Your recent book Coached by Joan of Arc seeks to offer a practical handbook based on St. Joan of Arc’s legacy to better face the challenges of our everyday life. What makes you think, as you suggest in your introduction, that Joan of Arc is eternally new?
Washington, De Gaulle, Churchill… these illustrious war leaders also have something to say to us, but it is hard to imagine engaging in an intimate dialogue with them. This is not because these great men were mediocre compared to Joan. No, it is just that their hearts, no matter their personal nobility, were not of the same substance. Joan is a masterpiece, whose beauty provokes in us sublime emotions bursting the boundaries of our being and propelling us to unexpected heights. In contemplating Joan—her personality, her deeds, and her words—the straitjacket of our quietude and mediocrity falls away in euphoric wonder. Joan conveys to us the beauty and the greatness of the human being and arouses in us a thirst for life, for engagement, and for sacrifice. In a world dominated by the ‘religion of the belly,’ Joan is a beacon in the night. This is what I meant, when I said that she is eternally new.
You dedicate a whole chapter to the virtue of magnanimity—that is, the virtue of being great in mind and heart—a central concept in your work in general. Why do you think this virtue is so crucial and why has it become so neglected in our time?
Many Christians believe in God, but few believe in themselves, in their talents and capabilities. As their concept of humility excludes magnanimity, such people cannot—and will not—lead. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Western world today rarely recruits its political leaders from among believing Christians. The most influential leaders of the past three hundred years were not Christians. This is not because Christians were expelled from social life; it is because so many Christians voluntarily withdrew from it. It is the most astonishing case of the self-castration of a whole community in the history of humanity.
Joan was a true Christian; she was truly magnanimous. In the words of G.K. Chesterton, “Joan of Arc was not stuck at the cross-roads, either by rejecting all the paths like Tolstoy or by accepting them all like Nietzsche. She chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt. Tolstoy only praised the peasant; she was the peasant. Nietzsche only praised the warrior; she was the warrior. She beat them both at their own antagonistic ideals; she was more gentle than the one, more violent than the other.” Joan famously said: “Help yourself and God will help you.” She trusted fully in God, and fully in herself. When asked why she needed an army if God wished to deliver the French people, she answered: “The soldiers will fight and He will grant victory.”
Modern society needs men and women who believe in man. A Christian must certainly be aware of his shortcomings and seek in God the strength to overcome the world. But this is not sufficient. He must also be aware of his own talents, and learn to rely on them and have recourse to all human means. This is a vital pre-condition for leadership.
In many Christian societies, the quest for greatness is often perceived as conflicting with the duty of humility. How do you explain such a misunderstanding?
Magnanimity and humility go hand in hand. In specifically human endeavors, man has the right and the duty to trust in himself—this is magnanimity—without losing sight of the fact that the human capacities on which he relies come from God—this is humility. The magnanimous impulse to embark on great endeavors should always be joined to the detachment that stems from humility, which allows one to perceive God in all things. Man’s exaltation must always be accompanied by abasement before God. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn once said when he was struggling against the Communist regime, he understood that “it was not I who was fighting, that I am an insect, that in carrying on such a struggle I was just a tool in the hands of Another.” Because he was truly magnanimous, Solzhenitsyn understood himself to be a powerful instrument in the hands of God; and because he was truly humble, he openly acknowledged that he was only an instrument.
He who is both magnanimous and humble is able to magnanimously assess his talents and abilities and judge himself worthy of great things, which he can undertake with confidence. At the same time, he humbly perceives his status as a creature and understands that his capacities and his virtues, even those acquired by his personal efforts, are ultimately gifts from God. This fills him with gratitude to God and can only increase the depth of his hope. Humility acknowledges the strength and greatness of man, seeing them as gifts from God. It entails no denial of man’s own greatness and strength to humbly attribute them to the goodness of God. Humility offers to God this greatness and strength, thereby consecrating them.
What’s wrong with the notions of voluntarism and sentimentalism, that you flag as being two major pitfalls to be absolutely deconstructed? Would you say that these are widely spread tendencies in our societies, and what do they say about our time?
The dominant ideology manages our sensibility through mass communication. Mass communication stimulates our emotions. We like it. We feel that we exist. Differentiating the true from the false in the information we receive is an exercise in futility, since everything has been declared “subjective.” And we actively participate in the “cancellation” of those who stand in the way of our happiness, claiming they seek to impose on us ideas and values that they wrongly call “objective.” These are the fruits of the philosophy of Descartes, Rousseau, and Nietzsche. Descartes’ Subjectivism naturally begets Rousseau’s sentimentalism, from which totalitarianism emerges just as naturally, managed by a group of “supermen”—and there is Nietzsche’s contribution.
Subjectivism engenders contempt for reason, which is replaced by emotions manipulated by individuals who thirst for power. The existential void caused by the castration of reason is filled by a religion of sentiment, whose new inquisitors subjugate entire peoples by “cancelling” those they consider unacceptable. This is how the culture of Tolerance becomes the culture of Cancellation.
Subjectivism leads to totalitarianism because it destroys all reference points. With subjectivism, everything becomes possible, even the unimaginable. Everything becomes justifiable, even the most unbearable crimes. There is no more reason, no more “common sense,” no more Logos. There is only my sensibility and those who maintain and manipulate it. If only Descartes had known where his “cogito” would take us!
This brings us to your previous book Free Hearts, in which you reaffirm the key role of the heart in human life. How to rehabilitate the human heart without attaching to it the Rousseauist sentimentalism you describe, that seems to prevail in most western societies nowadays? Indeed, the widespread misunderstanding surrounding Blaise Pascal’s famous sentence that “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing” offers a demonstration of it…
Sentimentalism is a form of insanity. A sensitive heart is a good thing provided it does not stifle the intellect. The heart cannot be a substitute for the intellect. The heart knows things which the intellect does not necessarily know. It knows in a more mysterious—and often more ambiguous—way. There are people who consider their heart to be their only guide. Such a heart is, in fact, an arbitrary heart which calls “intuition” that which is the pure product of the imagination and fantasy and nothing else. Before turning to your heart, you must learn to practice the virtue of prudence (or practical wisdom) in which the heart, the intellect, and the will work together. Many are those who commit horrendous crimes “in the name of the heart”: adultery, terrorism …
Rousseau is a good example of an insane sentimentalist. Convinced he was doing the right thing, he abandoned his children as babies to the foundling hospital in Paris. He never examined his conscience properly—his only point of reference was his heart, and his was a perverted heart. He felt he could act this way, and so did act in this way. Rousseau wrote a lot about justice, but being a sentimentalist, he could not practice the virtue of justice which requires the cultivation of practical wisdom.
The sentimentalist likes to cite Blaise Pascal’s celebrated phrase but forgets that Pascal not only had a big heart, but also a refined conscience, and an extraordinary moral sensibility. The sentimentalist is not a person of heart, but rather a fool who is manipulated by his egoism and pride, to which he attributes the name ‘heart.’ Sentimentalism is where the heart goes to die. Sentimentalism is a disease widespread in the modern world.
Is the so-called “woke culture” a mere manifestation of that sentimentalism?
Yes, it’s a sentimentalist parody of Christianity. It’s a religion, like Rousseauism and Marxism.
In an interview with The Epoch Times France last year, you said that the COVID crisis was kind of a last step towards the collapse of our civilization. What makes you say that—what is your reading of these past two years?
For me, COVID was a test, that showed that big crowds let themselves be manipulated. Sentimentalism has made people so weak that the time has come for the Nietzscheans to fight the final battle against the Judeo-Christian civilization.
You often link the crisis of world leadership to the crisis of the family as an institution. Some see the collapse of the family in the West as the result of various governmental policies, which naturally tend to make citizens more domesticable. What do you think?
Children learn magnanimity at home when they develop a sense of personal dignity: when they feel they are loved, challenged, and forgiven. They develop fundamental humility when they learn to give thanks to God for everything they receive, and to worship him. They grow in humility when they learn to serve their parents, grandparents, brothers, and sisters, and practice solidarity with the whole family.
The destruction of the institution of the family leads to the destruction of virtuous leadership. Someone who did not in his childhood experience personal dignity and solidarity with others will hardly understand the meaning of such notions as “greatness” and “service.”
Children should be educated in greatness, not only in integrity. They must learn to do that which is great, and not only that which is right. A great thing is always a right thing, but it is more than right. As soon as children understand the difference between what is right and what is wrong, they should be taught the difference between what is great and what is small. A great life comprises the building of personality beyond the borders imposed on us by dominant ideologies or fashionable trends.
You were friends with Jérôme Lejeune and you met Solzhenitsyn, two men of exceptional stature whom you cite in your works as the ultimate examples of magnanimity. It would seem that the West of the 21st century is struggling to produce great figures similar to those of past centuries. Is this due to the comfort and peace that has prevailed in recent decades? Is it the events of history that make great men emerge?
No, not events! Family makes both great men and women emerge!