The French-Tunisian philosopher Mehdi Belhaj Kacem wants to show us the path towards good by sharpening our insight into evil.
Transgression and the Inexistent: A Philosophical Vocabulary
Mehdi Belhaj Kacem first broke through with a novel written when he was just 21. He then won an award for his role in the film Wild Innocence (2001) after which he withdrew to the countryside to devote himself to philosophy, a process that culminated with the literary patricide of his mentor Alain Badiou. In his book Après Badiou from 2011, Kacem attacks the notion that philosophy can serve as a recipe for the good life, as no one can employ its lessons in their personal lives. This, says Kacem, is particularly true in today’s society, where technology reigns supreme. So is there anything in contemporary philosophy that is worth listening to? «If the philosophers are so smart,» asks Kacem, «why doesn’t anyone believe in them? Why is our avowedly secular age dominated by religion?»
Like Lenin, Kacem asks: What is to be done? His answer is that we must try to understand evil as a part of nature, civilization and man’s own dramatic process. As a self-taught anti-philosopher, he challenges us to abandon the various schools of academic philosophy and instead, like Reiner Schürmann (the deceased German-French philosopher), turn our attention to the tragic conflict and tension that characterises existence itself.
We’re used to thinking of evil as a moral flaw, as a deficiency of the good. But you don’t need to bother the devil in order to understand evil, as Rüdiger Safranski once put it. Evil is part of the great drama of human freedom. Man isn’t pure nature, but unshackles himself, breaks free, and finds himself faced with a horizon of possibilities. In doing so he gains something but also loses something, namely the unconditional sense of being a part of all living things. Hence the struggle within man between the two competing principles: between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.
Within animals there is no similar contradiction, God having created them undivided. Within man, however, the precarious contradiction remains. The question is: Can man surpass himself through self-enlightenment, with self-transcendence, by conquering egotism or, in other words, with love, the force of light? Preserving the right order of principles thus becomes the challenge of human freedom. Like Schelling said, man is free because he can choose between good and evil.