Michel Onfray has set himself the seemingly unsurmountable challenge of toppling over what he regards as the false idols of the philosophical Parthenon. Influenced by Nietzsche but especially by late ancient materialist thinkers such as Democritus and Epicurus, he defends a new form of hedonism described as ‘an introspective attitude to life’ based on the unselfish pursuit of pleasure. He is not talking, here, about Bentham’s felicific calculus but about the careful and reasoned care and management of the self as analysed by Michel Foucault in his late works. In his ongoing ‘Counter History of Philosophy’, Onfray intends to revive the theories of less well-known seventeenth and eighteenth-century moralists, too often ignored or neglected in favour of canonical system builders like Plato, Hegel or Sartre.
His defence of hedonism is rooted in his conviction that man has lost his ways by abandoning his unique relation with nature and dedicating himself to the pursuit of soul destroying aims. Heidegger’s legacy is curiously omitted by Onfray who continues to plough his own furrow while not paying too much attention to his critics. Taking his distance from the world of professional philosophy, Onfray resigned in the 1990’s from his teaching post in a technical college to launch the Popular University of Caen (Normandy) where his series of lectures on the ‘Counter History of Philosophy’ attract a vast public, keen on discovering the pleasures of philosophy and the way to wisdom through his accessible and inspiring teaching. Out of his eighty or so published works so far, his Atheist Manifesto is sadly the only one available in English despite existing translations of his books in thirty languages. Let’s hope that l’enfant terrible de la philosophie is, one day, given a chance to be read by a wide anglo-saxon readership.