Michel Onfray is a typically French philosopher: rebellious yet conventional, political but not parti pris, half shaman, half fool. He also promotes lesser known vegetablesby Tim King / December 22, 2007 / Leave a comment
Michel Onfray is that profoundly French thing: a public and popular philosopher. In France there seems a deep need for such a figure: a rebel contesting ideas we take for granted, whose only credentials are his knowledge and the semi-magical epithet “philosopher,” revered by some, reviled by others, half shaman, half fool. Considered a noble and necessary calling, it stretches back to Voltaire and Rousseau, by way more recently of Sartre and Camus. But the rebel must remain acceptable—otherwise no one listens to him, a delicate balance: L’homme révolté but not revolting
Many readers of Prospect will know Onfray through his recent book Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. In France, where the issue of organised monotheism arouses terrible passions, the Manifesto became a bestseller. But there is far more to Onfray than a godless world. The two keywords in his galaxy are libertaire and hédoniste. Libertaire: the refusal to accept any constraint on personal freedom, the anarchist. Hédoniste means not fast cars and faster women, Onfray told an interviewer, “but the hedonism of being, the existential pleasure of sculpting one’s self, one’s life, independent of having. It involves civility, delicacy, politeness, attentiveness and caring for others.”
Both words are political statements—in France to appeal to a wider public the philosopher has to be political. “It’s hard for me to imagine a philosopher disconnected from the world, indifferent to the cares of his country, unmoved by poverty, unemployment: I am a committed citizen.” But Onfray’s vision of what constitutes a just society bursts the rigid lines of political parties: “Socialists find me too far left; Trotskyites not far enough; ecologists say I am too happy eating foie gras, defending nuclear energy and GM plants; feminists find I am not enough of a woman; anarchists a petit-bourgeois who has sold out because I believe in universal suffrage.” Onfray is anti-free market, but not necessarily anti-capitalist. The root of society’s ills, he believes, is our obsession with performance and success, our mistaken conviction that possessions brings happiness.
In this year’s presidential campaign he initially allied himself with José Bové, whose quixotic tilting at industrial agriculture touches a chord with many French, but on the eve of the election dropped him to endorse the previously rubbished Ligue communiste révolutionnaire. This predictable unpredictability, the mark of the true ultra-libertaire, makes Onfray a popular rebel—skilled at that particularly French art of shocking while remaining deeply conventional. In 2002, after 20 years teaching philosophy, he heretically proclaimed that the Education nationale was stultifying young minds. Ostentatiously he set up a People’s University at Caen in Normandy to offer philosophy to all, particularly those from backgrounds like his own (Onfray’s father was an agricultural labourer), where philosophy is unknown. Whether it achieves that aim or not, Onfray’s course at the UPC is popular—600 people turn up every week for his lectures, which are later broadcast on national radio and distributed on CD. But his teaching is far from revolutionary—hence its popularity. He teaches exactly as he was taught, that is, focusing on history and not on rethinking how to think, or indeed what to teach. The difference with his “Counter-history of philosophy” course is that he teaches philosophers passed over by the set books, like Pierre Charon, Jean Meslier and Robert Owen. But it is history nevertheless.
A public philosopher must work hard to stay in the media spotlight. Onfray is often on television and radio, topping up his exposure with conferences and interviews. He has written 30-odd books, which draw on his wide reading (an inveterate namedropper, like Montaigne, he reminds us of how little we know) interspersed with flashes of wit: “God created water, Man created wine, each created according to his abilities.” Onfray is acclaimed for his style, which is ornate and exuberant. He laboriously reworks it, he says, out of politeness to the reader.
Fittingly for a hedonist, food is a passion for Onfray, and like many French writers he can describe the simple pleasures of food to perfection. Often he shows the influence on philosophers of the food they ate. But hedonism is also about helping others to experience pleasure, and when he found out that eating badly costs more than eating healthily, that low-income families ruin themselves eating junk, he set up the Popular University of Taste, also in Normandy—a garden where lesser-known vegetables are grown and a kitchen where students are taught how to cook them. In France, this does not mean shoving them in boiling water. Onfray lures chefs from prestigious restaurants to demonstrate how to cook Jerusalem artichokes, swedes, black salsify and squashes so they will delight even the fussiest child—cheaply. Tilting at windmills again? “I am a resister who believes the task endless, hopeless, lost—but necessary all the same. Nothing will have changed, obviously, but at least I shall not have collaborated.”
© Tim King. “France profonde” will be taking a break in the magazine but will continue as a blog