When interviewed by “Le Figaro”, the philosopher reflects on the turmoil caused by the virtual suspension of religious rites as a result of an epidemic. We are in the process of deconstructing the unwritten laws that are the foundation of our civilization, he says, but in the enforced confinement that has descended upon the whole of Europe like a long Holy Saturday, hope saves us. Here is the complete version of the interview given to Eugénie Bastié by Rémi Brague, extracts of which were published on April 13, 2020, Easter Eve.
And suddenly, we have the whole of Western Modernity paralysed by a virus, a scourge that was described as medieval, the epidemic. Shouldn’t the current situation lead us to put the notion of Progress into perspective ?
The Middle Ages, since Modernity invented it, is for many of our demi-savants a convenient dustbin in which they would like to throw everything they don’t like. When these unpleasant things reappear, they imagine that it had been the medieval dustbin that managed to lift its lid.
This is a consequence of faith in progress, which has been poisoning us since the mid-18th century. 1750 was the year of two speeches: Turgot’s, a hymn to progress, and Rousseau’s first speech, which put a serious damper on it. The belief in progress is based on two indisputable facts: advances in our scientific knowledge of nature and those in our technological mastery of it. But it extrapolates from them an idea that cannot be guaranteed, namely that these accomplishments will automatically produce an improvement in laws and government practices, and through them a boost to the morals of their citizens. The whole thing has to happen automatically, on a kind of conveyor belt. Some anticipated by going in the right direction, while a few “reactionaries” made the ridiculous mistake of walking the wrong way. In a completely different, pre-human domain, the idea of a global drift towards the better also distorts popular understanding of the idea of evolution. We imagine that its engines, natural selection, survival of the fittest, etc. lead to a greater good, which Darwin never said. This “fittest” that survives and reproduces is not necessarily the most enlightened or virtuous.
The twentieth century, this low point of human history, has brought a bloody contradiction to progressive dreams: two world wars, multiple genocides, artificial famines (the Ukrainian Holodomor) or caused by the stupidity of dictators (the Chinese “Great Leap Forward”), and so on. However, it was not sufficient to deny some, who continue to dub as “advances” any innovation, even when it is dangerous, even when it is stupid. Will a pandemic be able to cure us ? Personally, I strongly doubt it.
Are our de-Christianized societies helpless in the face of the resurgence of death in our lives, in such numbers, such daily carnage ?
Our attitude towards death is ambivalent. We are doing everything we can to avoid it by adopting cautious behaviour, and by seeking cures for diseases-which is all well and good. But we also seek to drive it out of our minds, to forget it, to act as if it will never happen to us. This on the one hand. And on the other, more secretly, we see it as something ultimate. Look at Nietzsche’s famous quote, “God is death.” If this is true, it means that death has overcome the highest and holiest things, and has proved to be stronger than Him. And if power is the measure of divinity, it implies that death is more divine than the God it defeated. In this way, “God is dead” logically turns into “death is God”. This quasi-divinisation of death would explain quite well why it is kept silent: a deity is one whose name is not uttered in vain. Finally, punks and other satanists at least have the honesty to confess what they worship.
The death figures are impressive, or at least designed to be impressive, although it is never easy to say exactly what someone died of… I would like to compare them to the demographic collapse due to voluntary birth control.
One of the lessons of this crisis is that the reign of the economy has been frozen to make way for concern for the most vulnerable. Isn’t it a sign that we are still Catholics, despite everything ?
In any case, the fact that we are marked by a Christian culture is a great evidence, even for those who regret it. The Hindus, when they still believe in reincarnation, think that all misfortune is deserved, that it punishes faults committed in a previous life, that it also makes it possible to atone. Mother Teresa, who sought to relieve the suffering of the dying, was frowned upon by the upper caste Hindus. In their eyes, she took away the chance of a better incarnation next time. Believing that victims should be rescued, regardless of who they are, and in particular regardless of their religion, their role in society, their age, simply because these people are “my neighbour”, is a belief of Christian origin. It is shown in the parable of the “Good Samaritan”.
All religious rites have been suspended for believers as a means of preventing the spread of the virus. Doesn’t this suspension of communion and the virtualization of our rites (televised masses) make us feel the true price of churches ?
We live in a world where the virtual tends to replace the real. This applies to all areas. There was one exception, which was specifically the religious rites. Not because they concern the ethereal dimension of our experience, the “spirit”, as we say in an unfortunately all too common misunderstanding. But quite the contrary, because they bear it on their body. Mass is a meal, and you can’t eat at a distance. Churches are the refectories, kind of soup kitchens or Restos du (sacré-) cœur where everyone is welcomed without any kind of check at the entrance. Of course, the food that is given at Mass is not just any food. Of course, the ultimate goal of the sacraments is not to make us remember that we have a body. But they might be able to help us there as well. They inextricably associate the Most High with that which is most humble, most elementary in our state of being: to feed oneself, to reproduce (marriage is also a sacrament), to die. This paradoxical alliance gives our poor and fragile species an extraordinary dignity.
Funeral ceremonies have been reduced to the bare minimum. What should we think of this unprecedented suspension of the “unwritten laws” on which civilization is based ?
What underpins civilization, indeed what constitutes the very humanity of human beings, lies in a small number of rules. But what W. R. Gibbons calls “our beautiful Western civilization” seems to have set about the noble task of destroying them. To begin with, she discredits them by calling them “taboos”. What a beautiful word! How useful it is! Ever Since Captain Cook brought it back from Tahiti, it has made it possible to lump together the most imperious moral commandments and the most futile routines, murder and the wearing of a tie from a college of which one was not a fellow, bestiality and the buttoning-up of the last button of the jacket…
Among these basic rules, there is one that deals with funeral rites. The famous passage from Antigone where Sophocles brings up the notion of “unwritten law” precisely relates to the honours to be paid to a body, even if it is that of a rebel. In a word, we do not do just anything with the corpse of the dearly departed. We bury him, embalm him before putting him in a sarcophagus, burn him at the stake, deliver him to the birds of prey at the top of a tower, or even his family devours him in a solemn meal. But we certainly don’t treat it as just another object to be tossed into the dump. Among all the famous last words, you know those of the ecologist on his deathbed : « Don’t worry, I’m biodegradable! »
Palaeontologists stress the extreme importance of the presence of fossil pollen in prehistoric tombs from 300,000 years before our era. Our distant ancestors used to lay flowers on corpses. We’ll never know what their intentions were. But at any rate, they had a kind of respect for corpses. We are losing it. Remember that travelling exhibition, Körperwelten (1988) which became Bodies : The Exhibition, which presents corpses cast in a transparent resin and thereby rendered statues. The bodies were probably those of people who came from China and were condemned to death – China was already exporting all kinds of joy !
So I hope that this funeral blitz will only last for a short time, because it could lead us into bad habits.
Another basic rule is that you don’t marry just anybody, that which we call the prohibition of incest. We are in the process of deconstructing it, starting with a rule so elementary that it remained implicit, unwritten: one only marries a person of the opposite sex, with whom one can, if all goes well, procreate and give birth to offspring. If we continue along this path, other so-called “taboos” will inevitably arise: polygamy, incest, etc. when “society is ready”, i.e. when the preparation of the media artillery has been sufficient.
Holy Saturday is a day without celebrations for Christians. Isn’t this imposed confinement a long Holy Saturday ? Can this particular situation we are living through help us to think better on this day of spiritual barrenness ?
Holy Saturday, on which one of the greatest theologians of the last century, Hans Urs von Balthasar, reflected at length, is a very special day: once every three hundred and sixty five, those who say that “God is dead” are right. The formula comes from a 17th century Lutheran chorale on Holy Saturday, and it is there that Hegel, John Paul, and perhaps Nietzsche himself, son of a pastor, found it. The difference being that the latter is added by the “madman” (toll) that he stages in the Gai Savoir : “God remains dead”.
Christians, for their part, see in Holy Saturday the anticipation of the Resurrection on Easter Day. Holy Saturday, however, is not an empty day, a dead time. It is not insignificant that Christ was not removed from death, replaced by a stand-in, taken up to heaven, gone to Kashmir or exiled to the Blessed Islands, etc., but that he lived our condition to the end and thus passed through all its stages, including the last, thus sharing our common lot. According to the fundamental thought of the Fathers of the Church, only that which has been assumed by Christ, the Word of God who became man, and all that has been assumed by him, is sanctified: Christ had to pass through death (“descended into hell”) so that it too could become the opportunity for an encounter with God. Saint Paul says: “If Christ is not risen, our faith is empty”. But it must also be said: it is the same if Christ did not die. Death loses nothing of its tragedy, but it is also a place where God can be found: “If I lie down in sheol, you are there” (Psalm 139:8). God never forsakes us.
As a result, death ceases to be that ultimate reality to which punks have the frankness to make visible worship, and all our hypocritical culture, an un-avowed worship. This message of life is relevant wherever death lurks, as is the case at the moment. And it’s basically a chance, as you say, that this confinement extends until we don’t know when, that one day. It could act like a magnifying glass that would magnify it enormously. May it give us a better, closer look at what it means. It’s up to us to seize the opportunity.
For Christians, we are in the time of the ascent towards Easter. What message can the resurrection deliver in these tragic times ? What hopes do you have for our civilization as we emerge from this crisis ?
For our civilization, I have little hope. But you’re right to talk about hope. Only hope can help us. It is one of the three so-called “theological” virtues, along with faith and charity. These virtues are in themselves not excessive. What distinguishes them from the other virtues, where excess in one hinders the practice of the others. For example, excessive caution can make us forget our duty to help our fellow man. On the other hand, you can’t believe too much, love too much, hope too much. The last object of these virtues is in fact infinite: God who, out of pure charity, prepares for us “that which the eye has not seen, that which has not ascended into the heart of man”.
Specifically, as they say, it is possible to hope, this time from a very human expectation, a small awareness of the limits of our condition, of “our scope”, as Pascal said.
Interview conducted on behalf of Le Figaro by Eugénie Bastié.