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You cannot help but like a serious thinker who demolishes the pretensions of various fashionable currents of thought, starting with the 1968 French student rebellion, by pointing out the anti-human strains at their very heart. Or who, at the height of the academic infatuation with deconstruction, waves away Jacques Derrida as merely “Heidegger, plus the style of Derrida.” Or who renders, page after page, similarly incisive judgments on the terminally self-important. That’s why I’ve had a soft spot for the French philosopher Luc Ferry since he, together with Alain Renaut, took apart a lot of nonsense in La pensée 68, later published in English as French Philosophy of the Sixties: An Essay on Anti-humanism. They demonstrated, in quite readable forays through the wilder thickets of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Althusser, Bourdieu, and many other intellectual celebrities, that they all shared, willingly or not, a misguided attack on the very idea of the human.

This assault, they suggested, could be divided into two main streams. The first is the Marxist effort to debunk “humanistic” values, such as the pursuit of material prosperity, liberty, and individual dignity, as the ideological product of bourgeois economic, political, and social forces. The second is the impulse, found primarily in Nietzsche and Heidegger (sometimes despite the latter’s efforts), to deconstruct the “idols” of post-Christian secular ethics that were, allegedly, a groundless continuation of a naive religious or metaphysical view of humanity.

In the intervening years, the names have changed, though it’s surprising how much of modern intellectual life continues to play out within the frontiers established by old masters of suspicion and their successors, without the emergence of any truly great new thinkers. Except for figures like John Paul II and others who have tried to defend a richer notion of the human person—which includes a robust sense of human dignity and uniqueness, an openness to transcendence, and an awareness of the quite palpable threats both to individuals and to whole societies that arise when transcendence is ignored—“humane” values are still largely drowned out by the old critical theories, now joined by new ones that invoke evolutionary biology and neuroscience, which render the concept of the human person essentially empty.

This is, of course, a serious problem for many reasons, not least because we saw in the twentieth century the kind of body count that a departure from the religious and humanist traditions, for all their theoretical difficulties, could run up. Ferry is not a believer, though he presents Christianity with a warm Gallic clarity in a recent volume, La Tentation du Christianisme (The Temptation of Christianity, never translated). He cannot give in to that temptation, he thinks, because Christianity is “too good to be true” and also makes us slightly less lucid in our reasoning than does philosophy straight with no chaser. Or maybe, he muses, he just hasn’t been given the gift of faith.

In any event, he would like to preserve the “humanistic” values he recognizes as indebted to the Christian tradition, even as he goes about trying to find a place for them in a chastened, post-Nietzschean humanism. Though ultimately he parts ways with Nietzsche’s “philosophizing with a hammer,” he believes it impossible to avoid both the great German’s critique of modern humanism and the need to propose something post-Nietzschean and “after deconstruction” that can support a life worthy of human beings.

His current international bestseller, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, is aimed precisely at this ongoing reassertion of humanism. In a lucid and accessible little volume, he tries to offer “spirituality” for the reflective contemporary nonbeliever who has lost faith, usually because of some modern philosophical analysis or scientific discoveries. In Ferry, however, there’s none of the mockery and incomprehension of religion to be found in the new Anglo-atheist school led by Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, et al., or even in the old French fire-breathers like Bayle, Diderot, and Voltaire.

For him, the Christian temptation is powerful and possesses its own appealing rationality. That’s the main reason it triumphed over ancient philosophy for close to 1,500 years. Along with figures like the Swiss writer Alain de Botton and the French materialist André Comte-Sponville (with whom Ferry wrote La Sagesse des Modernes), he recognizes that religiosity responds to a human need and that those in the modern age who cannot or will not believe must explicitly seek to create a non-theistic humanist equivalent to fill the void. The French title of A Brief History of Thought was To Learn to Live, and was clearly intended to invite readers to read philosophy for the “spiritual” light it may shed on everyday existence.

This is something of a new development in the post-Christian Western world, and is likely to gain some traction with the “nones,” the growing numbers of agnostics and nonbelievers in America and elsewhere. The French went through a similar intellectual exercise once before, in the nineteenth century, with Auguste Comte’s “religion of humanity,” complete with its own secular trinity, Positivist priests, sacraments, and even feast days and liturgies keyed to a new calendar. (Comte renamed the months after great human beings: Moses, Homer, Aristotle, Archimedes, and so on), and reset the years, starting over from 1789, the date of the French Revolution.) The artificial religion of humanity, as might be expected, mostly failed, though it has survived in the wilds of Brazil, where there are still outposts of this odd sect.

Comte had noticed something previous religious rebels (and their contemporary descendants) had not: Religion, for all its problems, has played an important role in every human society. The merely critical rejection of past beliefs was too weak to displace them. What’s needed is something equally strong, something positive that offers a more defensible and fruitful substitute. In that spirit, Alain de Botton has proposed in popular journals and in his recent book Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion various replacements for religious functions, including atheist “cathedrals” for meditation and “agape” tables at restaurants. In other contexts, Botton has shown a keen sense of irony about modern life. The fact that he doesn’t feel the implausibility—and more than slightly comic side—of this and other proposals says, perhaps, that the “felt need” for a spirituality that is not explicitly tied to a system of beliefs is very powerful indeed as we slide deeper and deeper into post-Christian societies.

Ferry does not propose anything quite so fully developed—or precious. It’s precisely for that reason that his ideas are likely to have a greater cultural effect. He focuses on trying to discern the theoretical underpinnings of a new non-theistic humanism. And insofar as he stays strictly within the bounds of philosophy, it’s a quite useful exercise. A Brief History of Thought looks at five philosophical responses, in historical sequence, to three questions that every philosophy claiming to be the pursuit of wisdom tries to answer: What is the nature of the world (theory), How are we to act in it (ethics), and What should my ultimate goal be (salvation)?

In a necessarily brief and simplified gallop through history, he shows how the ancient Greek philosophers, Christians, early modern humanists, Nietzsche, and deconstructionists have sought to answer these three perennial questions. He concludes with his own vision of how a postmodern humanism might be constructed despite the inadequacies of the previous solutions.

Ferry takes Stoicism as the exemplary form of Greek philosophy, regarding it as similar in several respects to Buddhism, particularly in its detachment from the world. In his telling, it answers the first of the three questions with an idea of the cosmos as a divine and eternal order. “Stoic” acceptance of whatever the universe brings, therefore, is merely a rational recognition of the order of things. And in Stoic ethics, the ordering of our emotions enables us to achieve a tolerable happiness in this life and a sort of eternal survival in the return of the elements of our being to the universal order. In this perspective, even a Greek figure as different as Aristotle appears mostly to provide rational grounds for the Stoic engagement with life.

Ferry admires much in this philosophy, particularly its unflinching realism about the world and its hope to relieve suffering humanity. But he also thinks it limited—human beings will always desire more than this high-toned resignation—and now impossible to practice, because for us modern science has shown the universe itself to be not an ordered and beautiful whole, but chaos.

Christianity, of course, also gave powerful answers to the perennial human questions, not least the pervasive anxiety that Greek philosophy most sought to abolish: the fear of death. The transcendent Christian God—a person, not the impersonal Stoic cosmos—created the world and set order in it solely out of an overflowing love. Christianity promised personal immortality to even the humblest of human beings and introduced an idea almost entirely absent in the ancient pagan world: the divine worth of every person as made “in the image and likeness of God.” Moreover, Ferry takes pains to emphasize something many uninformed modern readers might miss: Christian salvation also promised resurrection of the body, not a disembodied spiritual “heaven.” So in Christianity, the material world is not merely something to be endured, but itself will eventually be redeemed.

Ultimately, he believes, modern philosophy and the impact of modern science exploded the supposedly naive metaphysics on which Christianity is based. (Aquinas and his careful examination of the nature of faith and reason in thinking about the nature of God play almost no role in this account.) But Christianity contributed some real benefits that Ferry, in his secular humanism, still wishes to preserve. For instance, humanist thought has tried to hold on to Christianity’s assertion of individual human worth and the value of earthly life despite humanist rejection of the Creator and creation. Ferry sees these secularized Christian ideas as already present in most modern forms of humanism and wishes to defend them against assaults from several anti-humanist quarters.

The departures from traditional religious and metaphysical views among the moderns, like Descartes, Rousseau, and Kant, led to “what we might call ‘religions of earthly salvation,’ notably scientism, patriotism, and communism.” Ferry says he always found such substitutes faintly ridiculous, and he agrees with Nietzsche that these are “idols” constructed to preserve the essence of traditional ethics and salvation without the substance.

In Kant, most notably, a rigorous ethics is combined with a perhaps even more rigorous argument that we can never know the nature of the material world or of God. For Kant, that left room for faith. But for many who came after him, it seemed that there was not and cannot be knowledge of the beginnings and ends of things. So the old search for a theory of the world and for salvation was largely voided and transmuted into a purely human ethics of disinterestedness and universality that Ferry sees as “the modern morality.”

Modern humanism seemed to have constructed a viable system of earthly salvation by positing the human individual as being of basic worth (a holdover from Christianity) and reason as a force for enlightenment and emancipation. But the critical spirit unleashed by Descartes “once in motion could not be stopped, somewhat like an acid that continues to eat into the materials with which it comes in contact, even after water has been thrown over it.” The humanist critical rationality ate into itself particularly through the masters of suspicion, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud: “As with psychoanalysis, postmodern philosophy learnt above all else to distrust self-evidence, received ideas; to look behind, above, and sideways if necessary to bring to light the hidden agendas which underpin all values.” That philosophy largely undermined the masters of suspicion.

At the end of the day, he is not a Nietzschean. Ferry believes Nietzsche’s notion of amor fati, sheer love of whatever happens (a kind of latter-day Stoicism), quickly implicates us in accepting evil and massive crimes. Ferry argues, however, that the great postmodern task for philosophy is both to accept the Nietzschean insights—particularly that the usual humanist values have no foundations without a certain metaphysics and that humanist values make us soft without the counterbalancing embrace of sheer vitality—and still take our stand on bedrock notions of morality and humane action.

The Nietzschean experts will have to assess whether it’s possible, as Ferry attempts to do, to separate out “the grand style,” the nobler and saner elements, from the dross and the crackpot. The latter, enthusiasts of Nietzsche notwithstanding, were not always wrongly or “simplistically” appropriated by the Nazis. Ferry himself records Nietzsche’s gloating over a natural disaster at Nice, and much other casual hatred of humanity can be found in his work. But more important for Ferry’s project, it’s a difficult question to answer whether it will be possible to salvage some form of humanism from the Nietzschean demolition of idols and belief in the sordid genealogy behind all ideals and truths.

The post-Nietzschean humanism Ferry proposes seeks, in its approach to theory, to avoid the kind of comprehensive theorizing Nietzsche sought to demolish. In answer to the question, What is the nature of the world? Ferry replies: There isn’t one. In other words, he dismisses allegedly naive religious or metaphysical foundations for the human person as misguided and, after Kant and Nietzsche, impossible anyway.

In his answer to the second, ethical, question, however, Ferry does not allow theoretical agnosticism to relativize real moral judgment. Any decent person, he says, who witnessed the rapes and massacres at Srebrenica during the Bosnian War would see them as wrong. And wrong in two senses: wrong in that our subjective reaction to them is revulsion, but also objectively wrong in that the revulsion is a reaction (and the proper one) to something outside of us that actually exists in the world.

Finally, in answer to philosophy’s third question, he asserts that there is no salvation above or beyond us. Such salvation as may be found must be a salvation on earth that hopes and fears less and tries to participate in Nietzsche’s “innocence of becoming” (to live authentically in the moment)—except when such acceptance of fate would be an abrogation of the responsibilities laid on us by our moral judgments.

It would be easy to mock Ferry’s philosophy: The world is chaos and we cannot know it, but we’ll try to be nice towards one another, stop the more obvious atrocities when we can—or at least refrain from committing them—and otherwise chill out and “live in the moment.”

Ferry, however, does not deserve casual dismissal because he clearly wants to preserve something humanly stronger, truer, and deeper, though he cannot seem to do so without more substantial bases than he’s indicated in what is intended to be a popular treatment of difficult problems. He speaks, for instance, about the “deification of the human,” and suggests that the reverence once paid to the divinity is now (and should be) accorded to human individuals, in documents such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as in the humanitarianism of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

But a non-Nietzschean genealogist might notice the debt to Christian notions in these efforts—a debt that may come due the further we get from the source. Even more to the point, the Universal Declaration owed a lot to Jacques Maritain, Charles Malik, and other believers, and the Red Cross, as even its name suggests, depended on the Christian sensibilities of its Swiss founder, Henri Dunant.

What is most needed, Ferry suggests, is wisdom, in the sense of a concrete vision of how to live as a human being. Just as Stoicism offered a kind of spiritual practice for people facing physical and mental suffering, Ferry’s humanism offers a secular “spirituality” that would tap into the kind of love and benevolence usually associated with religion. This is precisely the kind of life, though described in more sophisticated philosophical terms, that many of the “nones” among us, those who have left religious belief and still retain enough of the old culture to aspire to lives of dignity and worth, will be seeking for some time to come.

This kind of humanism not only doesn’t denigrate religion, it even looks back at it with some wistfulness. Unlike the New Atheists’ kind of humanism, it offers an alternative that believers might find easier to coexist with. But we should not be under any illusions: There are some areas of overlap between traditional religion and this newly reborn humanism, but just as many serious divergences. For example, one of the most neuralgic points in the modern world does not concern massacres and atrocities. All decent people condemn those, even if remedies are not always ready to hand.

But what of questions like choosing to kill babies in the womb? For much of our Western history, abortion was a crime. By modern humanitarian lights, in international bodies like the United Nations, and even in large sectors of our own society, it’s now thought of as a fundamental right—even more fundamental than the First Amendment right to religious liberty. Similarly, secular and religious humanists have clashed over same-sex marriage, assisted suicide, and other questions of no little moment.

Without some substantial notion of the human person to hold it together, humanism itself may quickly shatter into several different visions that are mutually—even militantly—antagonistic. It’s hard to be in respectful dialogue, or conversation of any kind, with people who you believe are engaged in a “war against women” or “hate crimes” against homosexuals, or are perpetrating genocide in the womb.

We need something other than alleged neutrality in such cases. Ferry cites the famous anthropologist and father of structuralism Claude Lévi-Strauss who, asked by a Figaro journalist about Nazism, could only see it as just another human variation: “Well, very painful for people who are Jews, but . . . ” He was of a generation that believed it could only avoid an uncritical Eurocentrism and colonialist mentality by an absolute relativism. Any decent person will immediately smell a rat here. And Ferry finds the aroma detestable. To ignore evil out of hatred of one’s own culture is doubly mistaken and corrupt.

Ferry is seemingly aware of this difficulty, but has no clear positive response to it. He recently argued in Le Figaro, for example, that we must defend our own civilization despite its many flaws because the available alternatives are demonstrably worse. (Yes, take note: French philosopher defends the West.) While our pursuit of wealth has harmed the physical world and locked some people into poverty in developing countries, in Ferry’s view, the extensive resources we have at our disposal thanks to development allow us to care for the environment and provide the surpluses and know-how to help others find their own path to human dignity. Pace our dogmatic multiculturalists, not all cultures are equal.

But the difficulty with his basic position lies in his contention that the West is superior because “our old continent invented something unique and precious, singular and grandiose: a culture of individual autonomy without parallel, a demand to think for oneself, to leave behind, as Kant said about the Enlightenment, that infantile ‘childhood’ in which all religious civilizations, all the theocracies and all the authoritarian regimes in general, have kept humanity, down to the present day.” Freedom is a wonderful thing. You cannot be a responsible adult without the freedom to make consequential choices about how to live your life. But we’ve had enough experience over the past two centuries with this alleged “humanity come of age” to be deeply skeptical.

Freedom is a precondition to human flourishing, not an end. We say we “believe in” freedom, but we do not believe in the freedom to make many choices: to kill, to steal, to bully, to enslave. For freedom to have any real value, we have to possess already some common sense of what ought to be done with that freedom so that it does not merely become an instrument of vice—a worry that has grown much more urgent as the old principles that shaped how we exercise our freedom have receded and the space has been filled with things previously thought unimaginable in Western culture.

I happened to be walking in the park behind Notre Dame shortly after reading Ferry’s A Brief History of Thought when I saw a teenaged girl, French, wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Absolutely myself.” It struck me as, in a way, a popular expression of something Ferry is both seeking to challenge and perhaps unintentionally encouraging. Philosophy and religion both urge us to learn who we are (“know thyself,” “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free,” sapere aude). But a lot depends on why this knowledge is pursued. Much of the post-Nietzschean claims of autonomy—from God, nature, and the constraints of the social—turns into a mere assertion of will. Without robust standards, there may not be a way to distinguish between superficial self-indulgence and serious philosophical work.

Ferry’s case for a divinized notion of humanity is a serious effort to reply to the post-Nietzschean, post-structuralist, post-postmodern, pulverized and flattened human world in which we live. Ultimately, if his argument fails, it’s not from lack of serious effort but from the nature of things. Ferry is right that we cannot say things are absolutely relative because we know many that are not: genocide, slavery, torture, persecution. Moreover, we know that they are wrong not simply because we human beings cringe at the suffering these actions produce. We are ready to say not only that our “values” forbid such acts, but also that there’s something outside ourselves that makes them wrong.

It’s telling that he warns us that we should not say we human beings “need” these moral insights, because that would make it appear as if they were only a matter of our preferences. Nietzsche and others have, he believes, done an irreparable demolition job on using the argument from need. (In a parallel way, he counsels believers that it’s a self-defeating argument to say that we “need” God.) Better, he says, to state that “we cannot do without them,” in the sense that they form a quasi-divine notion of what it means to try to live a fully human life in the world in which we find ourselves.

The weak natural law argument toward which Ferry is groping is a hothouse product, and despite his clear intentions, it will only be of serious use to a few select souls. Most decent people perceive those same truths of morality without the benefit of the new philosophical clergy. Despite their alleged metaphysical naivete, their steady assumption that it’s all rooted somewhere—in God—which goes beyond Ferry’s minimalist humanist program, also seems to be something that “we cannot do without.” The disasters of the twentieth century should lead us to look deeper. As Benedict XVI has been arguing, maybe we should all start acting, not as Kant thought, in a way that is moral “even if God does not exist” (etsi Deus non daretur) but rather, even the nonbelievers, “as if God existed” (veluti si Deus daretur).

It’s good that a new generation of chastened humanists like Ferry, Alain de Botton, and a few others have rediscovered some truths that seek to compensate for the loss of religion in certain rarefied precincts. And there’s much to be said for trying to repackage them for our moment in history. It may keep some of the worst demons at bay and preserve a few islands of sanity for a brief period, but then wind up, like other recent humanisms, a shipwreck on the rocky shoals of the human.

Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. and editor-in-chief of the online publication The Catholic Thing. He is currently writing a history of the modern Catholic intellectual tradition.

Photo by Avramescu Marius via Creative Commons. Image cropped.