The spirituality of Luc Ferry

There is, at the heart of the human being, a deep, ineradicable anguish, linked to his awareness of the inescapable death. “Without death, there would probably be no philosophy,” wrote Schopenhauer in the 19e century. The French philosopher Luc Ferry also attributes to our awareness of the fragility and brevity of life our “singular penchant for existential, metaphysical and religious questions”.

The great religions offer answers to this anxiety. Christians, for example, face finiteness by believing in Jesus’ promise of resurrection. Others, however, those for whom heaven is empty, that is to say also almost all believers at times, must seek wisdom elsewhere, the way, as Ferry writes, of a “life happy for the mortals that we are”.

Since The Man-God or the meaning of life (Grasset, 1996), Ferry tirelessly digs this furrow by developing his thesis of the “sacred with a human face”. A very talented pedagogue — his work Wisdom of yesterday and today (Flammarion, 2014) is the most wonderful philosophy course I know — it excels in explaining the essential milestones in the history of philosophy, in a style that is both elegant and illuminating, before trying to add its original contribution to the whole.

What is a good life?

happy life (L’Observatoire, 2022, 288 pages), his most recent work, is a new exploration of his favorite subject. The history of philosophy, notes Ferry, offers “five great answers to the question of the good life for mortals.”

The first, cosmological, is that of the ancients, mainly the Stoics. It consists, for the individual, part of the cosmos, to fit into the natural order of the world, to find his place in the universe and to stick to it.

The second answer, theological, based on a revelation, proposes rather the putting in harmony between oneself and God as well as with the divine commandments which follow. The human, here, is no longer immortal as part of the cosmos, but as a person, doomed, in Christianity, to resurrection.

The third response, that of the Enlightenment, which Ferry designates as the “first age of humanism”, insists on the autonomy of the subject, who now seeks harmony with his fellows, that is to say humanity. , and which aims for immortality in the collective memory through its contribution to human progress.

The fourth answer, that of the great deconstructors, thinkers of suspicion like Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, comes to wreak havoc on what precedes. By exposing “the alienating illusions of metaphysics, religion, and even Enlightenment rationalism,” Ferry notes, she rejects the idea of ​​a wisdom attained by attunement to an external transcendence—the cosmos, the divine. or humanity — and pleads for bringing the subject into harmony with itself. “In what way, specifies Ferry, the ideal of ‘disalienation’ prefigures the narcissistic individualism which characterizes to the highest degree the current era. »

lay spiritualism

The fifth response, secular spiritualism, is Ferry’s. Coming after deconstruction, it rejects the idea of ​​a vertical transcendence to embrace that of a horizontal transcendence. The sacred, today, what we would be ready to sacrifice ourselves for, in other words, “is no longer located anywhere else than in the transcendence of people of flesh and blood, starting with those we love. or could at the very least like”.

Secular spiritualism, or the second age of humanism, retains, from the first age, that of the Enlightenment, the idea of ​​the autonomy of the subject, of his free will as well as the attachment to science and reason, but he also retains, from the stage of deconstruction, the feeling of the limits of these ideals, to which he adds a duty of solidarity extended to all concrete humanity, thus joining the humanism of the Red Cross to that of the Enlightenment. .

To critics who tell him that his new humanism lacks scope, is confined too much to the private sphere — our loved ones as figures of transcendence — and does not make it possible to change the world, Ferry replies that the sacralization of the human on the contrary, it defends entails concern for future generations, for the world we will leave to them, and therefore imposes ecological, social (school, public debt, social protection) and civilizational concerns (secularism, the fight against fundamentalism religious).

The proposal is not uninteresting, but its originality escapes me. I have read all of Ferry’s books on the subject and I cannot see what distinguishes his secular spiritualism from a combination of Enlightenment humanism and secularized Christianity, that is, without transcendence. Divine.

The position, close to mine, does not displease me. I could not, in fact, think about my Christian faith without adding to it elements of the humanism of the Enlightenment, in particular, in a version sobered up by the thinkers of suspicion, the attachment to reason and science. The links between the two currents—Christianity and modern humanism—are undeniable. Ferry recalls, for example, that the second owes to the first the idea of ​​equality between all, which will lead to human rights, and that of secularism. I have faith; Ferry doesn’t. For the rest, we draw, to think, to live better, from the same sources.

The inhuman wisdom of Spinoza

Ferry is not wrong, admittedly, to note that the religious response, nowadays, no longer means anything to the majority of Westerners. He draws the conclusion that “two conceptions of wisdom and of the good life clash today on the question of the meaning of life”. The first is an up-to-date version of ancient, cosmological wisdom that emphasizes personal happiness, inviting us to find it in adherence to the natural order of things. The second, lay spiritualism, emphasizes human freedom, the idea of ​​individual and collective progress and the love of our loved ones as a figure of the sacred.

On the one hand, therefore, an invitation to say yes to reality and to love it as it is; on the other, on the contrary, an appreciation of critical thinking in the face of what is wrong with the world and a commitment to change it for the better. The choice is there, summarizes Ferry, between a wisdom of resignation or a wisdom of revolt.

The philosopher, it will be understood, chooses the second, but devotes his best pages to illustrating the inanity, even the inhumanity, of the first. To do this, he engages in a thorough criticism of the thought of Spinoza, the philosopher par excellence of acquiescence to reality, and of his popular contemporary cantor, Frédéric Lenoir.

For Spinoza, explains Ferry, everything in the real is necessarily determined. Therefore, the notions of free will and responsibility have no meaning, no value, even are “delusional”. Believing that we could act freely on reality is an illusion that can only generate “sad passions” such as shame, guilt, remorse or anger.

Basically, then, faced with the reality of things, we can only conclude that that’s what it is, as we say back home. Wisdom, in this logic, consists in adopting “the point of view of God”, that is to say in getting rid, according to the formulas of Spinoza, of the “illusion of possibilities”, by accepting that perfection and reality are synonyms. Thus, since there is nothing to be done to change things, we no longer have to worry about life.

Ferry tells us, in this book, that his friend André Comte-Sponville, a long-time follower of Spinoza, recently denied his former master, criticizing the “inhuman or impossible wisdom” he offers. “Living without trouble? It’s an ambition that I no longer have, writes Comte-Sponville, who traded the “divine” wisdom of Spinoza for the earthly wisdom of Montaigne. Without emotions? I would rather see it as a fault or a denial. […] Why would it be necessary, to increase our power to exist or to act […], diminish in proportion our power, for it is one too, to be moved or troubled, to suffer and suffer? »

There is, adds Ferry, this time criticizing Frédéric Lenoir, something incoherent in presenting Spinoza’s thought to readers “as a guide which could make us change, which could help us move towards greater wisdom in choosing the path that leads to it” when we consider that, according to Spinoza himself, since everything is already determined, there is no choice to be made.

This wisdom, by denying all freedom to humans and enjoining them to accept (as if they had a choice, for once) all reality, even the most cruel, is inhuman. “Only a very great psychopath, concludes Ferry, could really live, I mean other than in words, in the wisdom of Spinoza. »

Ferry, with his secular spiritualism, therefore invites us rather to say no to reality “every time in conscience we think we have to take a critical look at our history, every time we judge that it is time to transform an unjust world” . Christians and humanists will agree on this.

Is transhumanism a wisdom?

Ferry, however, pushes the envelope in an unexpected direction by pleading, in this book, for transhumanism, this project consisting in extending the time of human life as much as possible. It is not a question, as in posthumanism, of aiming for immortality, but, according to the figures put forward by Ferry, of doubling the time of human life, of living up to 150 years for example, thanks to a medicine no longer only therapeutic, but “augmentative”.

Ferry justifies his proposal by explaining that it is part of the humanist logic of a vision of the human being as free, perfectible — physically, but also morally and intellectually — and deeply attached to his loved ones. Nature, in such a logic, has nothing sacred. “It is clear, notes Ferry with reason, that all that we have invented most beautifully since the birth of our welfare states in terms of protecting the weakest is radically unnatural. Why, then, refrain from going against nature if it is for the benefit of humans?

There are, of course, objections. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was already worried about an increase in longevity leading to the multiplication of “old fools”. Humans are potentially perfectible, of course, but not all of them, as we know, exploit this potential.

We can also highlight the risks of social inequalities associated with such a project. Who, indeed, will have access to this transhumanist medicine if not the rich? Current therapeutic medicine is already struggling to fulfill its mission with efficiency and justice. Will it be deprived of even more means to indefinitely delay the death of the old rich?

What about the risk of overpopulation? Ferry brushes it aside, noting that the decline in global fertility makes it obsolete. Perhaps, but isn’t this, precisely, a crying philosophical problem? Isn’t there something disturbing in the spectacle of humans who prefer the choice not to die to that of giving life to others?

Ferry writes that there is nothing worse for an atheist than the death of a loved one. “To prevent it, he adds, I am convinced that we will end up agreeing to modify the genome the day when not doing so appears to us to be a mortal danger. However, as Ferry refuses to plead for immortality, it must be understood that this transhumanism only postpones the death of our loved ones and ours.

Where is the wisdom in this, in this postponement of the inevitable ordeal, especially when we consider the potential dangers of the transhumanist approach which justifies it? Progress is an ideal, of course, but, without limits, it borders on delirium.

Ferry rejects the idea that “wisdom does not consist in increasing longevity, but […] only trying to live well rather than live long. Yet even in his proposal, death will come. Does he believe that living 50 or 60 more years will finally give us the wisdom to face it? To hope for it, as the Stoics said, is not to have it.

The spirituality of Luc Ferry