29 Mar

Chantal Delsol, The Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century: An Essay on Late Modernity trans. by Robin Dick (ISI Books, 2006)

Category: What We're Reading
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 03/29/07

Hope for the future rests on the double certitude of man's frailty as well as his promise. These two certainties are interwoven opposites. To deny man's frailty leads to utopia. To deny his promise makes the certainty of his frailty lead to cynicism or inflexibility. A humanity that is marked by its failings can cling to hope only if it also carries within itself potentialities that are yet to be achieved. Chantal Delsol, The Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century

In The Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century: An Essay on Late Modernity, French philosopher Chantal Delsol describes the spirit of the age, what the age has inherited from modernity, and wherein lies hope for the future. Delsol notes that modernity, the age of totalitarian regimes, has left man with little hope for the future and little hope in institutions. It has left man clinging to the certainty that individuals have dignity, but without a framework for establishing why man has dignity or in what his dignity is found. She describes why totalitarian regimes came to dominate the political and social spheres, how they have failed and what remains of their attitude towards man, and what needs to be recovered or emphasized for a new era to be born out of late modernity. She writes: "To ward off totalitarianism, it is not enough to dismiss it; totalitarianism must be replaced. The question of hope then ceases to be an academic debate. If we still have the value of personal dignity to defend, it becomes a question of responsibility: what must we become in order to safeguard that principle? Who is the person-subject, possessor of dignity, and what kind of common world can guarantee his existence?" (p. 9)

Before the age of totalitarian regimes, man found meaning for life and the cosmos in the cultures and institutions in which he was embedded. His sense of dignity came from the reality of his being distinct from other living beings, from his ability to confer meaning on the world and its happenings. Eventually, however, man rejected the idea that meaning was conveyed to him from the outside and tried, instead, to internalize it. When the weight of meaning and existence became too much to bear, man looked for help to regimes which promised to care for him, to give him meaning, and to provide hope for the future. Thus was born the age of totalitarian regimes and hope in progress for the future. These regimes, however, did not understand human nature and justice and ended up stripping man of his dignity and slaughtering their citizens by the thousands. In the wake of these regimes, man is left with no sense of hope for the future, no cultures or institutions from which to gather meaning, and a sense of dignity but no structure to support it. The time is ripe, notes Delsol, for man to grow up. To take responsibility for his circumstances, to commit to imperfect relationships even though they will be problematic, to commit to communities and cultures from which he can draw meaning, and to begin to transmit his culture to the next generation. It is time for man to acknowledge both the frailty and promise in subject-persons and to begin to nurture them for the sake of society. It is time for him to "risk being" in an objective, imperfect order, knowing that he is equipped with the tools for navigating his way. Delsol writes: "The future belongs to those who will work to promote the excellence of beings. Everything that nurtures the subject will also nurture society. The converse is no more than a farce drenched in blood." (p. 198)

The Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century consists of sixteen chapters, notes, and an index. Chapter titles are: "Introduction"; "The Insularity of the Human Species"; "The Unalterable Human Form, or the Lessons of the Twentieth Century"; "Derision and Revolt"; "The Traces of a Wounded Animal"; "Insufficiency and the Human World"; "Must the Subject Be Saved?"; "The Modern Subject, or Incomplete Certitudes"; "The Figure of the Witness"; "Common Values as Language"; "Economics as Religion and the Paradoxes of Materialism"; "Human Rights, Body and Soul"; "The Universal as Promise"; "The Ubiquity of Evil"; "Interiority and Eternity"; and "Conclusion."

Delsol's emphasis on the importance of the person and his relationship to other people and institutions outside of himself resonates with the work of several scholars in an anthology edited by Wilfred McClay, titled Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Person in the American Past, published by William B. Eerdmans in 2007. Several of the writers discussed their essays on the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal; guests include Eugene McCarraher, Christopher Shannon, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, and Eric Miller. The anthology studies the history of personhood and the self in America. It advocates a definition of personhood that honors individuals as subjects defined in part through their limitations and various moral obligations. The wisdom from this collection begins to answer Delsol's questions of: what sort of being is a subject-person; from whence comes his dignity; and how might he best be nurtured?

Delsol's Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century is a sequel to her earlier work Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World, which ISI Books published in 2003. Icarus Fallen is a lucent and poetic description of man's condition in the modern world, which claims that meaning is not inherent in man or the cosmos, and that man can define himself as he sees fit. She writes that man in the modern world is as Icarus would have been if, instead of dying, he would have crashed back to the earth after flying too close to the sun: wounded, confused, not sure about how to go on with life in light of the fact that he cannot do or be whatever he wishes, in light of the fact that the cosmos is not his to contrive. The existence of man signifies the existence of God, she writes, and even if he denies that reality and the truth about his relationship to God and the world, those realities still exist and tug at him.

Icarus Fallen comprises a forward, a translator's preface, an author's preface to the English edition, an introduction, four parts (divided into nineteen chapters), a conclusion, notes, and an index. Part one, titled "A Condition Deprived of Meaning," consists of chapters one through four, titled: "Existence as Sign"; "The Rejection of the Figures of Existence"; "Black Markets"; and "The Danger of a Return to Essentialism." Part two, titled "The Revelations of the Devil," includes chapters five through eight, titled: "The Good without the True"; "The Morality of Complacency"; "A Morality of Emotion and Indignation"; and "The Clandestine Ideology of Our Time." Part three, titled "The Urgent Need for a New Anthropology," includes chapters nine through fourteen, titled: "Is Democracy Unsurpassable?"; "The Rejection of Worldviews"; "The Fear of Decision-Making"; "The Sacralization of Rights"; "Utopian Equality"; and "Production and Care-Giving." Part four, titled "Mastering the World in a Different Way," consists of chapters fifteen through nineteen, titled: "Fallen from the Heights"; "Fragmented Existence"; "God in Exile"; "The Return of an Uncertain World"; and "On Vigilance." [Posted March 2007, ALG]