Whereas the philosophy of the ancient Greeks and Romans held that individuals were free when they conformed to the cosmic order, that the microcosm had to be the mirror image of the macrocosm, modernity came along with a great promise for mankind: men could better their lot without being shackled to the circumstances of their birth. With the Ancien Régime drawing to a close, this was the great message of the Enlightenment: the certainty of emancipation. The kind of self-mastery it called for was twofold, both individual and collective, secured through education, freedom, scientific knowledge, trade and, politically, parliamentarianism. What did happen to that promise in the last three centuries? Is it not the case that democracy and individualism proved to be, in that regard, utterly deceptive, since they have been unable to realize the great expectations they dangled before us? Marx showed that economic processes governed man’s actions; Darwin proved that he was descended from the apes and therefore not the king of the Creation; and Freud threw man out of himself by picturing him as a stranger in his own home. Yet, and although we have lost all our illusions as to the control we can exert on our lives, we still remain responsible for our destiny. Things can go both ways: by granting freedom primacy, has not contemporary man reinvented fate, the dreadful face of his independence once it has turned into a curse? Now, what should we favor, self-mastery in the conduct of one’s life or more substantial values like wisdom, temperance, so as to avoid what the Greeks called hubris, that is the unbridled quest for excessive ambitions?
Philosopher, novelist, essayist; author of L’Euphorie perpétuelle: Essais sur le devoir de bonheur; La Tyrannie de la pénitence: Essai sur le masochisme occidental (Prix Montaigne); Le Fanatisme de l’Apocalypse
Co-sponsored by the University Seminars Program – Onassis Foundation (USA)