Interview with André Comte-Sponville *
In the spring of 2020, you were one of the few francophone philosophers to come out of the woodwork. You mentioned the harmful role of the media in spreading fear of the virus and the power of experts in the political field. At the same time, you seemed to welcome the non-pharmaceutical measures taken by E mmanuel Macron. One year later, has your analysis changed?
No. It seems to me that it is more shared today than it was then. I thought the fear was exaggerated. I always find it. The covid-19 pandemic was obviously a major health problem, but not at all unprecedented. The Black Death, in the 14th century, killed half of the European population in a few years (compared to much less than 1% for the covid). The Spanish flu in 1918–1919 killed about 50 million people worldwide (compared to just over 4 million now for covid). Asian and Hong Kong influenza in the 1950s and 1960s killed slightly less than covid-19, but because the population was much younger. In short, I found that the media were over-dramatizing, talking only about viruses, tragedy, nightmare, fear in the stomach… As it happens, I was not afraid. First, because the older I get, the less I fear death (which is normal: I have much less to lose than when I was young); second, because I would rather die of covid than suffer for years, like my father, from Alzheimer’s disease (225,000 new cases every year in France alone); and third, because covid kills mostly older people (93% of the deaths it causes occur after 65 years of age, with an average age, at the time of death, of 81 years). For me as a family man, this was very reassuring. For once, my children were less at risk than I was! I am much more concerned about their future than I am about my health as a near-septuagenarian!
I have often quoted Montaigne’s words from the Essays , « What I fear most is fear. » That pretty much summed up my state of mind, during all those months of the pandemic. I was less worried about the disease than about its social or political effects, especially, indeed, the kind of resignation of our leaders, in France, who tended to hide behind the experts. At the time of the first lockdown, I asked myself « what would I have done, if I had been in Macron’s shoes? » Well, what scared me the most was that I thought « honestly, I would have done the same thing: I would have confined! » Not at all because I thought that confinement was the best solution (I knew nothing about it, and I think that nobody, even today, knows), but because there was such a pressure from the medical profession, relayed so massively by the media (remember: we saw doctors every night, on the 8 o’clock news), arousing such a fear in the population, that if Macron had not confined, the country would have become ungovernable. This is extremely worrying! When politicians no longer have autonomy from the experts, democracy is in danger.
As for me, I have always refrained from condemning the various confinements (even if the first one seemed to me excessively repressive and infantilizing), without feeling obliged to approve them. I simply obeyed, as a good Republican. If you only obey the laws you approve of, you are not a democrat. But I have expressed my concerns, particularly about the economic cost of these measures. Some of my friends congratulated themselves: « This is the first time, they said, that the economy has been sacrificed for health! They were right about the observation (it was indeed the first time), but wrong, it seems to me, to rejoice. Because sacrificing the economy means sacrificing the poor (one million new poor in France, since the first confinement, 150 million in the world), and it means sacrificing the young. Because if the elderly are the main victims of the pandemic, in terms of deaths, it is the young who suffer the most from the various measures taken to combat it, from confinement to curfew, by
now passing through the constraints (that I find again exaggerated) of the health pass! They are the ones who will pay back the debt (if we ever pay it back)! They are the ones whose studies have been compromised, who have been deprived of outings, from whom a part of their youth has been stolen! Again, as a family man, I could not be satisfied with this. The idea that my children’s lives would be complicated, or their future compromised, to protect my health is unbearable. What I feared, and still fear, is that two generations (children and teenagers on one side, young adults on the other) will be sacrificed to the health of their parents or grandparents. What a strange concept of intergenerational solidarity! Any of us, if we are a father or a mother, would give our lives for our children. Who would accept that they give their life, or even compromise it, for ours?
From the beginning of the epidemic, Jean-François Delfraissy, president of the Covid-19 scientific council, proclaimed on French television that saving lives was the top priority. European governments quickly imposed the deontological default option, ignoring the question of utilitarianism. It aims at the good for the greatest number of people possible, not only for the sick, the frail and the caregivers. If governments had subjected health to a trade-off with the other dimensions of society, instead of aiming for an illusory « zero covid risk », would they not have limited the damage? Because today, to the deaths of or with the covid, we can add all the collateral victims…
Yes, this is what I have been calling, for the past 20 years, pan-medicalism: making health the supreme value, and submitting everything to medicine! I see this as a double mistake. The first is that health is less a value than a good. A good is something desirable or enviable. A value, something estimable or admirable. For example, I may envy someone because they are richer or healthier than me. But if I admire him for that, I’m a fool. On the other hand, I can admire him because he is more courageous, more just, more generous, more free-spirited or more loving than me. Wealth and health are goods. Courage, justice, generosity, freedom of spirit and love are values. As far as I know, it is not written in the Gospels (it is an atheist who reminds you of this): « Take care of your health as God takes care of his! » It says « Love one another as God loves you ». It’s quite different! It is not written on the pediment of our town halls, « Health, equality, fraternity »! It is written: « Liberty, equality, fraternity ». I hope I’m not the only one who puts love or freedom higher than health!
Second mistake: making health the « absolute priority », as Delfraissy said. That a doctor thinks so is understandable. But politically, it is unacceptable. Health is perhaps the greatest of goods, on an individual scale, since it conditions all the others, but by no means on a collective scale. The country where I want to live the most is not necessarily the one where you get the best care or where you live the longest. It can also be the most democratic, the most convivial, the most ecological, the most humanist (and therefore the most feminist), the most tolerant, the most liberal, the most prosperous, the most just, the most refined… Assuming that China has a better health care system than we do, it won’t make me want to live in China! I’d rather catch the covid in a democracy than not catch it in a dictatorship.
Now, when one submits values to goods, one is already in nihilism. Someone who says « there is nothing above wealth » would legitimately be seen as financial nihilism, and everyone, in words, would be against it. Someone who says « there is nothing above health », as I have heard a hundred times in the last few months, is health nihilism, and I am surprised that everyone seems to be for it!
But there is more. When we make health the supreme value, then the priority of priorities, as Macron said, is indeed to protect the most fragile, that is, in this case, the oldest. But if we don’t make health the supreme value, therefore if we refuse pan-medicalism, we will rediscover that the most fragile, in most areas, are not the oldest but the youngest! What is more fragile than a newborn or a teenager? I am 69 years old. My life is done. What could happen to me that would be really serious, apart from a health problem or a misfortune that would affect my children? But my children, who are young adults, their life is not done: it is to be done! They are much more exposed than I am to most risks (dying young, unemployment, global warming, missing out on a love life or a career…)! You may remember Lenin’s book « Leftism, the Infantile Disease of Communism ». Well, I sometimes say that pan-medicalism is the senile disease of humanism. Humanism, because it’s about saving lives, and that’s fine. But senile, because by making health the supreme value, we privilege the old to the detriment of the young. Again, as a family man, I cannot accept this. My top priority is young people in general and children in particular!
Biopower sold ethics to the consumer-voter, strategically betting that this is the discourse that would work. Titillating altruism, moral sense, empathy, and hammering in them that every life must be saved « whatever it takes », it worked, after decades of neoliberalism and hyper-individualism! Biopower has succeeded in catching the population off guard. First of all, how do you explain such a performance? Secondly, can compassion serve as social cement?
I found unbearable the conjunction, on our television screens, of supposedly scientific speeches and good feelings! This is what I call sanitary correctness, which I hate as much as political correctness. » A science always speaks in the indicative, never in the imperative ‚ » said the great mathematician Henri Poincaré. When an expert claims to say what should be done, he is no longer doing science, he is doing morality or politics. No science will ever say whether health is more valuable than freedom, or how much of the latter can be sacrificed for the former. As for the good feelings, I found obscene this debauchery of so-called compassion, especially on television. Every year, in France, a little more than 600,000 people die. Do you know of a single person who is distressed by this? This would not be compassion, but mental pathology! Why should we be more concerned about the 64,000 deaths from covid in France in 2020 than the 600,000 others? I have more compassion for the 3 million children who die of hunger every year in the world!
What can serve as social cement is not compassion, but solidarity (which supposes a convergence of interests) and attachment to a certain number of common values (for example freedom, equality, fraternity, secularism, solidarity, justice…). This is much more political than moral!
In the program « Neumann/Lechypre » on the RMC Story channel, broadcast on June 29, 2021, Emmanuel Lechypre made the following comments: » You will be vaccinated by force, I will have two policemen take you to the vaccination center. You have to go after them with your teeth and with handcuffs if you have to […] The non-vaccinated are public dangers, so I have a very clear approach: I do everything to make them pariahs of society! « .
How do you interpret these statements, which are increasingly made under the pretext of saving others? Anything that is exaggerated is insignificant. But these remarks, obviously scandalous in the mouth of a journalist (does he have any idea of what deontology is?), confirm the dangers of pan-medicalism. If there is nothing above health, as we have been repeating for months, then why not sacrifice to it freedom, respect, tolerance, objectivity, in short, all these beautiful values that we must teach, I imagine, in journalism schools?
Some argue that the current hygienism is a new form of puritanism…
I am not convinced. There is neither religious exaltation nor hatred of sex, which is rather presented (this is another trap) as part of our health…
A leftist acquaintance of mine argued that the goal of herd immunity was eugenics, because along the way the most vulnerable would die. Now, he said, a civilization worthy of the name never lets down its fragile members, under any pretext…
To speak of eugenics is obviously nonsense. Besides, who ever proposed to « leave the most fragile »? Of course, we must treat all the sick and save all those who can be saved. This is what could justify the confinements: to avoid the flooding of our emergency and resuscitation services. For the rest, and as for the substance, I think that we have indeed let down, or almost let down, the most fragile: the poorest and the youngest! I read in the press that 66% of the adolescents from 11 to 17 years old « present a worrying health risk », that the cognitive capacities of the children would be « in decline of approximately 40% », that « one year of confinement was catastrophic, at an essential moment of neuronal plasticity ». I want to believe it’s temporary, but still! Sacrificing, even temporarily, the intelligence of children to the health of their grandparents, I find it amazing!
Does the covid event also put the question of therapeutic persistence and euthanasia back on the table?
The question has been on the table for decades, even centuries (Montaigne already claimed the right to suicide and euthanasia). The covid does not change much. I simply note that the opponents of euthanasia have been explaining to us for years that we no longer suffer in our hospitals, and that the question of euthanasia no longer arises… And here are the same people who are distressed by the suffering of covid! As for me, I am in favor of legalizing voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide. I was before the pandemic. I still am.
The question of responsibility, individual and collective, is also at the heart of our covidian problem. Are we witnessing the advent of a new and dangerous conception of individual responsibility that postulates that everyone is morally — and soon criminally? — responsible for the health of everyone else? And more specifically, responsible for the state of the immune system of others? What consequences can we expect for « living together »?
This is a difficult question. If there is one area where solidarity is both easy and necessary, it is that of contagious diseases: protecting oneself is also protecting others, and vice versa. But you are right: there is a temptation for some to push the envelope too far and sacrifice individual freedom for public health. This is what I call the health order: a drastic and lasting reduction of our freedoms, in the name of health. We are not there yet (the current reduction is drastic, let’s make sure that it is not sustainable), but everyone can see that we are engaged, especially with the health pass, on a slippery and dangerous slope…
In the wake of Locke and Robespierre, let’s argue that atheism, in these pandemic circumstances, is a drawback, because one finds oneself in a desiccating materialism, a desymbolization, where the only remaining tangible reality is one’s own biological (or naked) life, for the preservation of which one demands that all of society mobilizes. Aren’t we going the wrong way?
You’re the one who’s going the wrong way! Why is atheism a disadvantage? Read Camus or Sartre again! Why should materialism be so drying? Read again Epicurus, Diderot, Marx, Freud, Lévi-Strauss, Clément Rosset, Michel Onfray or myself! Don’t confuse materialism with biologism! Love, thought and freedom are as material as health: only a body can love, think and be free. This does not prove anything against freedom, thought or love, nor therefore against materialism! Do you need a God to love life? Not me!
Could we postulate a transcendence, possibly non-deistic and non-theistic? For isn’t the risk of immanence despair? And consequently, the temptation to run indiscriminately into the arms of doctors and experts, and more generally of all the figures of biopower? How to untangle this knot?
Why are you afraid of despair? There is something desperate in the human condition, since we grow old, since we die, and we must accept it. This scares me less than all the so-called transcendences (whether deist, theist or others) that humans have invented to comfort themselves, to reassure themselves, and which have done so much more harm than good! « There is no hope without fear, nor fear without hope, » said Spinoza. To lock oneself in hope is to lock oneself in fear. I refer you to my little book, Happiness, Desperately. We only hope for what is not, what we do not know or what does not depend on us. Let’s rather learn to know and love what is, and to do what depends on us! Better to know, act and love than to hope and fear!
Has covidism become a substitute religion?
If this were the case, it would be the silliest and most miserable of religions! Health is not God. Not getting sick is not a sufficient goal in life! And what could be sadder than sacrificing the love of life to the fear of death?
In your Dictionnaire amoureux de Montaigne, under the entry « truth », you indicate that Montaigne does not say that nothing is true (« for if nothing is true, it is not true that nothing is true »), but that nothing is certain; moreover, he makes truth the « supreme norm ». Later, Orwell would say that objective truth is constructed. However, the truth has never seemed so much imposed by a political-media power that would have the prerogative of the « real news »…
You confuse truth with knowledge (knowledge is constructed, truth is not), and then truth with opinion. No political power can ever make a false idea true. At most, it will be able to make the majority believe it to be true… This can happen, but is far from being the rule in our democracies! Have you seen the movie Hold up ? I do, in full. There is, in this conspiracy, much more nonsense and fake news than in the speeches of our politicians, or even of our journalists.
There is also an inversion of Eros, the life drive, and Thanatos, the death drive, since in the dominant discourse, the accomplices of Thanatos are those who refuse to submit to sanitary measures, and particularly to vaccines. Is Thanatos not found, on the contrary, in the hygienists, the pandemicists who want to prevent themselves from living sensibly and decently in the name of « life », and are the bearers of death, not only social and political death, but also in fine the death of bodies, since by depriving ourselves of authentic links, we die slowly? This was evident in the Ehpad last year…
Yes, what happened in the Ehpad was a horror: letting thousands of old people die in solitude, under the pretext of protecting them! But let’s not exaggerate: barrier gestures or vaccines are not part of the death drive any more than antivax is part of the life drive! Let’s leave these absurd caricatures, which only serve as a polemic. Instead, let’s try to figure out how to fight the pandemic with as few of our freedoms as possible.
» It happens to the man to like better to stagnate in the fear than to face the anguish to be himself « wrote Cioran in 1957. Could you have written it too?
Why not? Except that I don’t consider it a disadvantage to be born! Basically, Cioran is just a particularly talented nihilist. But what good is talent if it doesn’t make you want to live and fight?
In the background of the whole affair, isn’t the anxiety of death present in everyone, which is then rationalized, in the Freudian sense, in speeches, arguments, political choices? Should we rehabilitate death in our collective representations? » Only the courageous confrontation with the prospect of death can allow us to live « said Jan Patočka…
Of course, he was right. Montaigne, moreover, said the same thing in substance: » You do not die because you are sick, you die because you are alive. « Death is part of life. How to love this one, without accepting that one? But death is frightening, which is why most people prefer not to think about it (Montaigne again: » They come and go, they trot, they dance: no news of death! ») and panic when it imposes itself on them, for example because of a pandemic. Against which Montaigne admirably said the essential in one sentence: » I want us to act, and to prolong the offices of life as long as we can, and that death finds me planting my cabbages, but nonchalant of her, and even more of my imperfect garden. « Here it is: accepting death, accepting our finitude and imperfection, preferring action to fear, all without taking ourselves too seriously (with nonchalance rather than with rage), that is better than panicking because a relatively non-lethal virus that kills practically only elderly people (I am one of them) comes to remind journalists, as if it were a scoop, that we are mortal!
Interview by Bernard Legros, with the help of Alexandre Penasse, July 2021.
* French philosopher born in 1952, former professor at the University Paris‑1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, specialist in ethics. Latest books: Dictionnaire amoureux de Montaigne (Plon, 2020) and Que le meilleur gagne ! (Robert Laffont, 2021).