Western (Judeo-Christian) civilization is imploding. The crippled vessel is listing heavily; it is sinking. There is nothing we can do about it, so we may as well “sombrer avec élégance,” sink with elegance. Roughly put, that is the message that Michel Onfray has brought us in Décadence, his latest book (subtitled “From Jesus to Ben Laden”). But any such summing-up of the rather complex and alarming arguments in Décadence falls short of the mark.
There are so many things St. Martiners (French and Dutch) may rather be reading about than the dark prognostication of a philosopher in Europe. But ever since I started following Michel Onfray in his work many years ago, I’ve been captivated by his novel approaches, his prolific pen and his golden tongue; by his abilities as a writer-researcher-debater; fascinated by this man from modest origins who attended the public schools of the Republic, and has forged his way to become a veritable phenomenon: an intellectual spokesman, a one-man-political-force to be reckoned with in France, in Europe and the world.
Listening to Michel Onfray, watching him debate and defend his positions is like looking at the frigate bird in flight competing for prey with dolphins below and other seabirds above; ill-matched quarrels, amazing uneven contests! He is the envy of all of us teachers, scribblers and stutterers, more envied in France than anywhere else, I presume.
Onfray rails against “L’État Jacobin: le Jacobinisme,” (the centralized, administrative, bureaucratic role of the French state “where truth resides in Paris only.” He champions regionalism (traditional, regional, and rural cultural values, particularly the culinary specificities of the various regions of his country); I take it this includes French St. Martin. Some 15 years ago he resigned from his job as a high school teacher to work toward establishing “L’université populaire de Caen,” the People’s University of Caen in his native Normandy.
Like his contemporary, the novelist Michel Houellebecq, Onfray espouses the views of Samuel Huntington that civilizations clash; that they are clashing. He forecasts “le métissage,” race mixing, a multiracial western society: “The white man is an old thing that will soon disappear...” (Interview, Europe 1: 18/01/2017). In keeping with most of the above, he argues that France should exit the European Union, and he is stanchly against Marine Le Pen’s National Front, the national conservative political party. He is an atheist who is respectfully critical of all religions.
In Décadence, Onfray contends that the imminent signs of decline and sure death are all around us, everywhere. Key among them is nihilism (absence of values, nothing worth dying for). “Westerners, today, rely on paid soldiers who do not wish to die defending dead values they do not believe in [...] He asks: “Who would give up their life for gadgets that are now cult objects of the religion of capital [of capitalism]? One does not die for an iPhone.” Other key signs are “tribalism” [Kind of hostility to diversity and multiplicity.], and a domination of gloom, “une domination des passions tristes,” particularly “ressentiment” [Form of resentment: a kind of scapegoating that involves assigning blame on others for one’s failures, discontent, frustration, jealousy, feelings of inferiority ] (Le Point, 05/01/17).
To those who reproach the author of being, himself, an agent of gloom, of hopelessness and defeatism, Onfray replies: “I’m like a doctor who has diagnosed a cancer in his patient; you do not accuse a doctor of wanting the death of his patient or of promoting cancer: you should not accuse me of promoting defeatism or of willing decadence” (Europe 1, 17/01/2017). He explains that he studied this decadence “dans la longue durée,” that is by concentrating on long-term conditions and gradual change.
Indeed, how else could one seriously reflect on the rise and fall of a civilization? And so the sinking is not for tomorrow, or in five, 10 or 20 years; but we are, Onfray insists, experiencing the last phases of decay: “Judeo-Christian civilization is a power that has run out of steam [...] there is nothing that can be done to save a civilization that is dying [...] our boat is sinking, but we need not despair: we must neither laugh nor cry, but understand “Ni rire, ni pleurer, mais comprendre.” And we can also choose to sink with elegance ... (Interviews: Le Point, 5/1/2017; Europe 1, 18/1/2017).
In Sagesse (Wisdom), one of several other books planned for this year, Michel Onfray will set forth the wisdom that would seemingly help his readers to “sink with elegance,”
Some of us need not be troubled; neither by Onfray’s dismal prognosis nor by that of a number of other contemporary French doomsayers – prophets of decline and decay. Indeed, old-timers like me need not worry at all, our battered ship is too far gone, sinking is much too imminent! Moreover philosophers come and philosophers go and the rains keep marching down Marigot Hill. Besides, all of us readers may elect to ask ourselves: “What shall we gain by being wise? [...] Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
Gérard M. Hunt