Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Book Review: A Hedonist Manifesto by Michel Onfray

Ethics, Art and Knowledge are all subjects that can be seen to have a transcendental element. Each is capable of acquiring a religious tone, especially when they unconsciously replace the un-touchable figure of God with abstract notions of un-corrupted beauty, goodness or truth. Even in nominally secular pursuits there is often a desire for contact with something beyond the mundane and terrestrial: a desire for art that portrays an ideal form, ethics that could transcend human subjectivity or even knowledge that we can be certain to represent reality as it is.

This transcendental impulse is what Onfray takes to be the stumbling block of philosophy. From Plato's cave to Kant's Noumena and Phenomena, philosophers have been obsessed with attempts to reach beyond the material world. Onfray's alternative is to refocus on the here and now. To reject any transcendental claim that pulls us away from the material conditions of life. Drawing on Pre-Christian philosophers such as Epicurus and Diogenes the Cynic, Onfray pulls together thinkers who rebel against the transcendental impulse identified early on in his historiography of philosophy: though he later also incorporates the existential humanism of Nietzsche and hints at some of the themes in Camus in order to more fully situate his approach. The result is a philosophy that is concerned with, and exalts, the human experience and rejects any attempt to supersede our subjectivity.

The book is philosophically iconoclastic in a very exciting way. Onfray doesn't just sneer at the empty verbal gesticulations of arm-chair theorists, he works productively to identify new directions for philosophy. What's more he identifies precedents in philosophy's own history that could act as starting points for more hedonistic and concrete theorising. Onfray's case is extremely compelling, perhaps one of the reasons philosophy is often seen as an impotent practise, next to more scientific endeavours, is due its lack of material relevance Onfray identifies in this book. To quote Dawkins 'Science works'. The criteria for successful scientific research involves an improvement of our ability to control and impact the world: something which is often independent of any abstract truthiness.

Ultimately, 'A Hedonist Manifesto' is not just an appeal to refocus philosophy on human affairs but it is also a polemic in defence of hedonistic human relations. Onfray does not advocate for any particular form of utilitarianism but rather for an ethic of honour and kindness; an ethic which considers acts with the the thoughts, feelings and freedoms of other humans at its heart to be the highest good. An ethic which asserts, perhaps un-controversially, that the highest good is whatever pleases us best. Our moral responsibility is then not to God or History or any empty abstract talk of values but to each-other and we must interrogate norms and practises which suggest otherwise.

His closing suggestion for making this world a better one is decidedly humble, but perhaps this is in line with the books ethos. He advocates not for social revolution or mass immediate change, but for his readers to become 'Nomadic Epicurean Gardens'. Doing what they can to look after those around them and build pockets of micro-resistances to the boredom and tyranny of the world.

This is a far reaching book that does well to unify Onfray's critical look at our current, sorely limited, idea of what philosophy can be, with his more bold and hedonistic sensibilities. It's iconoclastic in a constructive way and subtly political in a way that is more humanistic than it is partisan. An important read for ethicists and lay people alike.

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