Michel Onfray, a best-selling French pop philosopher, was sounding pretty upbeat on the phone, even though the title of his latest book is “Decadence: The Life and Death of the Judeo-Christian Tradition.”
His book had just come out, with an impressive press run of 120,000 copies, and was selling briskly in spite of — or perhaps because of — its gloomy prognostication. “If you think today about terrorism, the rise of populism, it was important to put that in perspective,” Mr. Onfray said recently. His research, he added, “shows a civilization that had been strong, that had ceased to be so and that’s heading toward its end.”
Mr. Onfray is one of the latest popular authors to join France’s booming decline industry, a spate of books and articles (with a handful of TV shows) that explore the country’s (and the West’s) failings and France’s obsession with those failings. (Last year, the word “déclinisme,” or “declinism,” entered France’s Larousse dictionary.) It’s a phenomenon that cuts across the political spectrum and has picked up velocity in recent years by tapping into an anxious national mood. And its loudest voices are intellectuals with platforms in the national news media.
Beyond Mr. Onfray’s, other books with decline on their minds have appeared in the past few weeks. “The Returned,” a best seller by the journalist David Thomson, is an investigative report about French jihadists who’ve returned home from Syria. “A Submissive France: Voices of Defiance” compiles interviews on France’s troubled banlieues, or suburbs, overseen by the historian Georges Bensoussan. “Chronicles of French Denial,” by the right-leaning economist and historian Nicolas Baverez, is about how France continued its economic decline under President François Hollande.
There’s also “An Imaginary Racism” by the left-leaning philosopher Pascal Bruckner, who was recently cleared of charges of inciting hate speech and argues that fear of being labeled Islamophobic is leading people to self-censor their speech, while in November, the Sciences Po professor Gilles Kepel published “The Fracture,” which explores how the radicalization of some young Muslims is tearing apart French society.
“The thing that’s very striking now is how pervasive those ideas are,” said Sudhir Hazareesingh, a professor at Oxford University and the author of “How the French Think.” “One of the things characteristic of the present moment is this idea that decline and decadence are not just the preserve of the extreme right.”
Read the whole thing. Onfray, by the way, identifies himself as an atheist and a hedonist. The subtitle of his book is: “From Jesus to Bin Laden: The Life and Death of the West.” He is not, please understand, a right winger.
From a review of Décadence in the right-leaning Le Figaro. Translation is mine:
Décadence is neither a history nor a manifesto. It is an inner novel. … If the devil is in the details, the nostalgia for God, though invisible, is everywhere present. “So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if you are a son you are also an heir,” says St. Paul. Onfray takes the “abortion of God” as a target, spares nothing but on every page goes back to this line. He would have liked to have believed it, perhaps when he was a child, but he no longer believes in it. Our civilization hung on this thread, which it furiously unspooled.
A long review at Slate‘s French site says that Onfray’s irrational, ahistorical, ideological hatred of Catholicism badly mars his thesis. Perhaps that’s what the Figaro reviewer means when he says that Onfray is, paradoxically, nostalgic for the God he despises and cannot believe in.
I read around in other French-language coverage of Onfray’s book, and it does seem that Onfray blames Christianity for every bad thing. As foolish as that is, especially given the collapse of Christianity in France and in Europe in general, it is quite noteworthy, I think, that we have reached a point in history in which atheist hedonists like Onfray have what they want — a society that has cast aside God, and devoted itself to pleasures and comforts, the likes of which have never been so widely available in history — and yet, he sees collapse all around.
Well, he’s right about the collapse, but what a shock that he blames the God he refused to love and obey.
More broadly, I want to ask you readers if the popularity of declinism in France may spread to the US — and if so, is it a good or a bad thing, overall? Obviously I have skin in this game; my upcoming book, The Benedict Option, is a declinist Christian manifesto of sorts. We don’t care for declinism in America, and The Benedict Option decries a nation — and, specifically, a church — that refuses to see reality because it finds reality too depressing. The book, in my view, is actually a work of hope, because it is based on seeing the world as it really is, and acting in the face of that reality to preserve what is most precious to us: our faith, and the civilization built on it.
In France, if declinism spurs the French to repent, to return to their ancestral faith, and to embrace forms of l’Option Benoît, then it will have been a salutary phenomenon. It is always better to live in truth. If, on the other hand, it spurs an embrace of decadent nihilism (“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”), then it will have been cancerous. France — and the West — is at the moment of decision.