The big questions

<em>Nicolas Sarkozy</em> debates belief, freedom and work with the atheist philosopher <em>Michel On

On religion

Onfray: There is a subject on which we'll probably fail to agree: religion. You have written that you enjoyed going to Mass with your family because you found it reassuring.

Sarkozy: I am not a practising Catholic as such. But I believe in something, I hope for something, I doubt things. I am someone who thinks that the spiritual issue has been considerably underestimated compared with the social issue. Ever since man became aware of himself, he has been facing these fundamental questions: why are we born? Where are we going?

How can we answer those questions apart from talking about hope? My book La Rép ublique, les religions, 'espérance explains that the republic isn't incompatible with religion. Organising life is the role of the republic. Bringing meaning to life is the role of religion. Every time that a loved one passes away, the question of hope rises up again: does life end in nothingness? Can the republic find an answer to this? I don't agree with fanaticism, but I am convinced that, in the end, religion is more the ally of mankind than its enemy.

O: According to you, religion exists to reassure people, to appease them when confronted by the outrageous fact of death? I agree. Religion is a reassurance - in fact, that's its only purpose.

S: But that "only purpose" is enormous! The right to hope is a huge thing . . .

O: God is a fiction invented by people so they do not have to face the reality of their condition. Besides, I don't agree with the idea that religion is the only source of hope. You seem to ignore the role of philosophy. There is hope, meaning, not to mention reason and common sense, in the philosophical quest, where religion builds on the unreasonable.

S: I'm no more able to prove the existence of God than you are to deny it.

O: That's no good. It's the person who posits the existence of something who must be able to justify it.

S: I have always looked for happiness and, at times, I have even found it. And so? Should feeling happy encourage us to become idle? Is that your vision of philosophy? Let's enjoy it now, carpe diem, who cares about what tomorrow will bring?

On work

S: Let me tell you something: for a long time, I have entirely dedicated my life to work. I thought that if I worked hard enough I would get anything I wanted. As I have often felt a fraud (for my own personal reasons) I used to work more than the others. It was a way to legitimise all the things that had happened to me: mayor at the age of 28, minister at 38. My aim was to erase even the idea of a holiday from my diary. Even tually, I found out that this constant endeavour and dedication were not enough. I found out that the human part of me was missing, or at least buried inside me. I have experienced difficulties, but each time I have discovered my inner strength, a sort of resilience I was not aware of till then.

O: I confess that I have always wondered about the role of free time in your life . . . In politics, you glorify the notion of work. It seems that, for you, the world splits in two: the brave and the lazy, the ones who get up early and the useless. As for me, I can work a lot, sometimes ten or 15 hours a day. But I wouldn't dare to suggest that others should do the same. Because there is already a symbolic reward in professions like mine, which also applies to yours: reading, writing, lecturing, this is not work as such and has more to do with voc ation. In French, the word travail comes from the Latin tripalium, which designates a torture device. Our activities can't compare with the burden of a worker who exhausts himself on the assembly line for eight hours a day. . .

S: During my numerous visits to various workplaces, I have been struck by the happiness encountered in factories compared with the lack of it in offices. In Zola's time, in the mines, even if the work was very hard, people didn't feel lonely. The hardship was compensated by friendship and solidarity. The feeling of belonging to a modern world in the making helped the workers to hold on. Unlike today in offices, where you may sit at a comfortable desk obeying your boss, but you are isolated in front of your computer.

An exchange

O: As our meeting comes to an end, I would like to give you some useful gifts before we leave. (He gives Sarkozy four parcels.)

S (amused): Do you really think that my situation is that bad?

(Sarkozy unwraps the books, while Onfray comments on his choice.)

O: I give you Totem and Taboo because Freud talks about the murder of the father and the exercise of power in the herd. Then, 'Antéchrist by Nietzsche because of his radical critique of Christian morals - for you who sometimes goes to church with your family. I also recommend Michel Foucault to you, particularly in your role as interior minister, where you are fond of disciplinarian solutions . . . In Surveiller et punir, Foucault analyses the jail system and its relationship with the liberal norm. And finally Proudhon, because he shows that, if one is not a capitalist, it doesn't necessarily mean one is a communist.

S: Have I ever tried to say such a thing?

O (looking at his notes): Yes, in your book Témoignage, page 237: "Communism, the other word for anti-liberalism . . . "

S: Are you a communist?

O: That's the point: I am not a communist nor a capitalist. I believe in libertarian options because they allow an interesting management of the capital and are based on co-operation, reciprocity, contract, federation. Today, few people read or understand Proudhon.

S: So, complexity interests you?

O: Of course! It's better to conclude by praising complexity than by dwelling on the uptight ideological statements of the first half of our conversation.

This is an edited version of an interview from Philosophie magazine, April 2007. Translated by Isabelle Chaise.

Michel Onfray's "In Defence of Atheism" is published by Serpent's Tail