RETURN TO “THE REAL NATURE OF THINGS” A CONVERSATION WITH MICHEL MAFFESOLI ON HIS BOOK ÉCOSOPHIE
In 2019, the domain of FIND Research and Intellectual Dialogue started working systematically on a recontextualization of Alain Daniélou’s program of a Shaivite-Dionysian philosophy of life, as expressed in his book Shiva and Dionysos (1979). Daniélou’s program, which – in his own words – aimed at preventing, or at least delaying, the destruction of the world in the hands of human beings, was articulated on three levels: 1. A reeducation of human perception beyond the parameters and limits imposed by our present culture. 2. An extension of the field of imagination (from a merely reproductive to a creative role in the life of human beings). 3. A differentiated critique of the certainties of modern Western culture, beginning with the concept of ‘universalism’ – which very often translates the idea that what has been produced in the last centuries by Western thought is the best of all possibilities for the development of the human potential in the whole history of humankind.
If one recontextualizes Daniélou’s thought bearing in mind the problems of our century, his reference to the ‘age of conflicts’ [kali yuga]and the ‘end of the world’ [pralaya] should be taken as a radical change of paradigm. As Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro says – following the thought of indigenous leader Ailton Krenak –, we are witnessing the end of a world, a world which assumed and wanted to be the only one. The dominant features of that world were, among others, the conviction of the superiority of the human spirit over all other forms of life on this planet, the belief in universalist values shaped by a single (European) culture to be imposed on all other societies, and the establishment of a ‘meaning of history’ in terms of ‘revelation’ (monotheistic religions) or ‘progress’ (Western secularism) as opposed to idolatry and regression.
Alain Daniélou inspires us to think beyond those parameters, creating a new bond between human beings and their environment, recovering a sense of the ‘sacred’ related to the dimensions of Nature that are impossible to exhaust by means of objective knowledge or manipulation, and an inquiry into the pitfalls of a culture that thought itself superior and did not really perceive the importance of differences. ‘Ecosophy’ is, as opposed to ‘ecology’, a path of integration based on a realistic attitude of openness, acceptance, and learning, which leads to a form of ‘wisdom’ to be judged mainly in the quality of the relation to the human and non-human environment. The work that stems from that ecosophical sensitivity and attitude is necessarily transcultural, that is, it implies the ability to learn from – and not merely observe or describe – other (non-European) traditions, going beyond the framework of European history without denying the valuable elements that mainstream knowledge forms have created – for example artistic expression as a rebellion against rigid forms of social and cultural life, or ethnological inquiry as the reverse-side of colonial expansion in dealing with the other.
Within the context of FIND Research and Intellectual Dialogue’s reflection on ‘ecosophy’, it has been a pleasure to engage in a dialogue with Prof. Michel Maffesoli, who published a book on this subject in 2017 and has been working incessantly to detect alternative forms of solidarity and resistance to a worn-out social and political status quo in the present European context. Maffesoli’s book Écosophie is not a circumstantial production in his long-term and prestigious career. It is rather part of an original project which tries to articulate at least three aspects corresponding at least in part to Alain Daniélou’s program in Shiva and Dionysus: another conception of imagination (in the heritage of Gilbert Durand), a return of the ‘sacred’ (as something that escapes calculation and quantification, including its erotic aspect) and a change in sensibility towards the environment and the other (in the question of tribal modes of solidarity and the ecosophical turn at the end of the XX century). Maffesoli’s thought tries to reconciliate the potential of renewal in post-modern social settings with the reappearance of pre-modern motives being reenacted and re-valued as a result of the ‘crisis of modernity’, such as locality, community, organic bonds and rooting. In this sense, he distinguishes himself from the usual reactionary attitude of traditionalists – in their different inceptions – with their insistence on the decadence of the present time and a useless nostalgia for a reinvented past, as well as from the biased and superficial avant-gardism of neo-liberal enthusiasts who purposely forget the undeniable cohesive value of tradition, creating a survival-of-the-fittest landscape of artificial relationships and values shaped out of circumstantial opportunism.
Maffesoli reminds us that there is ‘a real nature of things’ (even if the roads back to it are intricate), that a place can become a profound link from which a sense of belongingness and rootedness arises, and that a world of abstractions (gods cut off from the world, human culture severed from nature, circulation of money independent of goods, virtual reality indifferent to matter and spirit) is neither the only nor the best one, but rather something to criticize and resist.
AN – Michel Maffesoli, your book Écosophie (2017) is a message of hope for our time, starting from something evident that has become invisible. You tell us that we have forgotten what is under our eyes: the real, the natural. You tell us we must change our attitude, break with the worn-out habits of a historical parenthesis (modernity) that has reached its end and recover the meaning of what is given to put an end to our alienation. Now, precisely because of the current situation, I fear that your starting point cannot be appreciated, as it were, on its own evidence, since today it can only appear either as a ‘truism’ or as ‘too general’ a statement, that is, as a notion demanding clarification to appreciate what it is really about. You use phrases such as “there is a nature of things” (p. 9), “there is a normal order of things” (p. 10), or “the natural order keeps the world in balance” (p. 14). You also speak of “the natural vocation of man” (p. 25). From such expressions, it is not difficult to infer that you are speaking of ‘nature’ as something ‘given’, and that the ‘natural’ order is the ‘normal’ order – short of any justification, almost as the real is what persists short of any idealistic abstraction. At the same time, your book is a response to centuries of Western tradition in which ‘nature’ has been thematised in various ways, the parameters of ‘normality’ have changed several times, and the ‘real’ has been the subject of infinite debate among philosophers of different orientations. Is it possible nowadays to insist on such concepts as if they coincide with a reality tout-court that will be immediately understood?
MM – It is not a habit of mine to deliver a “message of hope” – or any other forecast whatever – of a political nature. I merely call to mind what has, throughout my career, been the constant concern inherited by the tradition related to Max Weber (in his essay Politics as a Vocation]: making a fundamental distinction between the scholar and the politician. Throughout my books – and Écosophie (2017) is no exception – I have striven to record a certain number of phenomena, to note significant pieces of evidence that appear to me decisive insofar as they outline the contours both of what is coming to an end and what is starting to emerge. I recall that Durkheim called this “the essential characteristics”, meaning, in its clear etymological sense, the imprints of a given era.
It is in this sense that I draw my attention to and insist on this expression, which I term ecosophical “sensibility”. “Sensibility”, since the feeling is widespread, not necessarily in words, but little by little and in a general manner it diffracts throughout society as a whole. It is what, right at the outset of my career, in my book La Violence Totalitaire (1979), I called “subterranean centrality”, or also “power coming from below”, as opposed to the power of the various institutions governing the official world. In his rather romantic and Nietzschean mode of expression, Georg Simmel recalled that it was appropriate to be aware of the “clandestine king” of an epoch: an alternative king to the various established powers, awaiting his moment to assert himself.
This kind of sensibility puts the accent, as we know in a vague manner, on a natural order that we might call an “order of things”, constituting an authentic “real”, as opposed to a reality that is purely and simply economic or materialistic.
It is useful to recall that this “normality of things” has been challenged since the beginning of the modern era with the proposal of René Descartes defining man as “master and possessor of Nature”. It was out of that claim – one could even speak of a paranoid attitude – that the myth of progress arose and developed, a myth aiming at dominating the world in its entirety and leading to “world devastation” (Heidegger), of which the various ecological pillages are the most clear-cut manifestations.
My aim – quite antagonistic to the “reality” as I have just defined – puts the accent on an authentic “realism” as defined by Aristotle and later by St. Thomas Aquinas, a position emphasising a much more holistic conception of the world, in which culture and nature, body and spirit enter into a constant and beneficial interaction. This is what I have sought to call “natural order”, and the natural vocation of man, resting on this interaction and surpassing the paranoia – turning it into a metanoia which, stricto sensu, is its accompanying process.
This, beyond the theoretical evidence provided by a decaying elite, puts the accent on what is evident, meaning what is there and – as popular wisdom recalls – has become so evident that it cannot be ignored any longer.
AN – In your book, the notion of ecosophy opposes – in a rather prescriptive manner – “the frivolity of greenwashing” and “the imbecility of political ecology” (p. 10). What are the shortcomings of these two trends and how can the ecosophy you speak of offer anything qualitatively different?
MM – I must remind you that my position is not at all prescriptive; I limit myself to calling attention to what I have just mentioned as “evident”. On this subject, one realises more and more that a number of institutions, enterprises of different sorts, have embarked on greenwashing, i.e. they are utilising ecological sensitivity for marketing purposes. In this sense, their course of action has a clearly opportunistic and in a way frivolous character, because it does not touch upon the essential. In the same way, as I have indicated, political ecology proceeds in an imbecilic fashion. One should notice that my use of this term refers back to its etymology: “bacillus” (stick), meaning a manner of going forward without those walking sticks of good sense and right reason. On this account, it is easy to note, in France, how a number of elect ecologists manage their territory and organise their political life in a way that escapes both sensible reason and common sense. Thus, the frivolity of greenwashing and the imbecility of political ecology quite simply express abstraction concerning reality from a societal standpoint. Ecosophy, as a widespread sensibility, is absolutely alien to such attitudes.
AN – You approach the notion of ecosophy from several angles. On page 10 of your book, it is connected with “household wisdom” (the household being our own Earth, and wisdom the ability to live there, cf. p. 132). On page 55 it alludes to “the rekindling of social life by taking into account the vital force that animates natural life”. On pages 63 and 64 it is associated with “Dionysian sensitivity” and with a “spiritual bodiness”. On pages 141 and 142 it is replaced by the term ‘geosophy’ to underline rooted life and the genius loci as a source of inspiration. On page 146 it appears as an ‘envelopmental’ concept (as opposed to the ‘developmental’ ideology of the modern age), which recovers man’s self and depth. On page 161 it is linked to “an instinct coming from immemorial memory”. On page 205 it announces a revival of cults of mother-goddesses, thereby expressing a criticism (anthropological rather than political) of male power. If you like, in your approach to the term one observes a whole semantic field and strategy of ‘re-rooting’ and ‘re-sacralisation’ of the world. Would this be possible starting from the sole observation that the modern world is in a terminal condition, or must we strive (and how?) toward some further development that surpasses fragmentary manifestations so that a change of this kind may come about?
MM – I actually draw attention to the layer of meaning that is closest to the etymology of the term. Thus, ecosophy can be taken as “the wisdom of our common home”. If we remain in the etymological dimension, the economy has been and is still employed to enact the laws (nomos) of this home. Ecology, on its side, claimed to enact reason (logos), sovereign reason, which some have called “instrumental reason”, or again, “morbid reason”. In both cases, the question is still, hovering in the background, that of dominating the world starting from the market, or from a pre-established idea. Ecosophy, however, effectively puts the accent on the vital force that is natural life, since the latter, quite independently of theoretical presentations or economic interests, draws attention to “a philosophy of life” (Lebensphilosophie), however little this term is taken into account by university systems, a way of living deeply animating the archetypal dimension of “being together” (Zusammensein).
The frivolity of greenwashing and the imbecility of political ecology quite simply express abstraction concerning reality from a societal standpoint. Ecosophy, as a widespread sensibility, is absolutely alien to such attitudes.
There are times when this vital force and wisdom are little taken into account, as in the case of what it has been agreed to term “modern times”. There are other times, however, as for example pre-modernity and – from my point of view – post-modernity, in which this inspiration regains undeniable force and vigour. In this sense we can talk of a return to “envelopmentalism”, as opposed to the “developmentalist” ideology peculiar to economic materialism. Envelopmentalism basically means adjusting oneself to the “folds” (as Gilles Deleuze would say) that constitute human nature. Let us remember in this respect that this balancing act in human history has been underlined by very different perspectives: Nietzsche in philosophy, Walter Pater in history of art, Karl Manheim in sociology. Thus we see how the figure of Apollo or Prometheus, emphasising action in the world and the domination of reason, are replaced by the emblematic figure of Dionysus, who is – to borrow an image attributed to him – a “shrub deity”, recalling in the simple sense of the term that, like all plants, the human plant needs roots in order to grow. This is what I have called, using an oxymoron, “dynamic rooting”, meaning that authentic force (“dynamis”) relates exclusively to the roots that serve it as substrate. It is this return-to-the-roots that increasingly calls for a sort of “radicalism” expressing itself in uprisings and insurrections of various degrees. This radicalism is called upon to grow and draw our attention to the fact that the merely economic, materialistic dimension is progressively making way for a more complex conception. It is in this sense that I have described such Dionysian sensibility as “spiritual bodiness”, or else as “mystical materialism”.
The various contemporary uprisings in numerous countries are the most evident expression of such radicalism and actually underline the agony of modernity. This is a natural process and needs no political party or avant-garde structure to teach the people and show them the steps they must follow. I note quite simply that beyond what is agreed upon as “the party form” (R. Michels), there are times when the saturation of official institutions comes about naturally. After a period of slow sedimentation, contempt for and contestation of the established order appear as evident. We are living at one of those moments in which, to use a common expression dating back to ancient Rome, “the plebs withdraw” (secessio plebis). It is also just what Machiavelli emphasises in speaking of the incompatibility that sometimes brutally stands out between the wishes of the palace and those of the public square.
AN – In the context of your book, the term “ecosophy” refers to a wisdom that sees the “sacral”1 in Nature, meaning the possibility of having an experience (not only individually, but also collectively), in which nature is not reduced to something objectifiable, a product of the de-sacralisation of the world and the vivisection of the environment (with all the mystery inherent in it). Now, your critique of the radical detachment of modernity from the “fecundating source” (p. 209) of the natural order is on several levels: one level might be described as ‘cosmic’, in which nature is the macrocosm (as compared to the mesocosm of the community and the microcosm of the individual); a level of immanence in which nature appears as Gaia (linked to the pagan humus); and finally, a chthonian level, in which you allude to deities such as Dionysus, Demeter and Cybele. How are these three levels concretely linked? If, for example, I consider cosmic sensibility (which could be illustrated by the Indian Brahmin, or the Renaissance polymath), I feel that this differs from chthonian sensibility (which refers rather to the man of the Dionysian mysteries in Ancient Greece, or the cult of the Goddess in Hindu Tantrism). If I consider the problematics of Gaia today (as displayed by authors from James Lovelock to Bruno Latour), the idea of the community derived from it is not in principle so easily reconciled with chthonian or cosmic attitudes, and actually presents substantial differences. For you, what is the link between these levels?
MM – Let us retain this swaying movement or tension between the Promethean and the Dionysian, which scan human history. In Greek mythology, with which I am more familiar, but of which one can certainly find equivalents in Hindu Tantrism, there is a difference between the Uranic gods, Apollo being the prototype, and the chthonic, of whom Dionysus is the chief. Strictly speaking, the chthonic god is autochthonous, meaning partisan and participant of this world, comparable to Heidegger’s Dasein, “being-there or there-being”2; it is an alternative idea to the simple world domination that has marked the modern era.
I am not competent to judge, but one must not forget everything that the Dionysian tradition owes to the cosmic sensibility of the Brahmanic tradition in India. Dionysus actually came from the other side of the Aegean Sea and, from this point of view, is a link between East and West. What is certain is that chthonic sensibility, attentive as it is to the “worldly sphere”, is quite simply the expression in its strong sense of universal sympathy, or even empathy, a pathos common to nature and culture. In his own way, the philosopher Merleau Ponty drew attention to what he called the “flesh of the world”. For my side, in an even stronger way, I have emphasised the importance of “the invagination of sense”. This means that far-off sense, that of the worlds beyond (to use Nietzsche’s critique), is no longer pertinent, but that sense, as effective meaning, is rooted in what is experienced here and now. This cosmic sympathy simply expresses an immanent transcendence. Precisely that is what is sacral in Nature, what from my point of view expresses itself – and will continue to do it quite expansively – in what I have termed the “re-sacralisation of the world”, which should perhaps be better expressed by speaking of the “re-magification of the world”.
It may be useful to emphasise that the present crisis is first and foremost one of civilisation and, only secondly a sanitary one. Its apocalyptic aspect recalls that it is the revelation of a world that is taking shape, which implies another kind of relationship with nature, no longer one of domination and devastation, but rather of accord with and adjustment to the order of being. Once again: this is the sacral dimension that grants all its force to the fecundating source of the natural order. Here we speak of the beating heart of integral humanism, remembering the semantic link between humus and human, another way of restoring importance to nature as “Gaia”, mother-land.
AN – One of the most interesting and, in part, equally problematic aspects of your book is the thematisation of the potentials inherent in postmodernity for a change of attitude and even of the human project, meaning a transit from a ‘Promethean’ mode centred on progress at all costs and the isolation of humans from other living beings, to a ‘Dionysian’ renewal, involving a return to relations between humans, nature and its secrets, as well as those societal1 forms of solidarity that may derive from it. I find this aspect interesting because as a rule whatever derives from the ‘postmodern’ is susceptible to criticism almost on principle, either from a nostalgia for former modalities of human relations (organicism of feudal extraction or monarchic verticalism), or from a modern universalism as an unsurpassable system of value for the West. You, on the contrary, see in postmodernism a decentring of man vis-à-vis the environment, a cohesion of elements with a different logic than that of the centralisation of power and omnipotent rationality, and a re-enchantment of the world that could eventually rescue humanity from the tyranny of economism. At the same time, almost all the theories of postmodernity that I know are based on the idea that it is an extension of (rather than a break with) modernity. I think, for example, of Felix Guattari, who actually utilised the term ‘ecosophy’ for the first time (if I am not mistaken) in 1989 in his book The Three Ecologies [Les trois écologies]. Guattari doubtless recognises the value of any initiative that opposes the policy of the global market and its technocratic avatars, mechanisation, abstraction and the impoverishment of life in a culture increasingly made up of spectacle and the serialisation of mass media. For him, however, postmodernity cannot forge a ‘sacred’ territory for new practices, nor for a re-rooting of mankind in a source related to what is given (by nature), since the basis on which all humans build their relationships is the one forged by capitalist abstraction accompanied by constitutive and permanent de-territorialisation, a definitive cutting off of ‘property’ ties and the disenchantment of the world. How do you justify this union of opposites that turns postmodernity into a paradoxical ally of pre-modernity, so that we can still speak of the earth, soil, roots, instinct and even “blood” (p. 212)?
The chthonic god Dionysus is autochthonous, meaning partisan and participant of this world; it is an alternative idea to the simple world domination that has marked the modern era.
MM – Right at the beginning of my career, even before tackling face-on the subject of postmodernity, I carried out, at a time when it was not the fashion, a reasoned critique of progressivism, that is, the myth of Progress. I even considered that the myth was the cause and effect of a “totalitarian violence” (as the title of my first book reads) peculiar to the modern state and its vertical structure. Later on, as I pursued in all my subsequent books this criticism of progressivism, I ended up putting forward an idea derived from traditional Free-Masonry, i.e. “progressive philosophy”, whose metaphor could be the spiral, meaning what grows out of its roots. It was on that basis that, beyond the subject matter and the essential idea of modern political thought, I took up what was one of the most important thematic areas of my teacher Gilbert Durand, the “anthropological trajectory”. Since the project is a dialogue between a dominant subject and an inert object, that is, human consciousness applied to the domination of nature, the very idea of the trajectory rests on interaction, agreement, the adjustment existing between the individual and nature, which serves him as a background. These are the contents of a progressive philosophy that is not constructed on the idea of domination, but on the contrary strives to discover a form of interaction.
The very idea of the trajectory, unlike the project, is a way of leaving behind or at least of relativising the tyranny of economism that characterises modern times. We must not forget that this economism, the roots of which can be found in Descartes, is grounded in Hegel’s philosophy and above all in the work of Karl Marx. In criticising the value of exchange, the latter put the accent on the value of usage, which is moreover the beating heart of modern materialistic utilitarianism. On the contrary, postmodernity changes the accent and focuses on the ideas of exchange and interaction. From this point of view, no matter what is agreed about it, it cannot be seen as an extension of modernity but, quite the contrary, it is a radical break with it. Beyond any reduction of the world to the useful and manipulable (“handiness” in the sense of Heidegger), it enhances the close connivance, the complicity that can exist between man and nature.
This connivance has been duly underlined by the theologian and philosopher Raimon Panikkar (let us remember that his mother was Catalan and his father Indian) who carried out the shift from ecology to ecosophy, the latter being the “wisdom-spirituality” of the earth. What Panikkar calls the “cosmotheandric intuition” unites man, God and the cosmos. This is what I have developed, in various ways, in many of my works, (among others L’ordre des choses, penser la postmodernité in 2014 and Être postmoderne in 2017). In this sense, post-modernity is the paradoxical heir of pre-modernity, very precisely because it emphasises the traditional dimension of the world and, in its ordinary sense (trans-dare), conveys what has been established. In doing this, it returns to the natural and radical elements of instincts, to the natural order and traditional relationships, and constitutes what is fundamental in societal life. Let us not forget that this builds a decisive aspect of Gilbert Durand’s thought, which crystallizes in the phrase “anthropological structures of the imaginary”, in which Jungian archetypes in their paradoxical and fecund youthfulness play a central role.
AN – To mark the swing from a “diastolic” (or expansive) conception of society (symbolised by the figure of Prometheus) to a “systolic” conception (linked rather to the image of Dionysus) in which the return to Nature proves to be essential, you quote, amongst others, one of the French theorists of anarchism: Élisée Reclus (p. 105), in underlining the idea of “ingression” (as opposed to “progression” or, rather, “progressivism”, which emerges from the Promethean project of modern Europe). One cannot help noticing a certain sympathy for anarchy in the sense of a horizontal organisation starting from a “basic power” (p.90), a social (or societal) formation that needs no centralised founding power (arché or “vertical power”, p. 90). At the same time, you appear to give the “imperial idea” (p. 100) some credit as a cohesive model of articulation of differences, as compared to the reactive “Nation-State”, which will not rise to the challenges of our own times. What idea of empire do you think could do justice to an articulation in which verticality is no longer felt as such? Would you go as far as to affirm that the notions of empire and of anarchy could prove compatible? How can the celestial and solar principle of empire be reconciled with the terrestrial immanence of an-archic initiatives?
MM – We can say that there is, in this relationship with tradition, with the instinctual aspect of the human being, something related to the Thomistic and Aristotelean kind of realism. With regard to this aspect, I have pointed out that, apart from the critical dimension, it would be useful to bring into play a praise of “sensible reason”. That is precisely what the emblematic figure of Dionysus means and designates. I insist on the fact that there is a relationship between this conception of Nature and anarchism understood in its true sense, which is nothing less than anarchic. According to Élisée Reclus, “anarchy is order without the State”. This means a sequencing of the world, the basis of which is not the verticality of overhanging powers, but rather the basic power that animates all social life. In this respect, it is interesting to note that this author, who in many respects was a forerunner of ecosophy and was moreover the first to use the term, emphasises the need to think of “ingress” beyond mere “progress”. Ingression is an energy that does not project itself far off, but on the contrary is embodied (“in”) the here and now, meaning – I would really insist on this – in this world of ours. It is interesting to observe that this conception of anarchy as I have just described is clearly the opposite of the vertical power so well represented by French centralism, something related to that pre-modern tradition that I have called “the imperial idea”. As much as the centralist nation-state rests on unity, just so the imperial idea puts the accent on unicity, meaning that which assures the cohesion of elements and pluralistic values, each with their own characteristics and their dynamism. It is in this sense that the imperial idea could be understood as an illustration of the anarchy proper to societal life. For my part, I increasingly emphasise it, so that this idea on localism is properly understood, recalling, to say it as simply as possible, that the place generates the link.
AN – Your book is a sort of praise of “paganism”, which you define as the human factor connected to humus, meaning its roots in Mother-Earth (pp. 40-41), rather than an affirmation of the undeniable continuity between monotheism and modernity (“the Judaeo-Christian tradition that reaches its accomplishment in modern times”, p. 122). Neither the monotheistic conception in which the divine is cut off from nature, nor modernity in which man replaces the monotheistic god, proves capable of making the earth a “place that generates the link” (p. 14), but still worse: they have helped endanger the survival of all species (including the human species) on the planet, for which reason you state that it is necessary to “purge oneself of all metaphysics”. At the same time, in your eyes, the Europe of the Middle Ages (entirely Christian) appears as a criterion of ecosophical comprehension (p. 100), and you also speak of a Catholic reappropriation of the natural environment (p. 217). In your opinion, is Catholicism on the side of paganism rather than that of the monotheisms (Judaism and Islam)? Would you say the same thing about popular Catholicism, with its cult of saints and its imaginative plasticity, as about the mediaeval scholasticism of a St. Thomas Aquinas?
MM – I consider indeed that paganism is one of the essential elements of all being together and, perhaps, even of human nature. Let us not forget that paganism reminds us what the human animal is, in its simplest sense, a “peasant”, i.e. one of the “countryside”, one who lives here: the essential protagonist of a country in which he lives, a being dependent of Mother Earth, who gave him birth, and of the humus that ever impregnates and feeds him. Here we are far from what I would call “the fantasy of the One” that Auguste Conte has so well summarised in showing how modern society rests on a reductio ad unum: reducing differences and specificities. Reduction engenders universalism, the natural son of the rationalism stemming from the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Once more, tradition forces us to consider that, beyond the fantasy of the One, Catholicism may be deemed an expression of paganism or, to borrow an expression from Weber, of the “polytheism of values”. This is particularly so in its promotion of the cult of the saints or the Marian cult. In this respect, it should be recalled that these local saints were very often deities rooted in a given place. In my book L’Ombre de Dionysos (1982), I note that the Catholic church, in its traditional wisdom, ‘baptised’ a number of local gods and turned them into saints. Just to take a single example, the patron saint of Lyon, St. Pothin, is merely an ithyphallic deity – a phallic god or a god of fertility (Photin). Many other examples can be found concerning the Marian cult, particularly the “black virgins” that in part emphasise the sexual dimension, which Catholicism has always known how to tame, integrate, and ritualise – instead of denying. Hence it can be said – and this is not merely provocative – that an element of paganism continues to animate the great Catholic tradition. In my book La Nostalgie du sacré (2020), I explain that the mystery of the Trinity was a way of nuancing or relativising what I have earlier termed “the fantasy of the One”.
Post-modernity is the paradoxical heir of pre-modernity, very precisely because it emphasises the traditional dimension of the world and, in its ordinary sense (trans-dare), conveys what has been established.
AN – If I understand properly, you are saying that post-modernity, through its own logic and dynamics (focused on the local rather than the universal, on the terrestrial rather than on the celestial, on the real and concrete rather than on the abstraction of a sovereign ratio), allows us to refashion the links of mediation – which you term “mesocosm”, p. 213) – in a communal, organic, qualitative sense. The solidarity between the “societal” (as opposed to the alienating abstraction of the “social”) and the “sacred” (as opposed to the monotony of the modern irreligious, as well as against the violence of the archaic sacred) expresses a promise of renewal, a rebirth of the human with a different attitude, one that is no longer dominated by technocratic and economic imperatives. This promise, however, finds itself threatened above all by man’s relation to nature: we have entered the geological era of the Anthropocene, and the ecological crisis shows us that we have not the necessary responsibility to get out of it without jeopardising all life on the planet. At the level of human relations with non-humans (plants, animals, natural elements, etc.), do you see any concrete possibility of change, as you do with potentialities within the urban social fabric? In other words: Is the ecosophical sensibility that you see spreading (albeit in a fairly fragmentary fashion) in post-modern European society sufficient to generate movements that transcend spontaneous micropolitics, such as decreasing production, decentralising man in the order of manifestation, or the return to nature similar to the configurations of the animistic or totemistic worlds (partly restituted and rehabilitated by contemporary anthropology)?
MM – Such paganism linked to localism is clearly opposed to universalism and has an earthly dimension. To be very precise: it emphasises the communal vector, what one may call the organic solidarity of traditional societies. This is truly a rebirth of the natural – or we might say “animal” – dimension of the human being.
This is what characterises the quality of post-modernity itself. It is interesting to note, with the aid of the Internet, that social networks, forums and other blogs for discussion often put the accent on terms such as solidarity, generosity, or sharing. This is the essential mark of the “societal” in its emotional dimension, that is, it has little to do with any purely rational “social” aspect. It is this change of attitude that best defines ecosophic sensibility as I have sought to characterise it in various manners. To put it in a more imagistic and somewhat poetic way, this kind of sensibility refers to what Baudelaire describes in his poem “Correspondances”: In this “great temple of Nature, sounds and odours echo each other”. It is in fact this symmetry between individuals and Nature that reveals the change of paradigm we are currently witnessing. The Palo Alto school in California has a good term for this: the notion of proxemy, which means the relationship between the natural and the social environments. At that point, one is no longer inside a rather tight conception of anthropocentrism (“man as master and possessor of Nature”), but in a more holistic dimension proposing a constant coming-and-going between the natural order and the human order. With relation to this, I call attention to the fact that, beyond the constructivist conception that has characterised modernity, ecosophy emphasises the dimension of the “given”, meaning the gift that Nature provides, creating in turn a return-gift, which is the social order.
As a conclusion, I would say that there is a major philosophical distinction between “reality” and “the real”. Reality (the principle of economic reality) belongs to the materialistic world-view that characterises modern bourgeoisism, whether capitalist or socialist. The real, on the other hand, is more extensive and includes the unreal, that is, the world of dreams, myths, fantasy, and everything constituting the collective unconscious. This is the essential change of paradigm between materialistic reality and the essentially spiritual Real, which places the accent on the cultural dimension.
Michel Maffesoli is professor emeritus at the university of La Sorbonne (Paris, France), founder of the Centre d’études sur l’actuel et le quotidien and the Centre de recherche sur l’imaginaire, as well as editor-in-chief of the reviews Société and Cahiers européens de l’imaginaire. He is author of numerous books dealing with sociological issues of contemporary society (crisis of modernity, post-modern subversion, totalitarian violence, financial and intellectual elites, etc.), anthropological questions related not only to politics and economics, but also to the history of philosophy and religion (the archaic sacred, pre-industrial modalities of living, the role of Eros in ancient societies, etc.) and also the question of imagination from traditional societies to the post-modern era.
- In French, Maffesoli distinguishes sacral from sacré, which is here literally rendered in English.
- In Martin Heidegger’s philosophy, the term refers to the relational openness of human existence.
- In Maffesoli’s thought, the ’societal’ as an organic mode of solidarity is to be distinguished from the ‘social’, which bears the mark of abstract bonds and alienation.