticism in the last pages ofhis work. I tried to understand how
this was possible. Thus, on April 29, 1959, I gave a paper to the College
Philosophique, led by Jean Wahl, on the Tractatus. I know the exact date
thanks to the book Emmanuel Levinas by Marie-Anne Lescourret, who
gives a lively description of the meetings of the College. They took place
in the building that is facing the gate of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. At this
time I found a series of articles on Wittgenstein, who was little known in
France. I even attempted a translation of the Tractatus, but it never got
past the stage of a rough draft.
In 1963, at the request ofAngele and Hubert de Radkowski, I wrote,
in a month, a little book for the collection La recherche de l'Absolu [The
search for the absolute], Plotin ou la Simplicite du regard [Plotinus or the
Simplicity of Vision], which since then has often been reedited. I' was at-
tracted by Plotinus' mysticism, while sensing to what point it was foreign
to our modern world.
Researcher, Teacher, Philosopher 33
In 1968, I struck out in an entirely different direction, most notably
by preparing for a conference at Eranos a paper entitled "Influences du neo-
platonisme sur la philosophie de la nature" [Influences of Neoplatonism
on the philosophy of nature]. This work gave me a better appreciation for
the importance of reflection on the notion of nature, and I hope that after
thirty years of research in the area I will perhaps manage to publish the
results in a book. '
J C.: In many respects, I964 was only a hinge year. You were elected
director o/studies at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, section ofreligious
sciences, andyou metyour wife.
I was not unknown to the fifth section of EPHE. I had followed
the courses of Henri-Charles Puech and prepared for a degree under his
direction-a translation of Marius Victorinus-and I had also followed
the courses ofAndre-Jean Festugiere. I had heard him translate and com-
ment on the Life ofProclus by Marinus, and on the Commentary on Plato's
Timaeus, by Proclus. One learned a great deal by listening to him. My
candidature was upheld primarily by Rene Roques' and Paul Vignaux.?
I was elected, I believe without difficulty, to the chair of Patristic Latin,
because of my works on Marius Victorinus.
J C.: The sameyear, at the Hardt Foundation, you met a German who
would becomeyour wife.
More exactly, I found her again. If I believed in destiny, I would
say that our meeting was written in the sky. In effect, I had seen her for
the first time at the Congres de Philosophie Medievale in Cologne, and
for me it was love at first sight. Afterward we exchanged books, a cor-
respondence, but one letter was lost, and everything came to an end. In
September 1964I went to the Fondation Hardt at Geneve-Vandoeuvres to
put the finishing touches, with the German theologian Carl Andresen,
on a German translation of Marius Victorinus that was to be published
by Artemis Verlag. When rarrived I was told that Mme Ilsetraut Marten
was there. I understood then that a new life would begin for me. We were
married in 1966in Berlin.
34 Researcher, Teacher, Philosopher
When I met her, I absolutely did not know that my wife was writing
a doctorate under the direction of Paul Moraux at the Freie Universitat of
Berlin on the theme of Seneca and the tradition of spiritual direction in
antiquity. It was very close to my own preoccupations, which had been
oriented for some time toward the definition of philosophy as spiritual
exercise and way of living. My wife has exercised a very important influ-
ence on the evolution of my thought.
But moreover, lowe to her the fact that I am still alive. I am a regu-
lar at Parisian hospitals. Over the course of the past twenty years I have
undergone four serious operations. If I did not have my wife next to me
day and nighr-
]. C.: Your direction ofstudy in the Fifth section ofthe Ecole Pratique
des Hautes Etudes wascalled the chairofPatristic Latin. Didyou choose this
My colleagues wished to keep this direction of study illustrated by
Paul Monceaux. Moreover, my studies on Marius Victorinus, my transla-
tion of his works, might give the impression that I am above all a Latinist.
But a few years later my colleagues authorized me to change the title of the
section so that it would read "Theologies and Mysticisms of Hellenistic
Greece at the End of Antiquity." After having offered courses on the ser-
mons of Ambrose of Milan and on Augustine's Confessions-a master-
piece of universal literature that I began to translate for the Bibliotheque
de la Pleiade (the project was abandoned, but it gave me the opportunity
to meet Brice Parain, whom I have always admired)-I was able to give
courses on the mystic texts of Plotinus, on Marcus Aurelius, and on ancient
logic. This last subject brought me auditors who would become famous.
The Hautes Etudes is a remarkable institution. The auditors are free to
come and go, and the director of studies is free to choose his subjects of
research. The courses must be the fruit of original research. As of 1971 or
1972, I became secretary of the section, first assigned to education, then to
administration, which is a rather heavy task. My first cardiac arrest, which
was a plunge into arrhythmia, occurred during a difficult argument. 1n
short, a work accident, the cardiologist told me.
In 1968, at a Sorbonne that was yet to bear the traces of the "events,"
I finally passed my state doctoral dissertation entitled "Porphyre et
Researcher; Teache1; Philosopher 35
Victorinus," accompanied by a these complementaire (published in 1972)
on the life and work of this enigmatic Christian rhetorician. Maurice de
Gandillac, Henri-Irenee Marrou, Joseph Moreau, Pierre Courcelle, and
Pierre-Maxime Schuhl were on the committee.
At this time I began to be read abroad. It was in 1968 that I was
invited to the Eranos Conferences at Ascona," thanks to the intervention
of Henry Corbin, my colleague from the Fifth Section, who thought I had'
the same enthusiasm for archangels and the imaginary as he did for Jung's
archetypes. The context was splendid, and the other invited participants
were very kind, but I was not an adept of the reigning orthodoxy. I gave
a paper on the influence of Neoplatonism on the philosophy of nature
in the West, which generated only moderate enthusiasm. I was invited a
second time, in 1974. The scenery of Lac Majeur was just as magnificent.
My paper on the figure of Socrates was slightly more warmly received, but
I have not been invited back since then.
Thanks to Hans Blumenberg, around 1970I became a corresponding
member ofthe Academic des Sciences et le Litterature [Academy ofScience
and Literature] of Mayence. I assiduously attended' the sessions, which al-
lowed me to be in sustained contact with my German colleagues.
]. C.: Around I968, then, the title ofyour chair was broadand Marius
Victorinus was behind you. He obligedyou to learn philological rigor, and
it was also in part because ofhim, ofhis incoherence, that you began to ask
yourself what ancient philosophy is. Is this the direction your research took?
First of all, in my teaching I developed my research on Plotinus'
mystical treatises, and I finally felt the desire, which was fulfilled only
later on, to do an annotated translation of Plotinus' treatises. But this
time, Plotinus himself: and Marcus Aurelius, to whom I began at this time
to devote courses, led me to think in a general way of what I call the phe-
nomenon of ancient philosophy-a phenomenon in the sense of not only
a mental phenomenon, but also a social, sociological phenomenon. I tried
to ask myself the question, What is a philosopher? What do philosophical
schools consist of? This is how I was brought to conceive of philosophy
not as pure theory but as a way of life.
Around this period I also began to attach considerable impor-
tance to the existence of spiritual exercises in antiquity, that is, to the
36 Researcher, Teacher, Philosopher
practices-some of which are of a physical order, such as nutritional or
discursive regimenting, dialogue, and meditation; others of which are
intuitive, such as contemplation; but all of which aim to generate a trans-
formation in the subject practicing them. The discourse of the master of
philosophy could also itself take the form of a spiritual exercise in that
by listening to him or by participating in a dialogue, the disciple could
develop spiritually, transform himself internally. This is when I read the
book Seelenfuhrung [Direction of the soul] by Paul Rabbow, which pre-
sented the different possible forms ofthese practices among the Epicureans
and the Stoics, and which also had the merit of marking the continuity
that exists between ancient spirituality and Christian spirituality, but per-
haps by limiting itself too exclusively to the rhetorical aspects of spiritual
My wife's books and the exchanges we had together revealed new
aspects of the phenomenon that I was trying to understand. In 1977 this
ultimately culminated in the opening article of the Annuaire de la Ve sec-
tion, entitled "Exercices spirituels." This article was obviously supposed
to provide a sample of what I was doing in my course. At the same time,
however, I gradually developed the sense that what I had proposed in this
article, to those who cannot or do not want to live according to a religious
life, was the possibility of choosing a purely philosophical mode of life.
J c.: Is it not a remarkable program topropose to the nonreligious the
possibility ofchoosing apurelyphilosophical modeoflife? Is this not what gives
meaning, on another level, to a gooddeal ofyour scholarly research? But this
article wascalled "Exercices spirituels. "Is therenot, after all, something reli-
gious in this expression? Doyou think that the onlytrue religion isphilosophy
or, like Porphyry, that "only the sage is apriest"?
We believe that spiritual exercises are of a religious order because
there are Christian spiritual exercises. But spiritual exercises appeared in
Christianity only and precisely because of Christianity's will, beginning
in the second century, to present itself as a philosophy on the model of
Greek philosophy, that is, as a mode of life comprising spiritual exercises
borrowed from Greek philosophy. In the Greek and Roman religions,
which did not involve an inner commitment of the individual but were
primarily social phenomena, the notion of spiritual exercises was absent.
Researcher, Teacher, Philosopher 37
However, many religions, such as Buddhism and Taoism, impose a mode
of life on their adepts that includes spiritual exercises. Thus there can
be philosophical spiritual exercises and religious spiritual exercises. For
example, in the heyday of secularism, Jules Payot, in his book L'Education
de la uolonte[TheEducation ofthe Will], published in 1900, recommended
what I call spiritual exercises; thus he discussed spiritual retreat-which
is possible, he said, even in the midst of a crowd-as an exercise for the
examination of conscience, or the different techniques of self-mastery.
More generally speaking, it seems to me that religion and philosophy
must be carefully distinguished. I have discussed this question frequently
with Fernand Brunner, the late philosopher from Neuchatel, with whom I
was good friends. He attempted to bring religion and philosophy closer by
giving religion a philosophical tonality, and philosophy a religious tonal-
ity. For my part, I think-perhaps falsely-that the word religion should
be used to designate a phenomenon that involves images, people, offer-
ings, celebrations, and places that are devoted to God or to gods. This
absolutely does not exist in philosophy. One might say, but then what do
you do with the religion in spirit and in truth, with religion freed from so-
ciological and ritualistic aspects and reduced to an exercise of the presence
of God? I would respond, it is of the order of wisdom or philosophy.
This is also why I consider that mystical phenomena, even if it hap-
pens that they can be observed in different religions, are not specifically
religious. They do not involve the social aspects that I mentioned, and they
situate example, in Plotinus-in a purely philosophical
perspective. They can be observed in philosophers who are totally atheist,
such as Georges Bataille.
From its origins, philosophy developed itself as a critique of reli-
gion, with destructive critique-for example, that of Xenophon, who
said that men made gods in their own image-or purifying critique-
such as that of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and finally the
Neoplatonists. Critique is purifying in, the sense that philosophy finally
tends to transform religion into philosophy. It does this either by develop-
ing a theology, albeit a purely rational theology, or by using allegory to
think about the different divinities in many different ways, as did the
Stoics, for whom Zeus was fire, Hera air, and so on. The Neoplatonists did
this as well, identifying the gods of paganism with Platonic entities; and
38 Researcher, Teacher, Philosopher
the Epicureans, who represented the gods as sages. In a general manner,
philosophy has always had the tendency to rationalize religious myths,
specifically by giving them philosophical content.
J C.: One could object that in the fourth andfifth centuries there were
Neoplatonists who integrated practices of a specifically religious order into
theirphilosophy, becausethe mode ofphilosophical life involved rites, the rites
oftheurgy, iftheurgy is not magic but something that can resemble magic to
the extent that material objectsare used to obtain a spiritual effect.
One must first recognize that the Neoplatonists, in wanting to es-
tablish a correspondence between the gods of Paganism and the various
entities of their system, killed all the charm and the sacred horror these
products of the human imagination may have had. Their purifying cri-
tique is almost a destructive critique. However, at times they have also
brought superstitious and puerile practices into philosophy. This is abso-
lutely right, and I find this difficult to forgive. This is why I do not par-
ticularly appreciate Iamblichus or Proclus. This intrusion of religion into
philosophy had always been rather enigmatic to me. I believe that it is an
unfortunate attempt to compete with Christianity, which at the time also
presented itself as a philosophy of Platonic inclinations, but one associated
with purifying rituals.
This intrusion of religion was, moreover, tied to the metaphysics of
Iamblichus' successors. Like the Christians, they discovered that the soul
had really fallen into matter by a sort of original sin, as it were, and thus
one can have faith through material rites and the help of divine grace.
This cannot be found in Plotinus.
j C.: Platonism, traditionally since Plato, is reservedfor the elites. The
hoi polloi-literally, "the numerous,"the masses-understandnothing. Now,
the Neoplatonist Iamblichus institutedthreegrades oftheurgy, andhe reserved
one for the level ofordinary men, attached to matter. This is perhaps an at-
tempt to comb as broadly as Christians, who have always said, our message is
Yes, thus we encounter the concern of the Pagan philosophers to
combat Christianity on its own terrain. The emperor Julian would have
Researcher, Teacher, Philosopher 39
wanted secular priests to be just as austere as Christian priests and devote
themselves to acts of charity. This represents, as it were, the birth of neo-
paganism, including a theology that reduces the different gods to emana-
tions of a single and unknowable principle, and a purifying or sacramental
ritual allowing the polloi to be saved as well. This is the neo-paganism
that Gemiste Plerhon and other humanists attempted to resuscitate dur-
ing the Renaissance. One can also make out a contamination ofPaganism
and of Christianity in this Neopaganism.
J c.: Do not most "real" religions, the ones that most people practice
and not the ones the theologians theorize, havethe characteristic that onecan,
through prayer (sacrifices, magicalrituals, everything onecan imagine), hope
that the gods will give a fortunate outcome to those in an otherwise hopeless
situation? Thegod ofthe Bible and the Greek gods let themselves be swayed.
Thegods ofthephilosophers do nothingofthe kind. A famous verse in Homer
provokedthe indignation ofall the Greek philosophers: "Thegods themselves
can beswayed. "
Yes. One of the aspects of the critical purification of philosophy in
effect consists in denouncing the vanity of prayers of request to underscore
their absurdity, because the most contradictory invocations are raised to-
ward the gods as men ask at the same time for rain and for good weather,
for their victory and the defeat of the adversary.
There are nuances to be made about this subject, however. On the
one hand, philosophy, Greek or Latin, can very well be directed toward
God or the gods without it being a "religious" prayer that seeks to sway
God; on the contrary, as Epictetus says, it could be a hymn of praise, one
of the tasks of the Stoic philosopher being to sing God's praises, which is,
for him, universal reason. This is the spiritual exercise of contemplation.
On the other hand, it is worth considering that for the Stoics and
the Platonic tradition, religion has a precise place in philosophy. It is situ-
ated exactly in the theory of duties. Duties toward the gods, as one can
see in Epictetus' Manuel [Manual], indicate both that one accepts, as a
philosopher, their will without attempting to sway it, and that, as a citizen
practicing religion, one can very well still admit the legitimacy of religious
practices, ofsacrifices, ofdivination, and ofother things as elements of the
social reality that surrounds one.
40 Researcher, Teacher, Philosopher
J C.: This critical attitude toward religion, common-with a few
exceptions-to ancient philosophers, reappears in the Renaissance, after the
eclipse ofthe Middle Ages?
During the Middle Ages everything changes, because philosophy
is no longer merely religion's servant. As soon as philosophy frees itself
from a theology, it becomes a critique, either purifying or destroying, of
religion. Philosophers-Spinoza no less than Kant, for example-have al-
ways had a tendency to purify the idea of God and detach it from properly
religious representations. It seems to me that what has been called natural
religion is merely a theistic philosophy. As such, it lacks what is essential
in religion: the rites. Now, I recognize that by defining religion in this
way, I oppose a rather general use of the word, namely, to speak of God,
transcendence, or mystery. I have observed the fact in Thomas Mann,
who in a letter remarks, "We live and we die in a mystery, and one can, if
one wishes, qualify the consciousness we have of it as religious." Similarly,
Einstein spoke of the scientific religiosity and the cosmic religion of his
own position, which he expresses by reporting, "I have the strongest emo-
tion in front of the mystery of life," while refusing a God who rewards and
punishes.' In his inaugural lecture, Merleau-Ponty said roughly the same
thing as Thomas Mann and Einstein, but was careful to specify that this
is a philosophical attitude: "Philosophy awakens us to what is problematic
in itself in the existence of the world and our own existence, to the point
that we are never healed from searching, as Bergson would say, for a solu-
tion 'in the master's book.'" 6 This is a philosophical attitude that Merleau-
Ponty refuses to qualify as atheist, because it merely consists of displacing
the sacred or defining it in another way.
J C..' YOu neither passed the agregation [examination for teaching
certification] nor attended the Ecole Normale Superieure, and you did not
ensure a career by choosing afashionable thesis topic either. Andyet, in I982,
you were elected to the College de France. This wasthe initiative ofFoucault,
from whomyou areseparated by many things.
The process began in the fall of 1980. I had just left the hospital
after my first heart operation. I received a telephone call from Foucault.
Pasquale Pasquino, an auditor of mine from Hautes Etudes who had had
Researcher, Teacher, Philosopher 41
many discussions with Foucault, had made my article on spiritual exer-
cises known to him. He asked me if I would accept to be presented as a
candidate. I was both very surprised and very happy. The election always
takes place in two steps. First, the name of the chair is voted on, with full
knowledge that the title in fact corresponds to a particular candidate. For
this first phase, one must write a notice of "titles and works," and visit all
the professors, scientific or literary. I made these visits in the fall of 198'1.
It was a very interesting experience. I was very surprised .by the vast liter-
ary culture of the scientists and by the interest they had in my research.
Finally the day of the vote arrived; it was Sunday, November 29. My pre-
senter was Paul Veyne. In the course of the afternoon, Foucault informed;
me by telephone that the assembly had unanimously adopted the title of
my chair. In the spring of 1982, the second stage of the ceremony took
place: the "nominal" election, which is rarely problematic. A third stage,
it too ritualistic, was the inaugural lecture in February 1983, in which I
attempted to present the notion of ancient philosophy. Thus I was admit-
ted into this venerable institution, in which the assembly meets around an
immense table in the presence of a large painting representing its found-
ing by Francois I. It is a remarkable institution, for the freedom it gives
its members to develop their research and to let a vast audience benefit
from it. I would reproach only its slightly pretentious slogan: Docet omnia
[All things are taught]. For everything is not taught there, obviously, and
even individual professors do not teach the entirety of the subject matter
implied by their titles, but rather the particular domain in which, in his
discipline, he thinks he has advanced science the most. This in itself is a
very good thing. For my part, during my nine years of teaching I spoke
of themes on which I had worked considerably and that were dear to me:
philosophy as a way of life, the attitude of the ancients toward nature,
Plotinus' mysticism, Marcus Aurelius' stoicism.
So I kept company with very great scholars for about ten years, but
I have regretted that I was not able to profit from it. I was able to form
friendships only rarely.
J C.: What are thegeneral impressions you retainfrom these forty years
ofresearch and teaching? What doyou think ofthe French universitysystem?
42 Researcher, Teacher, Philosopher
First of all, I recognize that I was very fortunate to be admitted in
succession to institutions in which one can focus on personal research.
I began as a researcher at the CNRS [Centre National de la Recherche
Scientifique] at a time when researchers in the humanities were allowed to
work primarily on their own projects, even if they individually also par-
ticipated in collective works. (I compiled the cards for Raymond Bayer's
Vocabulairephilosophique du latin [Latin philosophical vocabulary].) Now,
however, according to a method copied from the normal situation in the
exact sciences, researchers are asked to collaborate on a group work. This
often draws them away from their fields of interest, and at times even from
their areas of competence. At times, considerable personnel are gathered
to do a piece of work that a single researcher or small group of researchers
could complete much more quickly. It is true, however, that the isola-
tion of researchers, with which I was familia.r;, in the 1950S and 19605, was
very difficult. T-hereafter I was admitted to two ideal institutions, Ecole
Pratique des Hautes Etudes and the College de France, where, as I said
before, one can reconcile teaching and research admirably. .I was admitted
to the first with no teaching certification, and no doctoral dissertation
yet, and to the second while I did not belong to the intellectual noblesse,
of which one of the principle titles is to be a former student of the Ecole
Normale Superieure, I did not even speak the language of initiates that is
indispensable today in the humanities.
So I had a great deal of luck. I was admitted to the CNRS on the
recommendation of Raymond Bayer alone. At the time, in 1950 or 1951, the
professors, the members of the CNRS commissions, were all-powerful.
Afterward I was admitted to the EPHE, thanks to the support of my
professor Henri-Charles Puech. As I said, if I was admitted to the College
de France, it is in large part due to Pasquale Pasquino, who had spoken
of me to Michel Foucault. 1 was so unknown that one of Foucault's col-
leagues, to whom Foucault had recommended my candidature, confused
me with my wife: "Ah yes, the one who wrote a book on Seneca!" In
recognizing that I have been very fortunate, I already sketch a criticism
of the system that regulates elections in national education. I was lucky
despite my ignorance of everything that one must generally do to succeed.
One must begin early. Already when their children are in high school,
parents must think of the best way to have them succeed in the contest of
Researcher, Teacher, Philosopher 43
the Ecole Normale Superieure or the other major schools [grandes ecoles].
What is the best high school, the best preparatory class? Afterward, one
must choose well one's thesis director-the powerful person who will be
capable of getting you admitted into the CNRS or into the university. For
everything depends on the sponsor.
Whether it is a question of career or of publication, one must think
of everything, one must adopt an expert tactic. During a meeting of the
College International de Philosophie a few years ago, I was practically
reproached for publishing my book Exercises spirituels et philosophie an-
tique [Spiritual exercises and ancient philosophy] in a "confidential" way,
through Etudes Augustiniennes, a publisher that did not have a large dis-
tribution. But I had no relations in the circle of publishers that aim at the
general public, and I was very thankful to my friend Georges Folliet for
accepting to publish this collection of studies. Things changed when I
became a professor at the College de France. Curiously, I was no longer
transparent! I certainly was before this. Consider, for example, how the
candidate for a chair at the College who had come to see me on a candi-
dacy visit told me that he was happy to make my acquaintance, although
two or three years earlier I had participated with him in a colloquium in
which there were not very many of us. I had given a presentation in front
of him, had lunch facing him several times, and even spoken to him....
But at the time, I was merely director at EPHE, and so not very interesting
because ineffectual in the perspective of a great career. I had not especially
retained his attention.
An election is often a matter of luck, of the fortuitous meeting be-
tween different interests and different politics, In the three elections I
have spoken about, there is no proof that I was admitted for reasons of
personal merit. I would be mistaken to take pride in it. The fact of having
been elected to an institution, as prestigious as it may be, in no way proves
that the one elected is prestigious. They often speak of elitist systems, of
elitocracies, or of meritocracies. But is it really an elite that is chosen? Is
the choice always a function ofthe competence, the intelligence, the moral
value of the work? What are the real factors that contributed to the choice?
It is ultimately a set of coincidences: the birth, the fortune, the good high
school, the ability, the luck (to have fallen on the question that one was
prepared to answer, or to have had a powerful sponsor, or to have been
44 Researcher, Teacher, Philosopher
used as a bargaining chip in a negotiation). Are the famous contests that
ope.n careers and ensure the recruitment of state personnel often contests
of circumstance and of luck?
J C.: You seem not to appreciate contests very much, and the teaching
certification in particular.
Does this system of contests, notably the famous teaching certifi-
cation (agregation) , not harm the scientific and human development of
the candidates? Does it not too often privilege rhetorical qualities; the
ability to treat a subject, even if one is barely familiar with it; the art
of speaking in an elegant and obscure manner? Already in 1841, Balzac,
in Le Cure de village [The Village Priest], brilliantly put our contest sys-
tem, which was already in place at the time, on trial. (The success of a
young man in a contest, he said, gives no certainty about the value of the
grown man he will become.) In 1900, Rene Haussoulier, in his preface to
Charles Michel's collection of Greek inscriptions, spoke of the "degrading
exams," of the "horizons narrowed by the B.A. or the teaching certifica-
tion contests," of the French students "who have neither the leisure nor
the courage to undertake such tasks."? In 1961-62, in the summary of his
courses provided in the Annuaire de la Ve Section of I'Ecole Pratique des
Hautes Etudes, Father Festugiere in turn declared, "It is saddening that
the French students are completely devoid of curiosity, One sinks into the
emptiest of routines and watches disappear the essence of the humanities,
which is to form minds." Have things really changed in this beginning of
the twenty-first century?
Whatever the case may be, to get back to the problem I was evoking,
it sometimes happens that the candidate's qualities are not the decisive
factor in an election. Here i blame not people, who always believe they are
doing what is best, but the electoral system, which seems defective to me.
In this system, politics too often plays an important role, and by"politics"
I mean especially local politics. In the universities, the advantage is given
to the candidates who are already there, which can be understood to a
certain point. But it often totally eliminates consideration of the merits
of the other candidates. Moreover, when professors approach retirement,
they often think of their succession and obstruct the elect jon ofcandidates
who, bytheir competence, could compromise and make useless the future
Researcher, Teacher, Philosopher 45
election of their proteges. There is also politics involved in connection
with the legitimate desire of a given professor to be elected to a particular
academy. For this, one must make oneself useful. One sometimes com-
placently accepts the insistent council of a given academician who would
want to have one of his proteges elected and whose voice would be pre-
cious. Moreover, under the influence of powerful people, it also happens
that a given academy that has the right to give its opinion about the elec-
tions of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes and the College de France refuses to
accept the vote of one of these institutions' assemblies in order to obstruct
the ministry of education's nomination of a given candidate-for reasons
that appear to be more political or even religious than scientific. It thereby
inverses the order of choice: the one who had been in second position is
thus placed in first. This rarely happens, but it has been seen. There have
been famous examples. Fortunately, the national ministry of education
does not always allow itself to be influenced. It is almost a question of a
centenary use: the Academic des Sciences Morales et Politiques had tried
to obstruct Alfred Leisy's election to the College de France in this manner
in 1909.
In the case of the College de France, one must recall that this insti-
tution is surrounded by serious guarantees to ensure the objectivity of its
elections. The candidate must present his titles and works, and a precise
teaching project, which all the members of the assembly are supposed to
read attentively. Moreover, the candidate must visit each of the professors,
who through questioning can take his personal qualities into account. But
the assembly is made up of scientists and literary scholars, and one must
say that the scientists have difficulty understanding the literary projects,
and the literary scholars, the scientists' projects. The difficulty is exacer-
bated by the fact that the candidates' research, particularly in the literary
domain) is so specialized that even their own colleagues have difficulty
assessing them in full knowledge of their value. How can this be rem-
edied? Perhaps by obtaining evaluations from outside the assembly-and
if possible, outside of France-from specialists in the field in question. In
any case, there is a real problem here, one that may be insurmountable. I
note the difficulties, but the pros and cons would have to be weighed with
consideration to find a solution.
46 Researcher, Teacher, Philosopher
J C.: Doyou haveanythingtosay about the CNRS?
I belonged to the CNRS for about fourteen years. Given the precari-
ousness of the situation of researchers at the time, which was the almost
heroic period of the CNRS, I joined a union, the CFDT [Confederation
Francaise Democratique du Travail], to be defended, if possible, in case
I was laid off. Because the membership of the CFDT was not very large
at the time, I was even obliged to take on certain union functions, in the
human sciences, while Mademoiselle Yon, a biologist, took care of the
exact sciences. It was a matter, for example, when the researchers obtained
the right to have delegates in the commissions, of choosing representatives
from the CFDT. I myself was elected to the philosophy commission as a
union representative. This allowed me to participate in the functioning of
the CNRS and to see how things work, In my humble opinion, during
this period the way that researchers were recruited was rather defective. It
was the principle do ut des [I will scratch your back if you scratch mine]
that reigned.
A characteristic example: During a session in which I participated,
the president of the commission, who had chosen the reporters who were
to read their evaluations of the dossiers ofa given candidate in session, had
given the dossier of his protege to Mr. X and had taken the dossier of Mr.
X's protege to report on himself But I discovered after the fact that he had
prepared two reports: a favorable one, in case Mr. X upheld his end of the
contract, and an unfavorable one, in case Mr. X did not. It turned out that
Mr. X upheld the contract. The president's protege was thus admitted, as
was, consequently, Mr. X's protege. He was merely a means of reward or
of revenge.
Moreover, the CFDT union was not very powerful at the CNRS, at
least at the time, to the point that to be admitted as a researcher, one had
to be supported by the national syndicate of scientific researchers, tied to
the FEN [Federation de l'Education Nationale, or Federation of National
Education]. Having become director at the EPHE, after 1964 I wanted to
present a candidate who was an absolutely remarkable person and who has
since proven himself: I did not succeed in getting him admitted. For three
years in a row I presented the same candidate, with no result, after which
I told him, Have yourself presented by another union; meet with so-and-
so. He was taken immediately, the following year. Thus the recruitment
Researcher, Teacher, Philosopher 47
was made not on the basis of the value of the candidates, but according to
union politics.
In 1968 or 1969, we had been asked for advice concerning the reform
of the CNRS. In a letter to the director of the humanities at the time, I
wrote that it would be good to choose a system analogous to the one that
exists outside France, such as in Germany, in Switzerland, and I believe in
Canada as well. In these countries, reports are requested from specialists
outside the commission and even often outside the country, whether it is
a question of the recruitment ofa researcher, the constitution ofa research
laboratory, or a book grant.
This preponderance of certain university or union personalities was
harmful, I think, in certain sectors, to the harmonious development of the
CNRS, at least in the domain of the human sciences. When I was in the
philosophy commission, I had the habit of saying that in nature, function
creates the organ, but at the CNRS, it is the organ that creates the function.
By this I meant that if the powerful professor or a given powerful union
felt like presenting a vague research project, it was immediately deemed to
be indispensable, without the c o m ~ i s s i o n asking itself seriously whether
the project was really urgent and useful in the general framework of the
discipline. Incidentally, I made a committee for the reform of the CNRS
laugh one day by appealing to a terribly incoherent metaphor: "the sharks
who take the lion's share." I have the excuse of being furious.
j. C.: You wereundoubtedly no softer when it came to the matter ofthe
functioning ofuniversity libraries.
I will leave aside the question of the Bibliotheque Nationale de
France and focus on university libraries. When we were in the other cities,
and when we saw the libraries in Canada, in England, in Germany, and
in Switzerland (I did not go to the United States), it became clear that
the students have much easier and abundant access to material than in
France. In Canada I saw libraries in which there are small offices where
the students can work and use computers. In Great Britain and Canada,
the students have access to the book stacks. In Germany, at the Frankfurt
library, there is access to the book stacks; in Berlin, in an immense room,
the students had at hand practically all useful literature, all the basic
books, the collections of texts, the historical collections. In a reading room
48 Researcher, Teacher, Philosopher
at the Sorbonne library, there are a few dictionaries and-now this is an
enormous progress-the Collection des Universites de France (bilingual
Greek and Latin texts), but it is ultimately insufficient.
The greatest concern is that students, who have great difficulty find-
ing a place to sit in overcrowded study rooms, have all the difficulty in
the world finding books that haven't been bound, borrowed, or stolen.
Several years ago, during the winter, the lights went out in half of the
reading room at the Sorbonne library; this lasted several months without
the slightest reparations being made. Either the students brought flash-
lights, or they did not come. At the time I protested to the library admin-
istrator, which had no effect-perhaps due to lack of funds! But is this
not a case in which emergency funds should have been released? The state
of great misery of the provincial libraries must also be discussed. I once
criticized the quality of a doctoral dissertation in the presence of Henri-
Irenee Marrou. He answered me, "Oh, what do you expect? He works in
the provinces."
J C.: Before retiring in the fall ofI99I, didyou have the opportunity in
the course ofyour career to distract yourselfat all, to do anything other than
to teach or to write books?
I had the good fortune that my parents bought a piano and gave me
lessons when I was five years old. I took piano lessons until I entered the
Petit Seminaire at the age of ten. Then I played sonatas by Mozart and
Beethoven, and waltzes by Chopin. When I got older I would say that one
rnust play Mozart in the morning, Beethoven at noon, and Chopin in the
evening. Subsequently, I learned to play the organ, which is a wonderful
instrument made for the great naves and cathedrals, and it gives the im-
pression of having an entire orchestra at one's disposal. My participation
in the liturgical ceremonies consisted in playing the organ. The one re-
sponsible for liturgical music at the Grand Serninaire would reproach me
for playing pieces that were too sentimental and romantic. He put a book
of the works of Bach in my hands, demanding that I play nothing else. I
exacted my revenge by executing in such a languorous way a piece that in-
cluded triplets that he came to find me, furious, saying that I had certainly
not played music by Bach. I triumphantly showed him the page of music.
It remains that Bach's organ music is something to be admired. In my
Researcher, Teacher, Philosopher 49
youth, the piano was a passion for me. In the family home, I played several
hours a day. After leaving the Church, I continued to playa great deal,
but ultimately work and concerns no longer left me the needed leisure. I
have often attempted to come back to it. I even began taking lessons again
last year. I sometimes listen to music while working, when the effort of
reflection. is not too constraining. I heard that Merleau-Ponty did this too.
Certain operas fascinate me, for example, the Chevalier ala Rose [The
Knight of the Rose], which I have listened to on videocassette every year
since the night of Saint-Sylvestre. I adore Wagner, in relation to whom I
share Baudelaire's enthusiasm: freed from weight, Baudelaire glided above
the world here below by listening to Wagner's music. But there are also
Cesar Franck, Gabriel Faure, and the "In Paradisum" of the requiem, and
Gustav Mahler. Certain passages ofhis symphony Resurrection seem to me
to express the springing up of existence.
I will not enumerate all my readings, but I will mention the authors
I have reread throughout my life. There was Montaigne, who enabled me
to discover ancient philosophy and who is so inexhaustible that I have yet
to explore him entirely.
Rilke was my breviary, especially during the years 1945-60. I discov-
ered him in 1944, thanks to Gabriel Marcel's Homo Viator, which contains
the very beautiful chapter "Rilke, Witness of the Spiritual." 1 read the
Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus in the excellent edition with commen-
tary by d'Angelloz. As I have already said, I wanted to write a disserta-
tion on Rilke and Heidegger, because Heidegger had said that the Elegies
expressed in poetic form what he had wanted to say in Being and Time.
Jean Wahl was very sad when I gave it up, and furious at Raymond Bayer:
"It is not enough that he takes my time (Bayer always ate into at least a
quarter of an hour of Wahl's class, which followed his), but now he takes
my students!" I do not know whether Heidegger would have approved of
the verse from the seventh elegy, "Being is here a splendor," but I would
tell it to myself often. I also read Letters to a Young Poet, The Notebooks
ofMalte Laurids Brigge, and The Book ofHours, which spoke a great deal
about God, but in an entirely different way than in Christianity. It spoke
of a God who will come, of a God who we begin to make through our
existence, of a God who lives all lives, even the most humble. Through
his criticism of industrial and technical civilization, Rilke made me feel
50 Researcher, Teacher, Philosopher
forcefully the breach between man and the Earth, between man and na-
ture, between man and cosmic unity. Filled with enthusiasm by Rilke, I
made Rilkean pilgrimages to Sierre, where I visited the castle of Muzot
and where I met Rudolf Kassner, one of Rilke's friends; and to Raron,
where I saw Rilke's tomb and all of the scenery of the Valais. In this valley
of the Rhone before it Bows into Lake Leman, I always feel the presence of
Rilke. I do not regret having seen the scenery of Ouino.
During the time I was discovering Rilke, I was also discovering
German Romanticism, thanks to Albert Beguin's L:Ame romantique et
le reve [The romantic soul and the dream]. This is why for a long time
I have had a passion for Novalis, most notably for his Disciples at Sass
and his Hymns to the Night; for C.W.F. Schelling as well, and for Georg
Lichtenberg, who is not really a romantic but whose aphorisms are at
times entertaining and especially very profound, and I still read and re-
read him.
I became interested in Goethe, especially as of 1968; my paper in
Ascona on the philosophy of nature pushed me to him. I was seduced
by his aesthetic understanding of the science of nature, which ultimately
has no great scientific value but already harkens, it seems to me, to the
philosophy of perception of Bergson and of Merleau-Ponty. I liked his
criticism of human chattering, trivial and smug, which he opposes to the
silence and gravity of nature, which expresses itself in eloquent drawings.
I have also read and reread Goethe's Elective Affinities, Wilhelm Meister,
Faust, and especially Faust II, in which I discovered the Epicurean and
Stoic idea of the value of the present instant. It is an inexhaustible work.
In the course of reading Goethe and books on Goethe, I realized that he
was not the Olympian we usually take him to be. Humanly speaking, he
was somewhat disappointing, often lacking courage, somewhat inclined
to the bottle, with bizarre ideas, like the one of giving his son a guillotine
as a toy. Often. there is no Goethean serenity, but on the contrary, as I
hope to show in a forthcoming book, a man divided between terror and
Nietzsche is another author I have read and reread, but not entirely.
Ultimately I am far from knowing the heart of his thought. I discov-
ered him first through Ernst Bertram's Nietzsche: Essai de Mythologie
[Nietzsche: an essay of mythology], which enchanted me first by its form.
Researcher, Teacher, Philosopher 5I
The book has the originality of regrouping all sorts of significant details
about Nietzsche's work around themes-unifying symbols, for example,
such as Durer's painting, the knight, death and the devil, or the figure of
Socrates, and the scenery, such as Portofino, and Venice. I believe that this
method is promising, because it ties the work of the author to the vari-
ous experiences he has had, to the visions he has seen. Independently of
this uncommon form, the book revealed Nietzsche himself to me in the'
extraordinary richness of his internal life. Thomas Mann admired this
book by Bertram, but it was harshly contested by the Nietzsche special-
ists, most notably by Charles Andler, because it does not sufficiently at-
tend to Nietzsche's doctrine. But personally, I find that the man Nietzsche
is, in all his contradictions, very well revealed in this book. Thanks to
Bernard Condorninas, I had the opportunity to have the translation of the
book (which had been published in 1932) republished with a new preface,
in which I especially speak of Bertram and of the circle around Stefan
George to which he belonged. This is a man, it is true, whose life and ideas
can be criticized. I read Nietzsche himself the way one reads aphorisms, by
delighting myself always in his perspicacity and his lucidity.
In an entirely other order of ideas, but I will mention it nonetheless,
there is a modern novelist who I adore, David Lodge, because of the truth
and the humor of his paintings of the university setting, but also because
of the Catholic setting. He is both very entertaining and very profound.
J C.: But your retirement is also verystudious?
In effect, I profit from this freedom to write books that have been
waiting to be written for years: translations with commentary of Plotinus,
a study on Marcus Aurelius (The Inner Citadel), a translation of book one
of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations (the sequel will follow soon, I hope). I
was also very happy to be able to write the small book What Is Ancient
Philosophy? In addition, I am trying to complete a study, begun about
thirty years ago, devoted to the theme of the veil of nature. My grandson,
who is eight, monopolizes a good deal of my time. Sometimes he asks me
to write on the computer the stories he invents, and he dictates them to
me as he walks from one end of my office to the other. I am very happy
and proud of it.
Philosophical Discourse
Arnold I Davidson: When we approach a text ofancient philosophy,
we tend to treat it as though it were a text ofmodern philosophy-either as a
systematic theory o/the world, ofman, and so on, or as a sum ofpropositions
that can be demonstrated or refuted, as it were, abstractly. According to your
perspective, however, it is a mistake oforientation to treat the texts ofancient
philosophy in the same way as the texts of modern philosophy. Would you
explain thefundamental differences between these two types oftexts, and thus
the two types ofreading required?
You are absolutely right. Ancient philosophy texts and modern phi-
losophy texts are extremely different. The first difference is that ancient
philosophy texts also have a relation to the oral, to oral style. For example,
Plato's dialogues were designed for presentation in public readings, and
even the very austere texts ofAristotle's commentators had to be presented
to students orally first. Often they come to us thanks to notes that stu-
dents took during the course. It is also possible that the pre-Socratics' texts
were first read in public. Incidentally, this phenomenon was not particular
to philosophy; as the linguist Antoine Meillet suggests, all literary works
of antiquity have a relation to the oral. This is what explains, notably, "the
impression of slowness that they give." Despite what certain historians
may think, I am persuaded that ancient and even medieval civilizations
were dominated by the oral. As a result, the philosophical texts of an-
tiquity were always directed at a limited audience. Unlike the modern
Philosophical Discourse 53
book, which can be read throughout the world, at any moment byanyone,
in thousands of copies, ancient texts were addressed to precise people,
whether it be the group of students or a particular disciple to whom one
wrote. And one always wrote in particular, precise circumstances, whether
one put down the courses one gave in writing or wrote to a correspondent
who had asked a question. In fact, the vast majority of the philosophi-
cal writings of antiquity correspond to a play of questions and answers,
because for almost three centuries, from Socrates to the first century B.C.,
the teaching of philosophy was almost always presented on the question-
answer schema. It was always a matter of responding to a question, a ques-
tion posed by a student, or rather, posed by the teacher-Socrates, for
example-to oblige the student to understand all the implications of his
own thought. This culture of the question still subsisted in the scholasti-
cism of the Middle Ages.
Teaching, then, was practiced in large part in the form of dialogue.
However, after the first century ofour era, something modern, so to speak,
was introduced: texts by Plato, Aristotle, Chrysippus, other Stoics, and
Epicureans began to be explained and commented on. But as Hans-Georg
Gadamer has remarked, their commentaries are also questions posed to
the text." Exegesis still largely consisted in responding to a question: Did
Plato think that the world was eternal? for example, was a way to treat the
question, Is the world eternal? Thus, from the beginning to the end of
ancient philosophy, we have almost the same situation: philosophical writ-
ings respond to questions. For example, in the Life of Plotinus, Porphyry
says that Plorinus composed his writings in response to the questions that
were asked in the course. We are thus in the presence of an extremely
interesting phenomenon: the thought that is exposed in writing is not
developed as the exposition of a complete system of reality. This com-
plete system of reality probably exists in the mind of Plato, ofAristotle, of
Epicurus, or of Chrysippus, but it is supposed only in the answers to the
questions, or in the type of questions posed. The writing itself does not
consist of systematic exposition. Furthermore, as a result of this context
of writing, which is almost always narrowly tied to teaching, questions
and answers are given as a function of the needs of the audience. The
teacher who writes, or whose words are written, knows his disciples; he
knows, by previous discussions, what they know, what they do not know;
54 Philosophical Discourse
he also knows their moral state, the problems that present themselves to
them; and he often speaks as a function of this particular situation. One is
always faced with a writing that is more or less a writing of circumstance,
not an exposition that is absolutely universal in breadth, valid for all times
and in all countries, but rather particularized. Everything I have just said
contrasts with the structural method, endorsed most notably by Victor
Goldschmidt, which tends to minimize the role of the oral character of
ancient philosophy.'
A.D.: This means that the oral has its own constraints, which are not
exactly the sameas those ofthe modern mind no longer tied to the oral or to
teaching for a particular group. Do you think the dialogue is a privileged
genre in ancientphilosophy? The dialogue as aphilosophical genre hasall but
disappeared todayfor us; we especially havesystematic treatises. What doyou
think ofthepriority ofdialogue as literary genre tied to a very specific group,
to a very specific audience?
It is true that in antiquity the dialogue was one of the fundamental
forms of teaching. For the sake of simplicity, let us say that it took rather
diverse forms. It could take the form of an exercise of argumentation with
codified rules that aimed both to form the mind and to prepare the dis-
ciple for the oratory games of the city or the tribunal. It could take the
form of a free discussion that would at times be reduced by a disciple to
a single question, which the teacher would answer with a long exposition
but that was always addressed to a well-defined audience. In a certain
sense, as Epictetus says about discussion with his teacher Musonius Rufus,
everyone had the impression of being addressed by Musonius." At the be-
ginning of the second book of his Definibus, Cicero does indeed describe
these different forms of dialogue, but it is the form of dialogue, the ques-
tion-answer schema that we have already discussed, that matters above all
for our purposes. It is very interesting to note that the Latins, when they
spoke of a philosophical writing, called it a dialogue, for example, when
referring to the works of Cicero or of Seneca, in which we always find
questions asked by a real or fictional character.
In antiquity, philosophy was thus essentially dialogue, a living rela-
tionship between people rather than an abstract relation to ideas. It aimed
Philosophical Discourse 55
to form rather than to inform, to take up Victor Goldschmidt's excellent
phrase, which he used in reference to Plato's dialogues.'
But one must add that there were other literary genres in antiquity.
We have already evoked, for example, the commentary, about which we
have said, among other things, that it consisted in asking questions about
a text. But it can also be the systematic exposition' of a geometrical type,
on the model of Euclid's Elements. We see it outlined in Epicurus (Letter
to Pythocles), and finding its perfect form in Proclus (Elements of Theology
and Elements ofPhysics). I think the goal ofhis rigorous demonstration was
less to undertake a theoretical exercise of axiomatization than to allow the
disciple to acquire an unshakable certainty in the dogmas of the school
that must regulate his life. I think this is clear enough in Epicurus' case,
but possibly in the case of Proclus as well.
A.D.: In antiquity there were still other philosophical genres that have
disappeared today: for example, consolations and correspondence. Now, it
seems that at a certain moment, the systematic treatise invaded all philosophy:
consolations and correspondence have become purely private: real dialogues
happen only exceptionally. What have we lost with the absence ofthese differ-
ent literary genres?
Consolations and correspondence are literary genres in which the
philosopher exhorts his disciples or his friends in very specific circum-
stances-an unfortunate event in the case of consolations, various life cir-
cumstances in the case of correspondence, such as Epicufus' and Seneca's
Letters. These are ultimately other forms of_ dialogue. These literary
forms-dialogue, consolations, correspondence-continued to exist in the
Middle Ages, in the Renaissance, and still in the seventeenth century,
but precisely in literary form, without the philosophical teaching itself
taking a dialogical form. Thus we have the dialogues of Berkeley, Hume,
and other philosophers. Descartes' Letters to princess Elisabeth sometimes
seem to be letters of spiritual direction, worthy of antiquity. I believe that
systematic treatises, written with the intention of proposing a system,
belong to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Descartes, Leibniz,
Wolff). The ancient literary genres gradually disappeared.
You ask if there has not been a loss from this point of view. We
will return to this question later, but there is a partial but very real loss
56 Philosophical Discourse
of the. conception of philosophy as a mode of life, as a choice of life, as
therapy as well. We have lost the personal and communal aspect of phi-
losophy. Moreover, philosophy has progressively entrenched itself on this
purely formal path, in the search for novelty in itself at all costs. For the
philosopher, it is a question of being as original as possible, if not by cre-
ating a new system, at least by producing a discourse that makes itself
complicated in order to be original. The more or less skillful construction
of a conceptual edifice will become an end in itself. Philosophy thus has
progressively distanced itself from the concrete life of humans.
It should also be remarked that it is possible to understand this
evolution in terms of historical and institutional factors. From the nar-
row perspective of the universities, it is a question of preparing students
for study in a scholastic program that will allow them to obtain a civil
servant degree and that will open a career for them. As a result, the per-
sonal and communal relation necessarily disappears for them, in order to
make way for a teaching addressed to everyone, that is to say, to no one.
Unfortunately, I think it is extremely difficult in our day to resurrect the
dialogical character of ancient philosophy. It seems to me that this dia-
logical form of teaching is realizable only in communities of the type of
the ancient schools, organized to live philosophy communally (sumphiloso-
phein, as they used to say). Perhaps this might be possible in communities
that would be of the monastic type? But I believe that in everyday life and
in university life, it would be very artificial.
However, without returning to a dialogical form of teaching, it
does seem as though since the beginning of the nineteenth century we
are witnessing a rediscovery of the philosophical and ethical fecundity of
dialogue, that is, of the relationship between the I and the You, which is
outlined in Schleiermacher and Feuerbach, and developed in Buber and
A.D.: The close relations between the philosophical signification of a
text and its literary genre are noticeable-something that is obvious in your
interpretation ofthe Thoughts ofMarcus Aurelius. Ifone thinks that these
Thoughts are a systematic treatise, one immediately realizes all sorts ofinco-
herence, ofcontradictions; it seems as though there is no structure; but ifone
does understand the literary genre and the relation between literary genre
and philosophical finality of the Meditations ofMarcus Aurelius, one can
Philosophical Discourse 57
understand the text from another point ofview; one can seea logic in it, but
it is not at all the logic ofa modern systematic treatise. Can you explain how a
text like Marcus Aurelius' can again show the necessityofputting literary genre
andphilosophical specificity together in antiquity?
Marcus Aurelius' book is an absolutely privileged example to illus-
trate this problem of literary genres. Different historians have fundamen- .
tally understood the Meditations as a function of their own ideal of the
philosophical literary genre. Moreover, it is remarkable that the English
did such good work on Marcus Aurelius in the seventeenth century-that
is, Thomas Gataker and Meric Casaubon (who was not English but lived
in England) both recognized the real literary genre of Marcus Aurelius;
they used the Greek word hupomnemata, which designates the notes one
takes for oneself: Furthermore, they saw that it was a question of exhorta-
tions that Marcus Aurelius made to himself: By contrast, during the same
century, a Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Joly, had the notion that the apparently
disjointed character of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations came from the fact
that he had written a systematic treatise that had been destroyed and that
someone had tried to put back into order, not unlike what happened with
Pascal's Pensees. At the time of Romanticism, it was thought to be a diary
[journal intime], like the diary of Henri Frederic Amiel or of Maurice
de Guerin-s-Marcus Aurelius, on the eve of the battles on the Danube,
expressing his disgust for life, his sadness.
There has been a return, recently, to the position of Gataker and
Casaubon, notably, in an article by Brunt," in a book by Rutherford'? and
in my own work as well. There has thus been a recovery of the idea that
Marcus Aurelius was attempting to awaken in .himself the Stoic dogmas
that were to govern his life but that had lost some of their persuasive force;
thus it was necessary to attempt constantly to persuade himself anew.. His
goal was to have the Stoic dogmas at hand in an efficient manner-in
particular, the three fundamental precepts of Epictetus: never let any-
thing into the mind that is not objective, always take the good of the
human community as the end of one's actions, and make one's desires
conform to the rational order of the universe. There is thus an internal
logic to Marcus Aurelius' book. Bur in order to awaken these principles in
all circumstances, one must adopt the form of the aphorism: the short and
striking formula that gives them life again. Appreciation of this dimension
58 Philosophical Discourse
can enhance an understanding of ancient philosophy more generally. In
this connection, I was influenced in' my youth by Cardinal John Henry
Newman's Grammar ofAssent, in which he distinguishes notional assent
and real assent. Notional assent is the acceptance of a theoretical proposi-
tion to which one adheres in an abstract way, such as a mathematical
proposition, for example, 2 and 2 make 4. This commits one to nothing;
it is purely intellectual. Real assent is something that involves the whole be-
ing; one understands that the proposition to which one adheres is going to
change one's life. Newman developed this theory from the perspective of
Christian anthropology, but I think it can also be applied to the particular
case of Marcus Aurelius. What he wants is to have real assent with the dog-
mas of Stoic propositions, for example, that there is no good or evil other
than moral good or evil, or that other human beings are related to one in
reason and that one must therefore love them, forgive them. To arrive at
this real assent, one must use the imagination as well as reasoning, and an
entire psychological discipline.
A.D.: In relation to thisproblem, Ifindit remarkable that Wittgensteins
Philosophical Investigations can be read in the same framework. It is in no
way a systematic treatise; ifit is read as a systematic treatise, as it sometimes
is in the United States, one says that it is full of inconsistencies and poorly
written-the same criticisms that had been addressed to the writing ofMarcus
Aurelius. As Stanley Cavell and others have shown, however, it is a type of
dialogue-many small, continually renewed dialogues-because one must
repeatedly overcome a temptation, conduct a real therapy, in order to change
the life, not only the opinion, ofthe interlocutor, who is also Wittgenstein, who
must change himself It is not insignificant, therefore, that you were thefirst in
France to have discovered Wittgenstein. In a text from 1959 or I960 ((Jeux de
langage et philosophic" [Language Games and Philosophy]), you used, perhaps
for the first time, the expression "spiritual exercises" to discuss Wittgenstein,
andyou insisted on thefact that in Wittgenstein there is a whole therapy, that
there is no systematicity ofthe modern type. This suggests that one can even
today recoverthe literary genre and type ofancient philosophy, so that at every
moment in the history a/philosophy one canfind an author who tries to renew
them. Why do you think that this model-philosophy as a mode of life, as
necessity to transform onese/f---::.remains soalive, even ifit is somewhat hidden
by the things you have indicated, the university, and so on?
Philosophical Discourse 59
First I would briefly like to say something parenthetically. You have
insisted on the fact that Wittgenstein's readers have found that there are
many inconsistencies in the Philosophical Investigations. Concerning the
genesis of the notion of philosophy as a choice of life or of the notion of
spiritual exercises in my work, it should also be said that I began by reflect-
ing on this problem: how to understand the apparent inconsistencies of
certain philosophers. In Munich in the 1960s, I even gave a paper that was'
never published called, I believe, "Sysrerne et incoherence en philosophic"
[System and incoherence in philosophy]. I have always been struck by the
fact that the historians say, "Aristotle is incoherent" and "Saint Augustine
writes poorly." And this is what led me to the idea that the philosophi-
cal works of antiquity were not written as the exposition of a system but
in order to produce an effect of formation. The philosopher wanted to
make the minds of his readers or listeners work, in order to improve their
disposition. This is a rather important point, I believe. I did not begin
with more or less edifying considerations about philosophy as therapy,
and so on, as opposed to philosophy as, for example.... No, it was really
a strictly literary problem, which is the following: For what reasons do
ancient philosophical writings seem incoherent? Why is it so difficult to
recognize their rational plane?
To answer your question about the possible renewal of the ancient
model ofphilosophy, I will restrict myself to the problem ofliterary genres,
because it is our present topic. To begin, I believe that the ancient civili-
zation of the oral has definitively disappeared since the invention of the
printing press, which itself will eventually be surpassed by the I nterner. I
said earlier that I doubted the possibility of reviving the dialogical charac-
ter of philosophical teaching. But you are right to remark that, from the
Renaissance to our day, there have been authors who have tried to renew,
in their writings, ancient literary genres. One can think, for example, of
Montaigne's Essays, which perfectly recalls the genres of Plutarch's trea-
tises and Descartes' Meditations. These are spiritual exercises that take
into consideration the time it will take the reader to be able to change his
mentality and transform his way of seeing things: Shafstbury's Exercises,
inspired by Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus; Schopenhauer's aphorisms;
Nietzsche; or Wittgenstein's Tractatus.
60 Philosophical Discourse
II} a certain sense, one might say that there have always been two
opposed conceptions of philosophy, one puts the emphasis on the pole
of discourse, the other, on the pole of choice of life. Already in antiquity,
Sophists and philosophers confronted each other. The former sought to
shine through the subtleties of dialectic or the magic of words; the latter
required their disciples to make a concrete commitment to a certain mode
of life. This situation ultimately spread, at times with the preponderance
of one tendency or the other. I believe that philosophers will never get
beyond the self-satisfaction they experience in the pleasure of speaking.
In any event, to remain faithful to the deep-Socratic, one might say-
inspiration of philosophy, a new ethic of philosophical discourse would
have to be proposed. As a result, philosophy would renounce taking itself
as an end in itself or, worse yet, as a means to display the philosopher's
elegance, and would instead become a means to overcome oneself and to
move onto the plane of universal reason and opening to others.
Interpretation, Objectivity, and
Arnold1. Davidson: A whole current ofcontemporary thought insists on
the fact that it is impossible to give an objective interpretation ofa text, that
interpretation always depends on the interpreter's point ofview. This herme-
neutic problem can be considered in relation to the following question: Is the
author's will, what the author meant, most important for the understanding
ofa text, or is it the autonomy ofthe text itselfthat is most important? Conse-
quently, in order to interpret a text, should one attempt to recoverthe author's
intention, and can it be done in a more or less objective modality?
This is a question that I have asked myself often since reading
Gadamer's theories-which, as you say, show that the subject does indeed
interpret texts as a function of its subjectivity-as well as the very inter-
esting Introduction to the Philosophy ofHistory by Raymond Aron, which
addresses the difficulty of being objective. These theories have merit that
should be recognized: they have legitimately uncovered the illusions that
were held about the historian's objectivity as a result of neglecting the
influence on historical interpretations of the passions, of rancor, of social
situation, and of philosophical options. This is quite true, but it is merely
one aspect of the problem. Indeed, I believe that this relativism represents
a danger, for it has quickly issued in a position that, in a sense, Foucault
himself accepted at a certain time: not only is the exegete incapable of
62 Interpretation, Objectivity, and Nonsense
really 'knowing what the author meant, but more important, the author
himself no longer exists. From here one can generate interpretations in
which one can say anything about anything. I am not the only one to con-
sider this to be very dangerous, and numerous examples prove it. Notably,
I was struck by Ernst Gombrich's remarks in one of his books on art. He
reflects on the sense of the statue of Eros situated at Piccadilly Circus,
above a fountain put up between 1886 and 1897 to honor the memory of
the seventh Count of Shaftesbury, a great philanthropist.' He enumerates
the successive interpretations of the monument that could have been giv-
en. At the time, the sculptor, Albert Gilbert, had declared that he wanted
to symbolize Christian charity with the figure of Eros. However, expla-
nations of every kind-that we can now list-have been proposed since
then. Inspired by this example, Gombrich firmly states the principle that
in order to interpret a work of art or a text, one must, before anything else,
look for the author's intention. On this point, he cites a very important
book by E. D. Hirsch concerning the interpretation of literary works.i
Hirsch distinguishes sense and signification in such works. He shows that
there is a sense meant by the author, an intention that one must attempt
to grasp. But subsequently he recognizes that it is possible to discover
different significations that various audiences can give to the work. This
can explain the successive interpretations of the status of Eros at Piccadilly
Circus. Furthermore, this or that expression, or such and such a symbol,
can, by themselves, have various implications. For example, the choice
of the figure of Eros can carry, as a result of the collective representa-
tions concerning the figure of Eros, certain implications that escape the
author's intention. As Andre Gide said in Paludes, "If we know what we
meant to say, we do not know if that is all we were saying. One always says
more than 'that.'" Hirsch's book is also relevant in another respect. He
effectively insists on the fact that the sense of the text meant by the author
depends narrowly on the literary genre to which the text belongs. It is clear
that this book, which is in fact very nuanced, runs against the current of
the present fashion. Is this the reason it has never been translated into
French, despite my efforts to have it translated? It leads one to believe that
it is not only in Rome that there is a list of prohibited books.
A. D.: Those who criticize the idea that the sense ofthe text can be re-
covered through the author's intention conceive ofthe author's intention as a
Interpretation, Objectivity, and Nonsense 63
secret psychological reality that must be uncovered. One might say that you
havefound the key to readingMarcus Aurelius' Meditations without intro-
ducing a secret or a psychological or biological discovery.
In the aphorisms of Marcus Aurelius' book, a triadic structure can
be recognized-the distinction of three disciplines or exercises (asceses):
the discipline of desires, the discipline of action, and the discipline of
judgment. These disciplines consist, respectively, in making one's desires,
actions, and judgments conform to reason. The presence of this schema,
easily recognizable throughout the book, shows that it responds to an in-
tention of the author. These repetitions do not aim, for example, to inform
the readers about a Stoic doctrine. No, the author's intention is clear. For
Marcus Aurelius, it is a matter of reactualizing, of awakening, the dogmas
that must conduct life. The manuscripts say that Marcus Aurelius' book
is "By himself," which corresponds perfectly to the intention of the au-
thor. These are not thoughts directed at others, or effusions of the author's
sensibility. The author's intention is not a matter of psychological or bio-
graphical discovery. His intention is clearly inscribed in the content and
form of the work. One must nevertheless recognize that, for the modern
interpreter, it is very difficult to grasp the author's intention. It is very easy
to fall into anachronism, because we are not aware of many of the histori-
cal conditions under which it was written-who it is aimed at, who it cop-
ies, perhaps. This is how it can have been thought that in his book Marcus
Aurelius was giving us his everyday states of mind, just as Rousseau was
confessing in pis Confessions, or Plato was methodically developing in his
dialogues. In fact, Augustine's title, Confessiones, means "God's praises,"
as the opening lines of the work clearly show-praises for what God did
for Augustine, but also for humans in general-because Augustine had
a tendency to consider the events of his life as symbols of the history of
faith. For example, in describing the famous theft of pears committed in
his youth, he in fact means to describe Adam's sin in taking the forbidden
fruit in the Garden of Eden. The allusions to the biblical texts that appear
in his text show it clearly. As for Plato's dialogues, without getting into the
quarrel about Plato's oral teaching, there seems to be general agreement
with Victor Goldschmidt on the point that Plato wrote them not to in-
form but to form. Whatever the case may be, as E. D. Hirsch has correctly
64 Interpretation, Objectivity, and Nonsense
remarked, the first way to recognize the author's intention is to look for
the literary genre to which the work belongs.
In a general way, in fact, with regard to ancient authors, the rules of
discourse are rigorously codified. One must take into account the fact that
they were writing in a traditional system that obeyed the requirements
proper to each literary genre. One does not write in the same way when
one exhorts someone, when one consoles him, when one exposes a doc-
trine, or when one dialogues. In order to understand exactly the breadth
of an affirmation, and all the more so for the general sense of a work, one
must carefully distinguish, first, what the author must say-for example,
because he is a Platonist or a Stoic, or because he is addressing a particular
audience that is more or less formed-then what the author can say-for
example, he can exaggerate the presentation of a doctrine in order to strike
the mind more effectively, or be unfaithful to the dogmas of the school
because he wants to adapt to a certain audience-and finally, what the
author means [veux dire, literally, wants to say]' his deep intention-for
example, in Marcus Aurelius' case it is self-exhortation; in the case of
Augustine's Confessions, it is not so much to confess as to sing the work of
God in the world and in humans.
It is possible to suppose that the archaic authors or the founders of
the schools were also conditioned by a tradition of preexisting literary
genres. I think this is in fact the case. In history there is never an absolute
beginning. Oriental models influenced the first Greek thinkers. Gerard
Naddaf has shown the importance of a triadic structure in the writings
of the pre-Socratics-genesis of the gods, genesis of humans, and genesis
of the city-inherited from Babylonian cosmogonical myths, the literary
genre to which the biblical genesis belongs.I This schema is found in the
Timaeus [dialogue], which is also a genesis, a history of generations. These
authors thereby attach themselves to a tradition that precedes them. The
school founders are tributaries of multiple traditions. Plato, for example,
should be situated in the Socratic, Pythagorean, and sophistical traditions.
I believe it was Bergson who said that every philosopher thinks in reaction
to another thinker, but this situation also conditions; it imposes a de-
terminate problematic, and sometimes restrains the momentum of every
philosopher's thought.
Interpretation, Objectivity, and Nonsense 65
Besides, C1-S you said, if one speaks of the intention of the author, it is
not a matter of a more or less secret psychology. This type of psychological
interpretation is based on the idea that a work of art is the expression of
a unique individuality, a Romantic idea that neglects the constraints that
always weigh on an author. With regard to the ancient world, it does not
take into account the conception of literary composition at the time. The
author's intention is in fact the choice made with regard to the goal of his
work, its mode of presentation, its method, the way in which it plays with
all the rules that impose themselves.
Historical psychology must be handled with much precaution. For
example, despite what some have meant to show on the basis of the fact
that Fronto, Marcus Aurelius' future rhetoric teacher, wrote to him about
his illnesses after Galen had given anatomy lectures to the Roman aristo-
crats, one must not believe that the second century after Jesus Christ was
hypochondriacal. Here again, the true intentions must be determined.
The content of the letters shows that Fronto did not intend to describe his
malaises complacently, but simply wished to excuse himself for his absenc-
es. With respect to the Roman aristocrats, it was a matter not of morbid
curiosity but of scientific curiosity. We know that these characters were
Aristotelians, and thus impassioned by scientific research. That Lucretius,
as a good Epicurean, sought to deliver humans from their anxiety does not
mean that he was anxious himself: It is very risky to speak of "the anxiety
of Lucretius/"
There are also cases in which the author does not mean everything
he says and in which all the sentences of a text do not necessarily express
his thought. This happens especially in cases where an author uses an-
other author without saying so, as happens quite often, at least it did at
the end of antiquity (and sometimes does in our day ... ). For example,
the Latin Fathers and the Greek Fathers sometimes wanted to illustrate
their sermons with beautiful thoughts borrowed from pagans. Thus they
cited Plotinus, but without saying so and often for one, single sentence.
One can see the relation between this sentence and the rest of the sermon.
Thus they wanted to cite this passage of Plotinus because of one sentence.
They cited the context of the sentence, even though the context dealt with
something different than the sentence that mattered to them. As a result,
many interpreters say that Ambrose and Gregory of Nyssa were Platonists.
66 Interpretation, Objectivity, and Nonsense
But one cannot saddle the author with the entire doctrine contained in
one too-frequently cited passage. Thus there will be sentences in a text
that do not correspond to an assertion the author makes. One cannot
say, at that moment, that it is the author's intention to affirm this or that
doctrine. To arrive at the author's will in a probable manner, one must
undertake a tight criticism of the author's text.
A. D.: Thenyou think it ispossible to attain a sort ofobjectivityin the
All the work of the interpreter must consist in attempting to locate
objective facts whenever possible. To take an example from late antiquity,
if one reads a text by Ambrose of Milan and finds in it a Greek text by
Origen translated word for word, as I happened to find in Ambrose's ser-
mon on the apology of David, one thing is certain: he had contact with
the Greek text. Sometimes it is so flagrant that one could find a Greek
word missing in Origen's text, thanks to Ambrose's Latin. Here is a do-
main in which scientific rigor is the goal. The great idea I retained from
Paul Henry is precisely that only literal and not doctrinal comparisons
are conclusive. That is to say that when one looks for doctrinal relations,
which is what most historians do, one can maintain that a given author
had been influenced by another author strictly on the basis of vague re-
semblances or places described by many authors. But this proves nothing
at all. On the contrary, when there really is an accumulation of incontest-
able paraIIels, one can conclude in an objective manner that a relation
exists between the authors. This is only one example in a very specific
domain, but many others could be listed. Thus the parallels between spe-
cific conceptual structures, expressed in a characteristic vocabulary, can
also be conclusive. Consider, for example, the triadic structure shared by
Epicretus and Marcus Aurelius that I discussed earlier. There again, objec-
tive facts can be found.
The problem of scientific objectivity is extremely interesting from
the point of view of spiritual exercises. Since Aristotle, it has been recog-
nized that science should be disinterested. To study a text or microbes or
the stars, one must undo oneself from one's subjectivity. Gadamer and
Raymond Aron will say, that is impossible. But I nevertheless think this
is an ideal that one must attempt to attain through constant practice.
Interpretation, Objectivity, and Nonsense 67
Thus the scholars who have the rare courage to recognize that they were
mistaken in aparticular case, or who try not to be influenced by their own
prejudices, are undertaking a spiritual exercise of self-detachment. Let us
say that objectivity is a virtue, and one that is very difficult to practice.
One must undo oneself from the partiality of the individual and impas-
sioned self in order to elevate oneself to the universality of the rational self:
I have always thought that the exercise of political democracy, as it should'
be practiced, should correspond to this attitude as well. Self-detachment
is a moral attitude that should be demanded of both the politician and
the scholar.
A.D.: Let usproceedto another aspect ofyour thought about the objec-
tivity ofinterpretation. You have written, "Investigations about thepast must
have an actual, personal, formative, and existential sense." You have always
insistedon thispoint, sothefollowing questionpresents itself: How to reconcile
the objectivity, albeit probable, ofthe interpretationwith the actual sense ofa
philosophical text?I find what you wrote in the preface to Bertram's book on
Nietzsche extraordinary: "The writing ofhistory, indeedprobably much like
all human activity, must bea coincidentia oppositorum by tryingto respond
to two equallyurgent contraryrequirements. In ordertoperceive andevaluate
historicalreality, there must be, on the one hand, a conscious and total self
commitment, and on the other hand, an intended objectivity and impartial-
ity. To my eyes, it is only the ascesis ofscientific rigor, that selfdetachment
requiredfor an objective and impartial judgment, that will be able to give
us the right to implicate ourselves in history, to give it an existential sense. "5
What remains betweenthese two requirements ofthepossibility ofan "actual"
sense ofa text?
I did not remember having written that, but I am quite pleased that
you refer to it, because it corresponds nicely with what I feel about the
problem today. I think that the first of these requirements, not only for
a scholar but also for someone who reads an ancient text, is to aim for
objectivity and, if possible) for truth. That is to say that there is no point
in distorting the meaning of a text in order to adapt it to the requirements
of modern life, or to the aspirations of the soul, and so on. The first task
is above all objectivity. W h ~ n e v e r possible, one must attempt to resituate
the text under study in its historical perspective. It is extremely important
68 Interpretation, Objectivity, and Nonsense
not to commit anachronisms in the haste of giving texts meaning. On
this score, I would like to evoke briefly one of my constant concerns in the
interpretation of texts, precisely to avoid anachronism. This is the effort
to resiruate, as much as possible, the works within the concrete conditions
in which they were written. On the one hand, there are spiritual condi-
tions, that is, philosophical, rhetorical, or poetic traditions. On the other
hand, there are material conditions, namely, scholastic and social milieu,
constraints arising from the material support of writing, and historical
circumstances. Every work should be resiruared in the praxis from which
it emanates.
But as Aristotle said about pleasure, there is always added to the
effort of objectivity a supplement, a surplus, which is the possibility of
finding our spiritual nourishment in it. This time, we are in a certain
sense implicated in the interpretation. If one tries to understand a text
properly, I believe that afterward one can be brought, almost spontane-
ously, to discover its human meaning, that is, to situate it in relation to
the general problem of humanity, of the human, even if it is not edify-
ing at all. Thus one can basically do as the Stoics did concerning their
representations.. First, begin with adequate and objective judgment: this
is what was said. Then, eventually, make a judgment of value: this has
a given significance for my life. This time, one can speak of a return to
subjectivity, a subjectivity that, incidentally, attempts to elevate itself to a
universal perspective.
In fact, the meaning intended by the ancient author is never actual.
It is ancient, and that is all there is to it. But it can take on an actual
significance for us to the extent that it can appear to us as, for example,
the source of certain actual ideas, or especially because it can inspire an
actual attitude in us, an inner act, or a spiritual exercise. On this point,
I find what Raymond Ruyer has written interesting: "No one except the
specialists are very interested in the preambles of Stoicism, taken from
Heraclitus' physics, or in Epicurean morality, or Democritean atomism.
But as attitudes, Stoicism and Epicureanism remain very alive."? One
must therefore distinguish from the ideology that justified the attitude in
the past, the concrete attitude that can be actualized. In order to actualize
a message from antiquity, one must draw from it everything that marks
its time. One must demythologize it, as Bultmann said about the gospel.
Interpretation, Objectivity, and Nonsense 69
One must attempt to isolate the inner reasoning, the concrete attitude it
implies. In Epicureanism, for example, there is an attitude of welcoming
the present that remains valuable without taking into account the theories
about the minimum and maximum of pleasure-very technical theo-
ries that Epicurus had in any case apparently borrowed from Aristotle.
Analogously, the Stoic attitude of concentrating on the present without
allowing oneself to be crushed by the past or worried about the future
also remains valuable. Furthermore, at times an ancient phrase remains
completely free of the mythological and sociological conditionings we dis-
cussed. For example, when Marcus Aurelius writes, "Soon you will have
forgotten everything, soon everyone will forget you," the aphorism speaks
to us directly. It has, one might say, an eternal value. Nietzsche refers to the
"good sentence, too hard' for the tooth of time, imperishable in the midst
of everything that changes."? The meaning intended by Marcus Aurelius
was tied to- the need to exhort himself to think of death. In this sense, it is
. historically marked, but it can be reactualized without difficulty.
A.D.: IfI understandyou correctly, this means that after the quest for
objectivity there is a second moment ofevaluation, and to evaluate an ancient
text, one must do something to actualize it. One must not deform it, but
reemploy it in another context, from the point ofview ofour actual require-
ments. This implies that what remains important is the coreo/significance to
be reactualized. This callsto mindour idea that there are universal philosoph-
ical attitudes, that is, a universal Platonic type, a universal Epicureanism)
and so on, always equal to itselfbut always in a different context, and always
to be reactualized.
Obviously, affirming that there are universal attitudes supposes
something like the idea of a human nature..Let us say at least that these
attitudes are transhistorical and transcultural. When I previously called
attention to this question in The Inner Citadel, I said, if I recall, that
finally there are really only a few possible attitudes in relation to existence,
and without the influence of historical order, the different civilizations
are led to have, in this regard, analogous attitudes. This is obvious for the
Chinese. In What isAncient Philosophy? I cited this extraordinary example
from Pyrrho, who tried to arrive at perfect indifference by living a life that
was perfectly equal to the life of every other human, who took care of his
70 Interpretation, Objectivity, and Nonsense
sister's pig, and who sold fowl in the market. Then I cited the attitude
of the Chinese philosopher Lie Yukou, who did exactly the same thing,
taking CC1:re of the pig and the household chores to help his wife. This at-
titude of indifference-for example, remaining the same regardless of the
circumstances; refusing to judge the value of things; refusing to say, this is
good, this is bad; accepting everything in life; doing everything like every-
one else but without getting attached to anything, by remaining indiffer-
ent to everything-that is the skeptical attitude. I do not mean skeptical
in the seventeenth-century sense of the word, as signifying the intellectual
refusal of certainty, but rather in reference to the contexts of Greece and
China, for example, where it is a matter of refusing to pass value judg-
ments on things. This is an attitude that does seem to be universal, that
one might, for that matter, discover for oneself: Without needing to read
this or that, it can happen by itself: Olivier Lacombe compared Plotinus'
mysticism to certain tendencies of Hindu thought. One could say that
there is in both cases an effort to overcome all duality. Might one not
think that this analogy is based in one of the universal forms of mystical
experience? Another example: the Stoic attitude, which consists in con-
senting to destiny, and also in putting oneself in a universal perspective,
can be found in China. The Chinese texts cited by Jacques Gernet are
rather conclusive. Emile Brehier, for his part, compared the Stoic attitudes
with certain Buddhist attitudes. It is quite feasible also to conceive that
Epicureanism, that is, an attitude of release, could be universal. This idea
of a universality of spiritual exercises can also be situated in the perspec-
tive ofthe effort to remove what is essential in an a t t i t u d e ~ i n a choice of
life-from its mythical and traditional straightjacket.
A.D.: I would like to mention another methodological domain that
you outlined in a little text from I968: "Philosophie, exegese et contresens"
[Philosophy, exegesis, and nonsense]. You emphasize that there are in the
history ofphilosophy cases of nonsense and incomprehension that, you say,
"very often provoked an important evolution in the history ofphilosophy,
and notably made new notions appear." Obviously, nonsense is not a mode
ofobjectivity, but you have signaled the importance ofwhat you call creating
Interpretation> ObjectivifJ!, andNonsense 7I
In the short, perhaps thirty-year-old text you refer to, I may have
been somewhat temerarious in formulating, as it were, general principles
to understand the evolution of the history of philosophy. Also, in speak-
ing of cases of nonsense in the history of philosophy; I was thinking es-
pecially of ancient philosophy. The deformations that Aristotle inflicted
on the thought of the pre-Socratics is, for example, well known. The
Neoplatonists were not to be outdone in attempting to artificially system-
atize disparate and often irreconcilable notions taken from Plato's dia-
logues, and moreover, associating them with mythical notions taken from
Orphic poems or the Chaldean Oracles [Oracles chaldaiques: Ancient, es-
pecially Neoplatonic, hermeneutics makes a text say exactly what it wants
it to say, and thereby quietly commits a multitude of inconsistencies that
take the most varied form. Moreover, it has a very efficient instrument at
its service for this, namely, the allegory, which allows one to attribute to
texts significations that are all the further from their original meaning.
The allegory was dear to the Stoics, the Platonists, and. the Christians. It
notably allows the Christians to vindicate the continuity between the Old
Testament and the New Testament, as.Michel Tardieu has shown.
It is true that new concepts were occasioned by false interpretations
and nonsense. It seems to me that a good example is the Heraclitean aph-
orism usually translated "Nature likes to hide itself" [phusis kruptesthai
philell. I studied the history of the interpretation of this text in my 1983
courses at College de France, and I hope to publish a book on rhis sub-
ject. The original meaning of this aphorism is very difficult to determine.
Without repeating the entire discussion, I can say only that it seems to me
that this meaning is connected to the antithesis between life and death.
Given the meaning of the word phusisat the time, this could be either,
"That which gives life tends to give death" or "That which is born tends to
die." But with the evolution of the word phusis in the following centuries,
the aphorism took on very different meanings in different philosophies.
Philo of Alexandria, who cites it at the beginning of our era, gives it the
meaning, "Nature likes to hide," which seems to me to contradict the
original meaning, especially in view of the fact that for Philo nature is
nothing other than the creating God. From this perspective, nature hides
itself because it is transcendent. The aphorism takes on yet another mean-
ing for the Neoplatonists. For them, nature corresponds to the lowest part
72 Interpretation, Objectivity, and Nonsense
of reality, to the sensible world, and to inferior divinities. If nature likes
to hide, it is not because of its transcendence but rather because of its
weakness and inferiority; and from this perspective, "to hide" signifies to
wrap oneself in the veils of the body and of myth. I cannot give the entire
history of the theme here, but I will say that for Heidegger, Heraclitus'
aphorism takes on yet another meaning. He translated it as follows: "To
hide belongs to the predilection of Being." Thus he identifies phusis and
Being: it is in the very essence of Being to hide itself: What appears is be-
ings, but their very appearing, that through which they appear-that is,
Being-refuses to reveal itself: That which makes beings appear hides it-
self Thus one can see an entire series of new meanings emerge from three
enigmatic words, and we are not even sure of-knowing what the author
meant by them. In any case, it is possible to speak of creative nonsense,
of creators of new sense, because his sense implies concepts that not even
Heraclitus could have thought of. This does not mean that nonsense cre-
ates truth.
What had impressed me in 1968 was this accumulation of moments
of incomprehension, of false interpretations, of allegorical fantasies that
had survived throughout the history of philosophy, at least of ancient
philosophy-for example, the history of the philosophy of ousia, that
is, of essence or substance, from Aristotle to the theological quarrels of
the Church Fathers and of the Scholastics. What a tower of Babel! It is
troubling to think that reason operates with such irrational methods and
that philosophical discourse (and theological discourse as well) can have
evolved at the whim of exegetical fantasies and nonsense. But this is a
topic that cannot be addressed with a few sentences, and I was, as I have
already said, temerarious to treat it in such a short text.
A.D.: We spokefirst ofobjectivity, then of the searchfor an "original
meaning," then of creating nonsense. Perhaps a case of creating nonsense is
sometimes tied to a requirement that makes it actual? The actualization of
ancient thought has sometimes required cases ofnonsense. Do you think there
are two requirements, that ofobjectivity and that of the "actual" meaning,
and that sometimes the reactualization happens through a caseofnonsense?
To answer you, I would appeal to an example from Husser! that I de-
veloped in my inaugural lecture to the College de France. At the end ofhis
Interpretation, Objectivity, and Nonsense 73
Cartesian Meditations, Husserl cites, to illustrate his thought, a phrase of
Augustine: Noli foras ire, in te redi, in interiore homine habitat ueritas, "Do
not look outside, return to yourself: truth lives inside man." Augustine's
text is a citation from Saint Paul, but as Augustine presents it, the citation
is nonsense in relation to Saint Paul's text. The mistake is not Augustine's
but that of the Latin version of the Bible he cites. This version unduly
brings together elements that belong to different sentences. In the first
sentence, Paul says he hopes that Christ lives (a) in the heart ofhis disciples.
In the second sentence, Paul hopes. that his disciples will be fortified in re-
gard to what concerns inner man (b). The Latin version that Augustine cites
presents the following text: "That Christ lives [a] in inner man [b]." This
group of words obviously does not correspond to the author's intention,
but Augustine recognizes his own doctrine in it. He replaces Christ with
Truth, which is obvious for him. He gives a new meaning to the phrase by
using it to affirm that Truth is found in the conversion of the self toward
itself. Husserl uses this phrase by tying it to another phrase, the one by the
oracle at Delphi: "Know yourself,' He writes, "The Delphic oracle 'Know
yourself' has taken on a new meaning. First, one must lose the world by
epoche (that is, the phenomenological bracketing of the world), in order to
recover it thereafter in a universal coming to consciousness of oneself: Noli
foras ire, in te redi, interiore homine habitat ueritas" One is in the presence
here, first, of an actualization of the Pauline phrase that Augustine re-
employs to describe the attitude of inner conversion; then, of an actualiza-
tion of the Delphic phrase by Husserl, for whom self-knowledge becomes
the transcendental ego's coming to consciousness; and finally, of Husserl's
actualization of the Augustinian phrase: inner man become transcenden-
tal ego. I would say that if we have a good example of reactualization and
a remarkable homage given by Husserl to the ancient tradition, prolonged
in his eyes by Descartes' Meditations, which he thereby restores to that
tradition, there really is no nonsense. This is because, in the case of the
Delphic oracle, in the case ofAugustine, and finally in the case of Husserl,
the reactualization operated by Husserl is not situated in the conceptual
order. It is a matter not of the interpretation of a text but of the retrieving
[reprise] of an existential attitude, a deepening of the self-consciousness
that undoes itself from the world in order better to find it. It is precisely
a matter of the successive reactualizations of a spiritual exercise, of an act
74 Interpretation, Objectivity, and Nonsense
of spirit. If it is possible to actualize an attitude, then a spiritual exercise,
an inner act, a text must, on the contrary, be understood and interpreted
within the perspective of its time. Even if it is acts of creating nonsense
that allow new concepts to appear unexpectedly, this does not mean that
one can actualize a text at the price of nonsense. The requirement of ob-
jectivity must never disappear. In other words-and this brings us back
to the beginning of the conversation-ancient texts cannot be treated as
though they were contemporary texts without the risk of completely de-
forming their meaning. This is often the error of analytic philosophers,
who treat philosophers without any historical distance. It leads one to be-
lieve that they would be astonished that Aristotle was not aware of Russell
and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica. It seems to me that the primary
quality of a historian of philosophy, and undoubtedly of a philosopher, is
to have a historical sense.
Unitary Experience and
Philosophical Life
Arnold I Davidson: You have had a vigorous interest in mysticism for
some time nato, and in Plotinus' mysticism in particular. What is the origin
of the reasonfor, this interest?
This did not come from the experience of my adolescence that I
alluded to. If: in the course of my religious education, I encountered
Christian mysticism, I did not make the connection between what I was
experiencing and what I was reading in the Christian mystics. When I
was still very young I read Pascal, who had used the famous phrase "God
sensible to the heart." There was also a "memorial" found sewn into his
suit after his death that relates a sort of ecstasy he had experienced in 1654.
In any case, I discovered the term mystical experience for the first time in
a book by distinguished neo-Thomist Jacques Maritain, Distinguer pour
unir ou les degresdu savoir [Distinguish to unite, or the degrees of knowl-
edge], which locates it precisely at the peak of knowledge. More impor-
tantly, however, in the "spiritual" readings we did at the Grand Seminaire
were works by jean de la Croix [John of the Cross]. This mystic codified
the steps of the mystical itinerary, distinguishing three paths: the purga-
tive path, the illuminative path, and the unitary path, which, incidentally,
were inherited" from Plotinus and Neoplatonism. But he also wrote ad-
mirable poems that were very seductive to me. I experienced the desire
76 Unitary Experience and Philosophical Life
to have analogous experiences. In my eyes, this was the highest point a
human life could attain. I naively believed myself capable of reaching it,
as every Christian does, for that matter. I was so fascinated by Jean de la
Croix that I wanted to abandon the secular clergy to join the religious
order of the Carmelites, a contemplative and eremitic order-precisely
the one to which Jean de la Croix belonged. The prior of the Carmelites
ofAvon, not far from Fontainebleau, where I went on a retreat, helpedme
understand that the desire for direct contact with God was a mistake, and
that one must absolutely pass through Jesus Christ. One might also ask
oneself whether finally the Christian message is compatible with mysti-
cism, because mystical experience, as I was saying, is supposed to afford
direct contact with God, whereas in Christianity, Christ is the indispens-
able mediator. But this is not the occasion to tackle this difficult problem.
In any case, I did not have even the slightest mystical experience.
In Maritain's book, Plotinus' mysticism was evoked several times in
order to show the extent to which it was inferior to Christian mysticism,
but Maritain recognized that it had iniluenced Saint Augustine. This is
why, in 1945-46, I began to read Plotinus, especially the treatises in which
he speaks about his mystical experience. I also discovered a purely philo-
sophical mysticism in this way.
I would add that although I worked on Plotinus' mystical texts for a
long time, in doing so I approached only a minuscule part of the gigantic
domain of universal mysticism.
A. D.: Is thereaphilosophicalpreparationfor mysticalexperience, evenif
thispreparationdoes not guaranteethe desiredresult, that is, mysticalunion?
The questioncan beaskedin another way. In your view, what is the relation
betweenspiritual exercises and unitary experience?
In Plotinus, there are two paths that prepare one for experience:
first there is a cognitive path, on which one studies theology, and nota-
bly, negative theology. Plotinus says it is a matter, as it were, of signposts
that indicate the path but do not make us take it. Then there is a practi-
cal path, which is the real path that concretely leads to experience. For
Plotinus, this' practical path consists of purifications, askesis, spiritual
exercises, the practice of virtues, and the effort to live according to the
Spirit. In this sense, one might say that, for Plotinus, philosophy, both in
Unitary Experience and Philosophical Life 77
its discourse and in its choice of life, prepares one for mystical experience.
I just used the word Spiritdesignedly, as I have in some of my translations
of Plotinus. What I mean by the word Spirit is a reality that most transla-
tors and commentators of Plotinus call, and with good reason, Intellect.
This is the first being that emanates immediately from the supreme real-
ity, the supreme reality being for Plotinus the absolute One. The Intellect,
which is divine, contains all the Forms of beings, all the Ideas. If I h ~ v e
often used the word Spirit, a word that has obvious spiritual connota-
tions, it is precisely it) order to be in a better position to understand the
expression "live according to the Spirit." For it is perhaps more difficult
to understand what it might mean to live according to the Intellect. But
as Emile Brehier has convincingly shown, for Plotinus the Intellect repre-
sents, above all, a spiritual attitude of self-collection in meditation.' When
one says that the human self lives according to the Intellect or the Spirit,
or identifies with it, this means it has perfect transparency in its relation
to itself: that it overcomes the individual aspect of the self to attain the
level of universality and interiority. In effect, the Intellect is, as it were, the
place where all beings are interior to one another, each Form being both
itself and all the Forms. The self is thus interior to itself: to the others, and
to the Spirit. To attain this level of self is, incidentally, already to attain a
first degree of mystical experience, for it is a matter of a mode of being and
of suprarational thought. The superior degree would be the state of total
unity, contact with the One, which is also the Good.
A. D.: In other words, there are levels ofmysticism. But there is another
problem tied to the type ofmysticism. Given that a mystical experience can
be provoked by artificial means-drugs, for example-is there a difference
between an experienceprovoked in this manner and the unitary experienceof
the great mystics?
On this point I can't pretend that I have anything relevant to say.
I can only recommend Michel Hulin's book, which gives this problem
excellent treatment. His book is called La Mystique sauvage [Savage mys-
ticism]; I have already mentioned it.
He means by this term the set of
mystical experiences that are tied not to a religion or to a spiritual tradi-
tion, in which he includes both the "oceanic sentiment" and experiences
obtained through the use of drugs. As for the experiences obtained under
78 Unitary Experience and Philosophical Life
the influence of drugs, which seem to give an impression that is rather
analogous to mystical experience, he shows that these are artificial experi-
ences. This is because they are not based on an effective transformation
of the individual in the framework of a moral and ascetic preparation,
and they have the result that the individual is prey to an impression of the
unreal, of despair, of anxiety; therefore, in the end it is a matter of rather
destructive experiences.
We have already called attention to the oceanic sentiment-to which
Michel Hulin devotes some extremely interesting pages-s-in relation to
the experiences I have had, in my youth especially but occasionally since.
In general, primarily at first, they presented themselves to me suddenly,
spontaneously, with no ascetic or intellectual preparation. Since then, I
have often tried to awaken the consciousness of my existence as part of the
universe, to recover the intensity of this experience, and sometimes I have
succeeded. Whatever the case may be, I think that what I experienced was
a piece of good luck for me. It was at the origin of my philosophical voca-
tion and of a greater sensibility to nature, to the universe, and to existence.
I have the impression that the oceanic sentiment is quite different from,
for example, Christian or Plotinian mystical experience, Obviously one
could say that what both experiences share is that the self experiences the
sentiment of a presence or a fusion with something else, but it seems to
me that there is in mysticism of the Christian or Plorinian type a certain
personal relationship, often expressed in terms borrowed from the vocabu-
lary of love. One can guess that there is a tendency in Plotinus to personify
when he speaks of the One as a god.
A. D.: In effect, the terms used to describe mystical experience and ex-
periences oflove are often the same. What exactly is the relation between the
experience oflove and the mystical operation?
It is a fact that all the mystics in all the spiritual traditions describe
what they experience in terms borrowed from the experience of love. It is
a universal phenomenon-for example, in the Jewish tradition, in which
the Song of Songs is both a love poem and a mystical poem. This is also
the case for the Muslims, the Hindus, and the Christians, where once
again the Song of Songs is taken to express union with God. This is also
true in the Platonic tradition, in Plato's Phaedrusand Symposium, in which
Unitary Experience and Philosophical Life 79
this love is sublimated. What is remarkable in Plotinus is that, unlike in
Plato-I noticed this in Treatise 50-not only masculine love but also
conjugal love can be a model for mystical experience. In fact, in Plotinus
there is not only a comparison between union with God and union in
love; there is also the idea that human love is the point of departure for
mystical experience, which is the prolonging of human love. For if we love
a being, it is because, first and foremost, we love supreme Beauty. It is b e ~
cause through love supreme Beauty attracts us, and thus Beauty is already
a sign of the possibility of a mystical experience. The union of bodies, for
that matter, to be two in one, serves as a model for the union between the
mystic and the object of his experience. One would have to relate every
other problem to this subject. Mystical experience could be, for the mystic,
a compensation for ascetic privation of the pleasures of love, and it could
even be that mystical experience is accompanied by sexual pleasures, by a
sexual repercussion in the body. But I do not have sufficient expertise in
the psychology of the mystics to be able to discuss this.
A.D.: You have made an important distinction, recently, between nega-
tive theology and mystical experience. Negative theology is a rational method,
a philosophical discourse, but mystical experience requires a concrete itinerary
o/transformation beyond rational discourse. Asyou wrote in your commentary
on Treatise 38, "reason, by theological methods, can raise itself to the notion
ofthe Good, but only life according to the Spirit can lead to the reality ofthe
Good. '-S Can you specify the relationship between negative theology and the
concrete expression ofmysticism?
To begin, let us specify what negative theology means. It is a theol-
ogy, thus a discourse on God, but one that uses only negations. Thus, to
borrow examples from Pseudo-Denys the Areopagite's Mystical Theology,
God is not mobile, or immobile, or unity, or deity, or good, or spirit,
and so on. The reason for these negations is that God is considered to
transcend all the predicates that humans can use to speak of him. This
method makes us aware of the fact that the supreme principle is inconceiv-
able, that the Absolute cannot be an object that one can speak about and,
as Plotinus says, that in speaking of him we are merely speaking about
ourselves. (It is understood that one can speak only of what is relative.)"
This theological method was developed in Platonism, especially since the
80 Unitary Experience and Philosophical Life
first century B.C. (by Philo ofAlexandria), and was taken up by Christians
and Gnostics. I think that negative theology and mysticism are too often
confused. This is indeed a pervasive confusion, and one might say that it
is historically grounded. Pseudo-Denys' book does have the word mystical
in its title. But for the Greek tradition, this word signifies "secret." In fact,
if we examine its content, it is nothing but a treatise on negative theol-
ogy. But Plotinus, as you said, very clearly distinguishes negative theology,
which is a purely rational and abstract method, from unitary experience.
Earlier I said that he compares it to a signpost that indicates the path,
but the signpost is not the path. The path is askesis and life by the Spirit.
However, negative theology is nevertheless closely related to unitary expe-
rience. One might say that the accumulation of negations provokes a void
in the soul that predisposes one to the experience.
There is a link between unspeakable and mystical in Wittgenstein's
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (but one cannot say that this is a case of
negative theology). He writes, "There are, indeed, things that cannot be
put into .words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mysti-
cal."5 It seems to me that for Wittgenstein the limit of language-the
unsayable-s-which is also the "mystical," is existence itself: the existence
of the world. "The mystical is the fact that the world is."
A.D.: You wrote that mystical experience seems universal whereas the
description and the interpretation ofthis experience are always tied to a tradi-
tion, a set ofdogmas, a universe ofdeterminate thought. How does one com-
bine the universality ofthis experience and the plurality ofthese descriptions?
I think it is in fact a case ofa universal phenomenon. There is an im-
mense mystical literature throughout the world: in the Far East (Taoism,
Brahmanism, Buddhism), in Greece (Platonism and Neoplatonism), and
in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, under the influence, incidentally, of
Neoplatonism. To this one must add the numerous experiences of "savage
mysticism" that Michel Hulin discusses. In the descriptions of the mys-
tics, mystical experience appears everywhere with the same fundamental
characteristics: it is unspeakable; it brings either delicious anguish or joy
and appeasement; in general, it comes and goes suddenly. But there are
also differences. First, the mystic's attention may be directed toward spiri-
tual objects-for example, in Plotinus, toward the Spirit and the One, and
UnitaryExperience and Philosophical Life 81
in Jean de la Croix, toward the Trinity-but it may also be directed at the
sensible-for example, in Zen Buddhism, as Pierre Ryckmans says, "The
Buddha's absolute is discovered in the absolute ofthe banal and immediate
real.'" In Wittgenstein, one might think that the mystic's attention is di-
rected at existence ("that the world is"). Moreover, the theoretical or theo-
logical explanations of this state differ considerably from one tradition to
another. For example, Jean de la Croix and the Christian mystics consider'
these states to be the effect of a divine grace that associates the soul with
the inner life of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Plotinus, for his
part, explains the union of love with the One as follows: There are two
aspects or two moments of the divine Spirit or the Divine Intellect-the
moment in which it is generated from the One and in which it is not yet
"thinking" but only "loving" or in a contact of loving intoxication with
its source, and another moment in which it constitutes itself as thinking
Spirit. The soul, unified with the divine Spirit, undergoes unitary expe-
rience when it coincides with the loving Spirit. In other traditions one
would find different explanations.
But of what does the experience itself really consist, and how is one
to explain it? This is what is most important, and I am completely in-
capable of saying. I have tried, in my works on Plotinus, to provide the
elements of a response. But it is a very slim contribution, for the problem
is gigantic.
A.D.: It seems as though philosophical preparations-s-ascetic, moral,
intellectual-s-baue become just as important for you as unitary experience.
Even ifthis experience is neverproduced, the behaviors thatpreparefor it have
value. What is the relation between thepossibility ofa unitary experience and
all the necessities ofa philosophical life?
Before giving my opinion, I will, after all, say a few words about
Plotinus. I believe that, for him, if philosophical life in fact prepares one
for an eventual mystical experience, this philosophical life has value in
itself: All things considered, Plotinus' mystical experiences were extremely
rare. Porphyry tells us that the rest of the time-that is, almost all the
time-he tried "to be present to himself and to others,"? which ultimately
is an excellent definition of what every philosophical life should be.
82 Unitary Experience and Philosophical Life
If we now consider the problem in a general manner, we must also
say that ecstatic experiences are not an integral part of a philosophical life.
If they occur, under one form or another, it is true that they can open per-
spectives on the mystery of existence for the philosopher, but they cannot
be ends, and seeking to provoke them would be useless.
A.D.: At the end of the Postface of the most recent edition of Plotin
ou la simplicite du regard [Plotinus or the simplicity of vision}, you direct
a small criticism at Plotinian mysticism. You write, "Cut away everything,
said Plotinus; but in a living contradiction would not one also have to say,
Welcome all things?" This criticism is undoubtedly tied to a change in your
philosophicalpreferences, for it seemsto me thatyou are now more attracted by
Stoicism and the Stoic spiritual exercises than by Neoplatonic mysticism.
In itself: Plotinus' advice to the one who wishes to attain unitary
experience-"Cut away everything"-can appear to remain legitimate,
in its own particular perspective. It is a matter of overcoming everything
particular, determinate, or limited, in a moment that stops at nothing
but always goes toward infinity; for in the Platonic tradition, every de-
termination is something negative. Yet by adding "Welcome all things," I
wanted to convey that, in the face of this mysticism of cutting away, there
was room for a mysticism of welcoming, a mysticism according to which
things are not a screen that would hinder us from seeing the light, but
a colored reflection that reveals it and in which "we have life," as Faust
said about a waterfall in the prologue to Faust II One can recognize the
presence of the indescribable in the simplest, humblest, most everyday
realities. Allow me, in order to make myself understood, to indulge in a
lengthy citation of Hugo von Hofmannsthal's The Lord Chandos Letter:
"When I found a half-full watering can the other evening forgotten under
a walnut tree by some gardener, with its water darkened by the shade of
the tree and covered from one end to the other by an aquatic insect, all this
assemblage of insignificant things communicated the presence of infinity
to me so strongly that a chill ran through me from the roots of my hair to
the base of my heels, to the point that I would like to burst into words that
I know, if I found them, would bring these Cherubimsthat I do not believe
in down." It is not only a question of inanimate objects. Daily life itself:
notably the relations we have with other humans, can be charged with a
UnitaryExperience and Philosophical Life 83
mystical, or at least sacred, value. Already Seneca had said, "The human
is for humans a sacred thing." My criticismof Plotinus is thus situated in
the general perspective of universal mysticism. I wanted to emphasize that
there are numerous types of mystical experience.
I would add that my doubts concerning Plotinian mysticism already
appeared in 1963, in the conclusion of Plotin ou La simplicite du regard
[Plotinus or the simplicity of vision]. There I insisted on the distance that
now separates us from Plotinus. Plotinus' mysticism appeared in this con-
text as, to use Bergson's expression, a "call"-a call not to reproduce the
Plotinian experience with servility, but simply to welcome the mysterious,
the ineffable, and the transcendent in human experience with courage.
For I had sensed in writing this book how it would risk, if taken literally,
leading the reader into the mirage, the illusion of the "purely spiritual," far
from concrete reality. The danger was confirmed for me as soon as I had
completed the book. 1 have already elsewhere described how, after having
stayed cloistered for a month in order to write this small work, I had, while
out to get bread from the baker, a strange impression. But I rnisexpressed
myself in my story when I wrote, "I had the impression of finding myself
on an unknown planet." In fact, in seeing the ordinary folks all around
me in the bakery, I rather had the impression of having lived a month in
another world, completely strange to our world, and worse than this-
totally unreal and even unlivable. This did not stop me from continuing
for years to work on Plotinus, both to study the extraordinary phenom-
enon that is mystical experience, and to attempt to define the relation that
connected this experience and the teaching of Plotinus, as well as out of
love for the beauty of certain mystical pages of Plotinus. Yet, from a per-
sonal point of view, mystical experience, whether Christian or Platonic,
did not hold my interest as it did during my youth, and Neoplatonism
seemed to me an untenable position. Notably, I had quickly moved away
from the attitude ofJean Trouillard, who both in his books and in his life
professed a sort of Neoplatonism. For him, Plotinus was still actual, and
he reproached me for having written the sentence at the end of Plotinou fa
simplicite du regard on the gap separating us from Plotinus.
To return to your question, it is true that, now, in order to understand
my idea of philosophy, it seems to me that Stoicism and Epicureanism are
more accessible than Plotinus to our contemporaries. Certain Epicurean
84 UnitaryExperience and Philosophical Life
thoughts, certain aphorisms by Marcus Aurelius, and certain pages by
Seneca can suggest attitudes that can still be taken up today. On the con-
trary, it is almost impossible for us to understand what Plotinus meant
without clarifying his text with long commentaries; this is, incidentally,
why in 1987 I undertook my collection, published at Editions de Cerf and
now in Le Livre de Poche, of Plotinus' Les Ecrits [Writings].
A.D.: In mystical experience thereis a transformation ofthe self There
isalso, and this isan apparentparadox, a rupturewith the self How canself
transformation also bea rupture with the self?
On the one hand, in the description that Plotinus gives of mystical
experience, one finds numerous expressions in which he insists on the fact
that the self loses itself One might say he is no longer soul, he is not even
Spirit anymore, obviously he is no longer body; that is the rupture with
the self:
On the other hand, there is also a whole series of expressions,
notably in the ninth Treatise, in which he speaks of effusion, of dilatation,
of expansion of the self which give the impression of an intensification
of the self.9 This would be the aspect of self-transformation. Finally, I
wonder whether these two aspects are not one and the same. At the mo-
ment of ecstasy, the selfleaves its limits and dilates itself in infinity. This is
both a loss and a gain, the ascension of the self to a higher mode of being.
One might say that the highest point the self can attain is the point at
which one has the impression of losing oneself in something that totally
overcomes one. But it remains that, for Plotinus, .this state is not a break in
the train of consciousness, because the soul will remember the ecstasy and
will talk about it-in an inexact way, Plotinus emphasizes.
A.D.: In Plotin ou la simplicite du regard [Plotinus or the simplicity
ofvision}, you usedthe expression "the true self" [Ie vrai moil. But is it not a
transformation ofthe selfratherthan the discovery ofthe "true self"?
This question brings me to specify what one might mean by levels
of the "self" I would distinguish three levels, plus one. The three levels
would be, first, that of sensible consciousness, whereby the self behaves
as though it were indistinguishable from the body; then, that of ratio-
nal consciousness, whereby the self becomes aware of itself as soul and
Unitary Experience and Philosophical Life 85
as discursive reflection; and finally, the level of spiritual consciousness,
in which the self discovers that it has always been, unconsciously, Spirit
or Intellect, and thus overcomes rational consciousness to attain a sort of
spiritual and intuitive lucidity, without discourse and without reflection.
This is the level that Plotinus and especially his disciple Porphyry consider
to be the true self. Philosophy consists in elevating oneself from the first
to the third level. '
I said three levels, plus one, because mystical experience would rep-
resent a completely different level. In the mystical experience of the One,
this true self overcomes its state of identification with Spirit and achieves
a state of absolute unity and simplicity. He lives, as it were, with Spirit in
the state of indetermination and infinity-of drunkenness, Plotinus says,
in which the Spirit finds itself at the moment of its birth out of the One. It
overcomes itself: therefore, and transforms itself; it dilates itself in infinity.
But for a philosopher, this is an exceptional experience.
A.D.: You cite, in connection with Plotinus' experience, this verse by
Paul Claudel: "Someone within me who is even more myselfthan me."
In Claudel, it is a case not of Plotinian mysticism but of a Christian
perspective, that is, the idea that the Creator is fundamentally more our-
selves than we are ourselves, because he is the origin of the self: One could
say that the same holds in the case of Plotinus' doctrine, because the One
is also at the origin of things. But I wonder if I was right to cite Claudel
about Plotinus. On this point I can list only the aporias. First, the Christian
God is personal, and he can be conceived-as "someone," as a self internal
to ourselves. The Plotinian One is not personal. The Spirit can be our
true self because it is defined and doubled into subject and object, but the
Absolute of the One cannot be our self. This is why I wonder whether, in
Plotinian mystical experience, one can speak of an identification between
the self and the One. How can the relative coincide with the Absolute?
It would be preferable to speak of a sense of an indefinable Presence. It
remains that Plotinus does seem to speak of identification explicitly, in the
ninth treatise." I understand this passage as the description of an impres-
sion of identification. These are the questions I am asking myself:
86 Unitary Experience and Philosophical Life
A. D.: One might add that in your article "Lafigure du sage,"you have
shown that the problem ofthe true selfis also tied to the problem ofwisdom
and not only to the problem ofmysticism; one must always seek the selfabove
oneself The true selfis both inside and outside; it is a continual searchfor the
bestpart ofoneself which is a selfovercoming as well as the recognition ofthe
fact that one part ofourselves is our true self This is the casein Stoicism, in
Aristotle, and in Plotinus.
It is true that in Aristotle, for example, the Intellect appears as some-
thing that overcomes us and that is of a divine order while remaining our
true self. That which is the essence of the human is thus something that
surpasses it. Plotinus says of the Intellect that it is a part of ourselves to
which we elevate ourselves. Marcus Aurelius speaks of the daimon, an
inner divinity, that is no other, ultimately, than reason, which is both
ourselves and above ourselves. When the philosopher attempts to attain
wisdom, he tends toward this state, in which he would be perfectly identi-
cal to the true self: which is the ideal self.
Generally speaking, I personally tend to conceive of the fundamen-
tal philosophical choice as an overcoming of the partial, biased, egocen-
tric, egoist self in order to attain the level of a higher self This self sees
all things from a perspective of universality and totality, and becomes
aware of itself as part of the cosmos that encompasses, then, the total-
ity of things. I retained the following sentence from Anne Cheng's book
Histoire de la pensee chinoise [History of Chinese thought], about the Tao
(or Dao): "Every form of spirituality begins by a 'letting go,' a renuncia-
tion of the limited and limiting self,"!' This remark makes me think that
this idea of a change of levels of self can be found in extremely different
Philosophical Discourse as
Spiritual Exercise
ArnoldI. Davidson: From aphilosophicalpoint ofview, what isa spiri-
tual exercise? Wouldyou give us some examples?
As far as I know, the expression "spiritual exercises" has not been
used very often in relation to philosophy. In a book published in 1954
entitled Seelenfiihrung: Methodik der Exerzitien in der Antike [The direc-
tion of souls: Method of exercises in antiquity], Paul Rabbow, whose work
has been an inspiration for all those interested in this aspect of philoso-
phy, used the expression "moral exercise." He showed that Saint Ignatius'
famous Spiritual Exercises belong to this tradition. In 1945, Louis Gernet
spoke of an "exercise" in reference to the technique of collecting and con-
centrating the soul.' And in 1964, in his book Myth and Thought in the
Greeks, Jean-Pierre Vernant spoke of "spiritual exercises" in relation to
Empedocles and techniques of recollection of past lives.? The expression
seems rare, but it is not all that unusual.
I would define spiritual exercises as voluntary, personal practices
meant to bring about a transformation of the individual, a transforma-
tion of the sel We have seen two examples of these spiritual exercises
with Jean-Pierre Vernant and Louis Gernet. Another ancient example is
preparations for the difficulties oflife, an exercise thought highly of by the
Stoics. To be able to bear the strokes of fate, sickness, poverty, and exile,
88 Philosophical Discourse asSpiritualExercise
one must prepare oneself in thought for their possibility. One is better able
to bear what is expected. This exercise can in fact be found considerably
earlier than the Stoics. It had been favored by Anaxagoras and again by
Euripides, in his play about Theseus. Besides, Anaxagoras spoke like a
Stoic before his time when, upon learning of the death of his son, he de-
clared, "I knew that I had given birth to a mortal being." Another example
is formulated by Plato in the Phaedo: "To do philosophy is to exercise
dying," that is, to separate oneself from the body, from the order of the
senses and the selfish point of view it implies. The Epicureans also appeal
to spiritual exercises: the examination of conscience, for example, or the
confession of misdeeds, meditation, and the limitation of desires.
Despite my attempts to avoid it, some of what I have written about
spiritual exercises in general may suggest that spiritual exercises are added
to philosophical theory, to philosophical discourse, that they would be
practice that merely complements theory and abstract discourse. In fact,
all philosophy is an exercise-instructional discourse no less than the in-
ner discourse that orients our actions. Obviously the exercises take place
primarily in and through inner discourse-there is even an expression for
this, a Greek term often used by Epictetus in his Manuel: epilegein, that is
to say, "to add an inner discourse to the situation," for example, by reciting
maxims such as "One must not will what does not occur, but one must
will that what occurs, occurs as it occurs." These are inner expressions
that are used, and they alter the individual's disposition. But there are also
spiritual exercises in outer discourse, in the discourse of instruction, and
this is very important for me insofar as my main preoccupation has been
precisely to show that what was considered to be pure theory, abstraction,
was practice in both its mode of exposition and its finality. When Plato
writes his dialogues, when Aristotle gives his courses and publishes his
course notes, when Epictetus writes his letters or even his very compli-
cated and lengthy treatise on nature {which has unfortunately come to
us in tatters, in small pieces found in Herculaneum)-in all these cases,
indeed, the philosopher expounds a doctrine. However, he exposes it in a
certain way-a way that aims to form more than to inform. Often, as I
have said, philosophical discourse presents itself in the form of an answer
to a question, in connection with the school's method of instruction. In
fact, one does not answer the question right away. If the goal were simply
Philosophical Discourseas Spiritual Exercise 89
to satisfy the desire for knowledge, it would suffice to provide for a given
question a given answer. Most of the time in the ancient context, and this
is characteristic of Aristotle, the question is not answered immediately.
Many detours are taken in order to provide an answer. The same holds in
Plato's dialogues or in Plotinus. The demonstration is even rehearsed sev-
eral times. These detours and repetitions aim first to teach one to how to
reason, but also to allow the object of investigation to become, as Aristotle
would say, perfectly familiar and connatural, and ultimately to interiorize
knowledge perfectly.' The meaning of these exercises is obvious in what
we call Socratic discourse, which of course is ultimately also Platonic dis-
course, in which the questions or the answers aim to provoke a doubt, an
emotion-as Plato says, to make a bite mark in the reader. This type of
dialogue is an exercise (ascese); one must subject oneself to the laws of dis-
cussion, that is, (I) to recognize the other's right to self-expression; (2) to
recognize that what is obvious is to be welcomed, which is often difficult
when one is wrong; and (3) to recognize the norm, above the interlocu-
tors, of what the Greeks call logos-an objective discourse, or at least one
that aims to be objective. This is obviously true of Socratic discourse, but
it is also true of so-called theoretical exposition, which aims primarily at
bringing the disciple to lead a spiritual life. It is a matter of rising above
and moving :beyond inferior reasoning-and especially what is obvious
to the senses, knowledge of the senses-to rise toward pure thought and
the love of truth. This is why I think that theoretical exposition can be
considered a spiritual exercise. It is also true that theoretical exposition
cannot be complete if the listener does not make an inner effort at the
same time, for as Plotinus, for example, said, it is impossible to understand
that the soul is immortal if one does not detach oneself from the passions
and the body.
A.D.: How did you come to realize the centrality ofspiritual exercises
in antiquity? As you have said, it was not at all the result of a quest for
spirituality, but rather the consequence ofa methodological problem: how to
interpret ancient philosophy texts. Can exercise and system be methodologi-
cally opposed?
At first, as I have already said, the problem for me was to explain
the (apparent) incoherencies of the philosophers. There was the enigma of
90 Philosophical Discourse asSpiritual Exercise
Plato's dialogues, which are often aporetic and not consistent with each
other, I was also surprised to see Paul Moraux, in "his introduction to
Aristotle's Treatise on the Heavens, say that Aristotle contradicts himself
and that he writes poorly. Moreover, it was extremely difficult to grasp the
movement of thought in Plotinus' treatises. Finally, I came to think that
these apparent inconsistencies could be explained by the fact that Greek
philosophers did not aim, above all, to provide a systematic theory of real-
ity, but to teach their disciples a method with which to orient themselves,
both in thought and in life. I would not say that the notion of a system
-did not exist in antiquity. The word existed, but it designated an orga-
nized totality whose parts depended on each other rather than an edifice
of thoughts. The notion of systematic thought existed as well, under the
influence of Euclid's geometry and axiomatics. I have already touched on
the existence of a philosophical literary genre that can be characterized as
systematic that consists in deducing all the possible consequences from
fundamental principles and axioms. In fact, this effort at systematization
was meant to allow the disciple to have at hand the fundamental dogmas
that gujde action and to acquire the .unshakable certainty given by the im-
pression of logical rigor and coherence. This is true of the Stoics, famous
for the coherence of their doctrine, but also of Epicurus in his Letters, in
which the trace of the model for Euclid's Elements can be recognized.
In summary, two things can be remarked. On the one hand, in my
efforts of interpretation, I have discovered that when one wishes to inter-
pret a philosophical work of antiquity, one must first of all endeavor to
follow the movement, the meanders of the author's thought-in short, the
series of dialectical or spiritual exercises that are not necessarily rigorously
coherent but that the philosopher has his disciples practice. In Aristotle,
for example, it takes the form of repeating an exposition from different
points ofdeparture. On the other hand, when the philosopher aims to be
systematic, for example, in certain texts of Epicurus or the Stoics, it is of-
ten a matter of the practice of a spiritual-as it were, a mnemotechnic-
exercise that aims for a better assimilation of the dogmas that determine
a mode of life, and for the possession of these dogmas in oneself with
Philosophical Discourse asSpiritualExercise 91
A.D.: Might one not say that the goal ofa modern system is to give an
explanation ofthe world, ofman, and that, contrary to this, the primary goal
in an ancient philosophical text is to transform the listener?
I think I have already mentioned it but recall Victor Goldschmidt's
formula about Plato's dialogues, which is absolutely extraordinary, He
said, "These dialogues aim not to inform but to form." I think that in fact
this is valid for all ancient philosophy. Naturally, philosophical discourse
also provides information about being, matter, heavenly phenomena, and
the elements. However, it is also meant to form the spirit, to teach it to
recognize problems and methods of reasoning, and to allow one to orient
oneselfin thought and in life. I believe that Werner Jaeger had an excellent
intuition when he titled his book Paideia, which signifies "formation"-a
book in which he gives an exposition of the entire universe of archaic and
classical thought. For the Greeks, what counts is the formation of the
body and the spirit. When Epictetus designates the philosopher who has
made progress, he often says that he is pepaideumenos, that he is "formed."
This is perhaps the main contrast with a certain modern philosophy, this
attitude in relation to formation.
A.. D.: This means that ifone tears the philosophers'formulasfrom their
context ofenunciation to see in them the expression oftheoretical propositions
that are absolutely valid, one risks twisting their signification, deforming the
Personally, I always prefer to study a philosopher by analyzing his or
her works rather than looking to put together a system by extracting theo-
retical propositions from his or her works, separated from their context.
The works are alive; they are an act, a movement that carries the author
and the reader. Systematic studies are like herbariums full of dead leaves.
Within the framework of a particular work-for example, Epicurus'
Letter to Herodotus-it is perfectly acceptable to take the assertions about
nature proposed by Epicurus as absolutely valid theoretical propositions.
Epicurus himself meant to present them as theoretical propositions when
he wrote the letter. But one must also not forget their context, that is,
the therapeutic role he explicitly ascribes to them at the end of the Letter.
these propositions must ensure the peace of the disciple's soul, to deliver
92 Philosophical Discourse as Spiritual Exercise
him from the fear of the gods. Presumably these theoretical propositions
were made in a way that aimed to produce their .liberating effect most
One must always be prudent when it comes to deciding about the
theoretical content of a philosophical text. Throughout antiquity, the
Platonists argued about whether in the Timaeus Plato had really wanted
to teach that the world was created in time by a maker who would have
reasoned in order to make it the best possible. This is nevertheless what he
explicitly says. But the Neoplatonists believed that for Plato the world of
the senses was eternal, that it emanated from the intelligible world without
intervention from a will or an act ofreasoning. For them, Plato's assertions
must be situated in the perspective of the mythic discourse that Plato
set out to develop in the Timaeus. In general, the meaning of an asser-
tion must be interpreted as a function of the literary genre chosen by the
author, and of the context in which this assertion is inscribed. We have
discussed this in a previous conversation.
A. D.: When we hear the expression "spiritual exercises, "we almost spon-
taneously think ofChristian religion and spirituality; but you maintain that
this interpretation ofthe expression is too limited, because spiritual exercises
need not be tied to religion, either historically orphilosophically. What doyou
mean bythe word spiritual?
The expression "spiritual exercises" has been vigorously disputed,
even by my dear colleague and friend Sandra Laugier at a meeting of the
College Philosophique devoted to my work. As I said the first time I wrote
about the subject, it is not currently in favor (de bon ton). Yet a certain
number of philosophers have quite easily accepted it-thus my colleague
Luc Brisson, or Michel Onfray, who professes a hedonistic materialism.
Why did I choose it, and why can I say that it was not because of its
possible religious connotations? I chose it for the following reasons. I had
been quite struck by the title of a collection that appeared shortly after
the war: La Poesie comme exercice spirituel [Poetry as a spiritual exercise].
Unfortunately I lost this book, but the title had shed light for me on the
notion ofpoetry. Later, in Elisabeth Brisson's book, I read that Beethoven
referred to the exercises of musical composition that he required of his
students and that were meant to attain a form of wisdom-one that
Philosophical Discourse as Spiritual Exercise 93
might be called aesthetic-as spiritual exercises." Moreover, Paul Rabbow,
whom I mentioned earlier, has shown that Saint Ignatius' famous Spiritual
Exercises were inherited from ancient thought through the intermediation
of the monks, who employed the expression "spiritual exercises" to refer
to their own practice. The guiding thread of Paul Rabbow's book, at least
in my eyes, was to show that ultimately the expression "spiritual exercises"
was not religious because it had a philosophical origin. This is the second
reason I employed the words. Thirdly, I nevertheless attempted to avoid
the words, and I tried everything that one could say instead. "Moral exer-
cises" was not good because they were not only exercises of a moral order;
"ethical exercises" did not work either; and "intellectual exercises" did not
cover everything that is represented by the notion of spiritual exercises.
One could speak, if need be, of practices. Raymond Ruyer had employed
the expression montages, but this gives the impression of something ar-
rificial.' I don't like the expression "self-practices" [pratiques de SOl] that
Foucault brought into style, and the expression "self-writing" [ecriture de
SOt] even less. It is not "self" [SOt] that one practices any more than it is
"self" [sotl that one writes. One practices exercises to transform the self [Le
mOl] and one writes sentences to influence the self [Le mOl]. It is worth not-
ing, parenthetically, that this is yet another example of the impropriety of
contemporary philosophical jargon. Thus I have resigned myselfto employ
the expression "spiritual exercises," and all things considered, this is quite
standard; the notion has been employed frequently and" for a long time to
designate the voluntary practices I have discussed. Finally, the expression
"spiritual exercises" does not fool anyone; people-philosophers, histori-
ans-have used it without thinking of either 'religion or Saint Ignatius.
I made up my mind when I found a fragment of his journal in Georges
Friedmann's La Puissance et La sagesse [Power and wisdom] in which he
says, "Every day, a spiritual exercise," and the examples of practices he
provides could very well be those of the Stoics. He was in no way thinking
of practices of a religious order. Moreover, as I have already said, Jean-
Pierre Vernant has used the words in relation to ancient practices, which
included exercises such as respiratory techniques. Even if these techniques
are corporeal, they nonetheless have spiritual value, because they provoke
a psychic effect. Ultimately, I do not think the expression is problematic.
94 Philosophical Discourse asSpiritual Exercise
Nevertheless, it is not in itself enough to express my conception of
ancient philosophy, which is a spiritual exercise because it is a mode of life,
a form of life, a choice of life.
A.D.: Spiritual exercises are usually situatedin the ethicalpart ofphi-
losopby, whereas the logical and physical parts remain theoretical. But you
haveshown that in reality the border between the theoretical and thepractical
passes insideeach part or discipline ofphilosophy. It is an element ofcapital
importance for your interpretation to establish that logic, physics, and ethics
are bothpracticaland theoretical.
I think that what you have just said is very important. The thing
seemed clear to me about the Stoics, but I came to the realization that it
was a general phenomenon in all antiquity. The Stoics thus distinguished
philosophical discourse, and philosophy itself: By this they meant that
when one teaches philosophy-philosophical discourse being divided into
three parts: logic, physics, and ethics-one explains the theory oflogic, the
theory of physics, and the theory of morality to the students. At the same
time, they would say that this philosophical discourse was not philosophy.
Philosophy was the effective, concrete, lived exercise; the practice of logic,
of ethics, and of physics. Real logic is not the pure theory of logic but lived
logic, the act of thinking in a correct way, of exercising one's thinking in
a correct way in everyday life. There is thus a lived logic, which the Stoics
would say consists in criticizing representations, that is, the images that
come from the outside w o r l d ~ t o not rush to say that a given thing that
happens is evil or good, but to reflect, to criticize representation.
This is obviously also true of ethics. Genuine ethics is not ethical
theory but ethics lived in life with other people. The same holds for phys-
ics. Real physics is not the theory of physics but lived physics, that is, a
certain attitude toward the cosmos. This lived physics consists, first of all,
in seeing things such as they are-not from an anthropological and ego-
istical point of view, but from the perspective of the cosmos and nature.
This attitude appears clearly in what might be called Marcus Aurelius'
physical definitions-definitions that consider the object of the defini-
tion to be part of nature, for example, the earth and human things are an
infinitesimal point in the immensity; the imperial crimson, the blood ofa
seashell; death, a phenomenon of nature.
Philosophical Discourse as Spiritual Exercise 95
This lived physics also consists in becoming aware of the fact that
we are a part of the Whole and must accept the necessary unfolding of
this Whole with which we identify, because we are one of its parts. It
consists, finally, in contemplating the universe, in its splendor, by recog-
nizing the beauty of the most humble things. For that matter, this aspect
of lived physics can be found in all the schools. In an article I wrote called
"Physique et poesie dans le Timeetie Platon" [Physics and poetry in Plato's
Timaeus], I tried to show that Plato's Timaeus is indeed basically a spiritual
exercise in which the philosopher tries to put himself back in the perspec-
tive of the Whole. This is even true in the tradition of Platonists with, as
it were, skeptical tendencies. Cicero says, for example, that even if one
cannot know much about nature, applying oneself to the knowledge of
nature, that is, contemplating nature, is something that provokes a very
great pleasure. And here, basically, Cicero is merely Aristotle's heir in the
very beautiful passage of the book On the Parts ofAnimals, where he too
explains that the study of natural phenomena, even the ones that can seem
the most repugnant, provokes a great pleasure. I believe that this holds
until the end of antiquity. Think also of Ptolemy's famous poem that says,
when I contemplate the stars, I am no longer a mere mortal.f To broaden
the historical horizon somewhat, I think that this practice of physics as a
spiritual exercise has in fact always existed in the history of philosophy.
Goethe is a perfect example of this, for all his naturalist studies are always
tied to a certain existential experience. It is a physics, but one that has
spiritual value. One also finds this conception of physics, despite certain
extravagances, in German Romanticism.
A.D.: The idea ofa cosmic consciousness, which is for us a rather dis-
concerting idea, belongs to the perspective ofa spiritual exercise ofphysics.
One can thus endeavor to attain cosmic consciousness. Do you think this is an
exercise that one can practice today?
In his book entitled Malicorne, Hubert Reeves speaks of the shock
that observers experience in discovering Saturn through a telescope for the
first time." This emotion and this experience depend not on the develop-
ments of contemporary physics, but on the experience of perception, on
the contact of one part of the universe with another part of the universe.
96 Philosophical Discourse asSpiritual Exercise
In fact, there are two ways to apprehend the world. There is the scientific
way, which uses measuring instruments, exploration, and mathematical
calculations. But there is also the naive use of perception. This duality
can be more fully understood by thinking of Husserl's remark, taken up
by Merleau-Ponty: ,theoretical physics admits and proves that the Earth
moves, but from the point of view of perception, the Earth is immobile.
Now, perception is the foundation of the life we live. It is from the per-
spective of perception that the spiritual exercise you refer to can be seen,
and it is probably better not to call it "spiritual exercise of physics," be-
cause in our day the word physics has only one, very precise meaning. It
is preferable, rather, to call it the realization of the presence of the world
and of our belonging to the world. Here the experience of the philosopher
coincides with the experience of the poet and the painter. As Bergson has
convincingly shown, this exercise effectively consists in overcoming the
utilitarian perception we have of the world, in order to attain a disinter-
ested perception of the world-not as a means of satisfying our interests,
but simply as the world, which emerges before our eyes as though we
were seeing it for the first time. As Merleau-Ponty says, "Real philosophy
is to learn to see the world again." Thus it appears as a transformation of
perception. On this point I would also cite an article by Carlo Ginzburg
that alludes to a spiritual exercise that is sometimes practiced by writers
(Ginzburg speaks of Tolstoy), and that consists of perceiving things as
strange." As an example of such a mode of vision, he specifically cites
Marcus Aurelius and his physical definitions, of which I have spoken. To
perceive things as strange is to transform one's way of looking so that one
has the impression of seeing them for the first time, by freeing oneself
from habit and banality.
For that matter, it is a question not of a purely aesthetic contempla-
tion, but of an exercise meant to bring us beyond, once again, our biased
and partial point of view, to bring us to see things and our personal exis-
tence in a cosmic and universal perspective, to situate us in the immense
event of the universe, but also, one might say, in the unfathomable mys-
tery of existence. This is what I call cosmic consciousness.
I add, moreover, that the developments of contemporary physics and
astronomy, through the vertiginous perspectives that they open, can lead
Philosophical Discourse asSpiritual Exercise 97
even the scholar to overcome the limits of pure scientific reasoning and
to realize both the enigmatic and the grandiose character of the universe.
This was the case with Einstein, and there are certainly many other cases
of this kind. I am not sufficiently acquainted with the current scientific
literature to be able to cite them all.

... :'I
Philosophy as Life and as
Quest for Wisdom
Arnold I Davidson: In antiquity, six schools ofphilosophy stoodout-
Platonism, Stoicism, Cynicism, Epicureanism, andSkepticism-each with its
own characteristic spiritual exercises. But these schools can also be diffirenti-
ated bytheir choice ofa veryparticular way oflife. This choice ofa way oflife,
ofan existential attitude, represents, as it were, the specificity ofeach school.
What isaphilosophical way oflife, and what is the relationship that exists be-
tween thephilosophical choice ofa way oflife and everyday life?
The philosophical way of life is quite simply the philosopher's be-
havior in everyday life. For example, Quintus Mucius Scaevola, a Roman
Stoic of the Republican period who was governor of the province of Asia,
made it a point of honor to pay for his stay in Asia out of his own pocket,
thereby effectively obliging those around him to do the same and to put
an end to the excesses of the Roman tax collectors. The Stoics from the
Scaevola family were also the only ones to apply to themselves the laws de-
creed against luxury. Thus, in everyday life they had an austerity, a moral
rigor that the others lacked. Obviously here I'm talking especially about a
moral attitude, but one that could be extended to other domains. In fact,
each school has a characteristic behavior. Incidentally, there is a need here
for a study that has never, to my knowledge, been exhaustively conducted
around the question of how the comic actors, and thus ordinary folks,
Philosophy as Lifeand as Questfor Wisdom 99
saw the different schools of philosophy. The Platonists were considered
proud, having-Epictetus discusses it as well-"a haughty brow." As for
the Epicureans, they had the reputation of not eating anything. Unlike
the current picture of Epicureanism, they were considered to be people
who lived a very simple life. The Stoics were regarded as excessively aus-
tere people. The only ones who were not remarked on were the Skeptics)
because they were conformists. This is the external aspect, seen by the'
comic authors.
How philosophy could have been a way oflife can be readily under-
stood if one thinks of the Cynics, who developed no doctrines and taught
nothing but were content to live according to a certain style. I will refrain
from telling the story of Diogenes' tub and merely submit that these were
people who refused the conventions of everyday life, the habitual mental-
ity of ordinary people. They were content with very little, begged, were
full of shamelessness, and masturbated in public. Their way of life was a
return to noncivilized nature. Without going to this extreme, all of the
schools were distinguished especially by their choice of a way of life. In
Plato's time, the philosophical attitude of the Platonists was character-
ized by a triple aspect. There was first the concern to exercise a political
influence, but directed toward the norms of the Platonic ideal. There was
also, second, the Socratic tradition, that is, the will to discuss, to present
teaching according to the method of questions and answers; and intel-
lectualism, for what was essential in Platonism was the movement toward
separation of the soul and thebody, the detachment of the body, and even
a tendency to exceed reasoning. With the Neoplatonists, finally, there was,
third, the idea that life should be a life of thought, a life of the mind.
In the Aristotelian tradition, one might say that the way of life-and
this is also characteristic-is finally the life of the scholar, a life devoted
to studies, not only of the natural sciences but of mathematics, astronomy,
history, and geography as well. Perhaps we will return to the matter later
on, but this is a mode of life that, to use the Aristotelian term, can be
called theoretics, the mode of life in which one "contemplates" things. This
also involves participation in divine thought, with the Prime Mover of
the universe, as well as contemplation of the stars. Here one finds the
notion of physics as a spiritual exercise. The Aristotelian recognition of
the purely disinterested character of the sciences is also interesting. The
100 Philosophy as Lifeand as Questfor Wisdom
theoretic is study that is not undertaken for a particular interest, for mate-
rial objectives.
As for the Epicureans, to whom I alluded earlier, their way of life
consisted primarily in a certain kind of asceticism of desires meant to
maintain the most perfect tranquility of spirit. The elimination of desires
was a condition of happiness. It is well known that they distinguished
between- natural desires and necessities (drinking, eating, sleeping), natu-
ral and non-necessary desires (sexual desire), and desires that are neither
natural nor necessary (desires for glory and for wealth). Normally one
had to content oneself with the absolutely necessary desires. At least in
principle, this excluded political action, but there were exceptions. They
withdrew from matters of-the city as much as possible. In general, we have
an idea of Epicurean life primarily through Epicurus' correspondence, as
well as through the poems of the Epicurean Philodemus, who discusses
very sober meals between friends-for friendship plays a considerable role
in Epicureanism. Finally, the Epicureans sought to enjoy the simple joy
of existing.
As for the Skeptics, they were, rather, conformists, as I have said.
This is because the only rule of conduct they admitted was obedience to
the rules and customs of the city. But they refused to judge; by suspending
their judgment about things they found a tranquility of soul.
Basically-and you alluded to this-in antiquity the philosopher is
always regarded somewhat like Socrates himself; he is not "in his place,"
he is atopos. He cannot be put in a particular place, in a special class. He
is unclassifiable. For quite different reasons there is a rupture of all these
schools with the everyday, even among the skeptics, who approach every-
day life with a total inner indifference. But at the same time, philosophy
governs everyday life and sometimes even gives detailed prescriptions.
Thus the Stoics were reputed to have textbooks that might be called casu-
ist textbooks-to use the seventeenth-century term-and that detailed
proper conduct in all the situations of life. Alexander of Aphrodisias,
Aristotle's commentator, mocks the Stoics' asking themselves whether one
has the right to cross one's legs during philosophy class, or whether one has
the right to take the biggest portion of the meal when eating with one's fa-
ther! In an article about Roman Stoicism, about the Gracchi brothers but
also about Cicero's treatise On Duty, my wife has shown that the Stoics
Philosophy asLifeand as Questfor Wisdom 101
displayed two opposing attitudes during this casuist period. For example,
one would ask oneself the following question: if one sells a house, does one
have the right to hide the house's faults or must one disclose them? There
were rather heretical Stoics who would say yes, one can hide the faults; but
the orthodox Stoics would say no, one does not have the right to do that.
There is also the case of the grain dealer whose boat full of wheat arrives
in a port during a famine. Will he say that there are other loads coming
behind him, which would have the consequence of a plunge in prices?All
sorts of possible behaviors in everyday life were foreseen, but as you can
see, the problem was always to determine the attitude that conformed to
the philosophical ideal. Nothing is more opposed to the cult of profit,
which progressively destroys humanity, than this Stoic morality that re-
quires of everyone absolute loyalty, transparence, and disinterestedness.
One can also say that shared tendencies take shape in the different
philosophical schools through these different forms of life. These tenden-
cies would essentially include the refusal to attribute differences in value
to things that merely express the individual's partial point of view; disin-
terestedness and indifference lead to peace of the soul.
This problem of everyday life was rather complex for ancient philos-
ophers. I recently studied Epictetus' Handbook and realized that, both in
his Handbookand in the Discourses, Epictetus often seems to recommend
contrary attitudes. The students he has at Nicopolis are young people who
are generally wealthy and who will undertake a political career. While he
has them in his school, however, he tries to have them practice the strict-
est of philosophies. So he tells them, one must not run after girls, one
must moderate one's diet, and so on-all kinds of pieces of advice that are
rigorist, as it were. And I compared this to the religious novices who are
locked up in the convent, who are formed for religious life but thereafter
are sent outside, into the world. Epictetus' students, they too, will leave,
and Epictetus foresees what they will do when they go home. TQ.llS he
gives them pieces of advice about the way to participate in banquets, to
attend shows, and even to lead their political life. It is the problem of
the philosopher who should, theoretically speaking, separate himself from
the world, but in fact must enter it and lead the everyday life of others.
Socrates has always remained the model in this domain. I have in mind a
fine text by Plutarch that in fact says that Socrates was a philosopher not
102 Philosophy asLife and as Questfor Wisdom
because he taught from a pulpit but because he chatted with his friends
and joked with them; he also would go to the agora, and after all this he
had an exemplary death. Thus Socrates' real philosophy is the practice of
everyday life.'
A.D.: There would be botha rupturebetween everyday life and philo-
sophicallife, and a great influence ofphilosophical life on everyday life.
Exactly. Moreover, philosophy even had a certain influence on the
evolution of political life. To take a concrete case as an example, most
legal historians recognize that law evolved under Stoicism, notably in the
manner of treating slaves, but also in the domain of the meaning of penal
responsibility, which supposes a conscious will.
A.D.: Inyour opinion, isit always necessary tochoose between schools, to
makean exclusive choice ofa school, ofafundamental attitude?Can onemix
the Stoicattitude with the Epicurean attitude, as did, for example, Goethe,
Rousseau, or Thoreau?
In the Metaphysics ofMorals (theory of ethical method), Kant de-
clares that the exercise of virtue must be practiced with Stoic energy and
Epicurean joie de vivre. This conjunction of Stoicism and Epicureanism
can be found in Rousseau's Reveries ofa Solitary Walker, in which there is
both the pleasure of existing and the awareness of being part of nature.
Goethe describes beings who, by their innate tendencies, are half Stoic
and half Epicurean." And one can also make out an attitude of this kind
in Thoreau's Walden. In a posthumous fragment, Nietzsche says that one
must not be scared of adopting a Stoic attitude after having benefited
from an Epicurean recipe." Ultimately, an attitude like this one is what
is called eclecticism. This word is often rather poorly viewed by philoso-
phers. In general, from Kant to Nietzsche, we have spoken of Stoicism and
Epicureanism. But there are many other models.
This attitude of eclecticism is potentially of great importance in the
contemporary world, in which the schools no longer exist and in which
one feels reticent to let oneself be influenced by any kind of school. This
was in a sense already Cicero's position, connected to the tendency of
Philosophy as Life and as Questfor Wisdom 103
Platonism that can be qualified as probabilist." He said, we are free, we
are independent; no obligation imposes itself on us; we live from one day
to the next, deciding on the basis of the circumstances and the particular
case, choosing what seems to be the best solution each time, whether it be
inspired by Epicureanism, or Stoicism, or Platonism, or any other model
of life.
One might raise the objection to everything I have just said about
eclecticism that if one begins by choosing to be free and not to give one's
allegiance to a school, then one may as well find one's own solution, with-
out choosing a model. But precisely the significance of everything that we
are saying about Stoicism and Epicureanism, for example, is that these
are experiences that have been lived for centuries and that have also been
disputed, criticized, and corrected. In this perspective, Nietzsche spoke
of the ancient moral schools as experimental laboratories, from which we
can, as it were, use the results. As Michelet put it, "Antiquity contains
ideas in a state of concentration, in the state of elixir."5Very recently, three
great specialists of ancient anthropology have convincingly shown that the
experience of political life in antiquity could inspire our modern democra-
cies. Why would this not also be the case when it comes to the experience
of ethics and of philosophical life?
A. D.: Afundamental but difficult question: canthe choice ofwayoflife
Cicero and the probabilist Platonists would have answered that ra-
tional reflection allows us to discover what one must in all likelihood
choose in any given circumstance. Cicero himself practices this method in
his letter to Atticusof March 49, in which he details the questions he asks
himself about what conduct he should practice at the time of the political
crisis generated by the confrontation between Caesar and Pompey: Should
one combat tyranny at the risk of ruining the city? Would it not be better
to negotiate? Does one have the right to remove oneself from political
affairs in a circumstance like this one? Must one support the tyrant's ad-
versaries when they have themselves accumulated errorsi"
A.D.: It is indeed difficult tojustify the exclusive choice ofa single at-
titude; but if we are brought to act like a Stoic in a particular case and in
104 Philosophy as Lifeand as Questfor Wisdom
another asan Epicurean, it issomewhat easier tojustify the attitude, because
it isalways tied toaparticularcontext.
I -entirely agree, but I would like to specify a point. In What Is
Ancient Philosophy? I wanted to show that philosophers who have founded
schools have meant, in doing so, to propose modes of life. It seems to me
this means that, in the formation of the thought of Plato, or Aristotle, or
Epicurus, the main factor is the representation of a certain mode of Iife-s-
for Plato, of a politician enlightened by the Ideas; for Aristotle, of a schol-
ar contemplating nature; for Epicurus, of a sage enjoying peace of mind.
This representation can be motivated by a reaction to the other choices of
life and is thus tied to a unified theoretical reflection. But it seems that it
is never a purely theoretical reflection that determines choice of life. With
respect to this choice, Sextus Empiricus, as a good Skeptic, gives a carica-
tured portrait of the philosophical choices and ironically says, the choice
of Stoicism is motivated by the passion of pride (the Jansenists will say the
same thing): the choice of Epicureanism, by the passion of pleasure of the
senses (volptej.7 But there is truth to this remark, to the extent that there
can be personal motivations that explain a given choice of life. Theoretical
reflection goes in a certain direction as a result of a fundamental orienta-
tion of inner life, and this tendency of inner life defines itself and takes
shape as a result of theoretical reflection. In my youth I illustrated this to
myself by the way a bicycle's movement provides for its lighting. In the
night one needs a light that illuminates and allows one to guide oneself
(this is theoretical reflection), but in order to have light, the generator
had to turn by the movement of the wheel. The movement of the wheel
is the choice of life. Then one could move forward, but one had to begin
by moving for a very short time in the dark. In other words, theoretical
reflection already supposes a certain choice of life, but this choice of life
can progress and define itself only as a result of theoretical reflection.
A. D.: You haveoftenspoken ot citingprimarily Plato, philosophy asan
exercise in dying. What canthis idea meanfor us today?
Let us specify first the meaning this formula had in antiquity. One
must obviously begin with Plato, because he literally said that philoso-
phy is an exercise in dying. But he said it in a paradoxical way. He did
Philosophy as Life and as Quest for Wisdom 105
not mean that one must exercise at being dead, for example, like Charles
Quint putting himself in his coffin. Rather, he wanted to say, one must
detach the soul from the body. This was not a matter of an exercise in
dying, but an exercise of spiritual or intellectual life, of the life of thought.
It was a matter of finding a mode of knowledge other than sensible knowl-
edge. It is also worth pointing out that one had to pass from the empirical
and lower self destined to die, to the transcendental sel In the Pbaedo,
Socrates clearly distinguishes the self who will soon become a cadaver
after having drunk the hemlock and the self who dialogues and acts spiri-
tually. It is not at all a matter of preparing for death; but because Plato was
always ironic, he appealed to the representation that nonphilosophers had
of philosophers-as folks who are all pale and look like the dying. What
he meant is simply that one had to detach oneself from sensible life. This
might have an incidental effect on health, but death was not the goal.
In fact, the Stoics too made much of the exercise of dying, within the
perspective of an exercise that we have already discussed: the preparations
for the difficulties of life, the praemeditatio malorum. The Stoics would al-
ways say, one must think that death is imminent, but it was less to prepare
for death than it was to discover the seriousness of life. Marcus Aurelius,
for example, as a Stoic, said, one must undertake every action as though it
were one's last; or again, one must spend every day as though it were one's
last. It is a matter ofbecoming aware that the moment one is still living has
infinite value. Because death may interrupt it, it is a matter of living in an
extremely intense manner as long as death has not arrived. Epicureans also
discussed death. According to Seneca, Epicurus said, "think of death"; but
this was in no way to prepare oneself for death, but on the contrary, ex-
actly as for the Stoics, to remain aware of the value of the present instant.
It is Horace's carpe diem: harvest today without thinking of tomorrow.
Moreover, the thought of death, from an Epicurean perspective, aims to
allow us to understand thoroughly the absence between death and the
living being that we are: "death is nothing for us," the Epicureans would
say; it has no relation to us. There is no passing from being to nothing-
ness. What is, is, and there is nothing more to be said. Death is not an
event of life, Wittgenstein would say." For the Epicureans there was also
the idea, shared with the Stoics, that one must live every day as though
one had completed one's life, and thus with the satisfaction of saying in
106 Philosophy asLife and as Questfor Wisdom
the evening, "1 have lived." There are two aspects in this: first, from this
perspective, the day has been lived in all its intensity, but at the same time,
when tomorrow comes, one will consider each day as an expected piece of
good fortune. At base, one will say, one already has everything in a single
instant of existence. It is always a matter of becoming aware of the value
of existence.
Finally, Plato, no less than the Stoics and the Epicureans, had always
considered the exercise ofdeath as an experience oflife. In a famous phrase
from his Ethics, Spinoza says, "The free man does not think of death; his
wisdom is not meditation on death, but meditation on life."9 He is obvi-
ously criticizing the Platonic phrase, but perhaps also the Christians, the
memento mori of the Christians. Thus, although Spinoza criticized the
exercise in dying, he may in fact have been fundamentally mistaken, for
meditation, thought, and the exercise in dying are ultimately exercises in
A.D.: Can onesaythe samething ofHeidegger?
I think it is the same thing, to the extent that the anticipation of
death for Heidegger is a condition of authentic existence. Consciousness
of finitude must bring humans to take on existence such as it is. But
for Heidegger, one does not aim to eliminate the anxiety of death, as in
antiquity!" I believe that this is a characteristic of the modern world-
perhaps I will treat the problem in a subsequent book-an aspect that,
to my mind, appears first in Goethe, Schelling, and Nietzsche. The idea
is that the consciousness of existing is tied to an anxiety, but that the
value of life comes precisely from, as Goethe said, the chill (frisson) before
the Ungeheure-the terrible, the prodigious, the monstrous, if it can be
translated in this way.'! This is something that is found in all of modern
thought, in Rilke too. I believe that this nuance of anxiety does not exist
at all either in Spinoza, in Epicurus, in the Stoics, or in Plato.
A. D.: Sometimes onehears that spiritual exercises areegoistical. But for
you, is it certain that thephilosophical life is not aform ofegoism?
One must, as always, see the complexity of things. It is sure that
there is a permanent danger of egoism in the efforts one makes to perfect
Philosophy as Lifeand as Questfor Wisdom 107
oneself: especially from the ancient perspective, where one seeks to attain
ataraxie, that is, peace of mind. Often one undoes oneself from political
activity, and there is an appearance of egoism in the declarations that
immediately shocked me in Epicretus' Handbook, where Epicterus says,
Think that your child is mortal and you will not be troubled by his death.
I also realized that in the case of Epictetus, it was not a sort of spiri-
tual egocentrism but rather an attitude that was quite analogous to the
Christian who submits himself to the will of God. Finally, this can be
understood when one knows that he had considerably emphasized family
affections. It must be admitted that this is a complicated problem, even
for the Christians. To care for oneself can seem egocentric. It remains
that when one reads the texts of Seneca, of Epictetus, of Marcus Aurelius,
I mean the Stoics, or when one studies the way life worked out in the
Epicurean school, one realizes that spiritual practice, which-as I just
said-aims to establish peace in the soul, is not egoistical. This is the case
for several reasons. First, spiritual exercises are oriented away from egoism
in that egoism is first and foremost provoked by the appeal of pleasures or
by concern for the body. Philosophers have always, in Plato no less than
in the Stoics (let us leave the Epicureans aside for the moment), made an
effort to undo themselves from the partial self [mot] and to elevate them-
selves to the level of the superior self: In fact, we have already discussed
this in relation to dialogue as a spiritual exercise; it consists precisely in
the recognition of the rights of the other in discussion, especially in the
recognition ofa superior norm to which the self must elevate itself in order
simply to dialogue-a superior norm that is reason. It is fundamentally
simple: from the moment one attempts to subject oneself to reason, one
is almost necessarily obliged to renounce egoism. This then is the first
The second argument, which I have already discussed in relation
to Socrates, is that one must recognize that ancient philosophers had a
very strong concern for others. Indeed, Socrates presents himself as the
one who received the mission to take care of others, to have them make
the decision of having concern for themselves. Here we come back to the
first reason: the care of the self is not at all a concern for well-being, in the
modern sense of the term. Rather..the care of the self consists in becom-
ing conscious of what one really is, that is, finally, of our identity with
108 Philosophy asLife and as Questfor Wisdom
reason, and even, with the Stoics, with reason considered as God. Thus
philosophers have always had concern for others. With Plato it is very
clear in his Letter VII, as well as in his political intentions; with the first
Stoics as well, and it is more explicit still in Seneca, in Epictetus, and in
Marcus Aurelius. I have discussed the three disciplines of Epictetus that
can be found in Marcus Aurelius: the discipline of desire, the discipline
of action, and the discipline of judgment. Now, the discipline of action
contains a very important element, which is the concern for the common
good. For Marcus Aurelius, in fact, this becomes very valuable, because,
as emperor, he exhorts himself to have concern for the common good.
Moreover-and here we return to Epicureanism-one can say that phi-
losophers in antiquity aimed to perpetuate themselves [se repandre]. They
have a missionary aspect, one might say, even if it is not on a very large
scale; and the Epicureans, who for that matter seem to turn back on them-
selves, have a great sense of friendship, which- for them is a pleasure: they
desire friendship because it is a pure pleasure. And they especially have
the desire to perpetuate their doctrine. A magnificent and extraordinary
example is Diogenes of Oenonanda, lie had had immense inscriptions
from Epicurean texts engraved on the walls of the city, aiming to convert
his fellow citizens to the Epicurean doctrine. A number of these inscrip-
rions were found in Turkey.
A.D.: In other words, in antiquity one could not take care ofothers if
onedid not take care ofoneself Doyou think this isa necessary relation? There
are many ways to take care ofothers. Thereisaphilosophical and a nonpbilo-
sophical mode. It seems to me that thephilosophical way oftaking care ofothers
always requires a selfconcern, which is also a selftransformation.
I believe that your phrase should be reversed, at least insofar as it
concerns the Stoics. Not, one cannot take care of others if one does not
take care of oneself but on the contrary, as Seneca says, ((Live for others if
you want to live for yoursel"12 For, Seneca adds, one cannot be happy if
one considers only oneself. It is true that one could think that in order to
take care of others one must first transform oneself: but this self-transfor-
mation consists precisely in being attentive to others. Finally, undoubtedly
in a somewhat exaggerated formulation, I would say that there is no real
concern for others if there is no self-forgetting. Certainly, in any case, if
Philosophy as Life and as Questfor Wisdom 109
there is no forgetting of one's personal interest, as Socrates maintains in
The Apology ofSocrates, "Ask yourself if it is humanly possible to neglect,
as I have, all one's personal interests [ ... ] for so many years and this to
be able to take care only of yoU."l3
Perhaps you will say, to forget one's personal interests is precisely to
have concern for oneself: that is, in fact, to have concern for the superior self
(moi) beyond all egoism. This is true, all the more so, as Marcus Aurelius
says clearly, that the reason on which love of others is based, at least for
the Stoics, is the consciousness of being members of the same body, such
that each member, by putting itself in the service of the body, puts itself
in its own service." One finds one's joy by doing good to others, because,
by doing good to others, one does good to oneself: But here again there
is a danger of which Marcus Aurelius was well aware: If one is conscious
of and happy about doing good, one risks looking at oneself doing good
and not having a perfectly pure intention in doing the good." For him,
one must belong to those who do good, as it were, unconsciously.l" This
recalls the word of the gospel: "When you give alms, may your left hand
not know what your right hand is doing." Goodness supposes total disin-
terestedness; it must be, as it were, spontaneous and unreflective, without
the least calculation, without the least self-complacency. Goodness must
be an instinct: one must do good as the bee makes its honey and seeks
nothing else. But to my knowledge, no ancient philosopher attained this
summit of the purity of intention as did Marcus Aurelius.
A.D.: Can we not saythat the search for justice is also a spiritual exer-
cise? One cannot brutally divide spiritual exercises that concern only the self
and those that concern only others. When one aims for justice, it is also an
exercise ofself
I think you are right for what concerns most ancient philosophies.
A. D.: You have recently emphasizedthe distinction between philosophi-
cal discourse and philosophy itself Unlike what, let us say, philosophy pro-
fessors may think, philosophy cannot be reduced to philosophical discourse.
Yet discourse remainsan integralpart ofphilosophy. There arephilosophical
discourses and concepts, and the exercises, the nonconceptualpractices ofphi-
110 Philosophy as Lifeand as Questfor Wisdom
losophy. What is the role ofphilosophical discourse and ofthepractices (the not
purelyconceptualpractices) inyour own conception ofphilosophy?
As I said, I borrowed this distinction from the Stoics, but it can be
found implicitly throughout the history of philosophy, because the op-
position between words, on the one hand, and practices, on the other, has
always been alive. It has always been emphasized that the real philosopher
is not the one who speaks but the one who acts. As you have just made
clear, it is a complex distinction. Once again, when the Stoics said that
philosophical discourse was not philosophy, they did not mean that the
discourse was not philosophical, for when the students were taught the
three parts of philosophy-logic, physics, and ethics-one was in fact
doing philosophy; it was indispensable for being able to practice philoso-
phy. Moreover, when it was said that philosophy was not philosophical
discourse, it did not mean that there was no discourse in this philosophi-
cal life, for the good reason that it would take at least one inner discourse
for it to act on itself. Basically, one can speak of philosophy as an ellipsis
that has two poles-a pole of discourse and a pole of action, outer but also
inner-for philosophy, in opposition to philosophical discourse, is also an
effort to put oneself into certain inner dispositions.
In antiquity, these two poles appear clearly in two different social
phenomena: philosophical discourse corresponds to the teaching dis-
pensed in the school, and philosophical life corresponds to the commu-
nity of institutional life that reunites master and disciple and implies a
certain genre of life-a spiritual direction, examinations of conscience,
exercises of meditation-and it also corresponds to the right way to live as
a citizen in one's city. On the one hand, as I have said, philosophy as life
is inspired by a discourse of philosophical teaching; for example, one sees
Marcus Aurelius write his Pensees in order to revive in himself philosophi-
cal discourse that always ends up being abstract. That is, byhabit, distrac-
tion, and the concerns of life, philosophical discourse quickly becomes
purely theoretical and no longer has the force necessary to motivate the
individual to live her or his philosophy. One must therefore give life and
effectiveness to discourse. On the other hand, pedagogical discourse in
antiquity is rarely purely theoretical; it too often takes the form of an ex-
ercise. There is the perfect example of Socratic dialogue, but there is also,
even in teaching that is not a dialogue, a rhetorical effort to influence the
Philosophy asLife and as Questfor Wisdom III
minds of the disciples. The two poles of philosophy are indispensable, but
it is important to distinguish them.
In fact, they have always been distinguished. Already Plato says in
Letter VII that he has come to Syracuse to prove to himself that he is not
merely full of hot air: "Out of fear of passing to myself for nothing but a
fine talker, incapable of resolutely undertaking an action.":" In all antiq-
uity, such as in Plutarch, philosophers who are merely Sophists and who,
when they get off their chair, neither know how to live nor how to teach
their disciples to live are mocked. I cannot give the history of this rich
tradition, from Petrarch and Montaigne to Kant, who opposed the phi-
losophers who were satisfied with the academic conception of philosophy,
those who are thus only what he calls "artists of reason" because they are
interested only in pure speculation; to those who are capable of being at-
tentive to what interests everyone, that is, finally, to practice. These latter
ones Kant calls the "philosophers of the world," and he forcefully main-
tained the connection between philosophical discourse and philosophical
life when he said, today one considers the one who lives in conformity with
what he teaches fanatical iexalte). In the same spirit, Thoreau will say, "We
have philosophy professors, but no philosophers." As for Schopenhauer, he
wrote a pamphlet called AgainstAcademicPhilosophy. To get backto the
twentieth century, and to give a single example, I have never forgotten my
amazement upon reading in Charles Peguy the phrase "Laphilosophie ne
vapas en classe depbilosophie" [Philosophy is not suited to the classroom].
The influence of Bergson on Peguy must be recognized here.
You asked me about the role that philosophical discourse and
philosophical practices have in my own conception of philosophy. It is
true-but I will not make value judgments on this subject-that many
of my contemporaries consider philosophy to be a discourse, more exactly
a discourse on discourse, and that is that. Personally, I have a different
conception. To make myself understood, I will once again take a detour
by way of antiquity. We have seen that throughout antiquity there were
men who were considered to be philosophers because they lived as philos-
ophers-for example, Dion of Syracuse, Plato's friend; Cato the Younger;
and Quintus Mucius Scaevola, the Augur. The remarkable Dictionnaire
des philosophes antiques [Dictionary of ancient philosophers], so efficiently
edited by Richard Goulet, is exemplary on this subject. We meet in it
112 Philosophyas Life and as Quest for Wisdom
many characters who are neither scholars nor philosophy professors-
political men, such as King Antigonus Gonatas, and women famous for
their philosophical life. Sometimes, without being inventors of philosoph-
ical doctrines, they composed philosophical works that did not have the
pretension of proposing new theories but that exposed the doctrines of
their chosen philosophical school in order to formulate in this manner,
for others and for themselves, the principles ofconduct. This was the case,
for example, with Cicero, Brutus, Seneca, Arrian, and Marcus Aurelius.
By recognizing, as I am proposing, two poles of philosophy, there would
be place once again in our contemporary world for philosophers in the
etymological sense of the word, that is, seekers of wisdom who certainly
would not renew philosophical discourse but would search not for happi-
ness-it seems that that is no longer in style-but for a life that is more
conscious, more rational, more open to others and the immensity of the
world. Now, it is obvious that those who have the vocation for it, the pro-
fessors and the writers who talk about philosophy, have the duty to con-
tinue to renew and transform the discourse of philosophy, and I believe
that this is a passionate and infinite task. But it is desirable that they be
conscious that discourse and life are inseparable. Personally, while trying
to accomplish my historian's and exegete's tasks, I especially attempt to
lead a philosophical life, that is, very simply, as I have just said, conscious,
coherent, and rational. It must be said that the results are not always of a
very high level. And during my sojourns in hospitals, for example, I have
not always maintained the serenity of mind in which I would have liked to
hold myself: But regardless, I attempt to put myself in certain inner atti-
tudes such as concentration on the present instant, wonder in the presence
of the world, looking at things from above-"to take flight every day,"
as Georges Friedmann said-becoming conscious of the mystery of exis-
tence. I must admit that as I get older, but it is certainly a default of age,
I increasingly prefer experience to discourse. I even dare admit that I am
very fond of the phrase, one that is paradoxical, enigmatic, but weighty
with meaning, of a Chinese critic cited by Simon Leys, "Everything that
can be said is stripped of importance."18
A. D.: Thus a priority ofpractice, and if theoretical discourse is torn
away from its practical context, the significance of the discourse cannot be
Philosophy as Life and as Quest for Wisdom 113
Here we return to a principle of interpretation that we have already
discussed. One cannot understand a text if one does not examine the inten-
tion of the author, that is, the effect it aims to produce; this is precisely the
practical context. To take an example that has already often been evoked,
one cannot understand Marcus Aurelius' book if one does not understand
that he wants to exhort himself by telling himself Stoic dogmas in a strik-
ing form. He does not want to give a theoretical exposition of the Stoic
doctrine. It is neither a journal nor a theoretical textbook.
A.D.: Even if you do not want to pass judgment, at the end ofyour
high school examination in the Monde de I' education [World ofeducation}
(March I992), you asked the question, "What isfinally most useful to man as
man? Is it discoursing on language or on nonbeing? Is it not rather to learn to
live a human life?" One can saythat this is an implicitjudgment ofvalue. And
then, how does one explain the recession of the practice ofspiritual exercises
after antiquity?
First I will turn to the question of the citation of my high school
examination. In speaking of being "useful to man as man," I thought of
what Kant said about "worldly" or "cosmic" philosophy, ofwhich we have
already spoken-philosophy that takes the perspective of wisdom into
consideration. It is philosophy that asks the questions that, Kant says,
"interest everybody," for example, What must I do? What can I hope for?
"Every interest," says Kant, "is ultimately practical, and even the interest
of speculative reason is only conditioned, is only completed in practical
use."" For me it is clear that there is a primacy of practical reason, explicit
in Kant, implicit in the ancient idea of philosophy.
I turn now to your question concerning the receding and the forget-
ting of this conception of philosophy. I believe that Christianity played
a very large role in this recession. Right at the end of antiquity, in the
face of pagan philosophers, revealed Christian theology replaced philoso-
phy and absorbed both ancient philosophy and ancient philosophical life.
The concepts studied throughout antiquity, and notably by Aristotelian
and Neoplatonist commentators from the end of antiquity, were used to
resolve theological and philosophical problems posed by Christian dog-
mas-for example, the notion of essence and of hypostasis for the Trinity,
the notion of nature for the Incarnation, the notion of substance for
114 Philosophy asLifeand as Quest for Wisdom
transubstantiation. And besides, it was Christian theology that became
ascetic and mystic, recuperating and Christianizing thespiritual exercises
and certain themes from philosophy.
In the Middle Ages, this situation was inherited, because it was
entirely Christian. It inherited, on the one hand, Christianized spiritual
exercises, which entered into monastic practice and in part into lay prac-
tices, that is, the examination of conscience, the meditation on death, the
imaginative exercises to think of hell, and so on. On the other hand, it
inherited a philosophy that had been put in the service of theology. For
Scholastics in the universities of the Middle Ages, the supreme science
was theology, a Christian theology that used philosophical concepts as
instruments. In the faculties of arts, a philosophy was taught that con-
sisted, according to the ancient tradition, in commenting especially on
Aristotle by following the models of late antiquity. Basically, the Middle
Ages inherited both from Christian theology at the end of antiquity and
from the activity of Aristotle's late commentators. Now, on one hand,
Scholastics continued at least until the end of the eighteenth century, and
on the other hand, from the time that philosophy attained its autonomy,
it found itself: at least until the eighteenth century, and even later, in an
officially Christian civilization in which the mode of life was Christian.
Philosophy could not propose another mode of life than the one that was
tied to Christian theology. Therefore it remained a primarily theoretical
A.D.: But havethere not been exceptions? Has the ideaofphilosophy as
a wayoflife notfinally always remainedalivein the history ofphilosophy?
You are right to evoke exceptions, because they are very important. I
have just presented a very simplified schema of the evolution that it is now
necessary to rectify. In effect, a very interesting phenomenon happened
already in the Middle Ages, in the thirteenth century, which began in the
faculties of arts, where Aristotle was commented on and where philosophy
was taught for itsel Here a certain number of philosophers-Siger de
Brabant, Boece de Dacie, and Aubry de Reims-found in Aristotle the
idea that philosophy could bring happiness through contemplation, and
thus that philosophy, independent of theology, could be a mode of life.
This proves that Aristotelian philosophy is in no way a purely theoretical
Philosophy as Life and as Questfor Wisdom I I 5
philosophy. They in effect found in Aristotle the idea that contemplation
and the work of the mind bring happiness to the human being (this is
the end of the Nicomachean Ethics). These philosophers were very poorly
considered because they suggested that man could find his happiness-
obviously they said it was merely an inferior happiness-in contempla-
tion. This corresponds to the distinction I observe between tbeoretique
and tbeorique (theoretical), where the former means contemplative.
On this subject, one can read Imbach's Dante: philosophie et les laics
[Dante, philosophers, and laymen], which effectively displays the whole
scope of this secularization of philosophy. 20 With the Renaissance, Seneca,
Epictetus, and later Marcus Aurelius, and Cicero and Epicureanism, it
began to become apparent that philosophy itself could be a way of life.
One finds traces of this movement in Italy, in Petrarch for example, in
Erasmus, and obviously in Montaigne. Augustine undoubtedly influenced
Descartes to the extent that one finds remembrances of spiritual exercises
of ancient philosophy in the dialogues written in Augustine's youth at
Cassiaciacum. I have tried to show that Descartes practices and has his
reader practice philosophical meditation, notably in the Meditations.
In the eighteenth century there appeared the notion ofwhat is called
popular philosophy, a philosophy that could be practiced by ordinary
people and that was a way oflife. The word philosophy then took on a very
special sense. This popular philosophy influenced the notion of "cosmic"
philosophy in Kant, the word cosmic signifying worldly (mondaine) philos-
ophy. But in fact, significantly for Kant, he opposes this practiced philoso-
phy to the purely theoretical philosophy of the "artists of reason." I cannot
offer the entire history of this tradition, but finally you are right: one can
observe the continuity of the two traditions since the Middle Ages-one
that privileges philosophical discourse, the other that integrates the per-
spective of mode of life, of the lived exercise, into philosophy.
A.D.: With respect to the first tendency, you once wrote rather strik-
ingly that the tendencyto besatisfied with discourse is nearlyconnatural with
philosophy itself What did you mean?
This tendency was denounced throughout antiquity. Earlier I evoked
Plato. He said he got into politics only so it could not be said of him
that he contented himself with words. Plaronists, Stoics, and Epicureans
I I 6 Philosophy asLife and as Questfor Wisdom
attacked the philosophers who were satisfied with appealing discourses
and subtle syllogistic reasoning. It is not merely a question of sophistical
vanity, of vainglory, of the pleasure of speaking. In fact, all philosophers,
even those who orient their discourse in function of philosophical life, risk
telling themselves that everything is resolved simply because they have
said something and said it well. Yet everything remains to be done. The
passage from discourse to life is a truly perilous leap that it is difficult to
decide to make. I will allow myself to cite Kant, again, here: "When are
you finally going to begin to live virtuously, said Plato to an old man who
was telling him that he was attending lessons on virtue, you must fil1ally
think of passing into action, and not always speculate. But today we con-
sider one who lives in conformity with what he teaches to be fanatic."21
This notable remark lets us see that in Kant's time there was already a
conflict between the partisans of pure speculation and those who, like
Kant, wanted to connect philosophy and life. I previously encountered
this problem at the time of existentialism. I felt there was a contradiction:
in existentialism between the idea of a philosophy involved in life, almost
confounded with life, and the discourse that said that philosophy should
be committed but which was content merely to say so. One spoke about it
extensively, and one was content to have spoken about it, like at the opera,
where people sing, "Let us walk, let us walk" or "let us flee, let us flee,"
and do not move.
A.D.: This was also a criticism formulated by[ankeleuitch, who said
that therearepeople who think that beingcommitted meansknowing howto
conjugate the verbto commit. . ..
Absolutely. I believeit is precisely a connatural vice, this danger, that
lies in wait for all philosophers and that consists in being satisfied with a
well-composed discourse because it is easier to speak than to do.
A. D.: YOu have evokedthefigure ofthe sage in antiquity as a norm, as
a transcendent ideal. Canyou describe thefigure ofthe sage for us? And does
thefigure remain current?
There is a considerable literature in antiquity on the theme of the
description of the sage. There are numerous treatises, entitled Of the
Philosophy as Life and as Questfor Wisdom 117
Steadfastness ofthe Sageor That the Sage Is Free, and so on. In fact, these
are descriptions of the perfect philosopher, such as he should be. This is
why I said that the figure of the sage was in antiquity a norm, a transcen-
dent ideal. Plato, in the Symposium, explicitly said that only God was wise,
and that man could only be philosopher, that is, "friend of wisdom," "in
search ofwisdom." And by emphasizing the extreme rarity ofthe sage, the
Stoics too make of wisdom a transcendent ideal. When Lucretius praises
Epicurus in his first poem on nature, in reality he describes the philo-
sophical ideal. What, then, are the qualities Lucretius admires in him?
The first is his love of men. When he taught his doctrine, he wanted
to save human beings, who were in the grip of the terror of superstition
and the torments of the passions. A second characteristic of his wisdom
is the audacity of his cosmic vision. As Lucretius says, Epicurus mentally
overcame the enflamed barriers that limit the universe, such that he has
traversed the immensity of the Whole. A third trait, finally: he is free,
without fear, with an inner peace analogous to that of the gods, of whom
one can say, precisely according to his doctrine, that no troubles agitate
the peace of their soul. These three basic traits are common to the figure
of the sage as it is described by the other schools, with the exception of
the Skeptics. First, as Bernard Groethuysen has effectively shown, cosmic
consciousness "constantly has the Whole in mind."22 There is also the
awareness of a role to fill in the guidance of other men, todeliver them
from their ignorance, their terrors, and their passions, by helping
discover this cosmos he has unveiled. Finally, there is the inexpugnable
and untamable freedom of the inner citadel-freedom that procures an
absolute peace. In the end, these are the characteristics of an ideal phi-
losopher. Throughout the Western tradition, one finds the figure of the
ancient sage, for example, in the traits of the free man in Spinoza or in
the form of the Idea of the philosopher, of whom Kant speaks when he
says (incidentally thereby anticipating Kierkegaard), "A philosopher cor-
responding to this model does not exist any more than a true Christian
really exists. Both are norms."23
You ask if this figure, still alive in Kant's day, is still actual? Despite
the snickering that my naivete has provoked in some, I would say yes,
on condition of first remembering that the figure of the sage is merely
a model, an ideal, that orients and inspires the way of life, and that to
118 Philosophy asLife and as Quest for Wisdom
conceive of this figure one must keep in mind new historical conditions,
I believe that there is nothing more ridiculous than to declare someone a
sage, or a saint, for that matter. I will be a little ferocious here. I recently
remembered that Cardinal Danielou had wished to canonize de Gaulle.
The fact that he can have had such an idea is for me inconceivable. In the
same order of ideas, the recent canonization of Pius IXseemed unbeliev-
able. And as for John XXIII, I have a brief anecdote to tell. When I was at
Saine-Severin parish, he was nuncio in Paris and had come to inspect the
parish because the priest had introduced certain liturgical innovations.
He was to breakfast at the presbytery. The priest was obviously crazed; it
was difficult to receive the nuncio. So he came up with the idea of having
someone serve the meal-a layman who lived in the presbytery and who
rather surprisingly was a British officer who often leant his services to the
parish. This officer kindly accepted. The moment to serve the wine ar-
rived, but as he had never learned table service, the officer served the nun-
cio to the right-unless it was to the left, I don't know, myself ignorant
of how it must be done. And the future John XXIII became angry, saying
that this was not how to serve wine. He was furious. For me, the nuncio
was definitively classified. To get angry for such a small thing! He might
at least have had the tact to say nothing and not to remark heavily on this
small error. It is in these small details that personalities are revealed. This
removes nothing from the merit of the one who, as John XXIII, wanted to
make the Vatican II council. And yet, although recently beatified, in my
eyes this man is not a saint.
After this somewhat amusing parenthesis, let us return to the figure
of the sage. In fact, on reflection, it could be that the word sage has aged
poorly. It evokes a sort of slightly egoistical inertia, which is the very op-
posite of what was paradoxical and active to the ancient sopbos, of which
Ulysses, the crafty one, the adventurer, was sometimes the incarnation. Let
us give up the word but look for what might be the content of the thing.
The idea of inner peace and freedom would still seem actual. Moreover,
cosmic conscience, of which Groethuysen spoke, seems to me a capital
element, but we have already addressed this theme. It is especially the con-
cern for others that would need to be intensified. Georges Friedmann has
said that the modern sage (ifhe existed) today would not turn away from
the cesspool of men."24 It is impossible for the philosopher to forget the
Philosophy as Life and as Questfor Wisdom I 19
generalized misery in the world, the suffering of all kinds that oppresses
men) and for him not to suffer in the feeling of powerlessness to reform
anything. Schopenhauer evoked the scandal of childhood labor, where at
the age ofIive years old children were shut up in mills for ten hours a day.
But there would be many other things to say about the scandalous suffer-
ing that children, women, and men live every day, such as the tragedy of
the Afghan women or the Palestinian children, doomed for despair. How
is it possible to keep inner peace when one feels revolt grumbling inside?
I nevertheless believe that without inner peace, no action can ultimately
be effective. How can the irreconcilable be reconciled? It will no longer
be indifference that will give peace to the soul, as it was for the ancient
philosophers, but the concern to act well without being misled by hatred
or pity, and this will oblige one to conquer the peace of the soul.
A.D.: In otherwords, for you thepracticeofphilosophy and the questfor
philosophical wisdom never end; one must alwaysexercise it, because wisdom
requires more: it requires that one alwaysgo beyond, that one continue to re-
newphilosophicalpractices and life indefinitely. [ankeleuitchentitled his book
ofinterviews Somewhere in the Incomplete. This is a citationfrom Rilke.
Andfor you too we are, let us say, somewhere in the unfinished-or to usea
similar expression, the great French composer Jean Barraque, unfortunately
little known today, put the words ofHermann Broch into music: "the endless
incomplete. "I believe that for you philosophy, or the philosopher, is always in
an incomplete state. But is the incompleteness ofphilosophy perhaps something
I agree entirely. It is in fact an interesting problem, the problem of
the end of philosophy. I believe I spoke about it in the past in relation to
Wittgenstein, because in the Tractatus he wanted to put an end to philoso-
phy in order to leave room for a wisdom that he defined as "an accurate
vision of the world." We can say parenthetically that this is an example
of "modern" wisdom, which Wittgenstein attempted to live by giving up
philosophical writing for several years and living the everyday life of men.
And then he came back to philosophical discourse, which in effect proves
that it is not easy to complete the philosophical quest. Wittgenstein's ex-
perience is interesting because it shows that it is difficult-perhaps even
impossible-to consider what it would be to attain a state of definitive
120 Philosophy asLifeand as Questfor Wisdom
wisdom. In fact, what Wittgenstein considered to be a state ofwisdom was
a philosophical life, full of imperfections and of efforts, and accompanied
by sketches of philosophical discourses, which is what brought him to
return to philosophical writing with the Philosophical Investigations.
Wittgenstein's experience thus shows that philosophy moves in an
asymptote, in the direction of the idea of wisdom, but it is not easy to be
done with philosophy. The effort in the direction of wisdom, that is, the
effort to realize a philosophical life, is always incomplete. For example,
one can think that meditation as a spiritual exercise is something admi-
rable, but one must, after all, account for what happens in reality. Our
inner discourse is always interrupted, chaotic, dispersed. How does one
put one's thoughts in order? It is possible, in effect, that certain men arrive
at a great mastery ofinner language. These people are closer to the idea of
wisdom. There will surely be moments in which the philosopher manages
to reunify himself: to take stock of himself and of the world. But to arrive
at these states, one must lead a perpetual combat that ultimately can pre-
cisely not be perpetual. The Stoics, who require of man an attention at all
moments, speak of an ideal sage rather than the concrete man. The poor
Marcus Aurelius is obliged to write pages and pages in order to be able to
find the inner disposition that he should normally have.
One might say that it is the transcendent ideal of wisdom that ex-
plains this incompleteness of philosophy.
From Socrates to Foucault.
A Long Tradition
ArnoldI. Davidson: Inyour essay CCEloge deSocrate"[InpraiseofSocrates],
the interpretations ofthefigure ofSocrates byKierkegaard and Nietzsche play
aprominent role. What relation doyou see between the Socrates ofantiquity
and the constantrevelation ofthisfigure in the history ofphilosophy?
There is truly something extraordinary in the pervasiveness of the
figure of Socrates. I have a great deal of admiration for Merleau-Ponty's
inaugural lecture at College de France; I read and reread it even now. In it
he maintains that all philosophers, or almost all philosophers (I would ex-
clude Epicurus), "have accepted as their patron a man who did not write,
who did not teach, [ . . . ] spoke to those whom he met in the street and
who had difficulties with opinion and powers." It brings me even more
pleasure to cite this passage because, in the context, Merleau-Ponty makes
explicit the problem we are entertaining in these interviews: "Philosophy
put into books no longer appeals to people. What is unusual and almost
insupportable in it is hidden in the proper life of philosophical systems."
Now, this praise of Socrates from the middle of the twentieth century
echoes a text written by Plutarch nineteen centuries earlier. It is a text that
I have already evoked. It says that if Socrates was a philosopher, it was in
walking with his friends, in eating with them, in discussing with them, in
going like them to war, and finally in drinking the hemlock, and not by
teaching from the height of a podium. Thus he showed that everyday life
makes it possible to do philosophy. Through the centuries, then, and in
122 From Socrates to Foucault. A LongTradition
antiquity especially, and notably for the Stoics and the Cynics, Socrates has
always been the model of the philosopher, and more precisely the model of
the philosopher for whom life and death are the main teaching.
In fact, despite what Merleau-Ponty says about it, not all philosophers
have recognized Socrates as their patron. Descartes and Spinoza barely
mention him, for example. Those who have associated themselves with
him are primarily existentialist thinkers, such as Merleau-Ponty himself:
Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. In fact, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche have two
apparently different visions, although perhaps they can ultimately be rec-
onciled. What Nietzsche liked in Socrates, after having attacked him for
so long, is finally this gaiety, this wisdom full of impishness that he main-
tains Jesus is missing.' Nietzsche's Socrates is the Socrates ofXenophon's
Memorabilia rather than Plato's Socrates, as well as the dancing Socrates of
Xenophon's Symposium. And Nietzsche adds that one must use Montaigne
and Horace as guides to understanding Socrates. It is true that the figure of
Socrates appears as a perfect ideal of life throughout Montaigne's Essays.
Socrates' greatness was to be able to play with children, and to consider
that his time was thus well spent. Montaigne admires Socrates' capacity to
adapt to all the circumstances of life, to war and to peace, to abundance
and to shortage, to ecstasy and to play. He likes the simplicity of his life
and his language, his sense of the limits of the human condition, his con-
fidence in the resources of simple nature, which gives humble and simple
folks the courage to live and to die without need for all the philosophers'
discourses. Socrates lives a human life fully and simply.
As we have seen, this Socrates in love with life is apparentlyNietzsche's
Socrates, But unlike Montaigne, Nietzsche thinks that the simplicity of
Socrates, the banality ofhis proposals, his irony, are a way to communicate
indirectly so as to avoid saying what he was thinking clearly. And what he
was hiding was perhaps a terrible secret. For there is this statement made
by Socrates at the end of the Phaedo, at the moment of his death: "We owe
a cock to Aesclepius," This suggests that Socrates wants to make a sacrifice
of recognition to the god of medicine for having cured him of life. Could
it thus be that life, existence, is an illness? Might this not be Socrates' se-
cret? Would Socrates have lied throughout his life? For Nietzsche, Socrates
would have been greater had he not said anything, had he kept his secret.
In- fact, I think that Nietzsche generated a contradiction. The meaning
From Socrates to Foucault. A Long Tradition 123
of Socrates' statement is not that life in itself is an illness, but that the
life of the body is an illness and that the only true life is the life of the
soul. Plato wanted to put a Platonic doctrine into Socrates' mouth, but I
do not believe that Socrates himself could have uttered this statement, at
least in this sense. Perhaps he said it ironically, as Jankelevitch suggested
in his book L'Ironie [Irony]. The problem posed by this "we owe a cock to
Aesclepius" is famous and difficult, moreover, and several possible solu-
tions have been suggested." Whatever the case may be, Nietzsche's doubt
concerning Socrates especially reveals his own doubt on the subject of
the meaning of life. Nietzsche's impish Socrates has thus finally become
tragic. As for Kierkegaard's Socrates, he is tragic from the outset. He rep-
resents the seriousness of the existential responsibility of the Individual, of
the Existing, who is the Individual and the Existing precisely because he
is strange, unclassifiable, divided, and torn by his inner incompleteness,
deprived of the one he loves. Just as Kierkegaard is Christian only by his
awareness that he is not Christian, Socrates is wise only by his awareness
that he is not wise. It is in this respect that he is a philosopher, deprived
of wisdom, but in love with wisdom. Kierkegaard also has beautiful pages
about Socratic method. Socrates wants to be a mere midwife; he has no
pretensions to being a master. He has no pretensions on the soul of his
disciple, no more than on that of his master. Montaigne had also praised
Socrates' refusal to vindicate the authority of a master.
Through these few examples one can begin to see the variety of the
forms in which the figure of Socrates appears in the writings of philoso-
phers. It is ultimately a mythical and not a historical Socrates who has had
a great influence on the history of philosophy.:
A.D.: When you opposethe mythical Socrates to the historical Socrates,
there are at least two ways to think about the first: a purelyfictional Socrates,
and a Socrates who is not historical but rooted in history and who neverthe-
lessfunctions as an ideal; there is history as fiction and history as an ideal.
Therefore, mythicalfor you means not only fictional, but also ideal.
Plato is the first philosopher who began to project his own philo-
sophical conceptions onto the figure of Socrates. He is at the origin of the
mythical Socrates. And almost all of the philosophers who have discussed
Socrates have discussed the figure of Socrates such as it is drawn by Plato,
124 From Socrates to Foucault. A LongTradition
or at times by Xenophon, but this latter one too is probably rather mythi-
cal. Plato idealized Socrates, but to put him into relation with his own
Platonic perspectives, and also perhaps because he wanted to valorize all
the philosophical signification of the figure of Socrates. Things here are
rather complex. On the one hand, philosophers have followed the example
of Plato and projected all their preoccupations onto Socrates. From this
point of view, Socrates can take part in the history of rather different fac-
es. But on the other hand, there is also a certain consistency to one's idea
of what is essential in Socrates' message. In a preceding conversation we
have spoken of the possibility of actualizing this or that aspect of ancient
philosophy. The example of Socrates is interesting because it is not the
doctrine that one attempts to actualize, because it is very difficult to know
what it might have been, beyond the enigmatic affirmation of nonknowl-
edge. Rather, what one is attempting to actualize, what becomes a philo-
sophical ideal, is his life and his death entirely devoted to others, devoted
to making them understand themselves, to making them better. I would
readily believe that it was Montaigne who best understood the essence of
Socrates. Finally, I think that those whom I called existentialist thinkers
were right to recognize the exemplary philosopher in Socrates insofar as,
by living a simple ordinary life, he transfigured it by the awareness he had
of the infinite value of every instant of this ordinary life.
A. D.: I know that Montaigne, amongyour favorite philosophers, has
always impressedyou a great deal. When and why?
I first encountered Montaigne at the age of fourteen or fifteen, by
chance. Excerpts from Montaigne translated into modern French were
found in the library that was at our disposal at the Petit Seminaire. I was
fascinated. I no longer know why exactly-perhaps because Montaigne,
who spoke of himself and of men in detail, allowed me to discover strange
human nature. All of antiquity was there, as were the realities of his time,
including both American Indians and local peasants. Human nature ap-
peared so complex that it authorized all attitudes: skepticism and faith,
Stoic rigor and Epicurean ease. In Montaigne I learned the importance
of simplicity, the ridicule of pedantry. I was extremely struck by the essay
called "To do philosophy is to learn to die." Perhaps I did not understand
it properly at the time, but it proved to be one of the texts that led me
From Socrates to Foucault. A Long Tradition 125
to represent philosophy as something other than a theoretical discourse.
Now, in class we studied Montaigne's theories on education, which are
extremely interesting in the respect they manifest for the personality of
the child, and always also in the criticism of abstract teaching that privi-
leges information at the expense of formation. Montaigne, it is known,
opposed well-made heads to full heads. I have read and reread the Essais
[Essays] several times in my life, always with undiminished pleasure.' I
have been delighted, encountering all kinds of savory anecdotes. More
recently, a text that I used for an epigraph at the beginning of the book
What Is Ancient Philosophy? impressed me a great deal; it is a text that
I find absolutely extraordinary. Montaigne imagines someone who says
they have done nothing with their day, and Montaigne responds, "What,
you have done nothing, but have you not lived! Is that not the most il-
lustrious of your preoccupationsl'" Nietzsche echoes him in this respect,
in his claim that human institutions aim to forbid human beings to sense
their lives." One finds in this passage from Montaigne the recognition of
the infinite value oflife itself: of existence; this reverses all of the habitual
values and especially the pervasive idea that what counts above all is to do
something, whereas for Montaigne what is most important is to be. I real-
ized at -the same time that there was also the heritage of ancient thought
in Montaigne. He fundamentally understood the meaning of ancient phi-
losophy very well,
A.D.: I know you continue to think that Henri Bergson is an interest-
ing and current philosopher, someone who is in no way outdated. You have
already mentioned the Bergsonian idea ofa transformation ofour habitual
perception. Are there otheraspects ofBergson that remain aliveforyou?
Bergson, for me, was first my baccalaureat paper of 1939, in which
I was given the subject from a text by Bergson: "Philosophy is not the
construction of a system but the resolution, once taken [that is, taken
once and for all], to look naively in oneself and around oneself." First,
the phrase "philosophy is not the construction of a system" eliminated
all theoretical and abstract construction from the outset. Moreover, the
second part of the sentence signified that philosophy is above all a choice
and not a discourse. It was a decision, an attitude, a comportment, a way
of seeing the world. "To look naively in oneself and around oneself': the
126 From Socrates to Foucault. A Long Tradition
word naively-rerninds us that although Bergson. defines philosophy as a
transformation of perception, he chooses the example of the painter who,
in order to look naively, that is, attempts to return, I would almost say,
to the brute perception of reality, to get rid of all habits of seeing things.
Thus the phrase "to look naively" means to undo oneself from the artifi-
cial, from the habitual, the conventional, and to return basically to what
might be called an elementary perception, removed from all prejudice.
One can say that this effort, which is analogous to the one of the painter,
is a spiritual exercise. In Bergson, this new perception consists in a vision
of reality as becoming, evolving, as the manifestation of an unpredictable
novelty-a world not already made, but making itself. It is true that many
of Bergson's claims now appear to be outdated, be it concerning evolution
itself: or be it the function of the brain. But I think that what is essential
in Bergsonism is not in these details, which science can discard. For me
the essential of Bergsonism will always be the idea of philosophy as trans-
formation of perception.
In the religious teaching I received, which ought to have been purely
Thomist, Bergson had' a place, at least in psychology. Bergson's work had
inaugurated a psychology of introspection, which aligned itself with the
spiritual life that we were being made to discover. But Bergson was also
the affirmation of a creative evolution, which seemed difficultly compat-
ible with the Christian idea of creation. Soon Father Teilhard de Chardin
would propose an evolutionist version of Christianity, to which I enthusi-
astically adhered.
Later, around 1968 and for a certain time after, I became interested
in the philosophy of nature, and it was the natural philosopher Bergson
whom I rediscovered, thanks to jankelevitch's Bergson and to the works of
Merleau-Ponty. I rediscovered the importance of the notion of organism,
the conception of nature as creation, as movement that comes from the
inside (note that this is the ancient sense of phusis). Nature gave itself no
more trouble making an eye than I have raising my hand. In a presenta-
tion at the Rencontres Eranos [Eranos conference], I tried to show how
these conceptions were finally from Plotinus.
A.D.: Vladimir [ankeleuitch is both the successor ofBergson5 thought
and an utterlysingularphilosopher. ]ankelevitchhasconsiderably emphasized
thefact that moral life must always be renewed, like an exercise ofselfthat is
From Socrates to Foucault. A Long Tradition 127
never completed; and as opposed to most contemporary philosophers, for him
the role oflove in moral life is absolutely central.
I am not familiar with all of jankelevitch's body of work. As I said,
in the context of IJ:lY research on Plotinus, I was highly influenced by
jankelevitch's book on Bergson. It makes striking allusions to the rela-
tions between Plotinus and Bergson, but he allowed me to understand
the influence that Neoplatonism had on the philosophy of nature. I also
enjoyed his book L'Ironie [Irony], which testifies to an extraordinary force
of analysis of human psychology.
I think that you are alluding to what jankelevitch says in the second
volume of Traite des Vertus [Treatise on virtues]. You are right to say that
jankelevitch differs from contemporary philosophers in that he gives a
central place to love in moral life. In this respect, he is again the faithful
disciple of Bergson. The subtleness with which he reflects on problems
that have long been discussed in theology and morals, on the possibility of
pure love and of the relation between egoism and love, is truly astonish-
ing. But he saw the mysterious element in love particularly well: How can
lovers be egoistical and interested when their love transcends them, when
it is pure and disinterested?
A.D.: You have written that in Plato's Symposium the appearance of
the theme oflove introduces an element ofirrationality, that is, an element
that is in no way ofthe order ofthe intellect, but that implies other domains of
psychic life, the will, and even passion. The transformation ofthe individual
can take place through love. What does this element ofirrationality in Plato
When I spoke of irrationality, I wanted to convey that Plato's phi-
losophy was much more complex than it is considered to be when Platonic
philosophy is presented as a magnificent rational edifice. One might
think that, in the perspective of the Symposium, love serves only to pro-
vide a foundation for the community of souls that makes dialogue and
philosophical reflection possible. However, as the end of Diotirna's speech
shows, love is an integral part of this properly philosophical procedure in
that the ascension toward Beauty begins with the love of a beautiful body,
even if it continues with the love of more spiritual beauties. The love of a
128 From Socrates to Foucault. A Long Tradition
beautiful body is already, potentially, the love of eternal Beauty. The love
of a beautiful body can be understood as the attraction of eternal Beauty.
The engine of the philosophical procedure is thus desire, and it implies a
nondiscursive element. The dimension of love gives philosophy the char-
acter of a lived, live experience of a presence. This is true of Plato, but it is
also true of all philosophy.
A.D.: When did you begin to readHeidegger?
It was in 1946. At that time I was fortunate enough to encounter,
under conditions I have now forgotten, Alphonse de Waelhens' book on
Heidegger's philosophy. This was lucky, because at that time Heidegger
was not easily accessible. Only short texts had been translated into French.
Now, the year I did my bachelor's degree, there were courses on Heidegger
offered by Jean Wahl. Unfortunately, for a reason I have forgotten, I could
not attend them. Perhaps precisely to fill this lack, I read the book by de
Waelhens, which has the advantage of being clear; I attempted at the same
time to translate Heidegger, not Sein und Zeit [Being and Time], but the
work on Plato. I must say that I was rather disappointed, because I had the
impression that it was uselessly complicated, and also because the reason-
ing was sometimes overly simplistic, at least for Plato. It remains that de
Waelhens' book allowed me to understand what I consider the essential
of Heidegger-at least what is very important in what Heidegger brought
me, especially the distinction between the everyday, or as Heidegger says,
the "they" (Ie "on'), and authentic existence. Heidegger, on the one hand,
admirably describes what we call the everyday, which Bergson had basi-
cally also described by showing that, in everyday life, our decisions and
our reactions are not very conscious, but this does not really come from
ourselves and is not of our personalities. Rather, it is a question of stereo-
typical reactions that everyone can have; there is a kind of depersonaliza-
tion in everyday life. And Bergson precisely opposed this attitude to the
conscious attitude of one who looks naively in oneself and around one-
self in a way that completely transforms one's perception of the world. In
Heidegger this becomes the opposition between the everyday, the banal,
and a state in which one is conscious of existence, and precisely, as we
have discussed, conscious of being doomed to death (this is what he called
being-toward-death), thus conscious of one's finitude. At this moment,
From Socrates to Foucault. A LongTradition 129
existence takes on an entirely different aspect, which moreover generates
anxiety-perhaps because of death, but also because of the enigma repre-
sented by the fact of existing. I sincerely believe that Heidegger's analyses
still hold, and they have influenced me considerably. I should specify that
this opposition between the everyday and the authentic in no way signifies
that one must always live in the authentic. Humans live normally and, one
might say, necessarily in the everyday, but it is sometimes possible to get
a glimpse of existence in an entirely other perspective. And this is already
A.D.: You have written an article that shows the Neoplatonic roots
of Heidegger's famous idea of the ontological difference between beingand
You refer to the distinction between being and beings found in
a fragment of a commentary on Plato's Parmenides that I attribute to
Porphyry, a Neoplatonic disciple of Plotinus. It is an opposition between
the infinitive of the verb to be, that is, the action of being, and a reality
that is defined, the "being"-"what is," which is an inferior reality because
it merely participates in the action of being. What is extraordinary in
this theory is the idea of an activity of being, taken in itself pure of all
This opposition between infinitive being (esse) and the "what is"
(quodest) is found in Boethius in his short treatise called De hebdomadibus
[On the Hebdornads], a treatise often commented on during the Middle
Ages. It is possible that Heidegger, who had ~ good scholastic education,
encountered the opposition in this context. But it is also possible that he
arrived at it on his own.
In any case, there is a considerable difference between the hierarchi-
cal opposition between being and beings found in the commentary on the
Parmenides and the ontological difference in Heidegger. I would hesitate
to speak of the Neoplatonic roots of this difference.
A.D.: I haveoftenbeen struckbythefact that Heidegger's writingisin a
certain respect the opposite a/your style ofphilosophical writing. It seems to me
that simplicity, lucidity representfor you almosta moral obligation.
130 From Socrates to Foucault. A Long Tradition
Ah, it is very kind ofyou to say so! But perhaps what I have had to ex-
press is not as deep as what Heidegger expressed. It is true that Heidegger's
style really poses a problem, first for the German language itself: which
he did indeed torture. It is also a problem because his emulators tortured
different languages in order to imitate him, and this might have created
a trend that will perhaps come to an end-a very obscure way of writing
philosophy that has the result of discouraging many readers. Sometimes
one also has the impression that it is a game for the philosopher, who, as
they used to say, always has a natural inclination to listen to himself talk
and to watch himselfwrite. In fact, the problem is less the technical refine-
ment of language, for in antiquity the Stoics were reputed for this kind of
technical refinement, as were the Scholastics. This technical refinement
often corresponds to the fact that one must render a nuance that is dif-
ficult to express. One is obliged to invent a word, or to redirect a word
away from its usual meaning. In these contexts, there are technical words,
but one knows exactly to what they correspond. In post-Heideggerian phi-
losophy, however, metaphor, which is too often poorly defined, plays an
abusive role.
A. D.: French existentialism made a great impression on you. What ex-
istentialist themes were most importantfor you?
First there was a problem, which appears, for example, in a discus-
sion that took place at the Societe de Philosophie, about a presentation by
Jean Wahl: "Subjectivite et transcendence." A number of participants dis-
cussed the possibility of distinguishing between an existential philosopher
and a philosopher ofexistence. An existential philosopher would in the end
be a philosopher who through his existence is a philosopher, whose phi-
losophy is in large part confounded with his existence, while a philosopher
of existence is a philosopher who holds discourses on existence. I would
accept this position gladly. I have always had the impression that existen-
tialists did in fact conceive of philosophy as a decision, a choice of life, but
they often held themselves strictly at the level of discourse on existence.
It is a general problem, but it is probably insoluble. One is constantly
brought back to this realization; the philosopher always has a tendency
to be content with his own discourse. Beyond this, in 1946, when I was
studying in Paris, existentialism for me was especially Gabriel Marcel,
From Socrates to Foucault. A Long Tradition 131
because he was a Christian existentialist. In fact, I learned many things
from him (less when I heard him lecture than when I read his books): to
begin with, the very rich distinction between to be and to have, according
to which being relates to the person whereas having relates to everything
that is not the person but that the person is at risk of losing. There is also
the distinction between mystery and problem, which is very interesting.
Problems are questions that can be answered and definitively resolved,
and mysteries, as Gabriel Marcel said, encroach on their own given so
that one is stuck inside. There is a mystery of the body, because one is
one's own body. And then there was also obviously Sartre. I read L'Etre
et le neant [Being and Nothingness], and especially Nausea, which was in-
teresting in that one can see that there was indeed an experience here, a
sort of ecstasy even, with existence as an object. But with respect to this
nausea, I have always thought that it was a sentiment proper to Sartre's
psychology. One might just as well speak ofwonder rather than nausea in
the face of existence. There was one person especially who I insufficiently
heard at College de France, and it was Merleau-Ponty, who was in part the
inheritor of Bergson. His philosophy was centered on perception; he used
phrases such as "philosophy consists of learning to see the world again,"
and he had developed an interesting reflection on modern art, all ofwhich
influenced me a great deal.
A.D.: But the idea of the absurdity of life, which is fundamental for
Camus, Sartre, even the Russian existentialists-it is my impression that you
have never spoken about it.
This is precisely what repulsed me about existentialism, especially in
1946 when I was strongly influenced by Christianity. In fact, the notion
seems rather strange to me; it is abstract, for that matter, because it is the
result of reasoning. From the moment that God is dead there is no longer
any justification of existence; therefore existence is absurd. Personally, I
do not experience it as absurd. I prefer Merleau-Ponty's position in the
preface to the Phenomenology ofPerception: "The world and reason do not
pose a problem; one might say that they are mysterious, but this mystery
defines them. It could not be a question of dissipating it by some solution;
it is prior to solutions. Real philosophy is to learn to see the world again."
132 From Socrates to Foucault. A Long Tradition
Astonishment, wonder when faced with an inexplicable outpouring, in-
deed-but why nausea?
.. A. D.: An entire metaphysics offreedom can be found in Sartre, for ex-
ample, and in others. But when one reads your texts, it is obvious that the
practices offreedom at the center ofyour thought have neverpushedyou to de-
velop a metaphysics. Is there a fundamental difference between an existential
metaphysics and existential practices?
By the term metaphysics I suppose you mean a philosophical theory.
It is true that I have never had the pretension of proposing an existentialist
metaphysics. On the contrary, I have very modestly attempted to propose
a theory of existential practices. As you say, it is obvious that existential
practices suppose freedom. In my humble opinion, it is extremely difficult
to advance a theory or a metaphysics of freedom. The human sciences, no
less than the exact sciences, raise doubts about the freedom of our actions,
and I do not believe that a theory or a metaphysics of freedom would
change this at all. One must follow Diogenes the Cynic, who, without say-
ing anything, simply proved the existence of movement by walking. I have
maintained the stance of my high-school oral exam; when the examiner
asked me, What is the definition of the will?" I answered, "The will is not
defined, it is experienced." One might also think with Kant that freedom
is one of the postulates of practical reason.
A.D.: How didyou discover Wittgenstein?
I do not remember very clearly. I suppose that I was a researcher at
CNRS, since 1960 or so, and because we had to examine articles for the
Bulletin Analytique du CNRS, I must have read an article on Wittgenstein
that alluded to the fact that the Tractatus mentions mysticism. This is
what interested me, and at first I found an Italian translation with com-
mentary; this is how I came into contact with the work of Wittgenstein.
Thereafter I attempted to translate it myself: but I have never had the time
to make my translation of the Tractatus publishable (it is, incidentally, a
very difficult text to translate), but I did give some presentations and I
wrote some articles on it.
FromSocrates to Foucault. A Long Tradition 133
A.D.: You have spoken of the Tractatus at Jean Wahl's College
Philosophique, and you have told me that everybody was a little surprised,
because Wittgenstein was all but unknown.
Yes, but Jean Wahl certainly knew him as early as 1946. I gave my
presentation in 1959-60, and there still was no French translation. The
same year there was also a presentation on Wittgenstein by Shalom at the
College Philosophique, as well as an article by this same Shalom, and it
seems to me that there was not much beyond this. I believe that Father
Stanislas Breton had briefly invoked him in one of his works. I also re-
member saying that, in line with good French tradition, no editor consid-
ered having the Tractatus translated, because it had not been forty years
since its publication.
A. D.: Was it especially the mythical aspect at the end ofthe Tractatus
that attractedyou?
Absolutely. For me it was a paradox, an extraordinary enigma, that
someone who presented himself: or rather who was presented, as a logical
positivist could speak of mysticism. I tried to explain this passage of logic
to mysticism, especially in the articles I wrote at the time. It seems to me
now that the end of the Tractatus cannot be totally explained by the logi-
cal argumentation that precedes it. Many of the aphorisms can in effect be
found in the Notebooks that preceded the Tractatus, and they correspond
to Wittgenstein's personal reflections, thereby betraying his spiritual anxi-
ety. Often, I have had the opportunity to note, they correspond to themes
of ancient philosophy, concerning, for example, life in the present. Indeed,
it seems as though what Wittgenstein calls mysticism has a relation to the
world, that the mystical is the existence of the world. He adds, "The senti-
ment of the world as a limited whole is mysticism" after having written
this enigmatic sentence: "The vision of the world sub specie aeterni is the
vision of the world as a limited whole."6 In short, it is a question of an
affective experience of the world, seen, as it were, from above. It is the
wonder in front of the fact that the world exists, this wonder before the
existence of the world, that Wittgenstein called his exemplary experience.
Here again, as in Plato, it is thus in lived experience that philosophy finds
its completion.
134 FromSocrates to Foucault. A Long Tradition
A.D.: YOu told me one day that you continue toprefer the Wittgenstein
ofthe Tractatus to the Wittgenstein ofthe Philosophical Investigations, but
you havealso written a text on theInvestigations: "[euxde langage etphiloso-
phie" [Language gamesandphilosophy], in whichyou usethe idea oflanguage
gamesas aframe for the historyofphilosophy.
First, one must try to understand what a language game is. For
Wittgenstein, it is basically the activity, the situation, that gives meaning
to what one says. It is the concrete context in which a sentence is uttered.
In this article, thinking of Sartre, I had given the example of the formula
"God is dead." On the one hand, I said, in antiquity there were proces-
sions in which one said, if not perhaps "God is dead," then at least "the
Great Pan is dead," and obviously it was simply a religious allusion to
myth; it was a language game that was attached to a rite, to a religious
ceremony. On the other hand, there is the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre
landing at the Geneva or some other airport and, in response to the bevy
of journalists surrounding him and asking whether he had a statement to
make, saying, "God is dead." At that moment, it was a language game in
two respects: first, because it was an allusion to Nietzsche; second, because
_it was also a way of playing a bit of comedy, of giving the impression of
being the profound, even prophetic, philosopher. Here one had the op-
position of two language games. Obviously there are many other language
games; for example, to say "I am hurting." Philosophers have a tendency
to represent language as an activity of naming or designating objects, of
translating thoughts; but for Wittgenstein, when I say, "I am hurting" at
the moment of my suffering, I am not expressing my suffering, which is
incommunicable; I am rather playing a language game. I am calling for
help or for commiseration in a certain social context. It is an idea that had
guided all my works. When one is in the presence of a text, or an utter-
ance, it is not sufficient to take this text or this utterance in the absolute, as
though it had not been uttered by someone in particular under particular
circumstances, on a particular day, during a particular period and in a
determinate context. This is a weakness of religious fundamentalists, and
is in fact shared by many historians of philosophy or by philosophers who
conduct themselves as fundamentalists. They approach a text as though it
was the word of the gospel, as though God had pronounced it, and can-
not be restituted in space and time. On the contrary, the historical and
From Socrates to Foucault. A LongTradition 135
psychological perspective is very important in the history of philosophy,
because it is always a question of re-placing the claims of philosophers into
the social, historical, traditional, and psychological context in which they
were written. And one must take into account the fact that a philosophical
phrase does not necessarily express a group of concepts but can have only,
for example, a mythical value, as happens sometimes in Plato.
If I recall; correctly, it was also in relation to language games that I
had the idea that philosophy is also a spiritual exercise because, ultimately,
spiritual e:x:ercises are frequently language games. It is a matter of telling
oneself a phrase to provoke an effect, whether in others or in oneself thus
under certain circumstances and with a certain goal. Moreover, in the
same context, Wittgenstein also used the expression "form of life." This
also inspired me to understand philosophy as a form of life or way of life.
The article you referred to, written under the influence of
Wittgenstein, was a first attempt at reflecting on the role of language in
our life. One might say that at that time and for a certain period, I was
hypnotized by the problem of language, by the idea that we are, as it were,
prisoners of language; that all our life was as though spoken. But I gradu-
ally told myself that one must not allow oneself to be locked into such a
position, but quite simply accept the everyday experience that gives us the
sentiment that our language aims at something, that it is intentional.
A.D.: When did youfirst meetMichel Foucault?
The first time was on the telephone. I think he was the first to ask
me if I would submit my candidature to College de France; it was the
autumn of 1980. I did not meet him in person until I visited College de
France as a candidate. It was an easy visit, because he was one of my sup-
porters. Then he came to the reception I had organized for the day of my
inaugural lecture. I also undoubtedly met him in the professor assemblies,
and I ate with him once or twice. I did not have much contact with him,
because he died prematurely shortly thereafter.
A.D.: But did you discuss ancientphilosophy with him?
Not very much. During a meal he asked me about the meaning of
the expression vindicare sibi in the first of Seneca's Letters to Lucilius. We
especially discussed that.
136 From Socrates to Foucault. A Long Tradition
A.D.: Can you sum up your philosophical divergences with F o u c a u l t ~
and especiallyyour criticism ofhis ideas on the culture ofthe self on the aes-
thetics ofexistence?
It should first of all be said that our methods were very different.
Foucault was certainly, at the same time as being a philosopher, a historian
ofsocial facts and of ideas; but he did not practice philology, that is, all the
problems tied to the tradition of ancient texts: the deciphering of manu-
scripts, the problem of critical editions, of the choice of textual variations.
By editing and translating Marius Victorinus, Ambrose of Milan, the frag-
ments of the commentary of the Parmenides, Marcus Aurelius, and some
of Plotinus' treatises, I acquired a certain experience that allowed me to
approach ancient texts from another perspective than he did. In particu-
lar, I have always attached myself to the attentive study of the movement
of the author's thought. Foucault did not attribute much importance to
the exactitude of translations, often using old, unreliable translations.
My first divergence concerns the notion of pleasure. For Foucault,
the ethics of the Greco-Roman world is an ethics of pleasure that one
takes in oneself: This could be true for the Epicureans, who Foucault ulti-
mately speaks of rather little. But the Stoics would have rejected this idea
of an ethics of pleasure. They were careful to distinguish pleasure and joy:
as opposed to pleasure, joy was found in the self (Ie moi), specifically in
the best part of the self (moi). Seneca finds joy not in Seneca but in Seneca
identified with universal reason. One elevates oneself from the level of the
self to another, transcendent level. Moreover, in his descriptions of what
he calls the practices of the self: Foucault does not sufficiently valorize the
process of becoming aware of belonging to the cosmic Whole, a process
that also corresponds to an overcoming of oneself Finally, I do not think
that the ethical model adapted to modern man can be an aesthetics of
existence. I am worried that this may ultimately be no more than a new
form of dandyism.
A.D.: YOu often speak ofthe necessity to elevate oneself to a universal
perspective, but this should not be confused with Kant's idea ofthe universal
law, which always prescribes the same actions for every reasonable being. How
do you explain this notion ofa universal perspective?
From Socrates to Foucault. A LongTradition 137
This universal perspective would correspond rather well to what I
have called "the look from above" (Ie regard den haut). For example, in
the Republic, Plato praises the natural philosopher by saying that the one
who is naturally a philosopher contemplates the totality of reality; he does
not fear death, thus he puts himself at a level, at a height, from which he
can see all of the universe, all of humanity. He sees things not at his indi-
vidual level but at a universal level. With the Stoics there is an analogous
movement, first because, very clearly with Epicretus and Marcus Aurelius,
one sees the point of Nature with a capital N, of universal Nature, which
is universal reason. One situates events in the perspective of what they
bring to the universe, of the collaboration that we give to the balance and
harmony of the universe. This is what I also called the "physical definition
of objects"; objects that attract us or scare us must be seen, not according
to our personal point of view, but once again in a universal perspective,
in a totally objective manner. This is also true for Plotinus, for whom the
soul must elevate itself from its individual level to the level of the universal
soul or even of the divine Intellect, in whom the entire ideal system of the
universe is found.
For me, what counts is above all the effort to pass from one perspec-
tive to another. I have always rather liked the saying of a Chinese philoso-
pher who holds that we are like vinegar flies trapped in a vat; one must
get out of this confinement to breathe fresh air in the world. Our conduct
is not automatically dictated by a sort of abstract universalism, but what
is important in each case is to liberate ourselves from our blinders, if you
will, which limit our vision to our interest alone. It is a matter of putting
oneself in the place of others and trying to align our action with human-
ity-with the humanity of other humans and then abstract humanity, as
well as with the world. This orientation aims less to determine what we
can bring to the cosmos than to situate events in this broad perspective.
It is a very traditional and capital theme that can be summarized as fol-
lows: the earth itself is only a point; we are something microscopic in the
Is this attitude that consists of situating our vision in a universal
perspective different than the universal law Kant speaks of when he says,
for example, "Act in such a way that the law that guides you can be a uni-
versallaw of nature"? I would tend to think that this is fundamentally not
138 From Socrates to Foucault. A .Long Tradition
very different. In Kant's formulation, one precisely situates oneself in the
universal perspective of nature. One thus passes from a self that sees only
its own interest to a self open to other humans and to the universe. Such
a maxim does not fix a precise behavior, but invites one to act so that one
can take into account all the consequences of one's action for everything
that is other. It is a law that ope gives to oneself
A.D.: It is especially the effort ofself0 vercoming that counts for you;
does this not mean that there exists a world oftranscendent, absolute values,
always established, which directs each action?
Here we are in the presence of an immense and very complex prob-
lem, which it is perhaps not reasonable to treat in a few words. I will at-
tempt to do so nonetheless. First of all, i would say this: even ifone admits
an order of transcendent and' absolute values, it does not mean that this
order directs every action, because most of the time in life, when it is a
matter of choosing an action, we have not necessarily to opt for or against
a value, but to invent what is often a very difficult solution to a conflict
of duties, and thus of values. The typical example is the debate between
Benjamin Constant and Kant: is it possible to be outside of humanity? In
every action we do not have to apply a fixed rule once and for all, but we
have to make our personal decision as a function of the value that appears
to be most important in the present case.
There remains the problem of the existence of a transcendent, ab-
solute, eternal world of values. Two questions present themselves: on one
hand, the existence of the world of values; on the other, its permanence. I
do not wish to let myselfbe pulled into a metaphysical, abstract, and theo-
retical argument on the philosophy of values. Personally, I would speak
not of a world of values but of a transcendent value that aims at the good
of man. This absolute value is the one Socrates aims for when, without
considering his personal interest, he refuses to escape from his prison and
instead chooses to obey the laws of the city. 1n principle, nothing obliges
him to take these laws ofthe city into consideration. But he obliges himself
by occupying a point of view that surpasses his personal interest. Nor is it
a question of conforming to laws blindly, but on the contrary, of showing
that one can freely give oneself the obligation to obey laws. I still remain
with Kant: morality creates itself in the unexpected and, in a sense, heroic
From Socrates to Foucault. A Long Tradition 139
leap that brings us from a limited perspective to a universal perspective.
"Act only on the maxim that can at the same time be willed as a universal
maxim." Absolute value situates itself at the level of an elevation of self:
of the self capable of putting itself in the place of others, of purifying its
intention, that is, of acting in a disinterested manner, out of love or out
of duty.
This is the absolute value that then manifests itself in the multiple'
values that man formulates little by little throughout the ages but that are
implicitly contained in the adhesion to this absolute value. It was discov-
ered only very slowly that slavery was a crime against the respect of the
human person, and I wonder whether in our day we have really become
conscious of it when we consider the exploitation of man by man in our
well-meaning civilizations. Before we were able to discover it fully, the
respect of the human person was not less "valid." It was a value, but one
that had not been brought entirely into awareness yet was still taken into
consideration by certain philosophers, such as Seneca, who wrote, for ex-
ample, that man is a sacred thing for man. Christianity, for example, did
not put an end to slavery and had not forbidden it at the moment of the
slave trade.
Whatever the case may be, it seems to me that seeing things in a
universal perspective necessarily leads to recognizing certain permanent
values: respect for the human person, respect for life, respect for the gift
of language, to mention only a few. There can obviously be an evolution
in the intensity of the awareness that one can have of these values. For
example, we are more sensitive now in our respect for life and nature,
because of the recent catastrophes that have occurred.
A. D.: Ifone was interested in philosophy as a way oflife and askedyou
where to begin in order to deepen one's comprehension ofthis idea, what text
wouldyou recommend?
If it is a text of ancient philosophy, it is very difficult to recommend
one that would be easily understandable without a commentary. I think
that Epicurus' Letter to Menoeceus would perhaps be the simplest text.
Marcus Aurelius' Meditations or Epictetus' Handbook would also help one
to understand this conception of philosophy, but these texts nevertheless
need commentary. As for modern philosophy, I am very fond of Merleau-
140 FromSocrates to Foucault. A Long Tradition
Ponty's inaugural lecture at College de France entitled Eloge de laphiloso-
phie [In praise of philosophy], which gives one a glimpse ofa conception of
philosophy as a way of life. I also appreciated Louis Lavelle's book L'Erreur
de Narcisse [The Error ofNarcissus], because each of the short meditations
that form this work is an invitation to practice a spiritual exercise, which
gradually leads the reader to "this present in which the summit of our
conscience is found" and to becoming aware of "pure presence."
A.D.: To see philosophy asa way oflifeand not onlya coherent system of
concepts andpropositions has many consequences for the relationship between
philosophy andthe otherliteraryandartisticdisciplines. A novel, apoem, even
apainting or music, canrepresent a wayoflifeandsometimesprovokea trans-
formation in our way ofliving. In this light,philosophy asa discipline does not
insulate itself but opens itselfto all the descriptions ofour ways ofliving. Does
this imply that we must rethink the borders ofphilosophy?
I would say that art can be a powerful auxiliary to philosophy, but
it can never be life itself: the decision, the existential choice. The idea of a
suppression of the limits between literature and philosophy was very much
in style at the time of existentialism, but I believe it was already present
in English or German Romanticism. Jean Wahl, for example, speaking of
the relationship between poetry and metaphysics, defined romanticism as
the rebirth of amazement; it makes familiar things strange, he said, and
strange things familiar? He also added that art, for Bergson, was the pow-
er to lift the veil that habit weaves between us and things. Here one finds
the theme of the article we discussed by Carlo Ginzburg: to make things
strange. This is why in a general way we can say that art, poetry, literature,
painting, or even music can be a spiritual exercise. The best example is
Proust's In Search ofLost Time, because his search for lost time is an itiner-
ary of consciousness, which, thanks to the exercises of memory, discovers
the sentiment of its spiritual permanence. This is very Bergsonian.
Without being, let us say, itinerants of the soul, many novels pose
philosophical problems, for example, Sartre's novels, especially La nausee
[Nausea], or Albert Camus' La Peste [The Plague]. The novel is often a
description of an existential experience that the reader can redo herself: at
least in thought. I am thinking, for example, of some ofTolstoy's works-
From Socrates to Foucault. A LongTradition 141
among others, The Death ofIvan Ilych, which is a reflection on death-or
some of Dostoyevsky's novels-for example, The Brothers Karamazov.
There are, in addition, the dramatic pieces, also in style at the time
of existentialism. I would emphasize the importance of Jean-Paul Sartre's
drama, and of his screenplay for the film Lesjeux sontfaits [The chips are
down], All his plays have a real, dramatic value and a philosophical value
that is more striking than a treatise.
One can also speak of poetry. I am thinking above all of that
Far East form of poetry, the haiku, which seems insignificant. An ap-
parently banal moment of existence is described in it-a butterfly who
poses himself on a flower, for example-but it has a philosophical depth
because it suggests everything it does not- say-that is, all the splendor
of the world. In Western literature there is also an entire tradition of
philosophical poetry, especially among the British, I believe. First there
were the British Platonists, and then the British Romantics-Shelley and
Wordsworth-often cited, among many others, by the philosopher Alfred
North Whitehead, for their representation of nature. Jean Wahl went to
the trouble of translating The Poems ofFelicity, by Thomas Traherne, a
poet of wonder who spoke, for example, of his co-presence with things.
In the world closer to us there are two great philosophical poets, Rilke
and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Concerning Rilke, as I said earlier, I had
envisaged a study of the relations between his poetry and Heidegger's
philosophy. It would have maintained that Rilke's poetry is fundamen-
tally an expression of the philosophy of Heidegger. In any case, there is a
meditation on death, on existence, on objects, on the limits of language
as well. For example, in Sonnets to Orpheus he speaks of fruit, which are
at first only words; then, when one eats fruit, the word disappears but
the inexpressible sensation arises, which gives a presentiment of the whole
universe." In Hugo von Hofmannsthal, one can think of the "Ballade des
dusseren Lebens" [Ballad of the outer life] and the famous letter to Lord
Chandos, which is quite unique in the history of literature. Here one finds
precisely the presence of things felt in such an intense manner that one
can no longer speak of them, and this is more or less what I was saying
about the fruit.
But one must always take stock of the limits of literature. It is fi-
nally discourse, at times even, in a certain sense, a system, because of the
142 FromSocrates to Foucault. A Long Tradition
requirements of literary composition. It is thus very close to philosophi-
cal discourse. If it can at times be a spiritual exercise, most of the time
it can only be an expression of experience, which means that it is not
experience itself it is not philosophical life, it is not the manifestation of
an existential decision. Moreover, it risks lacking true sincerity. One can
have the tendency to cheat for formal or personal reasons. At the time
of existentialism, the literary critic Claude-Edmonde Magny had written
Les Sandales d'Empedocle: Essai sur la limite de la literature [Empedocles'
sandals: Essays on the limits of literature], which I have often read and
reread," It shows that literature, like Empedocles' sandals left at the foot
of Mount Etna, could only bear witness to a step in the spiritual develop-
ment of man, an aid for inner progress. But the book finally had to be
thrown away, which Gide recommended to the readers of his Nourritures
terrestres [Fruits ofthe Earth], or Wittgenstein at the end of his Tractatus.
A.D.: You have alsocited Cezanne and Paul Kleeas examplesofpaint-
ing connectedto spiritual exercises.
Yes. I had forgotten these artists. In Klee it is perhaps somewhat
abstract. In any case, he thinks that the artist can rediscover the way that
nature acts. In Cezanne, allusions to a sort of experience of the world are
sometimes expressed in his painting. I do not think it was an accident,
moreover, that Bergson took the example of painting to indicate the char-
acter of the change that results from his philosophy, because ultimately
painting requires a movement ofstripping away habits and prejudices, and
a natural will to grasp things in a, one might say, "natural" way of really
remaining at the level of naked reality. I have also recently discovered,
thanks to my colleague Jacques Gernet, all the philosophical significance
of Chinese painting, notably in Shi Tao, who shows how painting is com-
munication with nature, in a movement that espouses the creative method
of the latter.'?
One must also mention music, at least the music of certain musi-
cians, such as Beethoven. I have already alluded to the work of Elisabeth
Brisson, Le Sacre du musicien: La reference al'Antiquite chez Beethoven
[The reference to antiquity in Beethoven], which shows how Beethoven
considered his art to be a mission-that of favoring humanity's accession
From Socrates to Foucault. A LongTradition 143
to the universe of joy, to assent of the world, and to the harmony of the
universe. I I
A.D.: In your opinion, what is the relationship between the history of
philosophy andphilosophy itself?At theendofyourpreface totheDictionnaire
des philosophes antiques [Dictionary ofphilosophers], you spoke ofthephi-
losopher whomust always remainaliveashistorian ofphilosophy. Howdoyou
understandthis relationship?
I would begin, before answering you, by developing a few reflections
on the history of philosophy. I would say first of all that one always speaks
of the history of philosophy in the singular, but in fact one rarely writes
the history of philosophy itself: I think, but I may perhaps be mistaken,
that Hegel was the only philosopher to do the history of the becoming
of 'philosophy, and the movement he describes confounds itself with his
own philosophy. Perhaps one must also add August Comte. Concretely,
historians of philosophy study philosophies and philosophical works.
Personally, I tend to study philosophical works rather than philosophies,
because I have doubts about the possibility of reconstructing with exacti-
tude bodies of philosophical doctrine or systems. We can study only the
structure of works and their finality, what the philosopher meant to say in
a given determinate work. To take the example of a modern philosopher,
such as Bergson, it is impossible to discover an absolutely perfect coher-
ence among his different writings. When I say that the philosopher must
always remain alive in the historian, I mean especially that, in each work
of a philosopher, one must attempt to relive the author's philosophical
reasoning as a whole, both the movement of thought and, if possible, all
the intentions of the author. The study of this reasoning makes possible
the recognition of the two poles of philosophical activity: discourse and
choice of life. This may seem to be a paradoxical situation, but the main
problem that poses itself to the philosopher is ultimately to know what it
is to do philosophy. It is a constantly renewed question that the philoso-
pher can ask in the reading of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Spinoza, or Kant.
The history of philosophy then procures him a vast field of experiences in
which to orient his thought and his life.
144 From Socrates to Foucault. A Long Tradition
A.D.: Recently you have begun to be interested in the philosophy ofother
cultures, especiallyChinese philosophy) and this isperhaps tied to the idea that
there is something like universal philosophical attitudes-attitudes that can
befound even in a culture such as Chinese culture and that also represent, in
another context, what can also befound in Western antiquity.
I have been reticent for a long time with regard to comparativism
(for example, on the subject of the relationship between Plotinus and the
Orient). Now I have changed my mind somewhat, by observing undeni-
able analogies between Chinese thought and Greek philosophy. I have
spoken about the attitude of indifference toward things, a sort of Stoic
attitude; one could also add the notion of instant illumination. I explain
to myself these analogies, not in terms of historical relations but in the
fact that analogous spiritual attitudes can be found in different cultures.
At times I have also found phrases in Chinese thought that seemed more
enlightening than anything that can be found in Greek thought-for ex-
ample, to describe the unconscious situation in which we live, the image
of the frog at the bottom of the pit, or of the vinegar fly at the bottom of
the vat, "ignoring the universe in its grandiose wholeness,' as Tchouang-
Tseu says.'? But I cannot speak as a specialist of Chinese thought.
Jeannie earlier: There are booksfrom which one emerges as a different
person than one was when one opened them. I think this is the casefor three of
your books:Spiritual Exercises and Ancient Philosophy [Exercicesspirituels
et philosophic antique], What Is Ancient Philosophy? and especiallyThe In-
ner Citadel. I have taken weeks to reread them and have seen my way ofsee-
ing things change subtly, on tiny points, it is true-a critical viewpoint on my
judgments, or a more vigorous awareness ofthe present instant. There are re-
a l l y ~ it seems to me, books that oblige one to take into consideration thefamous
statement by Socrates: an unexamined life is not worth living. I will neverthe-
less play the devils advocate-a naive andsomewhat ignorant devil-by tell-
ing you that in readingyour books ofancient philosophy, one is extremely se-
duced, indeed, even changed, but there are things that people today, ordinary
people, must tell themselves: no, I cannot, I do not accept this.
First of all, I salute the devil's advocate. I heard that he is no longer
a part of the canonization process. Perhaps this explains why certain con-
testable characters have been canonized. But having said this, to lighten
things up somewhat, I would like to begin by making another remark.
You say people today, ordinary people, must say no, I cannot, I do not
accept this. But who, exactly, are these people today, these ordinary peo-
ple? At any given time there is no single collective mentality. Collective
mentalities belong to different social groups. For example, there are social
groups and milieus that are resolutely racist. They say no, I cannot, I do
146 Unacceptable?
not accept-s-such as the time around 1950 when a furious woman hurled
insults at me because I had dared to say that blacks were just as respectable
as whites. Before saying I cannot, I do not accept, I must ask myself in
the name of what I cannot or do not accept. Is it because my social group
imposes this way of seeing things? Or is it rather because, having thought
about it thoroughly, my philosophical commitments do not allow me to
think in this way? Is it because religion forbids it? Or it is because science
has shown it to be impossible? Is it because it is in fashion at the moment?
Is it because my favorite newspaper or the television said the opposite?
Finally, in the name of what can one say that I cannot, I do not, accept,
that everyone today, ordinary people do not accept it?
These questions are nevertheless entirely worthwhile. If I have not
spoken about them in my books, it is because I already had enough to do
in presenting the themes of ancient philosophy. Perhaps you think that I
am not inclined to talk about it now. It is true that I do not like to get very
involved in this discussion. Not that it bothers me to answer your ques-
tions. As my studies for a certificate in metalworking-that I so brilliantly
passed!-show, one always manages to find a way out when it comes to
discussing, and this is precisely what does not please me. For it is one of
the problems with the literary genre of the interview: it is the problem of
the seriousness, of the validity of the discussion, when it is improvised and
leaves little time for reflection. In the interviews that some of my eminent
colleagues have given, I have noticed that in speech they let themselves
be pulled into approximations, even caricatured presentations, when it
was a question precisely of the reception of ancient philosophy by our
contemporaries. I would not like to fall into the same trap. How many
massive and inaccurate assertions have been thrust forward in this man-
ner with tranquil assurance? Notably, historians have been at the edge of
the decisive turning point, of the radial innovation that characterizes the
modern period, since the Renaissance. The number of types of blindness
and ignorance that have been attributed to the Greeks on this occasion ~ s
rather amazing. They would have been ignorant of linear time, progress,
the idea of an infinite world, or they were not aware of the opposition
between high and low; they would never have dared climb a mountain!
I would thus prefer to be able to respond to your questions in the
context of a reflective and documented book, for we are in the presence of
Unacceptable? 147
extremely complex problems, related both to the collective mentalities of
the ancients and to the collective mentalities of our contemporaries. But
let us discuss nonetheless.
J c.: Throughout these interviews, and in different works, you give the
impression that you believe ancient philosophy has something to teach modern
man, to have meaningfor him, and to help him guide his conduct. But why
this detour? Would it not be better to try to invent solutions to problems that
pose themselves to us in this, the beginning ofthe twenty-first century, and that
are all new?
I would answer first by saying that I am not the only one to take
this detour. To begin with the example of a modern thinker, the attitude
is already in Nietzsche when he writes, "The Greeks make it easier for
modern man to communicate many difficult things and give us matter for
reflection."} One might object that Nietzsche was thinking of the epoch
of Greek tragedy, or of Heraclitus rather than Epicrerus or Plotinus, but it
remains, as I have already said in these interviews, that he considered the
schools of Greek philosophy to be an experimental laboratory from which
we can still benefit. It must also be said that it is a fact that the twentieth
century has operated, in the most varied of forms, a vast return to the
Greeks, from Heidegger to Foucault.
Why this detour? I would say that, for my part, it is a matter of
what Kierkegaard called the method of indirect communication. If one
says directly, do this or do that, one dictates a conduct with a tone of false
certainty. But thanks to the description of the. spiritual exercises lived by
another, one can give a glimpse of and suggest a spiritual attitude; one
allows a call to be heard that the reader has the freedom to accept or to re-
fuse. It is up to the reader to decide. One is free to believe or not to believe,
to act or not to act. If I judge on the basis of the numerous letters I have
received, written by very different people, from France, Germany, and the
United States, telling me that my books have helped them spiritually-
someone even wrote to me, "You have changed my life"-I think that the
method is good, and I have always been able to respond to these people,
with reason, that it is not me but the ancient philosophers who brought
them this help;
148 Unacceptable?
It is true that one often says our task is to invent solutions for prob-
lems that pose themselves to us today. But while waiting for the creative
genius we would need to appear, in this beginning of the twenty-first
century, everyone must do what they are capable of: and for my part, I try
to be, like Michelet, "the link of time," to ensure that "this vital chain that
from the dead past appears to make the sap circulate toward the future,'?
J C.: In short, you aresuggesting that your books are not only works of
erudition but also, in an indirect way, "protreptics," as the ancients would
say.3 Because I amgoingto raise criticisms against philosophy asa way oflife,
I will begin with a captatio benevolentiae by citingyour dear Goethe. Faust
says, "Two souls cohabitate in me, and onewantsto undo itselffromthe other.
The onegrabs holdofthe worldwith everyoneofits organs, the otherwantsto
flee thedarkness. " This istotally Christian, as wellastotally Platonic. I would
likeyou to specify something about whichyou have said little in your books.
One ofthefirst ancient principles that markedyou in your youth is "tophi-
losophize is to learn to die. "In the Greeks, especially the Platonists-actually,
it is Parmenides who began by saying that what is good is what does not
change-one finds this strong opposition between this world and the other
world, the body and the soul, the sensible and the intelligible. All Platonism
is impregnated by the will to be elsewhere; there is Tbeaetetus' famous "from
the here-below toward the there-after to escape as quickly aspossible;" and
in the Phaedo, everything is about separating oneselffrom the body. I think
we would no longer quite accept this. Saturated by twenty centuries of "my
kingdom is not ofthis world,"wefeel like saying, my life is herebecause it is
not elsewhere, and the body is not the source ofall evil. Do you not slightly
modify the meaningof "toescape the world, to detach oneselffrom the body"
in Plato bypulling them a little towardStoicism, bygiving them a meaning
that is acceptable today? But after all, why not?
Here you allude to my interpretation of the Platonic formula: to
philosophize is an exercise in dying. I said in Exercices spirituels et philoso-
phie antique [Spiritual exercises and ancient philosophy} that this formula
of the Phaedo could be interpreted as a change in the way things were
looked at. For a vision dominated by the needs of the body and the indi-
vidual and egoistical passions is substituted a representation of the world
governed by the universality of thought and reason. One thinks here of
Unacceptable? 149
the passage from the Republicin which the philosopher appears as the one
who will contemplate the totality of time and being.' And in the Pbaedo,
the problem is clearly situated at the level of knowledge-knowledge of
the senses can mislead the reasoning of the soul." One can obviously ques-
tion the value of this refusal ofknowledge of the senses, but what interests
us here is the mode of life and the meaning of the spiritual exercise of
death, which it seems to me, in Plato and in all the philosophical schools,
consists in a change in the vision of things, a passage from the individual
and the passionate to the rational and universal perspective. The exercise
of death is in fact an exercise of life. I completely agree with you to the
extent that for our contemporaries this devalorizing of the sensible in fa-
vor of the intelligible is difficult to accept. I suggested this at the end of
my little book on Plotinus, but I think it was already difficult for Plato's
contemporaries to accept. As Plato says in the Pbaedo, his contemporaries
laughed at the philosophers of Plato's school, whom they called moribund,
precisely because these philosophers criticized the body and the sensible
world. To return to the devalorizing of the sensible, one certainly has the
right to prefer, as I do, philosophers who give a central role to perception,
such as Bergson or Merleau-Ponty,
J C.: This interpretationofthefamous PLatonic maxim "tophilosophize
is an exercise in dying" wouLd thusfit veryweLL with Stoicism, andyou could,
for that matter, arguefor it with a number ofStoic texts. Now it seems to me
that this way ofconceiving the "exercise in death" or "flee the body" is entirely
acceptablefor us. In your Exercices spirituels [Spiritual exercises), to exercise
at dying is in no way to torture one's body; it is "to exercise at being dead
to one's individuality, to ones passions, to see thingsfrom the perspective of
universaLity and objectivity. ''1 this is, after aLL, rather different than what
one beLieves when one reads Platosuperficially. It can beaccepted today to the
extent that, with the Greek, especially the Stoicphilosophers, it is accepted that
one must aLways see thingsfrom the universal point of view. The refusal of
the body wouLd then be a refusalofthe minuscule objectthat one is with one's
body, and a return to the universal, to the One?
Perhaps it is not even a refusal, but the process of becoming aware
that one is merely a minuscule object and that there are things that are
150 Unacceptable?
much more important, values that are, as it were, absolute. But this does
not imply repulsion with respect to the flesh.
J c.: But is there really not repulsion with respect to the body and the
pleasures it allows?Does Epictetus himselfnot speak ofthe body as a cadaver?
This repulsion exists neither in the Cynics, who after all practice a
rigorous ascetic, nor in the Aristotelians, who are content to modify their
passions, nor in the Ancient Stoics, who would have wanted the sage to
be absolutely without passion, nor in the Epicureans, who gave themselves
over to an ascetics of the desires. One might believe that this repulsion ap-
pears in the late Stoics, such as Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. But in these
two philosophers one must also relate the part of the formula that aims
to shock as a means to correct a distortion of the spirit. It is a question, I
think, of simply reminding man that he is mortal, Moreover, simultane-
ously, in practical life, in their way of life, these Stoics-Marcus Aurelius,
for example-did not hesitate to allow themselves pleasures. After having
mourned his wife, Faustine, Marcus Aurelius took another woman with-
out marrying her. Apparently he admitted the legitimacy of pleasure.
Things begin to change with Neoplatonism in the third century of
our era. Plotinus was ashamed of having a body, his biographer tells us.
One must say that, for him, the fact of having a body signified that he
was a soul who had not been able to remain in the spiritual world and
was guilty, in a certain sense, of a fault. And Porphyry cannot admit the
Christian idea of the incarnation of God, because, having become man,
God was stained by blood, bile, and worse yet. But obviously there is a
contrast here between God's spirituality and the materiality of the body.
Let us also add that if Marcus Aurelius repeats Epictetus' formula,
"the body is a cadaver," he does not deprive himself of admiring "the ma-
turity and the flowering of the aged woman or man, and the likeable
charm of little children."B
]. C.: This opposition between, on the one hand, a refusal ofthe body
and the sensible, material world and, on the other hand, the admiration, at
least,for this sensible worldis often found in the same thinkers andin the same
places. In Plato there are texts that say the world is as beautiful as possible.
One finds these ideas in Christianity: my kingdom is not ofthis world, but the
Unacceptable? 151
skyand the earthsingtheglory ofGodthecreator. Father Festugiere effectively
shows this contradiction in relation to hermeticism; he even said, hermeti-
cism is not a religion, for it is impossible for a religion to rest onprinciples as
completely opposed as the worldisgood, theflesh is acceptable, and the world
isevil, theflesh must bebanishedabsolutely. Goethe's darkness mademe think
ofGnosticism, whichisa sortofpassage at the limit to theattitude that refuses
this world and this body, this world created by an evil god, this body that
belongs to the darkness. How doyou react to this contradiction?
It does not surprise me that there are rather contradictory positions
in the ancient philosophers. For precisely, these are not systems. They
develop their reasoning by beginning with successively different problem-
atics, Whe.n one situates oneself within the problematic of the world, at
this moment, one has the atmosphere of the Timaeus; the sensible world is
beautiful, even though in the Timaeus there is the whole development of
the shock of the soul meeting matter, completely disoriented, and needing
to be reeducated. But it is nevertheless quite coherent. When one situates
oneself within the problematic of individual ethics, one has the Phaedo;
the body appears as a danger to knowledge and virtue. In the Stoics, at
least the late Stoics, there is also this contradiction, as we have just seen.
Furthermore, it is not useless to recall that Greek civilization was not the
enemy of the body; it was the civilization of the Olympic games, of gym-
nastics, of thermae [bathhouses]. Everyone took particular care of their
bodies. If for certain philosophers the body was a source of passions, it did
not stop them from going to the bathhouses and taking physical exercise
J c.: When we superficial readers of Plato read in his dialogues the
contemptfor the body, the refusal ofthe body, are we not influenced by what
the Christians did with it, despite the doctrine ofthe resurrection ofthe body?
After all, it was not Plato whoflagellated himselfand lived on a post. What
doyou think? Was it not the Christians whopulled this to the sideofextreme
macerations?All the Platonists did wasabstain from eatingmeat.
It seems to me, but it will have to be verified, that the evangelical
message itself in no way contains this sort of macerations. Moreover, the
Pharisees said of Christ, he eats and drinks with everyone. But two things
152 Unacceptable?
happened: on the one hand, the Christians, wanting Christianity to seem
like a philosophy, adopted Platonic philosophy in general, tainted at times
by Stoicism, because it was practically the only philosophy that was still
very powerful in the first centuries of our era. Thus they accepted the
Platonists' refusal of the body, and this oriented Christianity in the direc-
tion of an intellectualist metaphysics that was in no way implied in the
gospel. On the other hand, the meditation on the suffering and death of
Christ added itself to this. Christians believed themselves to be obliged to
suffer what Christ had suffered at a moment in his life. It is Pascal's famous
formula: Christ will be in agony until the end of the world; one must not
sleep during this time. The difference between Christian spiritual exer-
cises and philosophical spiritual exercises is precisely that in the former the
person Christ is introduced, the imitation of Christ. Thus the imitation
of the passion of Christ suffering is introduced, which leads to Hagella-
tions and other mortifications. But one must also consider the following
nuance: the ascetic champions, such as the monks of the desert, cultivated
the exercise especially to arrive, like the philosophers, at total indifference
and the total absence of passions, as well as to perfect tranquility of the
soul. Finally, I think it was Neoplatonism and not Christianity that pro-
voked greater contempt for the body in the interpretation of Plato.
J C.: You have written a superb book on Marcus Aurelius, calledThe
Inner Citadel. This is a very beautiful title, borrowed in fact from Marcus
Aurelius himself a title that alludes to a constant in Greekphilosophy, regard-
less ofthe other theories ofthe philosophers: one must build a citadel around
oneself one must not allow oneselfto be troubled byanything. The Stoic posi-
tion, as well as the Platonic position, is simple and extremely coherent: for
the sage there is no other ill than to commit a moral offense, which depends
on one's choice. All the rest, which does not depend on one's choice-sickness,
poverty, death-is not an evil and should not trouble the serenity ofthe soul;
thus, as Spinoza will say, happiness is not the consequenceofvirtue, but virtue
itself There are admirable texts, for example, when Socrates says, "They can
put me to death, they cannot bother me"; andhistory, not only ancient history,
regurgitates examples oflived Stoicism. But at the same time-not in what
you say but in what the Stoics say-there are things that make one'shair stand
on end. For example, when Epictetus says-and this is in sum a passageto the
universal, an overcoming ofindividuality-your slave breaks a vase, you are
Unacceptable? 153
furious; your more objective neighbor tellsyou, vases get broken, it happens?
To this point we sayy e s ~ Epictetus and the neighbor are right that vases get-
ting broken is in the order ofthings. But Epictetus pursues his example: your
child dies, you suffer, you have a troubled soul; this is not good becauseyour
brother, for hispart, tells himse/fi children, they die. Worse, Epictetus says, you
can show compassion to a friend, but do not yourselfsuffer from compassion.
At this point we absolutely refuse the idea that we could accept these things
without difficulty. The price to pay for becoming invulnerable, which would
be to not lovepeople, is too high.
First, recall a principle that I believe I posed rather clearly: to con-
sider that philosophy is a mode of life, as the Greek philosophers thought,
does not mean that one must accept all the attitudes and especially all the
assertions of ancient philosophers with servility. Nietzsche was right when
he said that these attitudes are experiences as experiments. As such, there
can be both success and failure in them. They can show what it would be
good to do, but also what it would be good to avoid.
Having said this, in my commentary on Epictetus' Handbook I my-
self have pointed out what might be shocking for us in the formulas that
Epictetus employs. But as I have said in this commentary, the Handbook
is a summary for students, and in Epictetus' Conversations one finds his
thought completely developed. He says, Socrates sincerely loved children,
but he also accepted the order of the world, the will of the gods. First of
all, the Stoic is not a miraculously insensible being. If the Stoic is struck
with the death ofhis child or someone else who is close to him, he will first
feel a shock and will be deeply troubled. Epicrerus and the other Stoics say
it repeatedly. These are involuntary movements. But afterward the Stoic
will have to take hold of himself not only in the goal of not suffering or of
not being troubled. Seneca also said that there would be no merit in val-
iantly supporting what one cannot feel." No, if he takes hold of himself:
it is because he believes that one must say yes to the world in all its reality,
even if it is atrocious. This yes to the world is admired in Nietzsche; why
would it not be admired in the Stoics? This does not signify that, to be
invulnerable, one must not love people. The goal of Stoicism, let us say it
again, is not to avoid suffering.
Moreover, in the eyes of the Stoics, pity and compassion are irratio-
nal passions. But one must understand that when they speak of passions
154 Unacceptable?
they are thinking not of a vague sentiment but of a profound upheaval of
the intelligence, of insanity (deraison). This insanity is situated not in the
involuntary affective shock undergone in the face of an event, but in the
false judgment that one passes on the event. For the Stoics, the passions
are false judgments. When they speak of pity as a passion, they are thus
thinking of people for whom passion makes them lose their head and
who become incapable of acting, of saving those who suffer, such as the
surgeon who out of pity would not dare operate on the sick man for fear
of hurting him. However, the Stoic admits a pity, which in a certain sense
is not a passion. Marcus Aurelius says that one must undergo a sort of pity
for those who do evil, because they do not know what they are doing." In
this case, this "sort of pity" is not a passion that would disrupt the soul,
but an absence of anger; better yet, he says it himself: it is an indulgence,
a softness, a patience, a kindness, much more efficient than passion-pity.
These virtues imply respect of the other, whereas passion-pity implies
contempt for the other. One thinks that he is not capable of support-
ing a suffering or a difficulty. When Epictetus says that one must show
compassion to a friend without undergoing it himself: he means that one
must not allow oneself to be pulled into passion-pity, which disrupts the
soul and obscures reason. Thus, what Epictetus means is that one must
not lose one's head with the one who is suffering, but really help him to
surmount his suffering. In our day, when a catastrophe happens, we send
psychologists to help the victims absorb the shock. These psychologists do
not take themselves to be obliged to cry, to wring their arms, to scream
like victims. They attempt to help without letting themselves be pulled
into panic or despair. I think this is the perspective from which one must
understand the Stoic critique of passion-pity. Moreover, the moderns have
also questioned the value of the sentiment of pity. Georges Friedmann,
inviting himself to practice spiritual exercises, writes, "Cast aside pity and
Let us add that Marcus Aurelius cried-first, at the death of his
preceptor. His entourage entreated him to restrain the visible marks of
his affection. Then his adoptive father, the emperor Antonin, spoke these
beautiful words: "Let-him be human. Neither philosophy nor imperial
power suppress sentiments." But the emperor Julian reproached him later
for having cried for his wife, Faustine, more than was reasonable, despite
Unacceptable? 155
her misdemeanors. He also cried while listening to the speech of the rheto-
rician Aelius Aristide, sent to the emperor after the Smyrne earthquake to
ask for his help in rebuilding the city.
Here again the critics of our contemporaries resemble the critics of
the contemporaries of the Stoics of antiquity, as Seneca witnesses: "I know
that the Stoic school has a poor reputation among the ignorant, because
they believe it to be insensible to excess't-s-to which Seneca answers, "No
school has more love for humans and is more attentive to the good of
J C.: The Stoic attitude that we could certainly accept, and that we
would even judge honorable, would consist in saying (1am slightly skewing
Marcus Aurelius), it is not a joy to losea child, but it is ajoy to support the loss
with courage.'? This is one way to interpret Stoicism. Andis it not ultimately
a quarrel over words?Ifone speaks ofphysical pain (Epicurus and Epictetus
have, in this domain, given the example ofualiance), is there not the story of
a philosopher who cries, Torment me, pain; you will riot make me admit that
you are an evil. This is in effect the ambiguity ofStoicism: even ifit hurts, it
is not an evil. Everything is in the judgment.
One might think that it is a quarrel over words, which could be
summarized as follows: What people call an evil is not an evil for the
Stoics, for example, poverty, sickness, death. The only evil is moral evil.
This is what is essential not only in Stoicism but for Socrates as well, who
according to Plato had said, "For the good man, there is not evil possible,
whether it be living or dead," given that the only evil is moral evil. The
Stoic experience of life, the Stoic choice of life, would thus consist (1) in
considering what one must desire absolutely as good and what one must
reject absolutely as evil, and (2) in deciding that the moral good, the good
will is the only thing that deserves to be desired absolutely, and that the
evil will is the only thing that deserves to be rejected absolutely. On this
point, Kant's theory of the good will is indeed the inheritor of Stoicism.
The Stoic will has to confront death, if necessary, rather than renounce
the supreme value of virtue and of the good will. It is a heroic decision,
by Socrates and the Stoics, that runs against received ideas. The supreme
value is the good intention, the good will. The death of Socrates can
be understood in this perspective. Thereafter, the Stoics refused to call
156 Unacceptable?
illness, death, or natural catastrophes pains; for them these things were
neither good nor bad but indifferent, the consequences of the necessary
course of events in the universe, which had to be accepted if they could
not be remedied, and that became goods or evils according to our attitude
toward them.
But one can obviously admit other less heroic and more relaxed
modes of philosophical life, such as Epicureanism.
]. C.: Can one not say that our desires themselves have changed?Wealth,
power, and honors appear constantly in the Stoics and the Epicureans on lists
ofthings not to desire. Now, today, there are certainly people who desire all
this, but most ofour desires are much more modest. In the registers ofthe pil-
grimage churches one reads, "Saint Virgin, do not let my parents get divorced.
Let Patrick find a job. Let my little girl get well." An Epicurean may well
say, these are natural desires that are not necessary, and his point ofview is
true, but this does not change the fact that we moderns consider them to be
absolutely legitimate desires.
I do not think that the fundamental desires of humans can change.
The ruling or rich class seeks wealth, power, and honors, in antiquity just
as in our day. All the misfortune of our actual civilization is in effect the
exasperation of the desire for profit, in all the classes of society, for that
matter, but especially in the ruling class. Common morals can have sim-
pler desires: work, happiness at home, health. The invocations of the gods
in antiquity were the same ones that are now made to the Virgin Mary.
One asked the same things to soothsayers as we ask ofour horoscopes. It is
not a question of the epoch. But when Epicurus distinguished natural and
necessary desires, natural desires that are not necessary, and desires that
are neither natural nor necessary, he did not want to enumerate alliegiti-
mate desires and explain how they could be satisfied; he wanted to define a
style of life, taking conclusions from his intuition, according to which the
pleasure corresponds to the suppression of a suffering caused by the desire.
There is an analogy with Buddhism, very much in fashion these days. To
be happy one must thus maximally diminish the causes of suffering, that
is, the desires. In this manner he wanted to heal the suffering of humans.
He thus recommended renouncing desires that are very difficult to satisfy
in order to attempt to be content with the desires that can more easily be
Unacceptable? 157
satisfied-that is, finally and simply, the desire to eat, to drink, and to
clothe oneself: Under an apparently down-to-earth aspect, there is some-
thing extraordinary in Epicureanism: the recognition of the fact that there
is only one true pleasure, the pleasure of existing, and that to experience it
one merely has to satisfy the desires that are natural and necessary for the
existence of the body. The Epicurean experience is extremely instructive;
it invites us, like Stoicism, to a total reversal of values. '
J C.: Evidently the question of divine providence was not something
capital, because the Epicureans did not believe in it at all, andAristotle, for
his part, thought that it did not descend lower than the moon. Nevertheless,
it was very important for the Platonists, for the Stoics, and ofcoursefor the
Christians, even if each school conceived ofthis providence differently.
Philosophical providence and Christian providence are extremely
different. The notion of providence appears in the Timaeus, when Plato
says that the world is born of the reflective decision (pronoia) of the god."
But this idea of a sort ofdivine reasoning is part of the myth of a fabricator
god and merely signifies that there is a divine intelligence at the origin of
the universe, Similarly, in the Stoics, one must represent providence not
as a divine will interested in all the particular cases, but as an original im-
pulse that instigates the movement of the universe and the links between
cause and effect that constitute destiny. Plotinus, resisting the Gnostics,
energetically refuses the notion that the world was created by reason and
will. Finally, philosophical providence corresponds to a rational necessity,
which is of the order of the world. On the Gontrary, the Hebrew God,
taken up by Christianity, is a person who conducts the history of the
world and of individuals according to his unpredictable will.
J C.: Can an order ofthe world be admitted today?
I believe it is extremely difficult to answer that question, for science
constantly evolves, and with it the philosophical opinions of scholars. For
example, Einstein went into raptures over the laws of nature, supposing a
transcending intellect, against an order of the world, corresponding to the
order of thought. On this subject one might say, what is incomprehensible
is that the world is comprehensible. Others reduce everything to chance,
158 Unacceptable?
or to chance and necessity. For our purposes, as you yourself realized, the
question of providence and of the order of the world is of rather little im-
portance. Epicurus did not believe in it, and moreover the Stoic necessity
is not ultimately very far from certain modern conceptions.
J C.: In effect, many ofour contemporaries have given up believing in a
god who would watch over everyone ofthe hairs on our head and who would
decide at every moment what would happen on Earth and in heaven, and
this allows us to avoid questioning ourselvesabout the immediate responsibil-
ity ofa just and good god, in earthquakes and in the massacre of innocent
people. However, instructed by our scholars about the evolution ofthe Earth
and ofhumans, we want to admit that there are natural regularities, such as
earthquakes and even the death ofchildren, or recurrences in the behavior of
humans. we are thus very close to believing in a rational order as the ancients
did-rational in that one can isolate regularities in it ("laws"), but not ratio-
nal in that it would beprogrammed by a reason that is always just andgood.
This is where we differfrom the ancient, Stoic, andPlatonicphilosophers, who
said, before Leibniz, everything isfor the best in the best ofall possible worlds,
or what happened is better, because it happened. Because it is a question of
these "anthropological regularities," when they are criminal-injustices, mas-
sacres, provokedfamines, the great misery ofa billion humans-we cannot
joyfully collaborate in "the work ofthe Whole," to its cgoodandjust govern-
ment, " as the Stoics request. On the contrary, it seems that our first duty is to
combat these regularities.
Here we encounter an example of the difficulty involved in discuss-
ing such a complex problem within the framework of a simple conversa-
tion. Let us leave aside the vast philosophical problem that would have to
be treated independently: Do anthropological regularities, that is, war,
misery, and the perversity of humans, belong to the order of the world?
Let us speak only of what the Stoics could have thought of it. I could not
explain the complex problem of the relations between human freedom
and destiny in a few words. Let us repeat it again: the Stoics considered
that the locus of evil was the will of humans. Thus, for them, what you
call anthropological regularities do not belong to the order of the world,
and thus, when they speak of collaborating in the world of the Whole, it
signifies being able to recognize themselves as a part of the universe; that
Unacceptable? 159
through one's existence one contributes one's part to the general move-
ment of the universe. It is not that one should consent to everything that is
a moral evil, such as injustice and the exploitation of humans by humans,
but that one should combat it. Parenthetically, Marcus Aurelius runs into
the problem, just as the Christians did later, without managing to resolve
it, of the "necessary" evil of war. He does not hesitate to call a brigand,
thus to call himself a brigand, the one who captures a Sarmatian (the
people with whom he is at war)." Whatever the case may be, one must act
in the service of the human community, one must oppose all the bad ac-
tions ofhumans. But if the action against evil fails, the Stoic is in this case
obliged to recognize reality such as it is-let us say the massacre that was
perpetrated. Then he must try to face this new situation in order to orient
his action in another way. If he is absolutely reduced to powerlessness, he
does not revolt uselesslyagainst destiny, but believes that universal Nature
and Reason, which here seem to suffer a failure, are capable of turning
what obstructs their path to their favor.
To believe this is to believe in the
final triumph of reason in the world. Some of our contemporaries believed
or still believe in this power of reason; others do not. It was undoubtedly
the same in the time of Marcus Aurelius.
I believe that you are wrong to identify Epictetus' formula, "Will
that which happens as it happens,"? with formulas of the type, if it hap-
pened, it is that it was for the best. This is because, for the Stoics, what
happens is neither good nor bad. It is something indifferent. It depends on
the human will to give it its value, good or bad, according to the use that is
made of it. Good and evil exist only in thought and in the will of humans,
not in things. But with Epictetus' formula, once again one finds the cherne
of consenting to the universe, under the hypothesis that we cannot change
what works as an obstacle to the order of the world. You said that a mod-
ern could not joyfully consent, but Nietzsche said, "Not only to support
the ineluctable . . . , but to love it."IB An attitude of this sort was there-
fore admitted by one of the masters of contemporary thought. Moreover,
Bergson, who, if he is no longer in fashion, nevertheless influenced recent
philosophy, wrote in La Pensee et leMouvant [Thought and the moving],
"To the great work of creation taking place under our eyes [for Bergson it
is a creative evolution], we would feel ourselves participating, creators of
160 Unacceptable?
ourselves." One is not very far from a "joyful collaboration in the work of
the Whole."19
J c.: With respect to this "inner citadel" that makes the sage invulner-
able, is there not something that considerably distinguishes us from the an-
cients, namely, that we have completely lost the envy ofthe gods?Is there not an
entire current in antiquity that is, in all kinds ofways, a sort ofrefusal ofthe
human condition? I am speaking not ofthe mythological gods but ofthe god
ofthe philosophers, who is totally shelteredfrom passions, who does not move,
who is never angry, who does not suffer. You cite a good number oftexts that
suggest this, andfirst ofall the famous text from the Theaeretus, "Escapingis
to make onese/fsimilar to God, as much as it ispossible"; or Seneca, ~ s God,
[the sage] says: 'Everything is mine. s s we want no more ofthis. we accept the
human condition.
This envy of the gods corresponds to the ideal of the sage. I have
always been struck by Michelet's text that says, antiquity ends up finding
its own god, the sage. It is true that, for many modern humans, this ideal
of identification no longer makes sense; but it is easy to remove this, in a
certain sense, mythological character from the ideal of wisdom.
And I would precisely like to end this conversation with a few gen-
eral considerations. It is obvious that modern humans do not have to ac-
cept all the metaphysical presuppositions or the mythological represen-
tations of Stoicism, or of Epicureanism, or of Cynicism. What I think
is that essentially one should apply to philosophers the treatment that
Bultmann wanted to apply to Christianity, that is, the demythologiza-
tion, or the "dernythization" (demythisation) , the separation between, on
the one hand, the essential core and, on the other, the gangue constituted
by the collective representations of the day. Raymond Ruyer, in his book
with the somewhat misleading title La Gnose de Princeton [The gnosis
of Princeton], speaks of what I call spiritual exercises-he calls them
"montages"-and says that Epicurean, Stoic montages are still valid, but
what is no longer valid is the "ideological fog" that accompanied them.
I believe that this remark is quite right. Ultimately what is interesting in
the mode of spiritual exercises is that they can be practiced independently
of the discourse that justifies or councils them. For example, the spiritual
exercise of concentration on the present exists in the Epicureans and the
Unacceptable? 161
Stoics, with slight differences, but for entirely different reasons. Thus I
think that this spiritual exercise of concentration on the present moment
has a value in itself: independently of the theories; I have practiced this ex-
ercise rather often, but this does not imply that I believe, as the Stoics did,
in the eternal return, a doctrine that can be connected to this exercise.
Moreover, at the beginning of this interview you spoke of people
today who say, I cannot accept this. But I believe we have begun to see
that, if they do say this, it is not because they are our contemporaries, for
ordinary people in antiquity said exactly the same thing about Socrates or
about Plato or the Stoics. Their criticism, their rejection, is concerned not
especially with the theories but with the ethical and spiritual attitudes.
But why do they say, I cannot accept this? Are they echoing modern preju-
dices that often have nothing modern in them? In every historical period
there have been and there will be opposition between the customs and the
conventions of everyday life and the mode of life of the philosophers, who
scandalize nonphilosophers, or make them laugh.
The Present Alone Is Our
Jeannie earlier: Among the inner attitudes and the spiritual exercisesof
ancient philosophy, which ones do you prefer, andperhaps practice?
I would say that the theme that struck me the most is the meditation
on death, because of my reading at the time of my youth, and thereafter
because of my various surgeries (I have been anesthetized ten times or
so). Not that 1 am obsessed by the thought of death. I have always been
amazed, however, that the thought of death helps one to live better, to live
as though one were living one's last day, one's last hour. An attitude such
as this one requires a total conversion of attention. To no longer project
oneself into the future, but to consider one's action in itself and for itself:
to no longer consider the world to be the simple frame of our action, but
to look at it in itself and for itself-this attitude has both an existential
and an ethical value. It allows one to become aware of the infinite value
of the present moment, of the infinite value of today's moments, as well
as the infinite value of tomorrow's moments, welcomed with gratitude as
an unexpected chance. But it also allows one to become conscious of the
seriousness of every moment of life, to do what one does habitually, not
by habit but as though one were doing it for the first time, by discovering
everything this action implies for it to be well done. Somewhere in Peguy
there is a passage where he describes something Saint Aloysius Gonzaga
The PresentAlone Is Our Happiness 163
(who was often cited to us for that matter, and he surprised me a great
deal) said as a child. When asked what he would do ifhe were told that he
was going to die in an hour, he answered, I would continue to play ball.
Thus he recognized that one can give, as it were, absolute value to every
instant of life, as banal and humble as it may be. What matters is not what
one does but how one does it. The thought of death was thus leading me
to the exercise of concentration on the present recommended by both the
Epicureans and the Stoics.
J C.: But how can this concentration on the present be reconciled with
the imperatives of the action, which always require a finality and thus an
orientation toward the future?
Indeed, it should be specified that this concentration on the present
implies a double liberation: from the weight of the past and from the fear
of the future. This does not mean that life becomes in a sense instanta-
neous, without the present being related to what has been and what will
be. But more precisely, this concentration on the present is a concentration
on what we can really do; we can no longer change the past, nor can we
act on what is not yet. The present is the only moment in which we can
act. Consequently, concentration on the present is a requirement ofaction.
The present here is not a mathematical and infinitesimal moment; it is,
for example, the duration in which the action is exercised, the duration
of the sentence one utters, of the movement that one executes, or of the
melody one hears.
J C.: You like to cite the verses from Goethe's Faust II, to which you
have devoted an article: "So the spirit looks neither forward nor backward.
The present alone is our happiness." How can one say that the present alone is
our happiness?
I am quite pleased that you ask me this, for two reasons. First, be-
cause this allusion to Goethe suggests that spiritual exercises have a history
that should be written. I have always liked this maxim by Vauvenargues:
"A rather new and rather original book would be the one that would make
one love old truths."! These old truths are the ones that reappear in ev-
ery period of history, in ours as well, both because they have been lived
164 ThePresent AloneIs Our Happiness
so strongly in the past that they continue to mark our unconscious, and
because they are always reborn gradually as the generations reexperience
life. These fundamental spiritual attitudes are in fact the themes of medi-
tations that have dominated the history ofWestern thought. The theme of
the present is an example of this. I am also pleased that I have the oppor-
tunity to speak about this article, because I noticed that some of its details
call for specification. However, the general thesis is still valid. Goethe
made repeated and abundant use of the Epicurean and Stoic idea that one
finds happiness only in the present moment. For him, the characteristic
feature of ancient life and art was to know how to live in the present, to
know, as he said, "the health of the moment."
I will cite only the small poem entitled "The Rule of Life." It is
explicit and responds in part to your question. "Do you want to live a life
without disturbance? Do not let the past worry you, get angry as little as
possible, rejoice of the present, rejoice without ceasing, hate no one, and
abandon the future to God." Happiness is in the present moment, for the
simple reason that we live only the present, on the one hand, and on the
other, that the past and the future are always the source of suffering. The
past chagrins us, either simply because it is past and escapes us, or because
it gives us the impression of imperfection; the future worries us because it
is uncertain and unknown. But every present moment offers us the possi-
bility of happiness. Ifwe put ourselves in a Stoic perspective, it gives us the
opportunity to attend to our duties, to live according to reason; if we put
ourselves in an Epicurean perspective, it affords the pleasure of existing at
every instant, as Rousseau describes so well in the fifth promenade of the
Reveries ofa Solitary Walker.
What needs to be specified in the article is the interpretation of Faust
II's verse: "So the spirit looks neither forward nor backward. The pres-
ent alone is our happiness." Apparently these verses express exactly the
same idea as the poem "The Rule of Life." And it is true that Faust, on
contact with Helen, adopts an ancient language when he recommends
this concentration on the instant. But a number of things must neverthe-
less be specified. The art of life taught in the poem "The Rule of Life"
conforms entirely to the art of living in ancient philosophy, that is, that
every moment, anyone at all, offers a possibility of happiness. In the case
of the meeting between Faust and Helen, however, it is the case not of
The Present Alone Is Our Happiness 165
any moment at all but of an exceptional moment, a beautiful instant,
wonderful instant, in the strong sense of the word. For in this instant, in
a magical way, a man of the Middle Ages, Faust, meets a woman from
archaic antiquity, Helen. This is why, when Faust says to Helen, do not
look toward either the past or the future, hold yourself in the present, he
is alluding to the situation of the two lovers. Helen, in effect, cannot help
being afraid because of the absence of ties between her past and her meet-
ing with Faust, and she is worried about the possibility of a future for such
an, as it were, artificial connection. What Faust wants to say, finally, is,
"Do not think, do not reflect about the past or the future; take advantage
of the present occasion; love!" Moreover, in the perspective of the tragedy
of Faust, one might also ask whether this beautiful instant does not cor-
respond to the "Instant" in question at the beginning of the work, when
Faust says, as he concludes his pact with the devil, "If I say to the Instant,
'Stop, you are so beautiful,' then you will be able to enchain me." Here
again, it is not a question of any instant at all, but a particularly fortunate
instant, a sort of summit of existence, and the meeting with Helen is pre-
cisely this beautiful instant of which Faust speaks. It is why one can also
ask oneself why Mephistopheles, hearing Faust say to Helen, "The present
alone is our happiness," does not take advantage of it to avail himself of
Faust, in conformity with the pact. Perhaps it is because Faust does not
repeat what he said word for word and, especially, does not command the
instant to stop, for he wants to live in the future with Helen. In any case,
in the tragedy, except in the short scene with Helen and in the final scene,
Faust does not know how to enjoy the present, whatever it may be. He is
devoured by insatiable desires, by the appeal of the future. In the eyes of
Goethe he is a modern man, but did the philosophers of antiquity not re-
proach their contemporaries for being too devoured by insatiable desires?
Goethe has an idyllic representation of ancient man when he affirms that
the ancients know how to live in the present. He should have said that
only certain philosophers tried to do it.
In any case, the exercise of concentration on the present does not
consist of knowing how to enjoy, when the opportunity presents itself: a
fortuitous instant-one of those instants that Sartre speaks of in Nausea-
but it consists in knowing how to recognize the infinite value ofevery mo-
166 The PresentAlone Is Our Happiness
mente In fact, it is very difficult, but it is good to regain consciousness of
this wealth of the present instant as much as possible.
J C.: What do you mean by this wealth of the present instant or
This wealth is the one we give it, thanks to a transformation of our
relationship to time. Ordinarily our life is always incomplete, in the stron-
gest sense of the term, because we project all our hopes, all our aspirations,
all our attention into the future, telling ourselves that we will be happy
when we will have attained this or that goal. We are scared as long as the
goal is not attained, but if we attain it, already it no longer interests us
and we continue to run after something else. We do pot live, we hope to
live, we are waiting to live. Stoics and Epicureans invite us, then, to effect
a total conversion of our relation to time, to live in the only moment we
live in, that is, the presel)t; to live not in the future but, on the contrary,
as though there were no future, as though we only had this day, only this
moment, to live; to live it then as well as possible, as though-as we were
saying earlier-it were the last day, the last moment of our life, in our
relationship to ourselves and to those around us. It is not a question here
of a false tragedy, which would be ridiculous, but of a way to discover
everything that can be possessed in the instant. First of all, we can realize
an action well done, done for itself: with attention and consciousness. We
can tell ourselves, I apply myself at concentrating on my action of this
moment; I do it as well as possible. We can also tell ourselves, I am here,
alive, and this is enough; that is, we can become conscious of the value of
existence-or one can repeat Montaigne's inexhaustible sentence on this
subject, saying to the one who has the impression of having done nothing,
"What? Have you not lived? It is not only the most fundamental, but the
most illustrious of your occupations."2 We can even add, Here I am, in an
immense and wonderful world. It is the presel).t instant, Marcus-Aurelius
said, that puts us into contact with the whole cosmos." At every instant
I can think of the indescribable cosmic event to which I belong. But this
brings us to another theme we will have to address: that ofwonder in front
of the world. For the moment, suffice it to say briefly that to live in the
present is to live as though we were seeing the world for the first and for
The Present Alone Is Our Happiness 167
the last time. Every present moment can thus be a moment of happiness,
whether it is the pleasure of existing or the joy of doing things well.
It is quite clear that we cannot always live in this disposition, be-
cause one must make a difficult effort to liberate oneself from fascination
with the future and from daily routine.
J C.: In your books, doyou not alsodiscuss what you call the lookfrom
It is another exercise that seems very important and that I have tried
to practice. The look from above, directed at the earth from a mountain-
top, an airplane, or a spaceship, must obviously be distinguished from the
imagined, thought look from above, but that obviously supposes the ex-
perience of the look directed from an elevated point. It happens that this,
one might say, physiological look from above was discussed extensively in
Greek civilization. Hans Blumenberg has maintained that it took until
April 26, 1336, and the climbing of Mount Ventoux by Petrarch for man
finally to have the courage to look at the world from above, such a look
having until then been reserved for the gods. This is a nice example of the
sort of blindness that affects researchers when they have a preconceived
idea. According to Blumenberg, following Jacob Burckhardt in this re-
spect, ancient man would never have climbed mountains out of pleasure
or curiosity, only to build temples. In fact, the existence of a look from
above is indeed attested to by the Greeks and the Romans. There are look-
outs in Homer who see danger from afar. I cannot enumerate all the looks
from above that appear in ancient poetry, from Aristophanes' Clouds to
Apollonius of Rhodes' Argonautika. And the climbs, of Etna, for example,
are thoroughly attested. Similarly, one also finds representations of the
landscape seen from above in Greco-Roman art. It is interesting that the
experience of an overarching vision of things has allowed one to imagine a
mental vision that encompasses the Earth and the world. Allusion is made
to it throughout antiquity. This exercise consists in imaginatively going
over the immensity of space, and the accompanying movement of the
stars, but also looking at the Earth from above, and observing the behav-
ior of humans. It is described frequently, for example, in Plato, Epicurus,
Lucretius, Philo ofAlexandria, Ovid, Marcus Aurelius, and Lucian.
168 The PresentAlone Is Our Happiness
These efforts of the imagination and of the intellect are destined to
place one within the vastness of the universe so that one can become aware
of who one is. First of all, awareness of one's weakness-this allows one
to sense how the human things that seem to be of capital importance are,
envisaged from this perspective, ridiculously small. The ancient authors,
such as Lucian, thus allude to the wars that, seen from above, seem to be
battles of ants, and to borders, which seem pointless. It is also a matter of
letting the human being become aware ofthe greatness ofhumans, because
their minds are capable of covering the whole universe. This exercise leads
to an expansion ofawareness, to a sort of flight of the soul into the infinite,
which Lucretius describes in reference to Epicurus. It especially has the
effect ofallowing an individual to see things in a universal perspective and
to remove oneself from one's egoistical point ofview. This is why this look
from above leads to impartiality. Such must be the point of view of the
historian, which Lucian was already saying in The True History.
J C.: It is a theme that has very often been exploited by the moderns,
and in the Orient as well, even when the intention is satirical (one thinks of
Voltaire). However, most often the message is not forgotten.
This theme, like the theme of the present, has been abundantly
developed in all of Western literature, most notably in Pascal, Voltaire,
and Andre Chenier, but especially in Goethe (for example, in the poem
"Genius Gliding Above the Terrestrial Sphere") and in Baudelaire's admi-
rable poem entitled "Elevation," which begins with these verses: ''Above
the ponds, above the valleys, /The mountains, the woods, the clouds, the
sea, I Beyond the sun, beyond the ethers, I Beyond the confines of the star-
ry spheres, / My spirit, you move with agility ... ". Goethe, fascinated by
the look from above, was very enthusiastic about the first hot air balloon
flights (in 1783), by which humans tore themselves away from their terres-
trial weight. Our generation has achieved flight in space. And those who
lived this experience underwent a terrible shock and reported ideas and
sentiments analogous to what was felt by those who had lived it merely
as a spiritual exercise. They felt like stars among stars, and they felt the
vanity of borders and of all the barriers, physical and moral, that separate
humans. You see that we encounter a tradition of immense wealth, one
that I hope to be able to describe in a subsequent book.
The Present Alone Is Our Happiness 169
The spiritual exercise of the look from above, stripped of all out-
dated cosmology and of all mythology, is thus still valid today. It consists
simply of occupying what has been called "the point of view of Sirius," to
borrow the title of an editorial written for years in Le Monde by Hubert
Beuve-Mery. To put oneself in the point of view of Sirius is to aim for
the objectivity, the impartiality, of the historian and the scholar, but it is
also to undo oneself from oneself in order to open oneself to a universal
perspective. This exercise aims to allow one to become aware of one's place
in the universe, thus to detach oneself from one's egoistical point of view,
and to lead one to become aware of one's belonging, not only to the Whole
of the universe, but also to the Whole of the human community; to leave
a unilateral view of things, to put oneself in the place of others.
]. c.: Andyet, do you not think that there is a contradiction between the
point ofview ofSirius, which should necessarily move us away from humans,
and the concernfor community, which places us among humans?
I once read a text on an invitation card that was attributed without
reference to Einstein-a text that expresses so well what I have just tried
to say that I feel obliged to cite it: "Ahuman being is only a part, limited
in time and space, of the Whole that we call the 'universe.' However, he
considers his person, his thought, his sentiments as a separate entity. This
is a sort of optical illusion that locks us into a kind of prison, since we can
only see in it our own aspirations and since we give our affection only to
the people who are closest to us. It is our duty to leave these narrow limits
and to open our hearts to all living beings and to all of nature in its mag-
nificence. No one is capable of attaining this goal, but our efforts to arrive
there continue to free us and to bring inner security." This is precisely
the sentiment from above that allows humans to escape their limits, that
puts humanity back in the Whole, and that at the same time allows us to
become aware that we are a part of the Whole, leads us to open our hearts
to all living beings. Everything is Stoic in this text, even the idea of the
inaccessible character ofwisdom. Is it really from Einstein? Michael Chase
and I have looked for years in the published works of Einstein. It is impos-
sible to find it. Perhaps it is hidden in a letter? It effectively corresponds
rather well to the ideas of the great scientist, who wrote, for example, that
in order to know the authentic value of a human, one must ask to what
170 The Present Alone Is Our Happiness
degree and to what end he has freed himself from himself." In any case,
in the text I cited, one sees the intimate connection between, on the one
hand, the passage from a partial vision to a universal vision, and on the
other hand, an awareness of the duty to put oneself in the service of the
human community.
J C.: Is this concernfor the human community found in all the ancient
philosophical schools, or is it properly Stoic?
One already finds it in Plato's attempts at political reform in Syracuse.
Afterward, there is progress with Epicurus, who in the life of his school
made no distinction between free men and slaves. Finally, the idea of hu-
mankind seems to appear only in the Stoics, to the extent that they extend
the concept of the city to the community of reasonable beings. What is
the human? asks Epictetus, and he answers, a part of the city, that is, of
the great city, the city of the gods and of humans, as well as a part of the
lesser city, which is merely the image of the universal city.'
The most decisive Stoic text is from Seneca. The eminent dignity
of every human is recognized, and the idea of human rights is implied
in Letter to Lucilius. Seneca criticizes the circus acts in which naked and
unarmed men are put to death as a chastisement for their crimes, and in
this connection he uses the expression "the human, a sacred thing for the
human."6 It is worth noting that he uses it in reference to people who were
considered to be criminals. It is the human as human that is a sacred thing
for the human. For the human of antiquity, the word sacred is charged
with religious value. Epictetus, for his part, speaks of slaves as "sons of
Thus the Stoics had a sharp sense of what one could call the social
vocation of humans, the service of the human community, and thus of
the political duty of the philosopher. In his eyes, however, the philosopher
must not exercise political activities in a state in- which one would have
to renounce one's moral principals in order to exercise them. The Stoics
require a close relation between morality and politics.
J C.: Has ancient history conserved any traces ofpolitical action by
Stoicism and the Stoics?
The PresentAlone Is Our Happiness 171
Throughout the history of ancient Stoicism, one can observe the
testimonies of political action they exercised. In the third century before
our era, the king of Sparta, Cleomenes, was inspired in his reforms by the
Stoic Sphairos. These reforms insured the absolute equality of all citizens
by opposing all division into social classes, and proposing the equality of
men and women, the division of the land, and the repayment of debts.
In the second century before our era, the famous agrarian reforms of the'
Gracchi brothers are pursued in a Stoic milieu, that of the Scaevola family,
and also under the influence of the Stoic Blossius. They are inspired by the
compassion for misery, remarkably expressed in a passage ofa discourse by
Tiberius Gracchus. After the failure ofTiberius Gracchus, the philosopher
Blossius fled to Asia, to Aristonicus, who was fighting the Romans for
the kingdom of Pergamon and had the political program of liberating
the slaves and establishing the equality of citizens. Provincial governors,
such as Quintus Mucius Scaevola, also applied humanitarian principles
of Stoicism as their way of administrating the provinces." But I am giving
a history lesson, so I will pass very quickly and regretfully over the Stoic
opposition to the empire in the first century after Jesus Christ.
]. C.: But in the following century, a Stoic will become emperor; it will
be your dear Marcus Aurelius. Can one perceive traces of Stoicism in his
One thing is certain: he did not envisage sensational reforms like
King Cleomenes or like the Gracchi. But in his book he praises those,
Stoics or otherwise, who fought and died for a state in which the laws
would be equal for everyone, where everyone would have freedom of
speech and where the freedom of the subjects would be respected. One
clearly sees where his sympathies lie.
Consider a few details of his administration that bear witness to
his concerns. I speak of "details" because Marcus Aurelius seemed to be
persuaded that the first duty of the emperor was precisely to be concerned
with details, for example, protecting citizens from the abuses of the func-
tionaries of the state or from judicial mistakes. The ancient historians and
jurists praise him for the scrupulous care he put into upholding justice,
by prolonging the length of judicial sessions, by always worrying about
wrongfully condemning someone, by attempting to preserve the rights of
172 The Present Alone Is Our Happiness
the defense as much as possible. The legislation of Marcus Aurelius attests
to his concern to facilitate the liberation of the slaves, even when fiscal
considerations opposed it, on the basis of the principle that the cause of
freedom must take precedence over all pecuniary considerations. In order
not to charge the provinces taxes that were too high, in order to finance
the campaigns to Germania, he auctioned objects of value belonging to
the imperial family. He had learned of the mortal falls of child tightrope
walkers and demanded that in the future mats and nets be made available
to avoid such accidents. At this point in history it is a rare example of
attention given to humble citizens. Few emperors would have been inter-
ested in what they would consider to be an insignificant detail.
J c.: I think we can agree that this concernfor the human community
is, among the spiritual attitudes adopted bythe Stoics, the one that retains the
most value for us.
Yes, the notes in Marcus Aurelius' book are precious. There is an
extraordinary lucidity in the advice the emperor gives himself to make out
all the dangers that threaten the person of action. One must take care to
respect others, to remain perfectly impartial, to be totally disinterested, to
do good without being aware of it, to avoid egotistically attaching oneself
to one's action, to accept the advice of others. All these remarks are valu-
able today.
In a more general way, this concern for the human community is
an essential dimension of thought and of philosophical life. Socrates, in
Plato's Apology, insists a great deal on the fact that he neglects all his per-
sonal interests to occupy himself only with others. Obviously one can
say that he only takes care of souls. But there were others in antiquity,
philosophers who were statesmen, such as Tiberius Gracchus or Quintus
Mucius Scaevola, who concerned themselves with the well-being ofpeople
and especially of the poor.
From this perspective, one can reconsider all contemporary action
that aims to ease misery, suffering, and sickness, and all political action
inspired by ethical motives, such as defined by Vaclav Havel when he
writes, "The only politics, the only one worthy of this name, and moreover
the only one I consent to practice, is politics in the service of the neighbor,
The Present Alone Is Our Happiness 173
in the service of the community," in order to take them as philosophical
actions, in the strongest and most noble sense of the word."
J C.: One last theme returnsfrequently in your work, the theme ofwon-
der in the face ofthe splendor ofexistence andofthe universe. Is this once again
an attitude ofthe ancient philosophers that you consider to be still alive?
You now give me the opportunity to return to an idea that 1alluded
to earlier: to live in the present moment is to live as though one were see-
ing the world both for the last and for the first time. To work at seeing the
world as though one were seeing it for the first time is to get rid of the con-
ventional and routine vision we have of things, to discover a brute, naive
vision of reality, to take note of the splendor of the world, which habitually
escapes us. This is what Lucretius is attempting to do when he suggests
that if the spectacle of the world appeared briskly and unexpectedly to our
eyes, the human imagination would be incapable ofconceiving something
more wonderful. And when Seneca speaks of the stupefaction that strikes
him when he looks at the world, he says that it often happens that he looks
at it as though he were looking at it for the first time."
We find this stupefaction, this wonder in the face of the unbelievable
existence of the world, in an entire part of Western literature. From the
seventeenth century there are the admirable Poems ofFelicity by Thomas
Traherne, which Jean Wahl went to the trouble of translating, most no-
tably the poem entitled "Wonder": "Rare splendors [ ... ] Mine eyes did
everywhere behold. Great wonders cloth'd with glory did appear." At the
beginning of the nineteenth century there was, once again, Goethe, for
example, in the song of Lynceus in Faust II: "I see in all things an eternal
livery." And more recently there was, among others, Rilke ("To be here-
below is a splendor") and Wittgenstein, who said that his experience par
excellence was the wonder before the existence of the world.
1 am therefore not the only one to be filled with wonder before the
existence of the world. But I have a scruple: this livery of which Lynceus
speaks, is it not a sumptuous veil that hides horror, the horror of the battle
for life, of these animals, but also of these humans who savagely tear each
other apart? The Stoics tell us that one must see nature as it is in and
of itself: independently of our anthropomorphic representations. There
is something true in this rigor. Certain nature films in which one sees
174 ThePresent AloneIs Our Happiness
the wildcats devour their prey suppose that ultimately this horror is a
splendor. And already Aristotle was amazed by the fact that terrifying or
monstrous things in nature repel us, although we admire them in works of
art. A true connoisseur of nature must also love its repugnant aspects. In
all the works of nature, he said, there is something wonderful.
But for the billions of humans who suffer and are in misery, exis-
tence in the world really cannot appear as something wonderful. These
things are beautiful to see, Schopenhauer said, but to be one of them is
an entirely different story. Philosophical life consists in the. courage to as-
sume consciously the fact of precisely being one of them. Certain humans,
sometimes very simple and "ordinary" ones, as Montaigne remarked, have
the courage for and thus gain access to the philosophical life. Even when
they suffer and find themselves in a desperate situation, they sometimes
manage to consider existence as something splendid. After a paper I gave
in Montreal, someone in the audience told' me that I should read Rosa
Luxemburg's letters from prison, because one could find in them some-
thing analogous to what I had said. I read these letters from the time of
her captivity in 1917-18 (she would be assassinated in 1919), and I found a
hymn to the beauty of the world on almost every page. She admired the
sky, the clouds, the flowers, the birds, and wrote, "Before such a sky, how
could one be mean or petty?" And there is also that hero Solzhenitsyn, in
the First Circle, who describes his sentiments as a prisoner, lying in bed
and focusing on the dilapidated ceiling: "The pure joy of existing makes
me tremble."
In the final analysis, the world is perhaps splendid, it is often atro-
cious, but it is especially enigmatic. Admiration can become astonish-
ment, stupefaction, even terror. Lucretius, speaking about the vision of
nature that Epicurus revealed to him, cries out: "At this spectacle, a sort of
divine pleasure and a quiver of terror seize me." These are indeed the two
components of our relation to the world, both divine pleasure and terror.
But this text is, to my knowledge, the only one in antiquity that alludes
to this dimension of our experience. Perhaps one should add Seneca's stu-
pefaction, of which we have just spoken. This sacred quiver that humans
feel, according to Goethe's Faust, before the enigmatic character of reality
is "the best part of humanity," because it is an intensification of the aware-
ness that we have of the world. The moderns, that is, Schelling, Goethe,
The Present Alone Is Our Happiness 175
Nietzsche, von Hofmannsthal, Rilke (in his first Elegy, "For the beautiful
is nothing other than the beginning of the terrible") and also Merleau-
Ponty, have expressed better, and perhaps felt better, than the Ancients
what is strange and mysterious in the existence of the world. One does not
produce this sacred quiver, but on the rare occasions that it takes hold of
one, one must not attempt to remove oneself from it, because one must
have the courage to confront the inexpressible mystery of existence.
The moment has now come for me to tell my friends of my deep
gratitude. It is directed first to my dear colleagues, Arnold I. Davidson
and Jeannie Carlier, who obliged me to develop my reflection and to ex-
press my thought about very important problems. Helene Monsacre leant
us all her efficient help for the carrying out of these interviews. I wish to
thank her wholeheartedly for her prodigious encouragement and advice. I
also was given advice, very precious advice, from colleagues who are very
dear to me: Sandra Laugier, jean-Francois Balaude, and Alain Segonds.
In rereading the definitive version of this work, they gave me very use-
ful remarks. This book was thus born in an atmosphere of cordiality and
At this point I will follow Arrien, the editor of Epictetus' Handbook.
He ended his book with quotations from several authors whom he thought
captured what he had attempted to say. In turn, I will propose a short,
chronologically ordered anthology of texts that I was unable to cite or to
cite entirely in these interviews, about the sentiment of existence or the
cosmic and "oceanic" sentiment. To comment on them would be to make
them fade. They speak for themselves, and I propose them as a way to
continue to communicate indirectly with my readers.
Tchouang Tseu
I knew of the Tao only what a fruit fly caught in a vat could know of
it. If the master had not lifted my cover, I would always have been igno-
rant of the universe in its grandiose wholeness.'
178 Postface
For my part, I have the habit of spending a lot of time contemplat-
ing wisdom: I look at it with the same stupefaction with which, at other
moments, I look at the world-this world that I have many times looked
at as though I were seeing it for the first time."
I do not know who put me into the world, what the world is, or what
I am myself . .. I see these frightening spaces of the universe around me
and I find myself attached to a corner of this vast expanse, without know-
ing why I am in this place rather than another, or why the little time that
is given to me to live is assigned to me at this point rather than another
in all the eternity that preceded me and in all the eternity that will follow
me. I only see infinities of all parts that close in on me like an atom and
like a shadow that does not last longer than an instant that will not return.
All I know is that I will die soon, but I do not know what this death is it-
self this death that I will not be able to avoid."
The sentiment of existence stripped of all other affection is by itself
a precious sentiment of contentment and peace, which would alone suf-
fice to make this existence dear and gentle to the one who knows how to
keep at a distance all the sensual and' earthly impressions that relentlessly
distract and trouble this gentleness in the here-below.
He loses himself with a delicious inebriation in the immensity of
this beautiful system" with which he feels identified. Then all particular
objects escape him; he feels nothing but the whole."
Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration
and reverence, the more often and more steadily one reflects on them:
Postface 179
the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not need to
search for them and merely conjecture them as though they were veiled
in obscurity or in the transcendent region beyond my horizon; I see them
before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my
Sacred dread, that is the best part of humans. As much as the world
makes them pay for what they feel, it is in shock that they feel prodigious
reality profoundly.?
To see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wildflower,
hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour."
Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes
away my breath; yet, like the lake, my serenity is rippled but not ruffled.
Why should I feel lonely? Is not our planet in the Milky Way?
I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself
Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never commu-
nicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as
intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little
stardust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched."
Let us suppose that we say yes to a single moment; we would thus
have said yes not only to ourselves but to all existence. For nothing is iso-
lated, either in ourselves, or in things. And if happiness makes our souls
vibrate and resonate even once, all the eternities will have been necessary
180 Postface
to create the conditions of this single event, and all eternity has been ap-
proved, saved, justified, affirmed in this unique instant in which we have
said yes.'?
All things by immortal power,
Near or far, Hiddenly
To each other linked are,
That thou canst not stir a flower
Without troubling of a star.II
Hugo von Hofmannsthal
Most people do not live in life, but in a simulacrum, in a sort of al-
gebra in which nothing exists and in which everything only signifies. I
would like to profoundly experience the being of all things."
We must accept our existence to the greatest extent possible; ev-
erything, the unprecedented also, needs to be accepted. That is basically
the only case of courage required of us: to be courageous in the face of
the strangest, the most whimsical and unexplainable thing that we could
encounter. . .. The fear of the unexplainable impoverished not only the
existence of the individual, but also caused the relationship of one person
to another to be limited. It is as though fear has caused something to be
lifted out of the riverbed of limitless possibilities to a fallow stretch of
shore where nothing happens."
Wi ttgenstein
[ ... ] I think that the best way to describe my experience par excel-
lence is to say that when I have this experience, I am amazed by the ex-
istence of the world. . . . And I would describe the experience of being
Postface 181
amazed by the existence of the world by saying: it is the experience of see-
ing the world as a miracle."
The immensity, the torrent of the world, in a little inch of matter."
The experience of the sea is too global, too mystical, to be reduced
to an interindividual relation. . . . There is an essential difference between
an interindividual relation situated in a cultural space and what one feels
when one is alone at sea on a beautiful starry night, filled with wonder by
the splendor and the immensity of the cosmos, feeling entirely engulfed
in this global space, without being able to do anything other than partici-
pate in it, and words will never manage to describe this. . . . At sea I am
not myself: I am the Cosmos."
I. Reiner Schtirmann was of German origin but spoke French admirably well.
In 1971 I was a part of his doctoral dissertation committee for Maitre Eckhart ou
La joie errante [Meister Eckhart or errant joy]. Henri Birault, the great Heidegger
scholar, harshly criticized Schiirrnann's interpretation of Heidegger, whose doc-
toral dissertation-Le principe d'anarchie [The principle of anarchy] (Paris: Le
Seuil, 1982), defended around 198o-precisely proposed to draw the consequenc-
es of Heidegger's thought: the impossibility of unifying the real around a central
principle. Thereafter, Schtirmann became a brilliant professor in the United States
and wrote a remarkable autobiographical narrative, Les origines [Origins] (Paris:
Fayard, 1978).
2. Michel Hulin, La Mystique Sauvage [Savage mysticism] (Paris: Presses Uni-
versitaires de France, 1993), 56-57.
3. Seneca, Lettres aLucilius [Letters to Lucilius]' Letter 66, 6.
4. Lucretius, De rerum natura [On the nature of things], Book III, line 29.
5. See Michel Hulin, Ope cit., 27.
6. Rene Poirier (190-1995), a member of the Institut (1956), was elected pro-
fessor at the Sorbonne in 1937, assigned to a mission in Brazil from 1939-45, and
returned to the Sorbonne after 1945. He authored two important texts: Remarques
sur La probabilite des inductions [Remarks on the probability of inductions] (1931)
and Essai sur quelques caracteres des notions d'espace et de temps [Essay on certain
characteristics of the notions of space and time] (1932). In a general manner, these
works refer to epistemology. Poirier attempted to define an "intellectual anthro-
pology." His was a mind of a such prodigious agility that, during these courses, he
also presented a number of logical theories of which I understood nothing oth-
er than that they were subtle psychological analyses of, for example, jealousy or
7. Author of Histoire de la morale en France [History of morals in France]
(1930-31), L'ldeede bien [The idea of good] (1908), and La Science desfaits moraux
[Science and moral facts] (1925), Albert Bayet championed secular morality, hesi-
184 Notes
taring between the science of morals (the science of moral facts) and the morals of
science (that is, morality founded on science).
8. Rene Le Senne (1888-1954), professor at the Sorbonne, was author ot: among
other works, Traitede moralegenerale [Treatise on general morals] (1942), Traitede
caracterologie [Treatise on characterology] (1946), and Obstacle et valeur [Obstacle
and value] (s.d.). His thought belongs to the spiritualist and idealist traditions.
From his teaching I especially retained the idea of "conflict of duties."
9. Georges Davy was a sociologist of the Durkheim school. In his book La Foi
[uree [The sworn faith] (1922), in order to explain the formation of the contrac-
tual relation, Davy attached great importance to the Indian custom of potlatch,
a gift constituting a challenge to give an equivalent gift. The word would amuse
the students.
10. Raymond Bayer was married to Emile Brehier's daughter, who took care
of her husband's students with great solicitude; I was one of them when he was
paralyzed after suffering a stroke in the United States. He was notably the author
of two important works: Traite d'esthetique[Aesthetics treatise] and Esthetique de
fagrace [Aesthetics of grace].
II. Jean Wahl (1888-1974) was professor at the Sorbonne from 1936; as a re-
sult of persecutions against Jews, he took exile in the United States in 1942. He
reclaimed his position at the Sorbonne in 1945, directed the Revue de Metaphy-
sique et de Morale, and founded the College Philosophique. Of his works one can
cite, among others, Le Rolede l'ideed'instant dans laphilosophiede Descartes [The
role of the instant in Descartes' philosophy], La Philosophic pluraliste d'Angleterre
et d'Amerique [Pluralist philosophy in England and America], Etude sur leParrne-
nide de Platon [Study on Plato's Permenides], Le Malheur de fa conscience dans fa
philosophiede Hegel [The misfortune of conscience in Hegel's philosophy], Etudes
kierkegaardiennes [Kierkegaardian studies], and Traitede metapbysique [Metaphys-
ical treatise]. He contributed to introducing the French to Anglo-Saxon philoso-
phyand Heidegger's thought.
12. Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), born in Kiev, attempted after the revolution
of 1917, to which he was not hostile, to preserve "spiritual culture." Vice president
of the Society ofWriters, in 1920 he became a professor at the University of Mos-
cow, but he was thrown out in 1922. After spending some time in Germany, where
he wrote Un nouveau Moyen Age (A new Middle Ages], he settled in Clamart,
France, in 1924 where he wrote his most important books: Essai d'autobiograpbie
spirituelle[An essay in spiritual autobiography] (1938) and his translation ofJacob
Boehme's Mysterium magnum. Both mystical and revolutionary, his work is a plea
for freedom and for the spirit.
13. Paul Henry, of Belgian nationality, professor of theology at the Institut
Catholique, and author with Hans-Rudolph Schwyzer of a remarkable edition
of Plotinus' Ennead, taught a very enlightened theology. He showed sympathy
Notes 185
for the work ofTeilhard de Chardin. In his Plotin et l'Occident [Plotinus and the
West] (1934), he revealed the influence of Plotinus on the Latin world.
14. Henri-Charles Puech (1902-86) was director of studies at Ecole Pratique
des Hautes Etudes (Section des Sciences Religieuses), tutelary of the chair of his-
tory of religions at the College de France (1952-72), specialist of Gnosticism and
Manichaeism, and editor and translator ofseveral Gnostic texts discovered at Nag-
15. Pierre Courcelle (1912-80) was director of studies at Ecole Pratique des
Hautes Etudes (Section des Sciences historiques et philologiques), tutelary of the
chair of Litterature latine [Latin literature] at College de France (1952-80), and
author of very important texts, including, among others, Les Lettresgrecques en
Occident, de Macrobe aCassiodore [The Western Greek letters, from Macrobius to
Cassiodorus] (1948); Recherches sur les Confessions de saint Augustin [Studies on
Saint Augustine's Confessions] (1968); and Les confessions de saint Augustin dans La
tradition litteraire [Saint Augustine's Confessions in the literary tradition] (1963).
He considered himself to be a student of Paul Henry and of his method of literal
citations in the identification of literary influences.
16. R. Cadiou, professor at the Institut Catholique and author of interesting
works on Origen, directed my thesis for the Institut Catholique with great solici-
tude. I say that he is mysterious because I asked myself what his position was with
regard to the Church, When I informed him by letter that I was leaving the eccle-
siastical order, he said, "It would be very difficult to give you my opinion. Because
the orientation of my sentiment is no different, I would like to be dispensed of
providing an explanation. The concordaire status of the clergy has never filled me
with admiration and I have approvingly observed a similarity in the points ofview
of Western churches and Oriental churches, in particular in the doctrine of the
venerated Cardinal Suhard."
17. After teaching at the Aurillac high school and at several other provincial
seminaries, Pierre-Maxime Schuhl (1902-84) was drafted in 1939. Taken prisoner,
he was detained in several German camps. He was named professor at the Sor-
bonne after the war. He wrote, among other works, Essai sur La formation de fa
pensee grecque [Essay on the formation of Greek thought] (1934), Machinisme et
philosophie [Mechanization and philosophy] (1938), and Le merueilleux, la pensee
et taction [The supernatural, thought and action] (1952). He also practiced the art
of painting.
18. Mugnier, Journal de l'abbe Mugnier Oournal of Abbot Mugnier], 1985,
19. Francois Leprieur, Quand Rome condamne: Dominicains et pretres ouvri-
er [When Rome condemns: Dominicans and priest-workers] (Paris: Editions du
Cerf, 1989). See also Yves Congar, Journal d'un theologien, 1946-1956 [A theolo-
gian's journal, 1946-1956] (Paris: Editions du Cerf 2001).
186 Notes
I. Rene Roques was canon of the diocese of Albi and titular in the Fifth Sec-
tion, "Doctrines and Methods of the High Middle Ages," of the Ecole Pratique
des Hautes Etudes. I met him in 1945-46, my year of study in Paris, at the Mai-
son de la rue Cassette.
2. In 1934, Paul Vignaux (194-87) became Etienne Gilson's successor as titu-
lar in the fifth section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, of the direction
d'etudesentitled Histoire des theologies medievales [History of medieval theolo-
gies], and he was section president from 1962 to 1972. He was particularly inter-
ested in the nominalist philosophers from the end of the Middle Ages. A Christian
union militant, he played an important role in the creation of the Confedera-
tion Fran<;aise Democratique du Travail [French Democratic Confederation of
Labour] (CFDT). As a member of the CFDT in the 1960s, I had the opportunity
to collaborate with him.
3. The Eranos conferences, which continue to take place, were instituted by
Carl G. Jung at an enchanting site: the Swiss shore of Lac Majeur at Ascona. The
first meeting took place in 1933, under the title "Yoga and Meditation in the East
and the West." The following, among others (the list is very long), were invited
to these meetings: H. Corbin,]. Danielou, G. Holton, K. Kerenyi, L. Massignon,
~ - J . de Menasce, P Pelliot, H.-Ch. Puech, K. Raine, S. Sambursky, G. Scholem,
E. Schrodinger, and so on. The person who most impressed me at the time of my
1968 visit was the biologist A. Portmann.
4. Thomas Mann, Lettres [Letters], vol. III, 1948-55 (Paris, 1973), 424.
5. Albert Einstein, Commentje vois le monde [The World as I See It] (Paris:
Flammarion, 1979), 10, 17-19.
6. Maurice Merleau-Ponry, Eloge de fa philosophie [In praise of philosophy]
(Paris: Gallimard, 1953), 53, 54-55
7. Rene Haussoulier, Preface, in Charles Michel, Paris, 1900.
I. Antoine Meillet, Bullentinde fasociete de linguistique de Paris, 32 (1931), 23.
2. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode [Truth and method], 345.
3. Victor Goldschmidt, "Reflexions sur la methode structurale en histoire de la
philosophie" [Reflections on the structural method in the history of philosophy],
in Metaphysique: Histoire de la philosophie [Metaphysics: history of philosophy]
(Neuchatel: Recueil d'etudes offert aFernand Brunner, 1981), 230-31.
4. Epictetus, Entretiens [Discourses], III, 23, 29.
5. Victor Goldschmidt, Les Dialogues de Platen [Plato's dialogues] (Paris,
1947), 3
Notes 187
6. Peter A. Brunt, "Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations," Journal of Roman
Studies, 64 (1974), 1-20.
7. R. B. Rutherford, The Meditations ofMarcusAurelius(Oxford, UK: Oxford
University Press, 1989).
I. Ernst H. Gombrich, SymbolicImages: Study in the Art ofRenaissance (Ox-
ford: Phaidon Press, 1978).
2. E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press,
3. Gerard Naddaf L'Origine et l'euolution du concept grec dephusis [Origin and
evolution of the Greek concept of phusis] (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellon Press,
1992) .
4. J. B. Logre, L'Anxietede Lucrece[The anxiety of Lucretius] (Paris, 1946).
5. R Hader, Preface. In E. Bertram, Nietzsche: Essai de mythologie [Nietzsche:
essay in mythology] (Paris, 1990 ) , 34.
6. Raymond Ruyer, La Gnose de Princeton [The Princeton gnosis] (Paris,
7. Friedrich Nietzsche, Humain trop humain [Human, too human], vol. 2, in
Fragments posthumes [Posthumous fragments], sec. 168, III, 2 (Paris: Gallimard,
), 74
I. Emile Brehier, La philosophie de Plotin [Plato's philosophy] (Paris: Vrin,
1982), 97-9
2. MichelHulin, La mystiquesauvage [Savage mysticism] (Paris: Presses Uni-
versitaires de France, 1993), 27.
3. Plotinus, Traite 38 [Treatise 38J, translation and commentary by Pierre
Hadot (Paris: Le Cerf, 1988), 349.
4. Plotinus, Traite 9 [Treatise 9], translation and commentary by Pierre Hadot
(Paris: Le Cerf 1994), 82.
5. Ludwig Wittgenstein. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden
(Dover: 1998), 6.522.
6. Shi Tao, LesPropos sur lapeinture du moine Citrouille-amere [On the paint-
ing of the Monk of Bitter Melon] (Paris, 1984), 45.
7. Porphyry, Life ofPlotinus, 8, 19.
8. VI, 8,34
9 VI, 9
10. VI, 9, 10, 21.
188 Notes
II. Anne Cheng, Histoire de fapensee chinoise [History of Chinese thought]
(Paris, 1997), 198.
C H A P T E ~ 6
1. Louis Gernet, Anthropologie de fa Grece antique [Anthropology of Ancient
Greece] (Paris, 1968; znd ed., 1992), 252.
2. Jean-Pierre Vernant, Mythe et pensee chez les Grecs [Myth and thought ac-
cording to the Greeks], vol. I (Paris: 1965), 94.
3. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, VI, 1147a22.
4. Elisabeth Brisson, Le Sacre du musicien: La reftrence a l'Antiquite chez
Beethoven [The musician is sacred: The reference to antiquity in Beethoven] (Par-
is: CNRS, 2000), 261.
5. Raymond Ruyer, La Gnose dePrinceton [The Princeton gnosis] (Paris, 1974),
6. "I know that I am born mortal and only live a day, but when I follow the
wise circular revolutions of the stars, I no longer tread the earth with my feet, but,
with Zeus, I am full of the nourishing ambrosia of the gods" (Ptolemy, Anthologie
palatine [Palatine anthology], IX, 577).
7. Hubert Reeves, Malicorne (Paris: Le Seuil, 1990), 183.
8. Carlo Ginzburg, "Making Things Strange," Representations 56 (Fall 1996),
I. Plutarch, Si La politique estl'affaire des vieilLards [If politics is old men's busi-
ness], 26, 796d.
2. Goethe, Gesprdcbe [Conversations], IV (Leipzig, Germany: F. von Bieder-
mann, 1910), 469.
3. Friedrich- Nietzsche, Oeuvres completes [Complete works], V. (Paris: Galli-
mard, ,1982), 530.
4. Cicero, Tusculanes, V. II, 33; Lucullus, 3, 7-8.
5. Michelet, Journal, I, 393.
6. Cicero, Letters toAtticus, IX, 4.
7. Sextus Empiricus, Contre les professeurs [Against the professors], XI,
8. Tractatus, 6.4311.
9. Spinoza, Ethics, I ~ 67.
10. C Pierre Hadot, "Plotin et Heidegger," Critique, 145 (1959), 550.
II. Faust II, verse 6272.
12. Seneca, Letters, 48, 3.
13. Apology ofSocrates, 32b, 3Ib.
Notes 189
14. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, VII, 13.
15. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, V, 6,3.
16. See the text by Marcus Aurelius (V, 6, 3) cited in r Hadot, La citadelle in-
terieure [The inner citadel] (Paris: Fayard, 1992), 217.
17. Plato, Letter VIL 328 c.
18. Simon Leys, La Foret en feu [The forest on fire] (Paris: Hermann, 1983),
19. Kant, Critique de faRaisonPure[The critique of pure reason], trans. E. Gi-
belin and E. Gilson (Paris: Vrin, 1971), 136.
20. Ruedi Imbach, Dante: Philosophie et leslaics [Dante: philosophy and lay-
men] (Paris: Le Cerf/Editions universitaires de Fribourg, 1996).
21. Immanuel Kant, Vorlesungen iiberdiephilosophische Enzyclopiidie [Lectures
on the philosophical Encyclopedia], in Kanis gesammelte Schriften, XXIX (Berlin:
Akademie, 1980), 12.
22. Bernard Groethuysen, Anthropologie philosophique [Philosophical anthro-
pology] (Paris: Gallimard, 1952), 80.
23. Kant, Vorlesungen iiber die philosophische Enzyclopiidie [Lectures on the
philosophical Encyclopedia], 8.
24. Georges Friedmann, La Puissance et fa Sagesse [Power and wisdom] (Paris:
Gallimard, 1952 ) , 360.
1. Friedrich Nietzsche, "Le voyageur et sonombre," Humain trophumain [Hu-
man too human] (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), sec. 86.
2. For example, Essais [Essays], vol. III, chap. 13 (Paris: Gallimard, 1992),
3. The interpretation offered by Georges Dumezil in Le Moyne noir engrisde-
dans vtzrennes [The black monk in gray within Varennes] (Paris: Gallimard, 1984)
was kindly pointed out to me by M. Michel Auphon; it would be a matter of the
healing of Crito; he would have been cured of the error he committed by support-
ing the partisans in Socrates' escape.
4. Montaigne, Essais [Essays], III, 13, 1088.
5. Friedrich Nietzsche, Considerations intempestiues, Scbopenhauer comme edu-
cateur[Untimely meditations, Schopenhauer as educator] (Paris, 19 66), 79.
6. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.44-6.45.
7. Jean Wahl, Existence humaine et transcendance [Human existence and
transendence] (Neuchatel: Editions de la Baconniere, 1944), 80.
8. Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnetsto Orpheus, I, 13.
190 Notes
9. Claude-Edmonde Magny, LesSandales d'Empedocle: Essai sur fa limite de La
literature [Empedocles' sandals: essay on the limit of literature] (Neuchatel: Edi-
tions de la Baconniere, 1945).
10. See Shi Tao, Lespropos sur fapeinture du moine Citrouille Amere [Painting
method of the Monk of Bitter Melon], trans. and commentary Pierre Ryckmans
(Paris: Hermann, 1984).
II. Brisson, Le Sacre du musicien [The right of the musician].
12. Tchouang-Tseu, "La Crue d'Automne" and "Tien Tseu Fang," in Philoso-
phestaoistes [Taoist philosophers] (Paris: Gallimard, 1980), 202, 244.
I. Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, II, sec. 218.
2. Michelet, Sept. 2, 1850, Journal, II, 125.
3. Protreptikos: discourse that aims to "turn toward" the practice of
4. Plato, Theaetetus, 76 a-b.
5. Plato, Republic, 486 a.
6. Plato, Phaedo, 65 e, for example.
7. Pierre Hadot, Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique [Spiritual exercises
and ancient philosophy] (Paris: Etudes Augustiniennes, 1981; jrd ed. 1993), 38.
8. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, III, 2.
9. Epictetus, Manuel, 26.
10. Seneca, On the Constancy ofthe Sage, X 4.
II. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, II 13, 3.
12. Seneca, a/CLemency, II, 3, 2.
13. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, I ~ 49, 6; cited in Hadot, Citadelle, 52, which
in fact says "not only is it not a misfortune.... "
14. Plato, Timaeus, 30CI.
15. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, X, ro, I.
16. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, VIII, 35.
17. Epicrerus, Handbook, 8.
18. Friedrich Nietzsche, Oeuvres Completes [Complete works], vol. VIII (Paris:
Gallimard, 1945), 275
19. Henri Bergson, La Pensee et leMouvant [Thought and the moving] (Paris:
Seuil, 1934), 116.
I. Marquis de Vauvenargues, Rejlexions et maximes [Reflections and maxims],
sec. 400.
2. Montaigne, Essais [Essays], III, 13 (Paris: Gallimard, 1962), 1088.
Notes 191
3. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, VI, 25.
4. Albert Einstein, Comment je vois le monde [The World as I See It] (Paris:
. Flammarion, 1979), II.
5. Epictetus, II, 5, 26.
6. Seneca, Letter to Lucilius, 95, 33.
7. 1. Hadot, "Tradition stoicienne ... ," cited in Chap. 7, n. I.
8. Vaclav Havel, Meditations dete [Meditations on summer] (Paris: Editions,
Aube, 1992) , 137.
9. Lucrese, De fa nature des choses [On the nature of things], II, 1023; Seneca,
Letter to Lucilius, 64, 6.
I. Tchouang-Tseu, L'oeuvre complete [The complete work), XXI, Tien Tseu
Fang, in Philosophes taotstes [Taoist philosophers] (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliotheque
de la Pleiade), 244.
2. Seneca, Letter to Lucilius, 64, 6.
3. Blaise Pascal, Pensees, sec. 194 of Brunschvicg ed. (Paris, 1971), 418. Pascal
expresses the sentiments of one who wishes to remain in doubt, but there is a re-
markable description of the enigma of existence here.
4. In the sense of "totality,'
5. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, LesReveries du promeneursolitaire [Reveries of a soli-
tary walker], yth and 7th reveries.
6. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, trans. M. J. Gregor (Cam-
bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 5, 16I.
7. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust II, verse 6272.
8. William Blake, AuguresofInnocence.
9. Henry David Thoreau, Walden.
10. Friedrich Nietzsche, Fragments posthumes [Posthumous fragments], 1886-
87, 7 [38J, XII (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), 298.
II. Francis Thompson, "The Mistress of Vision."
12. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Lettre aEdgar Karg [Letter to Edgar King],
June 18, 1895; cited by J.-Cl. Schneider and A. Kahn in Hugo von Hofmannst-
hal, Lettrede Lord Chandos et autrestexts[Letter to Lord Chandos and other texts],
13. Rainer Maria Rilke, Lettersto a iOungPoet, August 12, 1904.
14. Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Conference sur l' ethique" [Lecture on ethics], in
Lecons et conversations [Lectures and conversations] (Paris, 2000), 148, 153.
15. J. Gasquet, Cezanne (Paris, 1988), 154.
16. Henri Laborit, biologist, in Le Monde Dimanche, April 24, 1983.