An Ethic of Virtue

For the past twenty years, Alexandre Havard has been conducting a vast worldwide educational program aimed at managers. In line with the Aristotelian tradition, his aim is to base management and government on an ethic of virtue. He has written several books on the subject, the best-known of which is Virtuous Leadership. The originality of this good and traditional approach lies less in its content than in its form, style and pedagogy. For Havard, the value of virtue ethics lies in going beyond utilitarianism, rule-based moralism and behaviorist conditioning. It is about placing educational action in a perspective of personal development, but without falling into the cult of the ego. It is about stimulating the dynamism of the ego, letting it become enthusiastic about goals that transcend itself.

With this in mind, Alexandre Havard published a book in 2022 entitled, Seven Prophets and the Culture War. Its subtitle, Undoing the Philosophies of a World in Crisis. To take the measure of the crisis, of the challenge it presents, of what is at stake, is to feel called to authentically exist by making a choice that engages us in a titanic struggle, truly apocalyptic.

However important its external aspects may be (war, the economy, ecology, etc.), the crisis must first be measured from within. It has cultural roots, which lie in the influence of certain forms of destructive thinking. The way out of the crisis will be found in the influence of other thoughts, with constructive effects. Hence the two parts of the book, the first devoted to the three destructive prophets (Descartes, Rousseau, Nietzsche) and the second to the four builders (Pascal, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Solovyov). The result is a book of seven chapters, relatively short and easy to read, pleasant for some, very unpleasant, even intolerable, for others, who, having bought into destructive thinking, see in the worsening crisis a positive development in the direction of progress. They will not change their minds until they have returned to the Hobbesian state of nature, “nasty, poor, solitary, brutish, and short.”

Let us look at how Havard presents his prophets. “We like to debate the ideas of this or that philosopher, but too often we leave out the study of his personality. What interests us is what the philosopher says, not what he is. This is a mistake, for behind ideas there is a heart” (p.11). Each chapter therefore presents a summary of the “prophet’s” life story, then paints a picture of his character, before setting out those of his ideas that, in the author’s opinion, have the most to do with the crisis, either to drive us into it or to extricate us from it.

The originality of Havard’s point of view lies perhaps less in the analysis of the destructive thinkers’ key ideas, than in their characterological study. In each of these “destroyers,” there is a monstrous hypertrophy of one faculty combined with a terrifying atrophy of the others. Descartes’ rationalism, Rousseau’s sentimentalism, Nietzsche’s voluntarism. Some will shrug their shoulders: summary categorizations! As if Descartes, the theorist of infinite freedom and “generosity,” were dry and unsentimental, the man who wrote a Treatise on the Passions, and had no will. But to understand a work, we need to identify its literary genre, its audience and its precise formal object. Here, the audience is cultivated, but not academic; the formal object is the influence of thinkers via the most common interpretation, which may well not be the most accurate, of their thoughts; the literary genre is as rhetorical and parenetic as it is speculative.

Even academically, too much effort to refine the presentation of a thought can end up rendering it incomprehensible in its essentials. The current anthropological crisis in the West is perhaps characterized less by mutilation than by the loss of synergy between the faculties. Once reason has withered, incapable of doing anything other than constructing a priori and experimenting according to certain protocols, any profound object is lost from sight; morality is nothing but convention, utilitarianism and constraint; the will exists only in the form of impotent moralism or brutal arbitrariness; affectivity, entirely detached from any love of truth and any serious good, founded in reason, in nature or in the Absolute, or in God, then becomes sentimentalism against a backdrop of self-satisfied good-conscience. As Diderot so aptly wrote to Rousseau, “I am well aware that, whatever you do, you will always have the testimony of your conscience on your side” (p.57). Placing Descartes first makes sense. The rational animal rots through reason. “Let us therefore work to think well, that is the principle of morality” (p.115). Thus says Pascal, at the end of the famous “thinking reed” fragment.

Alexandre Havard is Franco-Russian-Georgian. Perhaps that is why his prophetic builders include a Frenchman, a Dane and two Russians. Pascal is the first of the builders, because he rediscovered the lost synergy in what he called the “heart.”

This restoration of synergy is not possible without existential authenticity, which does not forget the singular by losing itself in abstraction, and which puts the word into action. This is how Kierkegaard is reconstructive.

The problem is authentic humanism. Man is constantly being destroyed by so-called humanists. The two Russian “prophets” take us right to the heart of the matter. Man wants to make himself God, and by aiming for the infinite, he falls into nothingness. This is the crisis. Dostoyevsky characterizes it with precision. Man’s absolute humanism sets in motion a descent into hell through his own annihilation. This absolute humanism cannot be overcome, surpassed or convinced without the re-establishment of reason in wisdom, which Solovyov calls unitotality, and the appeasement of the heart in theandria, the divine-humanity that is only real in Christ, Jesus of Nazareth.

One understands nothing of Christianity and its prodigious historical resilience, often seemingly contrary to the laws of nature, if one does not note, quite simply, that a Christian is someone who adheres “to a very simple credo, which is this”: “there is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more sympathetic, more reasonable, more virile or more perfect than Christ” (p.172—Fyodor Dostoevky, letter to Natalia Fonvizina, Omsk 1854 ).

This is a book for times of crisis and of hope, for living this “apocalypse” with wisdom, boldness and magnanimity (p.218).

Henri Hude is the former director of the Ethics and Law Department at the Research Center of the Saint-Cyr Military Academy. He is the author of several important works of philosophy, among them, most recently, Philosophie de la guerre (Philosophy of War). These three articles appear through the kind courtesy of Pierre-Yves Rougeyron and Le cercle Aristote.