“Knowing how to live is a duty, it is the ultimate form of knowing how to die. … When contemplation and knowledge compete with a good deed, it is the good deed that takes priority.” So states Michel Onfray in his latest book, Sagesse – Savoir vivre au pied d’un volcan (Wisdom – Knowing How to Live at the Foot of a Volcano), Albin Michel/Flammarion, 2019. Sagesse is not yet available in English; I have translated its title, various passages of the text, and I have, necessarily, paraphrased the author throughout this summary of his book.
Wisdom attempts to answer a number of very concrete questions centered on the most fundamental of all concerns: how to cope with the time that one is allotted – how to live? How to be strong when in pain, when suffering? How to try to age well? How to tame death? Whether or not one should have children? How to keep one’s word? What is love and friendship? These are the main questions the author tries to answer as he discusses activities such as “speaking,” “laughing,” “avenging”, “consoling,” “endeavoring,” “owning,” and a number of others.
“Like Pliny the Elder in 79 A.D., we are living at the foot of a volcano that is about to erupt; in a civilization that is crumbling.” The Greco-centered Judeo-Christian philosophy of the West is mythology: “esoteric theories” that are foredoomed. How should we cope and carry on? Onfray suggests that we read; that we study the writings of the ancient Romans that are full of examples we can try to follow. In a rain of volcanic ashes and fire, Pliny the Elder sets out to assist a friend in danger; Pliny dies while trying to rescue his friend.
There is no way I can to do justice to 500 pages of scholarly information and analysis in this review. In Wisdom there are enough gems to ignite the curiosity of most readers. One such diamond must suffice as an example: “Lucretius’ Cynical Poem.” This is a chapter in which Onfray discusses Pierre Vesperini’s Lucretius – Archeology of a European Classic (2017).” By all accounts, this study of Lucretius’ immensely influential poem, “De Rerum Natura” (On the Nature of Things) is revolutionary in its implications. It is a devastating critique of what Vesperini calls “the myth of Lucretius.”
Vesperini’s reading of Lucretius’ poem is in line with that of some trail-blazers: Karl Marx, Gilles Deleuze and Michel Serres; and with contemporaries: Jacques Lezra and Thomas Nail among others. Contrary to Stephen Greenblatt’s book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011), Vesperini’s argues that Lucretius was not a faithful disciple of Epicurus. According to Onfray, Vesperini’s research points to Lucretius being a “paracynique”; that is, “he utilizes the arguments of the Cynics without subscribing to their tradition.” Onfray cites one of the key sentences in Vesperini’s book: “The Romans did not believe in the study of the philosophers.”
Onfray explains that Lucretius’ famous invocation to Venus negates the teaching of Epicurus that considers the gods as superstition; that in Lucretius’ poem there are strong elements that point to an opposition between two civilizations: the Greek’s, more concerned with ideas than with reality, and the Roman’s, more interested in the real world; more indifferent to mental constructions. He adds that the opposition is also between two individuals: an Epicurus of frail health who “extrapolates” (projects) his idiosyncrasies onto his disciples; and a Lucretius full of health who believes that love is not a poison that must, absolutely, be shunned, but “a mechanics of fluids: a clogging of atomic molecules that calls for a therapy of unclogging as with faucet valves in plumbing” (p.177).
According to Onfray, Lucretius counsels to beware of exclusive love, of passionate (romantic) love in particular; he views the fusion as an illusion; he knows that desire satisfied in pleasure leads to another desire; and that all of that wears off, ends in unhappiness, in pain, suffering and regret. “Lucretius celebrates a passion that is serene: of the old couple where love is built without Venus, after her, beyond her, without her. … Lucretius’ poem is an epic, like the Iliad and the Odyssey … an epic of what? Of all that is … It is more in keeping with Aristotle’s encyclopedic genre than with Epicureanism … Lost as we are in the dance of the atoms, Lucretius proposes a clinamen (a swerve) for a new world – one for a tragic life rid of the double madness of hope and despair” (p.167-178).
Having praised the ancient Romans throughout his text, the author concludes with a chapter in which he reviews their numerous shortcomings, but not without comparing their civilization to others, particularly that of the ancient Greeks, and their followers: the Greco-Romans, the Christians, and to our modern Western (Judeo-Christian) civilization “that is imploding, crumbling.” Onfray calls for a return to the writings of the ancient Romans (annalists and historians), he lists a number of their works, and on the last page of his “Conclusion,” he writes: “Wisdom is nothing other than a book that proposes to retrieve the courage to face death for all of those who do not believe in God” (p. 474).
Gérard M. Hunt