Review: A Hedonist Manifesto: The Power to Exist by Michel Onfray, trans. Joseph McClellan (Columbia UP, 2000)

Onfray’s A Hedonist Manifesto: The Power to Exist calls for an embodied philosophy and ethics, and a profoundly anti-Platonic turn in philosophy.  Onfray’s call for such a philosophy is a call to reinvest in hedonism in a developed way against not only Platonic idealism and Christian morality, but also against lingering Christian atheism which refuses to truly break into a new episteme and thus turns profoundly negative and nihilistic.  The counter-traditions that Onfray valorizes is the pragmatic, the utilitarian, the Nietzschean, and the epicurean.  Onfray is versed in all these traditions, but I must admit that I am not fully convinced that all of them are compatible.

Onfray’s power as a philosopher is partly in the fact that he is a good writer, which Joseph McClellan’s translation maintains.  He roots much of his philosophy in his own biography and while he does not substitute the anecdotal for an argument, he does make a good argument for the context of a philosopher to always be part of the consideration.   Sometimes, however, when is not proposing his own ideas he can have bouts of lyricism that do distract from his meanings.  His historical examples and narrative work ground him, and when the grounds get away from him, he can be little hard to follow.

For an American reader, there will be a few frustrations:  Onfray’s context is French and his references assume a casual familiarity with French philosophical traditions and French cultural and legal developments.  Furthermore, modern liberalism (or, as Americans often call it, neoliberalism) is treated almost solely as an American imperial philosophy, downplaying the European role its theorization and development. Onfray does not linger on any of this long enough for it truly to be a distraction, but it must be taken into account when reading him.

This brings me to Onfray’s inclusion into the “new atheist” milieu.  Perhaps it is of its time, Onfray does not read like a New Atheist despite his love of the late and radical Enlightenment.  He sees reason as contextual and doesn’t use it in the un-defined and ahistorical way many New Atheists do.  He also believes in a heroic and Promethean science but sees all of these developments historically.  While he does have some contempt for wilder aspects of Deleuze, he has a profound respect for the French Nietzschean tradition that would strike all of the “four horsemen,” even the philosophically astute Dennet, as too continental and borderline irrationalist.

Furthermore, his calling most of the atheistic and secular cultures lingering Christian habits and morality would actually seem aimed at “cultural Christians” like Richard Dawkins.  Sam Harris’s increasing conservatism seems lacking in Onfray despite his celebration of the Enlightenment.  If this were Anglo-American “New Atheism,” it would be a much less dreary movement.

This is not mean his book is without problems: the attempts to reconcile a left Nietzscheanism with a kind of pragmaticism and utilitarianism seem to be impossible.  Yes, Onfray sees things in Bentham that both  Foucault and Marx ignored, but the selfless selfishness of J.S. Mill creates an tension with Onfray’s coalition of mutual egoism. The writings on sexuality are increasing, but this is where the lyricism seems to lose clarity the most.

While not a perfect book, it is so refreshing an approach to philosophy while being properly ambitious enough to be called a manifesto that its flaws do not diminish its excellence.

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