Posted by: gcarkner | October 28, 2018

The Search for Meaning Amidst Uncertainty: Chantal Delsol

Chantal Delsol, French Philosopher

Delsol is a prominent French philosopher, political historian and novelist. Founder of the Hannah Arendt research institute founded in 1993. She is openly Catholic, and a disciple of Julien Freund and Pierre Boutang, describes herself as a “liberal-conservative“. Her analysis is that contemporary man, like the mythological figure Icarus, has flown too close to the sun–utopian ideology. She is one of the world’s most insightful social and cultural writers.

Modern man is not a zombie or a monster, but a drifter with an unhappy conscience, because, having a right to everything, he is fulfilled with nothing, and due to this dissatisfaction, he does not even know the name of what he is looking for. He is in self-exile from his own universe….But periods of metamorphosis hold within themselves the hope of meaning. (Icarus Fallen, xxvii)

To have meaning is to stand for something other than oneself, to establish a link with a value, an idea, an ideal beyond oneself. Life has meaning, for example, for those who spend their lives in search of a cure for a disease., or in the struggle against injustice, or just to show every day that society can be more than a jungle. The link one establishes with this value or idea confers a higher value on life….A life that has meaning recognizes certain references….In other words, it is paradoxically worth something only to the extent that it admits itself not to be of supreme value, by recognizing what is worth more than itself, by its ability to organize itself around something else. Everyone will admit that existence is at once both finite and deficient. We consider society to be mediocre, love insufficient, a lifespan too narrow. The person whose life has meaning is the one who, instead of remaining  complacently in the midst of his regrets, decides to strive for perfection, however imperfectly, to express the absolute, even through his own deficiencies, to seek eternity, even if only temporarily. If he spends his life making peace in society or rendering justice to victims, he is effectively pointing, even if it is with a trembling finger, to the existence of peace and justice as such….By pursuing referents, he points to them. He awkwardly expresses these impalpable, immaterial figures of hope or expectancy….Individual existence, when it means something, points to its referent through its day-to-day actions and behaviours, the sacrifices it accepts and the risks it dares to take….The seeker moves forward, all the while wondering, “What is worth serving?” Individual existence structures itself through the call for meaning. Existence is shaped by questions and expectations.

~Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen, (4-5)

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Western man at the beginning of the twenty-first century is the descendant of Icarus. He wanders into the world he has fallen. It is as if someone has thrown him into a game without giving him rules. When he asks around for instructions, he is invariably told that they have been lost. He is amazed that everyone is content to live in a world without meaning and without identity, where no one seems to know either why he lives or why he dies. (Icarus Fallen)

For two centuries man has attempted to refashion his condition and, in a sense, to separate himself from his former self. The major discovery of modernity consists in affirming that man invented transcendence, morality, and politics from top to bottom. The reasons that might have possessed him to invent these things are multiple, and vary according to who interprets them: to reassure himself, to escape from his natural anguish, to satisfy his desire for power or glory. In any case, what is essential here is the idea of invention. (Icarus Fallen, 18)

The contemporary era, as the end-product of the modern attempt to suppress morality, has created individuals who no longer raise the question of good and evil, and who are entirely ignorant of what used to be called “the examination of conscience”…. The attempt to eliminate the antinomy between good and evil through a denial of their differences should logically lead to carefree indifference towards these categories. Modernity has replaced the objective category of the good with what it calls values, that is, a smattering of subjective goods, each of which derives from individual judgment. By their subjectivity, values spell the death of the good, even if language confers upon them the majesty of the defunct good….Values are a form of solipsism or mere whim, depending on the degree of clarity of thought one might find in them. A purely subjective “good” is binding on no one but oneself, and can be differentiated only with some difficulty from sentiments, affections, or self-interest.  ( Icarus Fallen, 22, 27)

Ban the economy and the black market will blossom. Decree that religions are obsolete and you will have sects. Deny that human beings seek the good, and the ghost of the good will appear surreptitiously under the guise of correct thinking. Societies that attempt to rid themselves of the figures of economics, religion, and morality must put up with them in their black market form. (Icarus Fallen)

Dominated by emotion, our era overflows with sentiment. It is almost as if the feelings that were once associated with a certain type of piety have contaminated the whole population. Tear-jerking sensitivity has always been the stock-in-trade of those groups of human beings for whom existence is structured exclusively by morality, to the detriment of knowledge and efficiency. Seeking the good while remaining indifferent to truth gives rise to a morality of sentimentality. Reactive judgment, deprived of thoughtful reflection, engenders fanatical emotion and an absolute priority of feeling over thought. (Icarus Fallen)

On Relativism 

One of the particularities of our time consists in the fear of truth. We hold dearly to the good but we are suspicious of the truth…. [Modern man] does not fear what is false but what is evil…..The disappearance of truth understood as objective truth, and its replacement by “points of view” or subjective “truths,” does not stop contemporary man from identifying moral imperatives that he would not abandon under any circumstances. Where do these moral imperatives come from, seemingly born out of nihilism, like trees flourishing in the desert? (Icarus Fallen 45, 46)

Morality has reduced to revulsion, indignation, disgust, instinctive nausea, recoil of the heart against the negative consequences of ideology: “This instinctive nausea…is the undergirding, however negative and frightful it may be, of contemporary thought.” (47) Certainties are the target of such revulsion: “The rejection of ideological truths through moral intuition has two consequences: the fear of truth, and the redeployment of a new imperative through the intuition of an objective evil.” (47). It is a reaction to totalitarianisms of the past. “Certitude kills, irrespective of whether it is truth or error that nourishes it. Great certainties terrorize in great ways. Truth or the belief that one possesses the truth, is [seen as] inherently dangerous.” (47)

A pervasive moralism, reduced essentially to bad conscience, that is, to an anemic moral code, has replaced the search for truth. Contemporary man is satisfied to merely reject the objects of his disgust. His only compass in the general disorder of his thoughts is the consensus of repugnance–towards Nazism, totalitarianism in general, anti-Semitism, apartheid. There is no other solid ground to stand on. This disgust indicates an anxious search for the good….The criterion of disgust is only able to impose itself on what has already proved to be unacceptable. In order to denounce a great wrong, we must wait until it produces virtually irreparable human disasters. (48, 49)

Indignation–which is after all merely a gust of anger and one unaware of its sources–reveal the only certainties, however modest they may be, that are left in a time that is otherwise deprived of certainties. In the era of the philosophy of values, of moral relativism, we are still able to point to an absolute evil….From the discovery of an absolute evil, however, we cannot deduce the existence of an objective good, since in our time it is imprecisely the relativity of the good that guards against falsifications of the Good, and against the Good’s great temptation to rule by terror….Henceforth, morality must prevent, but not bind. Its norms are exclusively negative. This, then, is how we are able to reconcile everything that is dear to us, that is, by erecting barriers that protect us from the unacceptable, while allowing each person to choose his own good. (50, 51)

Of course there is a kind of inherent dishonesty in the refusal to designate the good….By antithesis, absolute evil, once it has been recognized, cannot fail to evoke the existence of the absolute good, which is also objective. An absolute good would also entail obligation, and this would necessarily limit individual freedom….The only moral faculty that contemporary man considers valid is a bad conscience…. This morality of the requisite minimum keeps intelligence at bay. (51, 52)

To denounce an evil essentially means to identify a good under attack….The good is understood to exist even while it is denied. It lives, albeit as a nebulous presence, in the very heart of its desertion.(52)

The identification of an absolute evil forces us to believe that an order exists beyond our will, beyond our capacity as creators of order. This identification puts into doubt not only the subjective morality of our times, but the very possibility of its being. We cannot decree that each individual has the sovereignty to invent his own values and at the same time point the finger at an intolerable and permanent universal. We cannot proclaim “To each his own morality,” and at the same time decry racism and apartheid. There is a flaw in the reasoning that we will inevitably have to confront. (53)

Dogmatic relativism suits our independence-hungry spirit perfectly well. Its presuppositions, though, and also its consequences, contradict our common vision of humanity…. Humanity thus becomes fragmented into individuals radically differentiated from one another by divergent paths–each person’s “good” being nothing more than than the destination that he has set for himself. Through this very divergence, the other is kept from becoming one’s fellow man. Relativism takes away all meaning and the raison d’être of empathetic consideration and compassion in the sense of “suffering with,” which which seems so natural….This inner certitude obscurely convinces us that a valid “good” does exist for the entire species, that is, independent of our sovereign will. Relativism which makes of each of us a species unto himself, as if to be preserved on Noah’s ark, contradicts our most profound convictions. This is why it is not viable. (57)

In short, the contemporary era cannot be defined by the absence of moral references, but by the rejection of an Evil and the apologetics of a Good that are taken for granted and detached from any idea of objective truth that might give them legitimacy….The attitude signals a refusal to go looking for such foundations, for fear of actually discovering them. Contemporary man postulates not the emptiness of truth, but the danger of truth. His agnosticism is of a new sort, born not of conviction but of fear…. The contemporary era tells the tale of a veritable flight from truth. (58)

Good & Evil

Definition of Evil: the Greek concept of diabolos–“he who separates, divides through aversion and hate; he who makes unjust accusations, denigrates, slanders; he who envies, admits his repugnancy.” The absolute Evil identified by our contemporary takes the form of racism, exclusion or totalitarianism. The last in fact appears as the epitome of separation, since it atomizes societies, functions by means of terror and denouncement, and is determined to destroy human bonds (examples: apartheid and xenophobia. See How Fascism Works by Jason Stanley). (61)

Definition of the Good: For contemporary man, the notions of solidarity and fraternity, and the different expressions of harmony between classes, age groups, peoples, are still associated with goodness. The man of our time is similar to the man of any time insofar as he prefers friendship to hate and indifference, social harmony to internal strife, peace to war, and the united family to the fragmented family. In other words, he seeks relationship, union, agreement, and love, and fears distrust, ostracism, contempt, and the destruction of his fellow…. The good has the face of fellowship, no matter what name it is given, be it love, the god of Aristotle, or the God of the Bible. (62)

The certitude of the good finds its guarantee in the attraction it induces. The separation of the diabolos occurs constantly, but one day or another it will be pursued by mortal shame…. By experience, we know that evil lies in the excesses of [a particular] good. That is why we refuse to search for the rational foundations of the good, why we voluntarily allow our conception of the good to remain purely instinctual. (62, 63)

In the wake of the 2016 American election, and the obvious political tensions dividing Europe today, much has been written about the terrifying divide – seemingly chasmic in proportions – separating the citizens of the Western world. The bulk of that writing has sought to describe that division in political terms, as a conflict over immigration or free trade. Delsol’s book points, convincingly, to a more frightening possibility: that the citizens of the Western world now no longer share a common vision of the good. ~Philip Clark in a Review of Icarus Fallen

 


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