French Philosophers – A New Beauty Contest

mirror, on the wall, who is the best French philosopher of them all? Trying to rank them in terms of quality would be risky to say the least. As twentieth century Alain said, “Je plains ceux qui ont l’air intelligent; c’est une promesse qu’on ne peut tenir” (I pity those who appear to be intelligent, it’s a promise that cannot be kept). However, popularity ratings for web searches and quotes are a different matter, and isn’t the perception of quality also influenced by popular votes?

Descartes gets the most quotes

The most cited French philosopher is René Descartes from the seventeenth century. He is perhaps most famous for his assertion “Je pense donc je suis” (I think therefore I exist, or in its original version in Latin “cogito ergo sum”). This philosophical gem has the combined merit of being easy to understand and profound.  Descartes’ quest in philosophy was centered on being sure of the facts, and rejecting anything that appeared uncertain.  That however did not stop him from coming out with other more debatable assertions, such as “Si l’homme est libre, c’est Dieu qui ne l’est pas” (if man is free, then God is not). Whatever the case, modern Western philosophy, and for that matter mathematics too, owes a great deal to him.

Voltaire or philosophy with flair

Hot on the heels of Descartes in the popularity stakes comes Voltaire, from the eighteenth century. His real name was François-Marie Arouet (the French often combine masculine and feminine first names like this – an example for a woman is “Marie-Pierre”). Voltaire was not only a philosopher, but also a talented playwright, poet and historian, and deeply committed to civil rights. Among his contributions are quotes such as “L’homme n’est point né méchant ; il le devient, comme il devient malade” (man is not born bad, he becomes bad like he becomes ill) and “Mon Dieu, gardez-moi de mes amis. Quant à mes ennemis, je m’en charge ! ” (My God, save me from my friends. As for my enemies, I’ll take care of them!).

Pascal and philosophy with feeling

Next on our list is Blaise Pascal. He was a contemporary of Descartes and also contributed to advances in both mathematics and science. On the other hand he disagreed with Descartes’ notion that mathematics and reason can be used to prove the existence of God, and therefore replace good old-fashioned faith. Accordingly, his observations include “Deux excès : exclure la raison, n’admettre que la raison” ([There are] two excesses: the exclusion of reason, and the admittance alone of reason). He also came out with “Le nez de Cléopâtre, s’il eût été plus court, toute la face de la terre aurait change” (if Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter, the whole face of the world would have changed). Well, sometimes understanding French philosophers requires a little effort.

All excited about existentialism

Fast forward to the twentieth century now with Jean-Paul Sartre, philosopher, novelist and teacher, and a central figure in the branch of philosophy known as existentialism. The underlying idea is that “L’homme est libre, qu’il n’est pas déterminé. C’est ce qu’il fait, ce qu’il choisit, qui le fait devenir ce qu’il est” (man is free and is not predestined. It is what he does, what he chooses, that makes him become what he is). Just to complicate matters, philosophers considered by others to be “existentialists” tend to deny that they are –  Jean-Paul Sartre did. He also refused the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964, the first person to do so (out of all those who ever had the choice, including Sartre… now do you see what fun existentialism can be?). Quotes from Sartre include “On peut toujours faire quelque chose de ce qu’on a fait de nous” (we can always make something out of what others have made of us) and “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (hell is other people).

And the runners-up?

After that, the field is wide open. Émile Durkheim, Charles de Secondat (baron de Montesquieu), Jacques Derrida, Simone de Beauvoir, Auguste Comte and Denis Diderot are all contenders with many more to come. There are almost as many schools of philosophical thought as there are well-known French philosophers. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Who knows? As the French might say, “Etre philosophe, c’est être conscient de son ignorance et vouloir sortir de cet état” (to be a philosopher is to be aware of one’s ignorance and to want to get out of that state).

Poking fun at philosophers

To end on a note of slightly malicious amusement, even French philosophers held in high esteem can make notable mistakes. France’s best-known contemporary philosopher, Bernard-Henri Lévy, recently used quotes from the works of a French writer named Jean-Baptiste Botul on the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Among Botul’s “contributions” to philosophy, we have for example: “Je n´ai pas l´angoisse de la page blanche, j´ai la terreur des pages noircies” (I am not anguished by an empty page, I’m terrified of pages with writing on them). The problem? Botul never existed. He was invented as a joke by a French journalist to poke fun at French intellectuals.