Derrida the Negator

There are posthumous editions that are only of secondary interest in relation to the work already known by their author. Such is not the case with this work, written by Derrida in 1960. It cannot be reduced to its sole pedagogical aim, which was to provide the learned correction of a dissertation subject given to his philosophy students at the Sorbonne, on a subject that is none other than a sentence written by Alain: “To think is to say no.” Indeed, in his Preface, Brieuc Gérard stresses that Derrida, then an assistant in “general philosophy and logic” at the university of the Sorbonne, enjoyed for four years “a complete autonomy as to the subject-matter of his courses and the organization of his directed works,” which ceased in 1964 when he was forced to follow the program of the agrégation of philosophy at the École normale supérieure of Paris. In virtue of this autonomy, proper to any enterprise of “general philosophy,” Derrida thus professed his own thought through those he taught. By the mediation of the philosophers that he summoned and discussed, according to a well determined direction leading to his master Heidegger, Derrida who became one of the greatest thinkers of “French Theory” gives us to read and to think the most important premises of his philosophy of deconstruction.


The title given by Derrida to his four-session essay thwarts the reader’s expectations—instead of representing an apology of negation, in the logical sense of the term, it first follows faithfully Alain’s original proposal to lead to a thought of “neither yes nor no,” where the implications and presuppositions that organize the two affirmative and negative modalities of thought are deconstructed, that is to say, unpacked, and not eliminated. The opposition that Alain makes between thought and affirmation begins in fact, at first, by being translated in the terms of an opposition between thought and belief—for him, Derrida tells us, “the idea of proof as a technical instrument of truth is to be refused, because as soon as one says yes, one ceases to think and one begins to believe.” In this sense, Alain, more Cartesian than Descartes, would adopt an “ultraradicalism of doubt” which consisted in not using it to reach a certainty under the aegis of a veracious God, but on the contrary in remaining at “the hypothesis of the deceitful God and even of the Evil Genius to save thought and the initiation of thought… which has no initiation except in the “no,” hostile to any proof, to any definitive destination in the true.

Even before opposing the ready-to-think provided against it by “the world, the tyrant and the preacher,” the thought is thus constituted by a movement of negation: on the one hand, negation of appearance, insofar as to think, that is to say, to examine objects and to reflect on them, is to refuse to stick to what one perceives; on the other hand and above all, negation of what one holds oneself to be apparent, since “in order to see something, necessitates [already] a whole implicit work of selections, criticisms, questions;” that is to say, of negation of what one excludes in our perceptual sorting: “to believe everything, therefore to say yes to everything, is to choose to see nothing,” Derrida comments. To say yes, one must say no.

In fact, this raises an objection to Derrida, in that this total affirmation, instead of being only a total deprivation of the visible, can be, on the contrary, under different conditions of the rational or discursive thought, the way of access to the invisible itself. Doesn’t the naive “yes to everything” deserve to be measured and rethought by the “I choose everything” of Saint Therese of Lisieux?

Notwithstanding what the saint may object to in the dialectician, Derrida pursues Alain’s reasoning, whose antithesis does not fail to put classical skepticism out of the game: if belief signifies a halt in the movement of thought, its being put to sleep, it is only as “credulous thought.” On the contrary, faith, in its broad sense of an act of trust, is not naive credulity, but the inevitable presupposition of all awakened thought, of all thought that says no: “without a kind of primitive axiological adherence to the legitimacy of truth, it would not even be possible to challenge opinion in general… as a de facto breach of the truth.” In other words, to be able to deny, one has to feel that one has to do so: to say no, one has to have confidence in truth as an ideal against which an opinion can be refuted because it is wrong: “to say no, to doubt, to refuse, one has to want to, to decide to. It is a necessary fiat or a be that is a yes to the will to say no.” The actuality of doubt is based, if not on the ideal certainty in the truth, at least on a confidence in it. To say no, one must say yes.

By showing that thought says neither yes nor no, Derrida leads to the deconstruction of affirmation and negation. This in a double sense: by revealing, on the one hand, the negation supposed by affirmation (in the form of a sorting, a selection) as well as the affirmation supposed by negation (in the form of a confidence in one’s own project), he denies—on the other hand, the pretension of both to represent two modalities of thought, each one provided with its own and definite meaning. In so doing, Derrida challenges classical logic and ontology, which respectively make non-being and negation the symmetrical opposites of being and affirmation, in order to disseminate the meaning of these two opposites in the variety of their mutual implications.


While following Bergson, Derrida notes that negation in classical logic is not a negation; it is only a “modalization” of affirmation, since it consists in refusing an affirmation in the name of another implicit affirmation. For example, to say that such and such a table is not white is to affirm in disguise that the table is of another color. This is why, in the same way, the nothingness in the classical ontology is not a nothingness either, because if it is a nothingness; it is nothing at all; we don’t have to talk about it; it is thus, on the contrary, under the mode of “the haunting” that it means something: “it is necessary that the nothingness haunts being so that negation is possible.” The negation, logical or ontological, must therefore be rethought. By ending his course on Heideggerian phenomenology, Derrida announces what his philosophy will be based on: a renewed thought of negation. For a negation to be really such, in fact, it is necessary, while remaining discursive (without which there is no judgment), that it is the affirmation of nothing. For there to be negation, it must not be a contrary affirmation, but the contrary of any affirmation; consequently, not the determination or definition of any meaning, but the dissemination of meaning.

Derrida has indeed a neantizing conception of freedom. He repeats in his course that humanity experiences its freedom only through its power of “neantization” of the world, of negation of everything: “for my affirmative judgment to have a value of truth,” he says, commenting on Bergson, “it is necessary that I be free to choose for the truth and that I be able to say something other than what I say;” that is to say, to negate the truth. It is thus “by the negation or the thought of nothingness that the spirit authenticates itself as freedom,” he concludes. However, it was Bergson’s mistake, as well as Husserl’s and finally Sartre’s after him, to think negation incompletely: if, indeed, consciousness that denies all existence does not deny itself as existence (or as “being”), its negation is not complete. To affirm its freedom, the subject must be able to deny itself also, to include itself in the hyperbolic negation: “The most comprehensive phenomenological reduction, the most extended, the deepest anguish [will be able] to negate the totality of the world, the totality of the states, the totality of the regions of the being [only by negating also] the man, the for-itself, the consciousness included. It is thus necessary to exceed this opposition consciousness-world.

This is what Heidegger finally understood when, abandoning his theme of anguish, he refused to affirm the power of neantisation “from to be [or] from being,” and to think it on the contrary from “the difference between to be and being,” by which “to be shows itself by hiding itself in being.” Indeed, for Heidegger, nothingness haunts everything, since everything appears and disappears on a purely undetermined background—the fact that any phenomenon can appear and disappear indicates to us that any phenomenon always rests on an empty place; that nothingness is not the opposite of existence but its condition of appearance, as a blackboard allows any form to be drawn on it. But as long as we remain in the order of logically measurable language, this Heideggerian theory of “ontological difference” is an error, since logically speaking, “there is only difference within a genus, [and] being is not a genus.” To assume the ontological difference, it is thus necessary, for Derrida, to make language incommensurable, to subtract it from any possibility of logical measurement, by thwarting any attempt to fix meaning, to define it. Such was the Derridean enterprise of the “dissemination”—once deconstructed the sense of the words, necessarily, instead of recomposing what has been deconstructed, leave the elements of sense scattered, without a coherence definitively assignable to a system or to a given interpretation; it is necessary to let the elements show themselves scattered in an irremediable multiplicity and without substance. Derrida thus saveed the coherence of the Heideggerian phenomenology by exceeding it in a more radical theory—that of the meontological “differentiation,” true contrary thought of to be.


The “differentiation” that Derrida theorized consisted in substantiating the insubstantivable—not the fact of differentiating one thing from another, but the fact of deferring in time the meaning of a concept by its inscription, in a chain of other concepts. Against the traditional principle of identity which, at the foundation of the other principles (of contradiction and of the third-excluded), stipulates that “every thing is what it is,” “A is A,” the course “Thinking” is saying no; it intends to show that the two fundamental elements of language, the yes and the no, have no determined meaning—the yes is not a yes, the no is not a no, since their meaning is always deferred, awaiting donation through the diversity of their uses and their mutual implications. We thus understand why Derrida concluded his course by saying that Heidegger’s “ontico-ontological difference” “would allow us to really hear Alain when he says that ‘to think is to say no'”: this thought indeed opens a breach in the possibility of thinking a negation that is really one, by preventing any determination, any assignment of any meaning whatsoever to a given sign by disseminating it, by always ceaselessly deferring the sign from itself.

The Deconstruction inaugurated by Derrida is thus much more subtle, and therefore more pernicious, than what many contemporaries understand it to be by associating it, wrongly, with an enterprise of pure and simple destruction. Derrida does not destroy anything—he deconstructs to disseminate, to untie. He exhibits the constructions of thought and language, without suppressing them nor recomposing them, by leaving them “disseminated” out of any possibility of stable recomposition. To the antipodes of the philosopher Albert Leclère who, in 1901, defended in his Essai critique sur le droit d’affirmer (Critical Essay on the Right to Affirm) that “the thinking subject cannot consider thought without immediately noticing that it poses the existence of some reality,” concluding that “the reality of being, of metaphysical being, is a necessary affirmation of thought.” On the contrary, Derrida wrote, sixty years later, a succession of essays to show the necessity, for thought, of denying. All of Derrida’s originality is to see to it that this negation is a true negation; that is to say, not a contrary affirmation, but the contrary of any affirmation—this is why he considered that “to criticize a philosopher is a lamentable gesture” and, refusing all criticism, does not seek to refute but to dissolve the problems by taking care to never completely satisfy the need for comprehension, by thwarting all attempts at definition.

Derrida thus represents the most coherent attempt to dissolve the traditional philosophical “realism” of a Saint Thomas Aquinas, by denying to signs not only their connection to things, to which they refer (as the nominalists were content to do), but also their capacity to coincide with their own meaning. If, from this course, the sense is untied from the real (“the noem is nothing real since it is a sense,” he infers about Husserl), the sense announces itself similarly to be untied from itself in the justification of the thought as “saying no.” Thus, it is not excluded to think that Derrida completed, in the 20th century, the whole process of desubstantialization of language inaugurated by nominalism from the 14th century, completing the modernization of thought in an enterprise of final dissolution of meaning.

Paul Ducay, Professor of philosophy with a medievalist background. Heir to the metaphysics of Nicolas de Cues and the faith of Xavier Grall. Gascon by race and French by reason. “The devout infuriate the world; the pious edify it.” Marivaux. [This article comes through the kind courtesy of PHILITT].

Featured: “Via Dolorosa,” by Sybil Andrews; linocut print, 1935.

Seeing the Marvelous: The Rediscovery of the Imaginal

The world of tradition is saturated with marvelous images that modern thought has often depreciated to the rank of “imaginary” productions of Man. This desacralization of the sign, which deprives the religious reference marks of any possible comprehension, is based however on a fundamental ignorance—that of the “imaginal,” of which the hermeneuticist Patrick Geay, in Hermès trahi (Hermes Betrayed) [1996], presents the rediscovery as the key for resolution of the disenchantment of the world.

Hermès trahi (Hermes Betrayed) is the name given by Patrick Geay to his philosophy thesis, published in 1996 and republished in 2010, to illustrate a quite decisive project—that of remedying the divorce of myth and reason, of mythos and logos, upon which philosophical modernism made the mistake of founding itself. Hermes is first of all a god—the god of secrets and stratagems in Greek mythology, son of Zeus and Iris. He is also and above all Hermes Trismegistus, author of a doctrinal corpus which Iamblichus said delivers the hidden science of all things, and which gave its name to “hermeticism,” on the refusal of which modern hermeneutics has built its project. Against it, the director of the journal of traditional hermeneutics, La Règle d’Abraham (The Rule of Abraham), sought to “judge a form of anti-metaphysical philosophy, [namely] critical philosophy,” by the yardstick of the “traditional doctrines” of which the work of René Guénon provides the method of comparison and understanding.

Deepening the philosophical rediscovery of religious symbolism by Jean Borella, Patrick Geay works on a metaphysical rediscovery of the “imaginal.” Largely forgotten, ignored, denied, and sometimes misinterpreted, the imaginal, solidly theorized by the Sufi Ibn ‘Arabi, nevertheless proves to be essential to the understanding of all that traditional religions conceal of the marvelous. By listening to the great visionary tradition of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Patrick Geay abolishes the reduction of the imagination to the human imaginary, showing that it extends well beyond the limits that modern psychologism assigns to images and their genesis. In doing so, to use the words of the philosopher Bruno Pinchard in his Preface, the author restores the conditions necessary for understanding the “true laws of the constitution of the religious,” against the demystifying undertakings of materialism and neo-spiritualism found at work in the human sciences.


Modern religious thought is based on a serious hermeneutical contradiction—that of interpreting images and sacred texts without recognizing their sacred character. This contradiction has a name—”demythologization.” Initiated by the Protestant philosopher Schleiermacher, who reduced the interpretation of sacred texts to the simple “psychological and grammatical study of the works,” it consists in saving the relevance of sacred texts only by emptying them of all that is mythical; that is to say, extraordinary, miraculous, supernatural—in a word: sacred. Thus undertaken, hermeneutics contradicts itself—it wants to study the sacred without recognizing its sacred character, as Ricoeur admits when he justifies the “oblivion of the signs of the sacred” by the “loss of man himself as belonging to the sacred.” As soon as it is posed, the object of hermeneutics is removed from its study.

Marcel Gauchet tried to save this logical contradiction by conceiving of Christianity as “the religion of the exit from religion;” that is to say, a religion without the supernatural, a religion which, by its monotheistic affirmation, “contributes to placing the unique God outside and beyond the world of men.” For Marcel Gauchet, Judeo-Christianity would thus be the religion of the absence of God in this world. However, in so doing, the philosopher only completes a contradiction with an ignorance; for, as Patrick Geay points out, “this forced and distorting approach to Hebrew prophetism [ignores] the function of the Shekinah as the Presence of the Divine in the Tabernacle of the Ark of the Covenant, which is recounted in Exodus. Marcel Gauchet’s interpretation of Judeo-Christianity also ignores “the very rich Jewish visionary literature, as found in the famous writings of the Merkabah,” as well as the symbolic profusion of “medieval Christian visionary narratives.” In sum, Marcel Gauchet reduces his conception of monotheism to its modern, heterodox version, which came out of the Protestant Reformation. From Paul Ricoeur to Marcel Gauchet, modern hermeneutics, by proposing to the human sciences the method of demythologization in order to satisfy “their claim to have knowledge of the religious,” has thus taken the risk of making them “systematically miss their target for lack of sufficient metaphysical and initiatory preparation” (Bruno Pinchard). This unpreparedness has for cause a progressive dismantling of the symbolic sign by modern philosophy, from nominalism.

The Great Split

The dismantling of metaphysical knowledge consisted in an increasing reduction and confinement of the faculties of the human mind, the stages of which Patrick Geay rigorously traces. As time went by, the image was less and less understood, because it was more and more separated from the idea. Starting with the nominalist William of Ockham, a Franciscan doctor of the 14th century, who held that “words are created by imposition,” “language is no longer the privileged reflection of being; ideas, concepts, the universal have no reality except in the soul” of individuals. In other words, “the names of things… no longer derive from their nature.” Ideas no longer have the value of objectivity and universality that the Neoplatonists of the early Middle Ages recognized—they are entirely mentalized, to be no more than psychological concepts. The word is no longer the real name of an intelligent thing (formally received by the intellect), but the conventional sign of a purely mental conception.

The nominalistic mutilation of the concept is pursued, in modern times, against the imagination. Initially, Descartes separated, in his sixth Meditation, imagination and conception (itself confused with intellection). His argument is the following: if there are things that one can both imagine and conceive, like the triangle, there are however things that one can conceive without imagining them, like the chiliogone (polygon with a thousand sides). Descartes, who differentiates the soul and the body as two distinct substances, takes advantage of it to found on his first dualism that of the concept and the imagination: “the imagination being naturally rather on the side of the body cannot succeed in conceiving any idea of what it simply puts in image, if it even succeeds in doing so.” With Descartes, the image no longer implies the concept in its existence; the imagination without the concept is indigent. Just as the body is, in itself, reduced to its mechanism, so the image is unintelligible by itself.

This split between the concept and the image is completed a century and a half later by Kant who, in his Critique of Pure Reason (A15/B29), bases his theoretical enterprise on the postulate according to which there are “two strains of human knowledge which perhaps start from a common root, but unknown to us; namely, sensibility and understanding; by the first one, objects are given to us; but by the second one, they are thought.” The consequence is obvious: as Geay notes: “this separation makes the corporeal world a neutral, empty form, since, according to Ilya Prigogine’s expression, nature is by it rendered ‘dumb.’” Indeed, for Kant, there is no real giving of meaning. There is only thought produced by the internal activity of understanding—the images that we perceive sensibly do not cause any thought in us; they do not deliver any meaning; but it is we who confer it on them: “in a priori knowledge,” Kant summarizes in his second Preface, “nothing can be attributed to the objects but what the thinking subject draws from himself.” The image is decidedly no longer intelligible, any more than beauty is for Kant a property of the object: “the universe is consequently reduced to the state of confused ‘matter’ to be organized; it is a priori dispossessed by Kant of its semantic content; that is to say, of an intrinsic symbolic structure that man would only have to unveil.” Philosophical modernity is founded thus, from Occam to Kant while passing via Descartes, on the big split between thought and the real, and within thought, between the concept and the image.

Several contemporary attempts, in the 20th century, were made to give back to the images their nobility, and to the images of the supernatural an interest against the materialist impoverishment of the world—Gaston Bachelard, in his “new scientific spirit,” as well as Gilbert Durand, within the framework of his “new anthropologic spirit.” However, impressed by the psychoanalytical theory of the imagination, their common mistake was to reduce the imagination to the fantasy of the human conscience or unconscious. For Bachelard, who saw in alchemical symbolism only an “immense sexual reverie…. a reverie of wealth and rejuvenation… a reverie of power,” while the religious imagination was only human poetry. For Durand, who confused traditional data with that of psychoanalysis, its “transcendental fantasy… remained locked in psychological categories… of ‘fabulation,’ whose ‘supreme meaning’ lay in euphemism; that is, in the human power of ‘improvement of the world.'” Patrick Geay’s conclusion is without clear: the revaluation of the image and the marvelous is not possible within the framework of the modern theory of the imagination, since it deprives of intelligibility any possible mythical content.


What modernity, timidly or resolutely, has dislocated, tradition, on the contrary, has reunited. On the one hand, the concept and the image are the two inseparable modalities of the same thing—the symbol. On the other hand, the symbol is, in its turn, inseparable from the reality of which it is the sensible sign—the idea. This second point can be understood by the fact that “if, in the rational mode, we can say that we know an object through its notion, it is because this notion is still something of the object; that it participates in its nature by expressing it in relation to us,” as René Guénon explained in his Générale à l’étude des doctrines hindoues (General Introduction to the Study of Hindu Doctrines) [III, 9], underlining here the realism of traditional logic. As for the first point, contrary to Kantian separation of the sensible given and the thought, Patrick Geay remarks that “there is no pure sensation which is not already an act of the consciousness.” Sensation is not unintelligent, because man perceives accidents (figures, colors, etc.) which never exist separately from a given essence, but which belong to it and thus inform us about it. This is why Saint Bonaventure noted that “all pleasure derives from a ratio of proportion,” just as beauty is objectively “an equation of numbers” (Journey of the Soul into GodItinerarium Mentis in Deum, I, 5). No more than the world according to the tradition is this homogeneous space of Galileo and Descartes reduced to extent; the images are not dumb matter, but on the contrary, “imprints” (vestigia), whose contemplation can lead us “to see God in any creature which enters in us and by the bodily senses” (II, 1).

The “despisers of the body,” to paraphrase Nietzsche, are therefore not the traditional and orthodox representatives of Christianity, but rather its modern innovators. For Tradition, the physical body is neither unreal nor autonomous, but it derives its reality from its iconic character: it is the image of an essence. Now the image is neither an obstacle to knowledge (iconoclastic error), nor knowledge itself (idolatrous error)—but its iconic means to reach the Idea of which it is the representation. If, therefore, the image puts man in contact with the world, and if this world has an organizing and creating principle (God), then the imagination cannot be reduced to a purely human faculty. Thus Ibn ‘Arabi recognizes three states of imagination—contrary to modern anthropological postulates that reduce imagination to the mere “combining imagination” (psychological) of Man, “it was necessary to conceive, beyond the human imagination qualified as imagination in conjunction with the subject (khayâl al-muttasil), a divine encompassing imagination, dissociable from the subject (khayâl al-munfasil), “having a subsistence in itself.” As the prototype of the human capacity to imagine, the absolute divine Imagination (khayâl al-mutlaq) is thus, so to speak, the container of the joint imagination.” If, therefore, the human imagination is contained in the divine imagination, the latter can allow itself to be contemplated by the former and reveal itself there, in accordance with its own coordinates of representation. The place of this contemplation is not imaginary, since it is not produced by human fantasy; but on the contrary by the divine intelligence—the imaginal belongs to the “creative imagination” of God. It is the intermediate world of the soul, where spiritual principles become sensible, where sensible bodies become spiritualized by being perceived in their principle. The “mixed constitution” of the imaginal thus corresponds to “the mathematical structure of the body of the world” that Plato looked at in the Timaeus as the mediation between the intelligible and the sensible.

“Solidary with a true metaphysics of the image, by which the Invisible is made visible,” the knowledge of the Imaginal and its “cosmological function, which is to unite the corporal plane to the spiritual plane,” is thus doubly required to understand the possibility of the perception of the divine as well as the religious function of the icon and of all sacred symbolism (illuminations, liturgical songs, architecture of the temples…)—for what is an icon or a sacred symbol, if not a spiritual body, or a corporeal spirit? Also, man is a fortiori called to become himself an icon; that is to say a saint who is the carnal image of the spirit, an incarnation of the universal truth. The problem of the imagination thus shows how much “the progressive oblivion of the esoteric tradition,” however “alone capable of allowing an in-depth illumination of religion,” is “the deepest cause of the metaphysical decline in the conscience of men.” The anti-metaphysical separation of mythos and logos is as false and arbitrary as is the anti-symbolic dualism of concept and image.

Paul Ducay, Professor of philosophy with a medievalist background. Heir to the metaphysics of Nicolas de Cues and the faith of Xavier Grall. Gascon by race and French by reason. “The devout infuriate the world; the pious edify it.” Marivaux. [This article comes through the kind courtesy of PHILITT].

Featured: “Sir Isumbras at the Ford,” by John Everett Millais; painted in 1857.

The Romanesque Faith of Simone Weil: An Occitan Christianity

In 1942, Simone Weil wrote two articles about the Occitan region of the 12th century. Inspired by the Song of the Albigensian Crusade, she presented not so much facts as the spirit that, according to her, animated the ancient Pays d’Oc, of which Romanesque Toulouse was the new Troy. According to her, by destroying the Cathar region, Simon de Montfort deprived Europe of a spiritual freedom that it has never managed to regain.

Because of the persecutions carried out against the Jews by the Nazis and their allies, Simone Weil, Jewish by birth, published, in the Cahiers du sud, in 1942, two articles under the pseudonym of Émile Novis, which Claude Le Manchec published in 2014, under the title of L’Inspiration occitane (ed. L’éclat). At that time, modern civilization reached the paroxysm of its material unconsciousness: brute force, drunk with its new technical powers, was unleashed before the banners of that “satiated spider, swollen with blood” of which Mauriac speaks. But the Third Reich is only the actualization of the same tendency that corrupts humanity since it chose sin against God: here is the “empire of force” that reproduces itself, the one of the Greeks annihilating Troy, the one of Rome annihilating Toulouse, the Cathar, the chivalrous, the courteous. It is of this last great confrontation that Simone Weil speaks, through the reading of the poem of 9578 verses, written in the langue d’oc, the Song of the Albigensian Crusade (Chanson de la croisade albigeoise).

Weil does not see the conflict between Catholic Rome and Cathar Toulouse as a war of religions, in the plural. The Song of the Albigensian Crusade shows that allusions to religious controversies are rare, too rare when one knows how much “the disasters that befell this country could have led the population either to attack the Cathars as the cause of its misfortune and to persecute them, or to adopt their doctrine out of hatred for the invader and to look upon the Catholics as traitors.” But it seems that “neither of these reactions occurred. This is extraordinary.” This can be explained by the fact that in medieval Occitania, there was “a spiritual freedom” which was that of a collective tolerance made religion, permeating the whole country of Occitania. In contrast, modern tolerance inherited from the Enlightenment “only eliminated from the struggle of ideas the crudest forms of force,” without eliminating the struggle between ideas. This spiritual impotence had no other effect than to logically lead the democratic mentality to lock itself in “the constitution of crystallized parties.” The modern tolerance “substituted material constraints for spiritual barriers.”

And for good reason, intolerance is the product, not of fate, but of a historical and civilizational “decision.” Ever since “the father of St. Louis, as the poem tells us, thought he was serving God by coldly authorizing the massacre of an entire city after it had surrendered,” Europe has chosen force, against the spirit. Failing to choose the spirit, the Enlightenment could only try to imagine a tolerance in force. With Manichean belief, Weil estimates that “the alliance of the throne and the altar,” of which the Catholic tradition affirms the possibility, is not realizable: a struggle opposes ineluctably the logic of the world, which is that of force, and the logic of the Kingdom, which, not being of this world, ignores force and knows only the spirit.

The Occitans of the twelfth century were on a crusade against force itself, which they did not use beyond the necessity that desperation made them feel. Only then did the population of Toulouse, “crushed and unarmed, rose up” against the conqueror Simon de Montfort. Although they lost the war, “they won repeated victories over an enemy powerfully armed and puffed up by his triumphs;” and, as in the Bible David against Goliath, “a stone thrown by a woman’s hand killed Simon de Montfort.” But the use of force did not go beyond the necessity of duty. The Cathar decision was that of the spirit, Weil assures us—this is why the tolerance that was in force was indeed that of a spiritual freedom where “ideas did not clash,” but “they circulated in a sort of continuous environment,” achieving what the Enlightenment did not even desire. It is in any case what superbly suggests the epic poem of which we speak, where Weil finds the same inspiration that founded the Iliad of Homer.

The Two Renaissances

In her article, ” En quoi consiste l’inspiration occitanienne?” (What does the Occitan Inspiration Consist of?”), Weil, in the perspective of her Lettre aux religieux (Letter to Religious), indicates in what way the religion of each civilization has valued one of the complementary aspects of supernatural truth. She cites Israel, which worshipped God in His unitary nature, as well as India, focused on the holy identification of man with God, but also Persia, China and Egypt. As for Greece, it was the aspect of mediation that inspired its religion and its activities, haunted as it was by the “infinite distance between God and man,” which had to be bridged. Thus were born philosophy, science and the cults of the Greek Mysteries, with the aim of establishing bridges between the finite and the Infinite. “It is this idea which was expressed in their notion of harmony, of proportion, which is in the center of all their thought, of all their science, of all their conception of the life.”

The Roman conquest broke this “bridge-building vocation.” The rebirth of the Greek spirit could thus be made only by the rebirth of the concern for mediations. Now “the idea of mediation received the fullness of reality; the perfect bridge appeared. Divine Wisdom, as Plato had wished, became visible to the eyes”: it is the revelation of Jesus Christ, God incarnate, the Mediator between Heaven and Earth. By baptizing Greek heritage, Christianity gave life to its spirit. This spirit was to give rise to an entire civilization, a civilization of spiritual freedom, the only living and free Christian tradition, on the occasion of the Carolingian Renaissance:

“After the tenth century, security and stability had become sufficient for the development of a civilization; the extraordinary mixing accomplished since the fall of the Roman Empire could from then on bear fruit. Nowhere could it do so to the same degree as in this country of Oc where the Mediterranean genius seems to have been concentrated… Spiritual riches flowed in from all sides without obstacle. The Nordic mark was quite visible in a society that was above all chivalrous; the Arab influence easily penetrated into countries closely linked to Aragon; an incomprehensible prodigy made the genius of Persia take root in this land and flourish there, at the very time when it seems to have penetrated as far as China. This is not all perhaps; do we not see in Saint-Sernin, in Toulouse, sculpted heads that evoke Egypt? The ties of this civilization were as distant in time as in space.”

On the other hand, the humanism of the Renaissance of the 15th century constitutes only “the last pale and confused image that we possess of the supernatural vocation of man,” elaborated on the opposition of Christianity and the Greek spirit, “while they are in the same place.” With the modern conception of science, art and philosophy, these bridges have been taken for permanent dwellings; these mediations between the human and the divine have been taken for the very hypostases of Divinity. Human intelligence has progressively closed in on itself, denying itself realistic access to that which transcends it. The destruction of the “chivalric civilization” of medieval Occitania even took with it that “intense civic feeling” by which, “in spite of certain conflicts between lords, and in the absence of any centralization, a common feeling united these regions; one saw Marseilles, Beaucaire, Avignon, Toulouse, Gascony, Aragon, and Catalonia spontaneously unite against Simon de Montfort.” According to the Song of the Albigensian Crusade, the medieval Occitans “even had a word to designate the fatherland; they called it language.” It is a common language, a common fabric of representations and ways of conducting life that these disparate regions defended against the armies of Rome.

The Roman versus the Gothic

Traditional Christianity includes two aesthetics, and with them, two ways of ordering the human world to the divine Principle: Romanesque art, elaborated during the High Middle Ages, and Gothic art, later, which accompanied the great movement of building cathedrals. We see there two complementary representations of the relation of the human to the divine. But Weil’s judgment is harsh: these two styles embody for her two antithetical religious options within the Christian world.

In the Romanesque, art shines forth the same inspiration as that of courtly love. Courtly love designates that supernatural love which, in contrast to natural love, is not based on the force of passionate and egocentric possession, but, freed from lust, it “is only an expectation directed towards the beloved and which calls for consent… Such love in its fullness is love of God through the beloved.” The troubadours used a word to designate this love: Merci. Courtly love denotes gratitude. Likewise, Romanesque art frees itself from the empire of force to assent to the spirit: “the architecture, although having borrowed a form from Rome, does not have any concern for power nor for force, but only for balance.” This balance, as on the Cross “the body of Christ was the counterweight of the universe,” is verified as well in “Romanesque churches,” the “sculpted entities,” the sublime “Gregorian chant,” and in “Occitan poetry”—everywhere this kind of deliberate awkwardness which is “a nudity,” the sensitive mark of the pure presence of Being which, unlike modern religion, does not seek to fill an interior poverty by an external effusion of grandiloquent representations.

On the contrary, according to Weil, “there is some defilement of strength and pride in the momentum of the Gothic spires and the height of the ogival vaults.” The Gothic still remains the sacred art of Christianity; but already a spiritual degradation is evident, because the sacred domain feels the need to dominate and exclude to prove its superiority. “The Gothic Middle Ages, which appeared after the destruction of the Occitan homeland, was an attempt at totalitarian spirituality,” writes Weil harshly; and she adds, in a highly questionable way, that “the profane as such had no right to be present,” while in Romanesque Occitania, “the supernatural did not mix with the profane, did not crush it, did not seek to suppress it. It left it intact and thus remained pure. It was the origin and the destination.”

Weil died a Catholic, baptized at the moment of death, on August 24, 1943, in Ashford, where she wrote her last profession of faith. But she was, singularly, a Roman Catholic rather than a Roman; tolerant, she considered that demanding “more faith” in the “incorruptible rigor” of Catholic dogma should not have resulted in the “extermination” of the Cathars. Worse, she discerned the value and greatness of the Christian faith according to a double criterion, not of originality and strength, which were the pride of Gothic religiosity, but on the contrary of archaicity and love, which were the pride of Romanesque piety. Archaism, on the one hand, since it is the “ability to combine different environments, different [previous] traditions” that seduced Simone Weil to “the Christian civilization [which] is the Romanesque civilization.” On the other hand, her life and her holy devotion to the working condition are commanded by an ethic of “human love” which, as in the Pays d’Oc; it is Christianly regarded as “one of the bridges between man and God.” So, the task of contemporary man is certainly not to restore what has “prematurely disappeared after an assassination,” but to irrigate his future projects with the inspiring source of Romanesque faith. “To the extent that we contemplate the beauty of this age with attention and love, to that extent its inspiration will descend into us and gradually make impossible at least some of the baseness that constitutes the air we breathe.”

Paul Ducay, Professor of philosophy with a medievalist background. Heir to the metaphysics of Nicolas de Cues and the faith of Xavier Grall. Gascon by race and French by reason. “The devout infuriate the world; the pious edify it.” Marivaux. [This article comes through the kind courtesy of PHILITT].

René Guénon and the Reform of the West

In this year (2022), René Guénon’s work enters the public domain. It is on this occasion that, after having passed from the collection “Tradition” to the pocket format at Gallimard, the beautiful editions of the publisher Allia has chosen to bring back The Crisis of the Modern World in an elegant cover and design. Elegance suits Guénon who, before being a metaphysician, was recognized by his detractors as well as by his disciples as a writer of genius, distinguished by his perfect mastery of the French language. To read and reread Guénon is, in this sense, to learn to think. Guénon distinguished himself in the great debate concerning the relationship between the East and the West, and recognized as a “literary” motive by Brasillach, that privileged observer of the inter-war society.

Also, Guénon, whom Raymond Queneau read assiduously, was compared by this great name of surrealism to the novelist Marcel Proust, for the obvious reason of style. In 1927, Guénon had already adopted a “pure language;” by this “resorption of the individual person in language,” explained Emmanuel Berl in 1953, the hermit of Duqqi had gained that literary immortality to which Proust aspired. Thus, by his style, as much as by his content, even to the deliberate use of the royal “we” characteristic of his writings, Guénon, through the usual requirements of French, elevates literature to the impersonality of myths.

This literary immortality began with the success in the marketplace—at the time of the publication of The Crisis of the Modern World, André Thirion tells us that the book was known without even being read. However, if this book sold like hotcakes, it must be said that, beyond the ephemeral scene of the world, it is, like the “hotcakes” of heaven present on the altar, a care of the soul for whoever reads it. It does not heal the soul as medicine can heal the body, by making it forget its symptoms of pain—rather, like the religious examination of conscience that precedes the taste of the transubstantiated bread, it purifies the modern soul by showing it its ills.


In The Crisis of the Modern World, Guénon explains that Western intellectuality and society are corrupted by abnormal deviances, and opposed to the traditional order that was the order of the Western Middle Ages and of the East as a whole. At the same time, he explains, the intellectual crisis of the modern West is rooted in “individualism,” which he defines as “the negation of any principle superior to individuality.” This mental attitude characterizes modern thought as an error or a false system of thought. In fact, individualism, from the point of view of knowledge, consists in refusing to recognize the existence of a “faculty of knowledge superior to individual reason;” while, from the point of view of being, it is a “refusal to admit an authority superior to the individual.” This close link between knowledge and authority is explained by the fact that Guénon understands tradition in its most purely etymological sense—as a deposit which, being transmitted (tradere in Latin), is not invented, but received, and which, for this reason, does not come originally from the human being by innovation, but from the supra-human by revelation. Tradition is thus sacred by definition, according to Guénon, who distinguishes it clearly for this reason from simple custom—to deny the sacred or divine foundation of tradition is to deny that which legitimizes its authority.

Thus, the first form of this negation, in the order of knowledge, is characterized by “rationalism;” that is to say by the “negation of intellectual intuition” and consequently by the fact of “putting reason above everything.” The ancients, from Plato to St. Thomas Aquinas, Plotinus and St. Augustine, taught the existence, above individual human reason, of a synthetic faculty of knowledge belonging to the mind, through which the universal principles of being and knowing are intuitively grasped. In contrast, the Moderns ceased to recognize the existence and efficiency of the intellect, and confused it, from Descartes onwards, with reason; up till now considered as a human and individual faculty of discursive knowledge, belonging to the soul in its investigation of the general laws of nature. The movement initiated by Descartes was to be confirmed with Kant who, reversing the hierarchy, placed the intellect below reason in the form of understanding and declared “unknowable” the traditional objects of the intellectualist metaphysics of yesteryear, in the first rank of which is God.

Rationalism and Free Inquiry

This negation of intellectual intuition explains the passage from the traditional sciences to the modern ones: “The traditional conception,” writes Guénon, “attaches all the sciences to principles as so many particular applications, and it is this attachment that the modern conception does not admit. For Aristotle, physics was only ‘second’ to metaphysics; that is to say that it was dependent on it, that it was basically only an application, in the field of nature, of the principles superior to nature and which are reflected in its laws; and the same can be said of the ‘cosmology’ of the Middle Ages. The modern conception, on the contrary, claims to make the sciences independent, by denying everything that goes beyond them, or at least by declaring it ‘unknowable’ and refusing to take it into account, which again amounts to practically denying it.”

What happened in the order of the sciences was thus happening with regard to religious authority; for individual reason, no longer recognizing a superior faculty governing it, claimed to substitute itself for the expertise of the Church in matters of faith, through the Protestant practice of “free-examination.” “It was thus, in the religious domain, the analogue of what was to be ‘rationalism’ in philosophy; it was the door open to all discussions, to all divergences, to all deviations; and the result was what it was to be—the dispersion into an ever-increasing multitude of sects, each of which represented only the particular opinion of a few individuals. As it was, under these conditions, impossible to agree on doctrine, it soon passed into the background, and it was the secondary side of religion, we mean morality, which took the first place: hence that degeneration into “moralism” which is so noticeable in Protestantism today.”


The negation of intellectual intuition has, according to Guénon, far more tangible and far-reaching consequences than ruptures in the theoretical domain. Practically, in fact, it is the conception of human nature and of its place in the universe that is involved—if Man is no longer capable of seeing intellectually and of communing spiritually with supernatural realities, he naturally (and how can we blame him?) limits his life and his ideals to all that pertains to the material plane of existence: “so he strives, by all means, to acquire what can provide all the material satisfactions, the only ones he is capable of appreciating; it is only a question of ‘earning money’… and the more one has, the more one wants to have more, because we are constantly discovering new needs; and this passion becomes the sole goal of life.”

Guénon thus analyzes the numerous aspects which constitute the “materialism” which is constitutive of modern civilization, and which Guénon defines at the same time, in its criticizable form, as “a conception according to which there is nothing other than matter and that which proceeds from it,” and as a state of mind which gives “the preponderance to things of the material order and to the concerns which relate to them.”

As Saint Thomas Aquinas says, quantity is the signature of matter, only the force of numbers counts everywhere in the modern world. This explains productivism, by which industry, instead of being an “application of science,” as it should be, is systematized and becomes its “raison d’être and justification.” In this context, Guénon also notes “the immense role played today by industry, commerce, and finance,” and considers, from an international point of view, that any economic agreement based on commercial interests, unlike spiritual agreement based on metaphysical principles, can only be ephemeral and insufficient. The reason for this is that “matter, as we have already said many times, is essentially multiplicity and division, and therefore a source of struggle and conflict; therefore, whether it is a question of peoples or individuals, the economic domain is and can only be that of rivalry of interests.”

This is why neither the League of Nations nor even the United Nations Organization prevented the outbreak of numerous modern wars, which are also defined by the force of numbers, as evidenced by the phenomena of the “armed nation,” “mass mobilization” and “general mobilization” (Guénon was a contemporary of the two world wars). In the more purely political order, democracy is also related to materialism and its reign of quantity, because it is still “the opinion of the majority which is supposed to make the law.” Thus, we use the very physical and material term of “mass” to designate the new form that the community takes in the modern era. Finally, in the order of popular values, Guénon points to the Anglo-Saxon idealization of sport and its “athletes,” instead of the saints and heroes of the past.

In short, whatever the field considered in modern civilization, “there is no more place for the intelligence nor for all that is purely interior, because these are things which cannot be seen nor touched, which cannot be counted nor weighed; there is only place for the external action in all its forms;” action which “degenerates thus, by defect of principle, into a meaningless, vain and sterile agitation.”

Reform of the West

Guénon’s implacable critique of the modern world is no less uncompromising with regard to the different forms taken by the traditionalist thoughts of his time. Indeed, the survival of the Western world in its modern phase depends on the quality of the solutions that one proposes to bring to it, which implies a high requirement on the side of anti-modern thought. Thus, Guénon opposes the various forms of reactive traditionalism to oppose an affirmative or reforming traditionalism, which defuses any unsuccessful reactionary attitude.

Thus, against a certain religious traditionalism, Guénon opposes most apologetic enterprises. “The ‘apologetic’ attitude,” he writes, “is, in itself, an extremely weak attitude, because it is purely ‘defensive,’ in the legal sense of the word; It is not for nothing that it is designated by a term derived from ‘apology,’ which has for its own meaning the plea of a lawyer, and which, in a language such as English, has gone so far as to take commonly the meaning of ‘apology;’ the preponderant importance given to the “apologetic” is thus the unmistakable mark of a retreat of the religious spirit.”

In the political realm, Guénon, who historically prefers the feudal system to the national system, also attacks the nationalism of Action Française, whose traditionalism is mutilated by an idolatry of the nation, a specifically modern political form, affirmed in the 19th century as a consequence of the French Revolution: “the constitution of the ‘nationalities’ [is a] consequence of the destruction of the feudal regime, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, of the simultaneous break-up of the superior unity of the ‘Christendom’ of the Middle Ages.”

In the cultural order, finally, Guénon sums up his entire alternative by opposing the “Defense of the West” advocated by Henri Massis against the East in 1925, a “reform of the West” responsible for defending the West against its own modern tendencies which threaten to destroy it.

The “reform of the West” advocated by René Guénon consists “in restoring something comparable to what existed in the Middle Ages, with the differences required by the modification of circumstances,” because “it is in Christianity alone, let us say more precisely in Catholicism, that the remains of the traditional spirit that still survives in the West are to be found.”

However, this Catholic restoration that Guénon calls for in 1927 must not be reactive and exclusive of other cultures and doctrines, but on the contrary it must be confident and virile in its rapprochement and resourcing with the traditional doctrines of the East, in the double perspective of a great front of traditional piety and spirituality. “A contact with the fully alive traditional spirit is necessary to awaken what is thus plunged into a kind of sleep, to restore the lost understanding; and, let us repeat once more, it is in this above all that the West will need the help of the East, if it wants to return to the consciousness of its own tradition.”

Paul Ducay, Professor of philosophy with a medievalist background. Heir to the metaphysics of Nicolas de Cues and the faith of Xavier Grall. Gascon by race and French by reason. “The devout infuriate the world; the pious edify it.” Marivaux. [This article comes through the kind courtesy of PHILITT].

Featured: “La Danse du Pan Pan au Monico,” by Gino Severini; painted ca. 1909/1960.