Settling the Score Between Camus and Sartre

In Israel this week, controversial Frenchman Michel Onfray makes philosophy into a way of life.

He defines himself as a writer, philosopher-hedonist and teacher at one and the same time, and views as an art the making of philosophy into a way of life. Michel Onfray, 54, was in Israel for the first time this week: The occasion was the opening of events to mark the centenary of the birth of philosopher and writer Albert Camus. In this context, Onfray participated yesterday in a conference on Camus organized by the French Embassy and the French department of Tel Aviv University.

Despite the combative and wrathful image that comes across from TV interviews with Onfray, his agreement to conduct this interview via e-mail was gracious and was conducted with infinite generosity.

Onfray is direct and amused, formulating his detailed and clear replies to questions that dealt mostly with the differences between Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre and what distinguished them, but he also speaks about himself as a philosopher and an individual involved with every fiber of his being in what is happening around him.

Onfray has written more than 30 varied, fascinating and sometimes scandalous books of philosophy, and has a huge number of followers, who include both admirers and haters. Many see him as "the bad boy" of contemporary philosophy, which doesn't stop his many admirers from worshiping him, buying his books or gluing themselves to the radio station France Culture, on which he lectures regularly about philosophy, art, political struggle, hedonism and psychoanalysis.

Onfray is also a regular guest on TV culture shows, where he invariably stirs debate. For example, when three years ago he published his book "Freud: Twilight of an Idol," he aroused the wrath of the community of French psychoanalysts. As an avowed atheist, he came out strongly against Freudian analysis, which he described as having turned into a religion, and against the "worship" of Sigmund Freud - the idol who aimed to transform psychoanalysis into a science, but who, in Onfray's opinion, failed in his mission. Of the close connection between his life as an individual and his life as a philosopher - or more precisely, about the way in which he implements his philosophy, Onfray says: "The connection is as close as can possibly be, or at least I hope so. My father worked in agriculture and my mother was a cleaning woman, so that sociologically, there was no likelihood that one day I would be answering questions to a newspaper like Haaretz. I discovered philosophy in my youth when I read 'wildly,' and thus I was exposed to the world of ideas.

"At 17, when I was accepted to university, I fell in love with my teacher of classical philosophy. I discovered that philosophy wasn't just rhetoric but rather a way of life. That's the reason I try to live my thinking and to think my life, and this means living and thinking modestly but comfortably. I prefer a 'small' theory that makes big waves with practical implications to a 'big' theory that can't be realized."

Onfray also defines himself as a hedonist, and has written a lot about this: "The writer [Nicolas] Chamfort, who was interested in morality, defined hedonism well: 'To enjoy and make others enjoy without doing ill to yourself or to others, this is the foundation of all morality.' To enjoy - that's easy, but to make others enjoy is already more complicated. And even more complicated is not doing ill to yourself or others. This is a theoretical, but also an existential, problem.

"My books testify to my theoretical positions and the way I conduct my life - to the practical side. My attitude toward money, power and respect is one of distance: I have created, on a volunteer basis, two popular universities, which I am directing on a nonprofit basis; I resigned from the establishment educational system after 20 years of service, and I have given up a lecturer's salary; I have refused all the prizes and medals I have been offered (often honorary degrees abroad, or a senior lecturer position at an American university ). I do not fill any establishment power position and refuse to teach at a university, so as to be able to teach philosophy at a vocational high school in the hinterlands. As for my personal life, I do not expose details about it, because that would also require exposing others, and in this I try to put my theory to the test," he says.

The Popular University of Caen, which Onfray founded in Normandy, where he lives, is his greatest pride. Is it indeed intended for "the people," as its name indicates, or does it constitute an act of protest against the traditional academic establishment?

Onfray: "It is 'popular' and not 'proletarian' - a university intended for the most general public possible. For the establishment, philosophy is both an elitist and an idealist discipline: In high school, it is a compulsory subject; at university, they teach the idealist line. They are conducting a conversation with themselves.

"I wanted to talk with the largest number of interlocutors, as in Socrates' day - not only with students who are preparing for their matriculation exams or their future doctorates, but also with construction workers, dockworkers, fishmongers. As opposed to the traditional frameworks, where they make do with historical studies or commentaries on the philosophers, we read them in the original. I want to renew the ancient tradition - from thousands of years ago, in which they didn't enclose philosophy within the walls of the establishments, but rather opened it to everyone."

Sartre's charms

At the Tel Aviv University conference, Onfray was slated to talk about his book "The Libertarian Order: The Philosophical Life of Albert Camus." It is one of the most important and fascinating books written about the great philosopher, who for too many years was not accorded the recognition he deserves and was rejected by the "prestigious" philosophical circles in France.

Anyone who studied philosophy in the 1970s was captivated by Sartre's charms. The trendy thing was to adopt the positions of Sartre and his associates in a sometimes violent ideological debate - against the unfashionable Camus. Onfray was in his 20s in the '70s. Did he too "fall" into that trap?

"Of course, during that period I preferred Sartre, because I was a victim of the legend the Sartre-[Simone de] Beauvoir couple created around themselves. They pursued publicity. Beauvoir wrote the memoir that was published by the publisher I admired at the time (Gallimard ), but Beauvoir lied, censored and hid many things. I believed what I read, because at the age of 20 you don't yet have the critical vision that enables you to discern the human comedy. While they lived, Sartre and Beauvoir made sure to check every line published about them. Only after their death, the publication of books of their letters, biographies and testimonies began to reveal the deceptions and lies they had spread: Sartre didn't escape from the stalag as he had written, but rather was released thanks to the intervention of Drieu La Rochelle, a writer known as a collaborator with the Nazis; Sartre was not active in the Resistance, but rather in 1941 and also in 1944 wrote and published in the collaborators' newspaper Comoedia.

"That newspaper also named him 'Writer of the year' in 1943. Sartre himself asked the paper's director to help Simone de Beauvoir get accepted to work at the Petain government's station Radio Vichy, and indeed she worked there in 1944. I didn't know all these facts when I was 20 years old."

Onfray discovered Camus when he was 17. "I read him but still through the 'Sartrean' glasses of that period. It has to be added that for the most part, the Parisian intelligentsia identifies to this day with Sartre, despite what they now know about the man. I really discovered Camus in 2002, through reading his complete oeuvre when I started teaching my course 'History of philosophy in the 20th century.'"

In Onfray's opinion, Sartre conducted himself throughout his life like a student: "He thought and wrote like a student at the school of higher education he attended. In his book 'The Words,' he writes that he was interested in only one thing: a place in the history of literature. His life was opportunistic and cynical, and he did everything he could to achieve his goal.

"Camus had a different goal: He didn't chase international fame but rather stuck to his poor, modest, wretched origins. He shaped his life on a basis of loyalty to his father, who died when he was only eight months old, but who bequeathed to him two or three basic ideas, among them a total opposition to the death sentence. All his life Camus waged a battle against the death penalty. In the 20th century, which was a century of barbarity of all sorts - of fascism, Marxism-Leninism, Nazism, Stalinism, liberal capitalism, concentration camps, the gulag, the atomic bomb - Camus insists and still argues that, 'there will never be a sufficient reason to kill a human being.' He remained coherent throughout his life."

'Child of the Republic'

Camus' childhood and youth had a decisive effect on his writing and his philosophical thinking: "His father died when he was a baby, his mother was a war widow and cleaned houses, and he in effect grew up as 'a child of the Republic,' in other words a child who was clothed, nurtured and educated with moneys of the French Republic. Thanks to his education at the public schools and scholarships, he was able to attain a university education. When he came down with tuberculosis at the age of 17, he was unable to take the entry exams for pedagogical studies, and also was unable to become a teacher of the lower grades. He made a living at small jobs but in the meantime he discovered theater, literature and philosophy, and was 'saved' thanks to them. When he became a journalist, writer and philosopher, he spoke on behalf of those who are not able to speak: on behalf of his dead father, his mute mother, his playmates in the streets of Algiers, the simple workmen who helped his mother, laborers he met. Camus was faithful to his poor childhood."

Onfray also likes to emphasize Camus' joining of the Resistance, right in the first moments of the war: "It must be remembered that this man, who as early as 1938 attacked the National Socialists in the press, tried to enlist immediately upon the outbreak of the war, but was rejected because of his illness. His repeat application was also rejected. He taught Jewish children without pay, because in Algiers, as in France under the Vichy government, they were forbidden to attend public schools. Throughout the entire war, he continued to write in the underground newspapers. In July 1943, he published the collection 'Letters to a German Friend,' which criticized German nationalism, joined the national committee of the Resistance, and published in the underground newspaper Combat, which he later ran. Camus' trajectory is beyond reproach ... "

As for Camus' position regarding the Algerians' struggle for independence from the French colonial regime, a position that elicited harsh criticism from Sartre and his circle, he writes: "They accused him of supporting the colonial forces and the policy of violent suppression of the Algerian freedom fighters. That is ridiculous! Sartre, who 'missed' the Resistance, enlisted in the Algerians' struggle for independence only in 1960 - just two years before they won that independence. The struggle for freedom began long before then, back in 1954. Camus took a stance against the colonial regime back in 1938, and during the years he was writing in the newspaper Alger-Republicain, he wrote about that at length, but he was before his time in sensing the danger arising from extreme nationalism. As a freedom-supporting socialist, he was opposed to all kinds of nationalism, flags, an anthem, an army and a police force.

"Camus believed in dialogue and diplomacy, and enlisted his work as a philosopher to the need to find nonviolent solutions, whereas Sartre called for violent conflicts and justified terror. On the grounds that [Camus] was not a revolutionary, he vilified and condemned Camus' views and accused him of supporting colonialism. In retrospect - looking at the results of the 'Arab spring' - it turns out that Camus saw far ahead 60 years ago."

In this context, the question arises as to how Onfray himself sees what is happening in our region, the Israeli-Arab conflict and a possible solution to it, if any exists, in his opinion.

Modestly, he responds: "The truth is that I am not familiar enough with all the details to be able to judge. To claim that I know - when I am basing myself only on the French press - couldn't be called 'knowing.' I am a sworn atheist and therefore from my point of view the Talmud or the Koran don't constitute works of political philosophy but rather writings that stand in utter contradiction to concepts like logic, freedom, feminism, secularism, brotherhood - which are my ideals.

"As someone who considers himself an heir to the 1879 Revolution and the Paris Commune of 1871, I reject theocracy and every political regime that is opposed to democracy. It is impossible to build states based on the words of some god that in my opinion doesn't exist. I myself hold free socialist views and I have no connection to nationalism, whether right, left, Jewish or Muslim. Like Camus at the time of the events in Algiers, I do not support a nationalist policy that will engender nothing but violence, tension, aggression.

"We should aspire to a flexible, post-nationalist policy on a federative basis. But who is working for these views? Violence and aggression, murder and control are within the reach of every bully - no matter what religion he belongs to. Wisdom, democracy, reason and dialogue require a lot more.

"A philosopher who does his job well refuses to pour oil on the fire - something Sartre did do throughout his life. Camus constitutes conclusive proof of the outcome of such a struggle: Though Sartre's supporters won the Algerian War, what has happened in that country during the course of 50 years of liberty? The people are still waiting for freedom. Even Simone de Beauvoir expressed her disappointment with the outcome in her memoirs in 1970. Ultimately Camus proves that a better future is possible."

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