French hedonist philosopher Michel Onfray has made his name by, among other things, founding the Popular University of Caen, away from Paris and every other known hub of intellectual life, as a way to rebel against the Platonized tendency that pervades mainstream academic philosophy. Like American professor Dr. Dara Fogel, author of the Epicurean Manifesto, he rebels against the obsession with irrelevant, useless and unscientific philosophy and against how this type of philosophy receives an exaggerated amount of attention and privilege in academia.
He wants philosophy to be a practice, to be useful and medicinal for, as Epicurus said, philosophy that does not heal the soul is no better than medicine that does not heal the body.
Onfray is one of the neo-hedonists who are making calls for a re-invention of the notion of philosophy and for taking philosophy back from the universities and from the academic world so that it can serve its intended purpose in the intimacy of the lives of everyday people. His Université Populaire concept is not too different from the Garden of Epicurus, which was also established at the margins of the polis and also derived its proud identity from its marginal status.
Not many of his concepts are new or revolutionary. He’s rooted in the great intellectual traditions of the past, but his idea of teaching a contre-histoire de la philosophie is revolutionary within the context of modern professional philosophy. He has replaced the prevalence of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, the so-called “classics”, with Democritus, Epicurus, and Philodemus. He calls for a counter-history of philosophy, for attaching accurate value to the “other” philosophers, the ones who actually made progress towards the right understanding of the nature of things, the ones who said things were made of atoms and not of ideas, the ones that accurately described reality and emancipated mortals from superstition.
Those of us involved in the teaching mission of Society of Friends of Epicurus are painfully aware of the effects that academic philosophy has had on the existential health and the quality of intellectual life of people in our day, because to whatever extent people even know about philosophy (the field has degenerated into such irrelevance that interest in philosophy is now minimal), what they do know is not applied to the health of our souls, and many do not even think that philosophy has a therapeutic use.
Recent interactions in the Epicurean Philosophy facebook group with newcomers who have been influenced by academia have included them asking us questions like whether we can look inside our own eyes, and therefore if we can’t, then how do we know that we exist? … a discussion which at first left me cross-eyed. I do not need to “look” into my own eyes to know I’m here as a temporary sentient being, and that my body is made of atoms and space. But in what way does such speculation help the health of the soul?
Therefore, I wish to join Onfray’s crusade against mainstream academic philosophy and Platonic thinkers in favor of a more honest and a truly humanist and naturalist retelling of the counter-history of philosophy. Philosophy has been defined by its worst proponents for long enough.