The Art of Revolt

“There are unbearable things all around us. You have to look for them; search carefully. Open your eyes and you will see. This is what I tell young people: If you spend a little time searching, you will find your reasons to engage. The worst attitude is indifference.” (S. Hessel, Time for Outrage: Indignez-vous! New York 2011, 11)


I do not want to polemicize with Stéphane Hessel, diplomat and member of the French Resistance, and, in fact, I am not that familiar with his whole concept of advisable outrage. Nevertheless, the above quotation is quite exemplary today, and I find the challenge it expresses problematic.

It may be true that Europe is paralysed by the indifference of the new generation, that civic society and community life are becoming weaker in the digital age, and that we have already almost given up our human rights (in fact, it was civic rights that we had all along). In spite of this, I see the French diplomat’s call as dubious. The problem with it may be detected, in my opinion, in the connection (unsubstantiated) between the challenge to “search carefully” and the warning against “indifference”. These are, I believe, two different things, which are not necessarily compatible, still less identical: indifference is the reluctance or unwillingness to respond to evident, flagrant things, whereas careful search challenges us to seek the invisible, the unknown, the non-emergent.

How different does the challenge of the philosopher fighting against the totalitarian regime in Europe about 40 years earlier sound: “[I]t is time that these simple truths, attested by the painful experience of long decades, these truths of which we are all in some sense aware, should be brought to everyone’s clear awareness …” (J. Patočka, “What is and what is not Charter 77?”, trans. E. Kohák). Wherein lies the difference between the two challenges, in terms of the distinction of regimes, times and states of affairs in which they were uttered? Or is Patočka´s challenge typical of a genuine philosopher; does it refer to the philosopher’s duty in society.

These are difficult questions to answer properly in a short blog post. But I can briefly suggest the direction in which they might possibly be answered, together with a response to Hessel’s challenge: what is needed is a specific, permanent combination of both. The philosopher, or spiritual person, has to look for new things, things that until now have been invisible or even unimaginable (for example, new forms of human rights violations), but at the same time he/she has to be clear about, and to theoretically process, what is here for a long time (as, for example, philosophers did in creating a theory of human rights after people in Europe had long fought for such rights). Hessel’s challenge seems reasonable to me only if we say to ourselves that we know what unbearable things are (as thin concepts) and simply have to determine their forms (a thick concept), which are so new that we have not noticed them yet. In other words, to quote Bernard Williams on the significance of dealing with platitudes: “There are many true and obvious things to be said in the face of the world’s horrors, and many kinds of writing can and should say those things in an obvious way – but these are not usually the things that philosophy, if it is to be helpful in its special ways, has reason to say; or if it does on occasion have reason to say those obvious things, it will be its reason for saying them that will not be obvious” (B. Williams, “What Might Philosophy Become?”).

To reiterate, it is essential to see clearly, and part of this clarity or sharpness comes through intellectual reflection, in which a person obtains a distance, including the distance from his or her own plans, interests, desires and vision. This distance, or detachment, I believe, is more profound than engagement, which has shallow roots and lasts only for the short term. Rather than searching necessarily for “unbearable things” it is better to understand the whole situation in which we find ourselves, including “bearable things” and our possible engagement in their evolution. For this, we do not need to “search”, because we do not seek some scandalously unbearable things, but it is sufficient not to remain indifferent and to work on a daily basis on small-scale things. Unfortunately, in our beautiful but sad world we are likely to experience the “unbearable”. We should not avoid this, but should bear it too (and so experience euphoria). But we have to be engaged already before we encounter unbearable things; engagement is not a good position to start from in an extreme situation; for example, we might find it difficult to detach ourselves from our engagement in order to see it clearly, to be able to change it, etc. Philosophical, spiritual or, say, human work “consists in persistent disengagement: to do everything for recognizing but also surpassing our own ethnocentric or geographic limitation without necessarily betraying them” (J. Derrida and É. Roudinesco, For What Tomorrow …: A Dialogue).

Tomáš Hejduk