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Introduction to the Alexandre Jollien Trilogy

Alexandre Jollien

Here is something I wrote using medieval wisdom to understand the reality of handicapped people:

When I am Weak, then I am Strong is the first of three books by Alexandre Jollien that I translate into English. Jollien’s second book is Le Metier d’Homme with the English title The Job of Man, and his third book is La Construction de Soi with the English title The Art of Joy. From a merely literary point-of-view, it is interesting to see the maturation from one book to another. A 32-year-old philosopher writes differently than a 24-year-old student. If you, the reader, have never before read a philosophy book, then this trilogy might gradually introduce you to the genre. I apologize in advance if my translations do not do justice to the originals.

A human person is, by definition, a reasonable animal, in other words, a spiritual soul in a physical body. Every human person is a unique representative of human nature, for which the word ‘man’ can be used in its generic sense, which includes women. Those two words – unique and nature – should be held in mind together, because they are together in reality.

Human beings are more or less perfect, or defective, according to their correspondence to human nature. A woman with two legs, for example, is physically more perfect than a woman with only one leg, all other body parts being nearly equal between the two women, because human beings normally have two legs and therefore someone with two legs corresponds more perfectly to human nature than someone with only one leg. A parent who murdered his own child would be morally less perfectly human than a parent who raised and educated his child, because parents normally raise and educate their children; that corresponds to human nature. Human beings normally have intercourse with other human beings. If a person has intercourse with a beast, then he is sexually less perfectly human than someone who has intercourse with another person. The first example is a handicap in which no moral guilt is involved. A woman is not guilty of being born with only one leg, nor of losing one of her legs in an accident. She is defective through no fault of her own. The second example implies moral guilt. A parent would make himself less human, by his own action, and therefore would be guilty of a fault. The third example seems to include elements of the first and the second. On the one hand, the desire to have intercourse with a beast seems to be a handicap for which a man would not be guilty. On the other hand, having intercourse with a beast is an act that a man can choose to commit or refrain from committing. Human nature is our essence; it is what we are collectively.

'Man' does not exist. We cannot touch human nature. Unique men and women exist. None of us are perfectly good, nor perfectly evil; we are all more or less defective representatives of human nature. A human being is a complex reality, and therefore it is possible to be very defective in one way, while simultaneously being nearly perfect in another way. A woman might be defective because she has only one leg, but nearly perfect as a parent because she raises and educates her children well. Another woman might have a body that is nearly perfect and therefore includes two legs, but she might murder her children and thus make herself a very defective person. A person’s qualities and defects make him or her a unique representative of human nature, different from all others and therefore irreplaceable. Each human person exists; his existence is what he is as a unique person. Though we are all more or less defective representatives of human nature, each one of us can and should be perfectly himself or herself.

Thomas Aquinas wrote well about existence and essence in his short book titled De Ente et Essentia = About Existence and Essence. Unfortunately, those who followed the Angelic Doctor split his thought. John Duns Scotus emphasized the essence to the detriment of the existence, whereas William of Ockam emphasized the existence and denied the essence.

If we live according to the truth, as explained by Aquinas, then we should strive to become as perfectly human as we can, while simultaneously loving each human person, including ourselves, as the unique person that he is. We should not treat everyone the same, because everyone is not the same. Discrimination is good if it is intelligent, that-is-to-say we should treat each person according to who he is, and not according to who he would be if he were the perfect representative of an essence. With regard to a blind man, for example, we should treat him according to his unique personality, taking into account his good qualities and his defects. We should not treat him like a perfect man, because he obviously is not, nor should we treat him as something other than a man, because ‘blind’ is not an essence. A blind man is an imperfect human being. He is a reasonable animal, therefore he is human. He is not something other than a human being. The consequences of the Scotist and Occamien errors should now be evident. If, with Scotus, we emphasize essences to the detriment of real existent beings, then we either treat all people alike, because they are all human, and thus we might hire a blind man to drive a truck, or we imagine that there is an essence ‘blind’ that differs from the essence ‘human’, in which case we would deny that a blind man is a man and therefore not respect him as a man. When essences are overemphasized, the truth that human beings differ from each other cannot be accepted, therefore either the differences are ignored, as would be the case if a blind man were hired to drive a truck, or the humanity of abnormal people is denied. If every human being necessarily conforms perfectly to human nature, then someone either conforms perfectly to human nature, or he is not a human being. The existence of a defective human being is logically excluded. On the other hand, if we agree with Ockam and deny human nature, then we will not strive to improve ourselves, because real improvement would be impossible. A person improves when he corresponds ever more perfectly to human nature, but if there were no human nature, then there would be no way to judge human perfection. If there is no human nature, then I cannot know that one way of living is better than another way, because there would be no objective measure, therefore all ways of living would be equal, therefore I would be foolish to make the effort required to improve myself. Life would be purposeless. It is worth noting that Ockam considered God’s omnipotence apart from His wisdom, which meant that He could act arbitrarily and give us contradictory commandments, for example, He could order us to not love Him above all else. If God did act arbitrarily, then life would have no purpose. Devoting myself wholeheartedly to anything would be foolish, because tomorrow God could declare that it is evil and then I would find myself guilty of sin for doing what, today, is good. Existentially, this belief is supported by experience, as it often seems like God’s commandments are unreasonable and His will changes; logically, however, this belief is easily disproved, because God is one, and He is immutable. God’s unity excludes the possibility of contradiction, and His immutability excludes the possibility of change; in other words, God cannot contradict Himself, nor can He change His mind.

In the Western world today, the consequences of these two errors are well manifested in the lives of handicapped people, and Alexandre Jollien deals with this issue well. He shows that even defective human beings are good in some way; they do really exist; they are really lovable; they are human beings, even though they are abnormal and therefore correspond only very imperfectly to human nature. It should be noted here that, in French, the word abnormal has a very negative connotation. This is due to a strong belief that normal is synonymous with good. I do not hold this belief, because I believe that the exception is often better than the norm. Throughout all three of his books, Jollien encourages excellence. All men should strive to become ever more perfectly themselves, that-is-to say each one of us should make an effort to realize his potential. The tortoise wins in his race against the hare because he makes the effort to keep going while the hare takes a nap. Handicapped people (I include myself in this category because I have ostiogenesis imperfecta) are like tortoises: we can compete in the game of life, but we need to work harder to win. What is more, in real life there are different kinds of competitions. If a person is defective in one way, for example if he is deaf, he might be especially strong in another way, for example mathematics. Each individual should be free to do the good that he is able to do, and not be judged incapable of doing anything just because he is incapable of doing everything. Jollien writes well of the deplorable situation that he endured in an institution in which handicapped children were treated as a group and not as unique individuals. Such treatment prevents individuals from realizing their potential. Treating a handicapped person as a member of the group “handicapped”, or as a being whose essence is “handicapped”, is one of the worst things that can be done to such a person. On the practical level, this makes it more difficult for him to develop his strengths and thus realize his potential, and on the theoretical level this denies his humanity and would reduce him to something less-than-human.

In the second paragraph of this introduction, I wrote that a human person is a spiritual soul in a physical body. I would be guilty of misrepresenting Alexandre Jollien if I did not emphasize that the body is an essential part of the human person. We are not pure spirits. We are incarnated spirits. Alexandre Jollien is commendable for his love of the truth which makes him proclaim the importance of our incarnation. His body is very defective, therefore he might benefit from disparaging the body. If the human person were essentially a soul, and, as Plato taught, the body was nothing but a garment that clothes the soul, then Jollien could claim to be without any real defects. If, as is the case, the body is an essential part of the human person, then handicapped people really are defective. We are not perfect souls trapped in defective bodies, rather we are defective people. Jollien loves the truth enough to proclaim even those truths that hurt him. That is commendable. It should not be forgotten, however, that a human person is a complex being. Jollien manifests this truth by his own example. In one way he is very defective, but in other ways he is well-above average. Judging him as a whole, it would be foolish to declare him to be inferior to normal people. It would be best to avoid making judgments about a person’s overall worth, because we cannot know a person perfectly well in every way, but if for whatever reason we could not avoid making such a judgment, an intelligent person would judge Alexandre Jollien to be worth more than the average man, despite his handicap, because his intelligence and will more than compensate for his physical defects.

Jollien has been influenced by several philosophers and is not a disciple of only one of them, yet when asked about his thought, I always say that he is Nietzschean. This is clear from his second book, Le Metier d’Homme, a.k.a. The Job of Man. It is not difficult to understand why the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche is especially attractive to him. Nietzsche, like Jollien, had significant health problems, and Nietzsche, like Jollien, loved the truth so much that he proclaimed the importance of the body rather than minimizing it. Aristotle rightfully stated, in The Nichomachean Ethics, that virtue is found in the middle between two extremes and, to arrive at this middle, each person should strive to go towards the extreme that is contrary to the extreme towards which he is naturally inclined. People with very defective bodies are naturally inclined to minimize the importance of the body. We should live virtuously by struggling against that tendency and proclaiming the importance of the body. Nobody in the world today has a perfect body, yet most people, especially when they are young, do not have significant physical defects and are therefore inclined to exaggerate the importance of the body at the expense of the soul. There is a danger that Nietzsche’s philosophy, and those writings that are inspired by it, will be misunderstood by the majority of people for whom there is no need to proclaim the importance of the body. I think that Jollien’s writings, unlike those of Nietzsche, are less dangerous because Alexandre Jollien is Christian (or at least he is not Atheist; a European today who wonders whether God exists and lives as if He does, thus going against the majority who reject Christianity, is more Christian than the many so-called Christians who never think about such things but merely imitate those around them. In America, Christianity is easy, but in Europe it is heroic).

Jollien is a philosopher, not a Theologian, therefore Christian faith does not play a determining role in his philosophy, yet it might help him to avoid the extremes at which Nietzsche ended. Nietzsche was 'The Anti-Christian', which is the meaning of the title of his book Der Antichrist, often translated as The Anti-Christ. Jesus Christ said that “the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light,” (Luke 16:8). I know from my own experiences that Christians are sometimes less intelligent than heathens, and this is especially manifest in their ways of treating handicapped people. For many Christians, handicapped is an essence, not merely an accidental quality that adheres to some human beings. According to them, the handicapped exist only to receive their charity. A human person, however, should be active. Christianity teaches that God creates human beings to know, love and serve Him. Knowing, loving and serving are all actions. Furthermore, Aristotle said correctly that perfect happiness for a human person comes from acting virtuously. Some Christians wrongly believe that the handicapped cannot and should not be active, because their essence is to receive passively. Such Christians are often generous and willing to give and even sometimes make sacrifices to help the handicapped, but they prevent handicapped people from acting and thus fulfilling our potential, living the human lives that we should and thus attaining happiness. There are some people who want to console us perpetually, which is inappropriate when we are happy. Consolation is for the sad. By trying to perpetually console us, they make us feel guilty about being happy, as if our happiness was unfitting, and we should become sad so as to conform to their belief about us. It is good to fight against this stupidity that is common among Christians, but that does not necessitate a rejection of Christianity, because this stupidity is not the essence of Christianity. I believe that Jollien understands this well, but Nietzsche did not. I base this belief largely upon the excellent book written by Paul Valadier: Nietzsche et la Critique du Christianisme, published by Cerf in 1974. If I live long enough on this Earth to carry out all of my plans, then I will translate this book into English with the title Nietzsche Criticized Only One Type of Christianity.

While reading Jollien's third book, I thought much of this quote: “There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens. . . . A time of war, and a time of peace,” (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 and 8). Jollien's first two books tell of his Nietzschean struggle to rise out of a very difficult situation. His third book tells of the efforts he makes to live well in the absence of struggle, with a great career, a beloved wife and two children. At both stages of his life, philosophy helped him much. Human life is complex, and La Construction de Soi, a.k.a. The Art of Joy, shows some of that complexity and thus completes what his first two books had just begun. It finishes the trilogy, but it would be wrong to say that it is an end, for so long as a man lives, he can always learn more and continually grow spiritually.