A rationalist, materialist and humanist philosopher, André Comte-Sponville writes with immense clarity to make bridges between traditional philosophical thinking and the issues of today. Having lectured for many years at the Sorbonne in Paris, he now devotes more of his time to writing and to public speaking. Revue Internationale de Philosophie called him “the greatest French philosopher since Sartre”. Among his many publications, A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues remains his best-known work. His most recent book, C’est chose tendre que la vie, takes the form of a series of interviews with François L’Yvonnet.
“Being true to our values is the only antidote we have to the Alzheimer of today’s civilisations, namely brutality.”
For philosopher André Comte-Sponville, the concept of change involves thinking about where you want to go. And to know where you want to go, you need to know where you came from, and so stay true to your values.
“We’re used to constant change—but the pace of it just keeps accelerating.” Philosopher André Comte-Sponville took this opener at the FHH Forum as his starting point for reflecting on the direction humanity is headed, amid the ongoing maelstrom of upheaval we’re experiencing: globalization, climate change, populist movements on the rise, the dominance of social networks, spiraling automation, the sharing economy… “We’re having to deal with ever more rapid and bewildering changes, but where are they taking us?” he wondered. “Clearly change can’t be an end in itself. This isn’t about being an apologist for zapping and frivolity. After all, no one really expects us to change our friends, do they? While we can’t escape change, we want that change to help us grow, to make us more enduring, to drive us forward. Change must be a means to achieving something greater.”
From a metaphysical angle, we’ve known since Heraclitus that one can never step into the same river twice, that everything always changes. Which goes totally contrary to the anthropological viewpoint, that humans would actually prefer not to change—perhaps as a way to avoid getting older. Then there’s a third approach, a practical response, which is proactive change. That’s where you adapt to these inescapable shifts so you can move forward, and so you avoid entrenching yourself in a position that opposes change. “Physics teaches us that all processes tend toward maximum chaos,” Comte-Sponville pointed out. “You only have to look at France to see that! Which is why it’s so important to get the fundamentals right. Here again, the Ancients knew what they were talking about. As Pindar wisely said: ‘Become what you are.’ In other words, your inner being holds a better self, the one you should strive for.”
Transposed to the heart of our societies, where change is commonly seen as instability, that principle can be read as an attachment to our values—the values we received from our parents and are meant to transmit to our children. “Viewed like that, change becomes a means of extending duration,” continued Comte-Sponville. “More time to grow, and to advance. In other words, change exists for humankind—humankind does not exist for change. Then the next question that arises is to know where we are going. If the answer is simply that we’re heading into the future, that doesn’t offer any guarantees to the individual or to our societies. The much more important question to ask is where we want to go. And here I’m going to wheel out an African proverb that says the only way to know where you want to go is to remember where you’ve come from.” To illustrate his point, Comte-Sponville draws an analogy with Alzheimer’s: as your memory loss increases, you lose your capacity to project yourself into the future.
The philosopher’s conclusion is incontrovertible: “Staying true to our values is the only antidote we have, the only weapon to counter barbarism, the Alzheimer’s disease of our societies.” He emphasizes that it’s not a question of morality: “Morality is important to ‘construct’ your self. But in relation to others, all that’s required is the law and the notion of mercy. We know that we can’t rely on morality to fight tax evasion—it doesn’t hold enough sway over society to act as a check. What we need to realize is that economics now takes place at a global scale, while the political framework remains at a national level. So the issue isn’t too much economic and financial globalization, but rather too little political globalization. We’re headed in the right direction, sure, but at this point we need to talk about political rehabilitation, of rehabilitating the political!”
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