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The role of indignation and other moral sentiments in the construction of a common (and solidary) sense of justice

Moral sentiments or moral emotions?

There is a current trend to reevaluate the role emotions and sentiments have in our behavior, thoughts and, therefore, our morality. There are no studies in the social sciences that fail to acknowledge the fact that we are not entirely rational beings, but rather influenced by emotions and sentiments in our decision-making (Camps, 2011). However, in the moral philosophy tradition, the rationalistic paradigm has prevailed in spite of some philosophers such as Spinoza, Hume and Smith, who looked at emotions, passions and sentiments as essential parts of human nature. As an inheritance of Kantian tradition, autonomy has been considered the most important aspect of our constitution as moral beings (Cortina, 2021). Set aside are all the human properties that are considered “irrational”, i.e., emotions and sentiments. After all, as Nussbaum points out, emotions and sentiments remind us of our own vulnerability. In fact, this revival of the interest in emotion is nothing new. As Camps (2011) states, in response to the hyper-rationalization of moral philosophy, some philosophers advocated for the role of emotions and sentiments in human nature. Nonetheless, the political doctrines that have dominated moral and political thinking have emphasized the rational part of morality. Therefore, this new spotlight on emotions may be interpreted as a paradigm shift.

Han (2020), however, believes we should be cautious when accepting this renewed interest without considering any implications it may have. According to him, this interest is due in some extent to its capitalization as a mechanism of consumption: “Emotions are dynamic, situational, and performative. Capitalism of emotions exploits these qualities (Han, 2020, p. 68). Being reactive and pre-reflective, emotions are easily manipulated since they themselves lack a critical and reflective dimension.

[…] emotionality runs parallel to the sense of freedom, to the free display of the personality. Being free even means to give way to emotions. The capitalism of emotions uses this freedom. Emotion is celebrated as an expression of free subjectivity (Han, 2020, p. 71).

Lacroix adds to this criticism by arguing that we currently live in the «cult of emotion» (quoted in Victoria Camps, 2011, p.17). In this regard, Camps (2011) points out the cult of emotions as the maximum expression of the cult of the self. Emotions are given free rein with the excuse that “they should be free” and not submit to reason: “Commercial advertising sells «experiences», «strong sensations», or, directly, «emotions». (Camps, 2011, p. 20). Emotions are then transformed into a catalyst that reacts and influences human behavior without much filter and is in turn used by third-party interests as a means of media manipulation.

This does not mean we should abandon the project of emotions. On the contrary, we should develop it in greater detail. Both Han (2020) and Rawls (2015) would agree that there is a current conceptual confusion between emotions and sentiments. Emotions are attitudes we have in reaction to an event. Moral emotions, therefore, are reactive attitudes we have to a situation in a moral context. Take the following example: a person walks down the street and is accosted and beaten by another person without justification. It is natural for the battered person to react with anger or fear, depending on their own temperament. Anger or fear, in this case, are reactive emotions to a stimulus. What happens, however, if we alter the context a bit? A person participates in a public demonstration and is beaten by a police officer for doing so. In this case, in addition to anger or fear, the beaten person may develop a feeling of indignation, seeing herself as the victim of an attack that violates her civil rights.

The difference between an emotion and a moral sentiment is, therefore, that a sentiment may be associated with a moral concept justified accordingly (Rawls, 1999). Returning to the example, the indignant person may justify her feeling by alluding to the moral concept of justice. It is unfair that she is violated for demonstrating publicly, no matter the reason, as she is exercising her civil rights. Additionally, another important characteristic of sentiments is that they may be shared and have a narrative dimension (Han, 2020). Now let’s put ourselves in the place of a third party who witnesses the altercation. In the face of unjust violence, a shared sentiment of indignation arises for moral reasons and its justification comes with an explanation of why it is unjust. Maybe the person was demonstrating in defense of human rights or against discrimination. This person may also have a story to tell directly related to the cause. In this sense, a moral sentiment is narrative but also requires a critical dimension. In turn, moral sentiments are reflective. The person no longer reacts uncritically to a stimulus, but is able to justify her actions by appealing to moral concepts. Moral sentiments, in conclusion, take emotions one step further, to the dimension of critical reflexivity. The mere fact of knowing that something is wrong is not strong enough motivation to avoid it. The moral sentiment would function as the motivation to act consistently.

Hence, one of the premises of this text is that not only should we focus on moral emotions, since they may be uncritical, but rather we should cultivate them so they may develop into moral sentiments. By doing so, we can take emotions to a critical, narrative and shared dimension.

Anger, resentment, and indignation

Anger, resentment and indignation are three concepts that often come together, and are sometimes used interchangeably. According to Nussbaum (2018) and Camps (2011), in the philosophical tradition, these emotions and sentiments have not been the most popular among moral philosophers. Perhaps the most notable exception to this conception is that of Aristotle (2009), who argues in favor of a tempered and moderated emotion of anger, which, in the right circumstances, may lead to righteous indignation. Righteous indignation, then, occurs when a person witnesses “undeserved good fortune” (Aristotle, 2009, p. 34), or on the other hand, when the person witnesses undeserved harm.

However, we should first distinguish between these three concepts, for they are very different and their implications vary significantly. First of all, let’s talk about the concept of anger, which is a rather unpopular passion among philosophers. The stoics and religious traditions, along with other thinkers, consider it an inexcusable passion that only leads to irrational outrage (Dubreuil, 2015). At its simplest, anger is a reactive emotion that comes up in the widest range of situations that are not necessarily moral, and which have physical reactions as well (Kriegel, 2022). We can get angry at someone who has wronged us, but not in the sense that violates our human dignity.

However, when we talk about resentment and indignation, we are taking one step further. Both indignation and resentment are moral sentiments in the sense we have discussed earlier: they both have a reflective aspect, a narrative dimension, and may be collectively shared.  In this sense, we can argue that both are essentially moral sentiments (Kriegel, 2022). However, I suggest, there is a qualitative aspect that makes them different, and that is their justification.

Let us continue with resentment. Resentment is commonly related to feelings of bitterness and a desire for retribution (Kriegel, 2022). When we feel resentful, we believe a moral harm has been done to us and we may feel the need for payback. It is this feeling of vengeance that drives some people away from considering resentment a fruitful moral sentiment. In some cases, it is even considered an obstacle to moral development (Debreuil, 2015). Nonetheless, Taylor (2019) defends that, under the right circumstances, resentment may be crucial when intervening in situations of injustice:

I shall also disagree with the claim that the desire for retribution is a conceptual part of anger or resentment. The desire for retribution or to punish may sometimes be an element of resentment, but it need not be. When resentment is an attitude characterizing those engaged in social or political struggle, it often has the aim of constructively establishing, restoring or maintaining dignity, rights or some other good (Taylor, 2019, p. 7).

In his most famous essay Freedom and Resentment, Strawson (2008) defines resentment as “a reaction to injury or indifference” (Strawson, 2008, p. 15) in which we are implicated personally. Camps (2011) agrees with this definition of resentment being a sentiment of moral wrongdoing in which the person feeling resentful is directly involved. In this thinker’s view, the fact of personal involvement is what makes resentment less fruitful, since it might be misguided to a struggle for personal retribution that does not necessarily correspond to a moral wrongdoing or to an incident of social injustice. In my opinion, the key is to understand how to direct these feelings and what resources we may rely on to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the desire for retribution or punishment.

Indignation, on the other hand, has a much brighter outlook, since it is widely considered to be a moral sentiment that is aroused when situations of injustice occur. West (2020) argues that “indignation advocates righteous anger in opposition to immoral, disgusting, or unfair behavior aimed at reducing the dignity of others” (West, 2020, p.532). In this sense, as Yang (2020) suggests, indignation is a “vicarious attitude”, as he puts it, that reacts when we witness something immoral: “Indignation is calibrated to injustice” (Yang, 2020, p. 292). Indignation, then, is a moral sentiment that arises when we are third-party spectators of an incident.  Even though there are in fact situations where we may feel indignant towards something that has been done to us, the main aspect of indignation is that the indignant person feels that way when a moral principle has been violated, regardless of whether the harm has been done to them or someone else (Camps, 2011).

Thus, indignation is presented as an essentially moral sentiment, since it is an actual moral compass that helps us discern between fairness and unfairness in moral settings:

Feeling indignation at the violation not only of the simple ordinance but of human rights and the most universal and shared moral principles should be a good way of reacting to disgrace, a sign of moral and social health that should not be despised at all. (Camps, 2011, p.162).

The capacity for indignation might even be considered an essential moral skill for any person (Kriegel, 2022). When we fail to feel indignant in the face of moral tragedy, we are missing something that makes us truly human, and that is the capacity to empathize with other beings that are suffering or whose basic human rights are being compromised. We need to put ourselves in others’ shoes, go beyond empathy, look at the face of injustice and all the people that have been left out so we may truly feel what Valverde (2015) calls radical empathy. This inner feeling of outrage is not only far from being irrational, but in the context of injustice, it is the only rational way to feel.

Consequently, indignation gains relevance in social settings where human and civil rights tend to be violated. In a recent study carried out in Mexico (Atilano-Barbosa, Paredes, Enciso, Pasaye and Mercadillo, 20022), researchers found that in a country where violence takes place on an everyday basis, people who are exposed to violence in the mass media tend to feel indignant towards the institutions that allow such things to happen and start demanding radical social change. In another study (Assouline and Trager, 2021), scholars investigated the political impact that indignation had on social leaders who used it as a moral detonator for political change, regardless of the purpose.

Thus, the sentiment of indignation may become a very powerful tool and potentially have a large-scale impact on the lives of many people. It is crucial then, as Aristotle said, to feel indignation and anger or even resentment in a moderated and tempered way. Only by calibrating our own feelings to the reality we observe and to basic universal moral principles of human dignity are we able to tune up our moral compass and feel indignant to an appropriate measure and in the right circumstances.  To help elucidate this objective, I shall suggest the Rawlsian conception of the sense of justice, which, from my point of view, brings together the most important aspects of indignation as a moral sentiment, as well as a comprehensive conception of justice and moral learning.

The Rawlsian Sense of Justice

John Rawls dedicates a complete chapter of his most famous work A Theory of Justice (1999) to the topic of the sense of justice. For him, defining the sense of justice means proving that his theory of justice as fairness, as a comprehensive conception of justice, can be sustained over time. This is achieved by providing a mechanism for the stability of justice as fairness, which is guaranteed by the sense of justice.

Of the sense of justice, Rawls explains:

Let us assume that each person beyond a certain age and possessed of the requisite intellectual capacity develops a sense of justice under normal social circumstances. We acquire a skill in judging things to be just and unjust, and in supporting these judgments by reasons. Moreover, we ordinarily have some desire to act in accord with these pronouncements and expect a similar desire on the part of others. Clearly this moral capacity is extraordinarily complex (Rawls, 1999, p.41).

This complexity is clearly expressed in chapter VIII of A Theory of Justice (1999). Firstly, he explains that he starts from the conception of a Well-Ordered Society, which would be the case if his principles of justice were to succeed.  Then, he exposes his own ideas on moral development, which he worked on in his earlier essay The Sense of Justice (1963), where he took ideas from Rousseau (2003), Kohlberg (1992) and Piaget (1932) to construct his own conception of moral stage-development. Oddly enough, in his 1963 version of the theory, he used the moral sentiment of guilt as a key element of moral development. In his latter version, however, he focused more on “psychological laws” that mainly explain the ties and attachments we develop with other people and with fair and just social institutions.

I shall now briefly explain the three stages of moral development according to Rawls’ view (1999):

  • Morality of authority: This stage of development takes place, mostly, during infancy. As her cognitive and intellectual skills are limited, a child relies almost entirely on her parents to survive. If the parents succeed in providing the child with love and care, she will naturally develop the corresponding feelings of love, gratitude and trust. Thus, when failing to fulfill the parent’s wishes, the child will feel guilty and want to make amends. Therefore, in the moral dimension, right and wrong are defined by the figure of authority. The moral virtues related to this stage are humility, obedience and fidelity.
  • Morality of association: Once a person has successfully completed the morality of authority, she advances to the morality of association, which is characterized by the realization of the different groups of people that make up society. The person finds herself in other settings where it is possible to form bonds of friendship and association with other people: school, the neighborhood, sports clubs, cultural groups, or any kind of association. The passage to the second stage of moral development occurs when the person is able to recognize that she is part of a society, and that, just as she places her love and trust in others, others do so in her. Therefore, not only is cooperative work more advantageous, but it also produces feelings of fellowship and community with others. The virtues related are the cooperative virtues: justice and fairness, fidelity and trust, integrity and impartiality.
  • Morality of principles: Finally, the person who has completed the morality of authority and the morality of association is capable of relating to others, interpersonally and collectively. Realizing that society works thanks to the various associations of people to the bonds of love and trust that she has developed, a feeling of love for humankind is born within her. It is in this moment that the sense of justice reaches its full potential and drives us in two directions: 1) We recognize society as a valuable association of people and groups, so a feeling of guilt arises in us if we do not comply with the standards of justice; 2) A desire to uphold justice is born within us and we become indignant when we witness an injustice. The morality of principles brings together the virtues of the previous stages and adds them to the love for humankind. The morality of principles, then, translates into a mature sense of justice that will help guide our behavior, always in constant evaluation based on reflective balance.

There are two things I would like to emphasize. First of all, even though Rawls tries to give a reasonable account of justice as fairness starting from rational arguments (the Kantian conception of persons as free, equal and rational beings), he very much cares to give the most reasonable conception of us as moral agents. In order to do so, he takes into consideration not only rational aspects but also emotional ones (Frazer, 2007). Feelings of love, trust, fellowship, among others, help a person form bonds with other people, which is essential when constructing a sense of justice, because it gives us the sense of belonging to a group and loyalty towards the ones we love. It is when we realize these same features are shared (or can be shared) with other people, that the love for humankind starts flourishing. The second thing I would like to emphasize is the role the moral sentiments of guilt, resentment and indignation have in the sense of justice. Resentment, guilt and indignation are related to faults to justice but have different purposes. Guilt is felt when we fail to act according to the principles of justice. On the other hand, we feel resentful when an unjust harm has been done to us and we feel indignant when harm has fallen upon a third party: “[…] feelings of guilt and indignation are aroused by the injuries and deprivations of other unjustifiably brought about either by ourselves or third parties, and our sense of justice is offended in the same way” (Rawls, 1999, p. 417)”. These moral sentiments, therefore, respond directly to the concepts of right and justice: “In general, guilt, resentment, and indignation invoke the concept of right” (Rawls, 1999, p. 423).

Thus far, I have distinguished between moral sentiments and emotions, and made a case for the advantage of moral sentiments such as indignation and resentment. In the present section, I argue in favor of the Rawlsian sense of justice as a concept capable of combining all these ideas. In the following segment, I shall attempt to go beyond and justify indignation as a crucial moral sentiment in the construction of a common sense of justice.

The construction of a common (and solidary) sense of justice

As we have seen throughout this text, there cannot be moral development without taking into consideration human aspects such as emotions and sentiments. However, we cannot consider emotions uncritically. To do so, we must consider the way humans integrate them into their decision-making and what moral concepts we evoke once we feel them.

Rawls’ proposal, I suggest, gives us the necessary tools to think of justice not only as a rational distributive calculation, but also as the tie that binds us to other people and gives us our own place in society.  Furthermore, one crucial aspect of the sense of justice, although sometimes overlooked, is the role it plays in building a community and a common sense of justice. This idea is best understood with the notion of civil disobedience. In chapter VI of A Theory of Justice (1999). Rawls makes a case for the part that civil disobedience should play in justice as fairness. For him, civil disobedience is a political tool people may use when they find something that goes against the principles of justice and fair cooperation:

Rawlsian civil disobedience shows anti-authoritarian pretensions based on the maintenance of a just order, and whose manager is located in civil society. There, values such as justice, diversity, mutual respect, a sense of dignity and respect for freedom are shared. Civil society is made up of elements such as the associative, cooperative, and plural character, and by public reason by reaching agreements and defending justice (García-G, 2006).

It is important, however, to distinguish between conscientious refusal and civil disobedience. The difference, once again, lies in the object towards which it is directed. Although both are morally oriented, conscientious refusal only stays in the scope of private and individual actions, whereas civil disobedience has the aim of reaching the public and appealing to “the sense of justice of the majority” (Rawls, 1999, p. 335). Even though both are valid forms of morally disagreeing with something, civil disobedience is inherently collective. Civil disobedience, as a non-violent approach, appeals to a community’s common sense of justice in order to take action, or demonstrate, against injustice: “Indeed, civil disobedience is one of the stabilizing devices of a constitutional system […] by resisting injustice within the limits of fidelity to law, it serves to inhibit departures from justice and to correct them when they occur” (Rawls, 1999, p. 336).

Here it is important to emphasize the role that the community has in civil disobedience, especially, in modern pluralistic societies. According to Han (2020b), nowadays we live in a communitarian crisis. Neoliberal individualism has created an atomized society more focused on consuming emotions, rather than building sentiments that can be felt collectively.  Thus, the development of a sense of justice is not only a matter of individual moral development, but also as a collective one that translates into a common and shared sense of justice. This notion can only properly work when we take a communitarian point of view in which we can rely on other people to support us when unfairness comes about. Building a strong sense of justice is crucial to making valid our claims of justice.

One key to sustaining and constructing a common sense of justice is the concept of solidarity. Despite the fact that solidarity has been used in various forms in recent years; from a moral sentiment to a moral obligation or a civic value, solidarity may be defined as:

[…] a type of intersubjective relation that potentially emerges when people share political goals and ideas and are willing to collectively and reciprocally shoulder the burdens that pursuit such goals might entail […] In this sense, solidarity can be viewed as an intersubjective relation that allows human beings to rebuild that sphere of plurality and commonality” (Tava, 2021, p. 2-10)

Solidarity, therefore, takes the collective sentiments of resentment and indignation and integrates them into a political goal or idea that is collectively shared. This capacity to care and empathize with other people comes from concrete relationships and bonds we have with them, and not just from abstract principles of justice. Solidarity, therefore, is necessary for us to connect with the suffering of other people or others’ concrete goals, while, at the same time, appealing to moral principles that have been compromised.

Despite the fact that Rawls meant his theory for well-ordered societies that were close to being fair, I believe this idea may be useful in our own contexts, in which we find ourselves far from living in such societies.  For example, due to the recent wave of femicides that have taken place in the state of Nuevo León, Mexico (Reina, 2019) and the number of missing persons in the country surpassing 100,000 (Ferri, 2022), a common sense of justice and indignation have made various groups and feminist collectives assemble and publicly demonstrate against these appalling circumstances. People feel indignant, despite not being personally involved, by recognizing that fundamental human rights are being violated, and by sharing a communitarian feeling of outrage against the institutions that allow such things to happen. Furthermore, solidarity plays an important role, since it unites people and groups in a common cause. For example, since 2020 (Reina, 2020), catapulted by crimes against women, there has been a rise in feminist movements in Mexico, where women and other concerned citizens look to raise awareness and make visible the structural and direct violence women have been subjected to.

Resentment plays an important part as well. As felt by the families and relatives that have lost people or whose loved ones have gone missing, resentment is perceived as a personal harm. This feeling may also be shared with other people that have experienced something similar and create ties of solidarity. Due to this, groups of people have reunited and made efforts to publicly expose their situation and claim justice (Ferri, 2022). By doing so, other people who empathize with their cause might join them out of solidarity. Their public demonstrations help make other citizens empathetic to the problem and feel indignant, which contributes to constructing a common and solidary sense of justice.

This is just one example of the kind of situations where anger, rightly conducted, leads to indignation, resentment and solidarity. Taking up Rawls’ theory, a population capable of constructing a civil society with a finely tuned sense of justice is stable over time and may be self-regulatory. However, as we have seen in Mexico, social problems may rise to a level where they may seriously destabilize the social fabric. I believe that, by understanding and correctly channeling moral emotions into moral sentiments, which are reflective and collective, we may find an alternative and work toward a more just and peaceful society.


Thus far, I have moved from moral emotions to moral sentiments and how we may apply them to the construction of a common and solidary sense of justice through the moral feelings of indignation, resentment and solidarity. Moral sentiments, therefore, have reflective and narrative dimensions, which differ from emotions and may also be felt collectively. I also suggest that Rawlsian theory is useful when analyzing moral sentiments as essential in constructing a firm sense of justice. He proposes a moral development theory based not only on the progress of intellectual skills, but also moral ones, always related to the creation of mutual and collective feelings that generate ties and bonds with the society in which we live.

Even though Rawls’ theory aims to create a just and peaceful society in a more theoretical sense, I believe his ideas may be used. For instance, his justification of civil disobedience through the appeal of the sense of justice of the majority. As we saw briefly through two examples, the sense of justice manifests via the moral sentiments of indignation, resentment and solidarity with the victims of violent and unjust acts. Despite being far from a just society, educating and cultivating these moral sentiments may not only make society more stable in Rawlsian terms, but also provide a tool for people to channel moral emotions such as anger, triggered by unfairness, and convert them into moral sentiments that are reflective, may be explained by appealing to moral concepts, and most importantly, may be shared and felt with the community in a collective effort towards the demand for justice and fairness.


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Ferri, P. (2022, 05, 17). El País de los 100 mil desaparecidos. El País: https://elpais.com/mexico/2022-05-18/el-pais-de-los-100000-desaparecidos.html.

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The principle of solidarity between sentiment and reason: a reflection starting from L. Bourgeois’ solidarism.

It is not easy to find a unique meaning of the term solidarity. The term can indicate several meanings at the same time: it can indicate a legal term – the legal obligatory condition of a relationship with several debtors or with several creditors; it can indicate a feeling of fraternity that arises from a common belonging and leads us to behaviours of mutual help and altruism; it can indicate an ethical concept that leads us to share purposes and responsibilities with others. A polysemous term, therefore. But this plurality must not overshadow the complex theoretical and practical elaboration that its development presupposed, particularly within the theory of solidarists. To address the issue of solidarity, without missing this complexity, let me take Leon Bourgeois’ La Solidarité, published in 1896,[1] as starting point for my reflection. This text could be considered as manifesto of solidarism.

Léon Bourgeois (1851-1925) is not very well known outside of France. He formulated the doctrine of solidarism which he tried to implement by making solidarity the basis of society. A jurist, radical politician, and theoretician of solidarity under the Third French Republic, he also served numerous influential roles as a politician and diplomat. He was nine times minister (Public Education, Labour, Foreign Affairs, etc.), Prime Minister in 1895, President of the Senate (1920 -1923). His short-lived cabinet in 1895, was overthrown for tabling a bill creating an income tax, as Member of Parliament, then senator he played an important role in the voting of the first social protection laws (industrial accidents, pensions…). He was member of many social reform associations and was among the founders of the League of Nations, and its first president.  He also led the French delegation to the League of Nations until his death. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920 for this work.

At first glance, the purpose of addressing this seemingly outdated solidarist idea might be questionable. The idea of founding a “just republic”, to develop a third way between liberal individualism, and socialism or collectivism[2], is no longer relevant in this current day. Yet, I believe returning to Bourgeois’ reflections could help us clarify the current use and abuse of the term solidarity, as it often carries the risk of being lost in the empty banality of rhetoric.

The term Solidarity occurs more than twenty times in the body of treaties of the European Union reformed in Lisbon in 2007[3]. In this tally we did not account for the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, where an entire body of articles (27 – 38), indicated with chapter IV, is titled “solidarity” which thus becomes part of the fundamental values of the Union.

But the difference between the official text of treaties and the reality of its implementation is further evident when we consider the growing forms of inequalities that undermine social cohesion both in Europe, in the United States of America and other Western countries. To cite just one study: Ipsos’ 2020 research on the Social Cohesion Index (ISCI) finds that nearly twice as many global citizens are “weak” rather than “solid” in their sense of social cohesion and concludes that social cohesion is under attack globally.[4]

And if, as Durkheim affirmed, solidarity is equivalent to the set of values, practices and norms that ensure cohesion in society, we cannot say that the use, even excessive, of the term solidarity in the European Treaties, has produced its implementation in effective public policies. So, it seems that the term solidarity has lost its propositional force. Precisely for this reason, it could be interesting to return to one of the first elaborations from when the term was a key idea capable of generating actions.

Genealogy of a polysemic term: from juridical meaning to feeling and bond

Solidarity is a fairly recent term. The terminus technicus of Roman law, “in solidum teneri” and “in solidum obligari” became in French “solidarité” without losing its original legal meaning. That is, it indicates an obligation for which various debtors undertake to pay for each other and each for all an amount borrowed or otherwise owed. In this juridical meaning of responsibility in solidum the word solidaire is already registered in the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française of 1694.[5] Still, in the first edition of 1751 of the Encyclopédie by Diderot and d’Alembert, “solidarité” is legally defined as the quality of an obligation. This is a legal definition that we also find in, in the 1835 edition of Dictionnaire de l’Académie française. Although the lemma of the 1835 edition ends by stating that “It is sometimes said, in everyday language, of the mutual responsibility that is established between two or more people”.[6]

The dictionaries attests that the term solidarity begins to come into use in its modern meaning in the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1840 the philosopher Pierre Leroux indicated in the “the mutual solidarity of all human beings”[7]  the most authentic expression of charity, and in 1842 Hyppolyte Renaud published under the title of Solidarité[8]  the presentation of Charles Fourier’s social views and proposals.

The modern meaning of the term becomes increasingly popular, so much so that in the mid-nineteenth century it’s imported to England, although not without changes in meaning that are still current. In fact, as Alain Supiot mentions, reporting the testimony of Guy Braibant, during the drafting of the Constitutional Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the British delegate argued that the English word solidarity did not have the same meaning as the respective translations into the continental languages, and thusly the notion of solidarity in the continental sense had no equivalent in English.[9]

A complex term, therefore, which in any case was used in France as early as the 1830s and 1840s, in the meaning of social bond by the founding fathers of sociology, Auguste Comte and Émile Durkheim.

In Discours sur esprit positif (1844) A. Comte talks about social solidarity as an “intimate feeling” of “the bond of each to all… extended to all times and all places” [10], a feeling that new positive philosophy must make “involontairement familier”[11]  Unwillingly and subconsciously familiar.

And it is to A. Comte that Léon Bougeois explicitly links himself when he places the idea of debt at the basis of his quasi-contract: “the human being is born a debtor of human association”.[12] But the affirmed “the bond of each to all” the bond of solidarity is defined by Bourgeois not with reference to Comte, but to Kant to the concept of organism expressed in the third critique already announced three years previous in the writing “Über den Gebrauch teleologischer Principien in der Philosophie“, where Kant proposes a teleological perspective, which, although it does not make known anything more than what is already known, allows us to think, and therefore understand both the organism and  nature as a whole.,:

“The concept of an organized being already implies that it is a matter in which everything is reciprocally related to each of its parts as an end and a means”[13]

Bourgeois takes Kant almost literally: “According to Kant, it is precisely this “reciprocity between the parts” which constitutes the organism, where everything is both “end and means.”[14]

What does this reference to Kant imply? Firstly, the distancing from the idea that the organic whole is a closed and self-centred totality where the good of the whole comes before the parts of which it is composed. At the same time, the assertion that imagining society on the model of this organic whole, where the parts are expendable for the good of the whole, is outdated. The reference to Kant’s concept of organism reveals in addition that this concept is assumed as a guiding idea in the research of facts, in analogy and not in identity with the idea of solidarity[15]

Bourgeois’ solidarity: Reciprocity

The relationship of reciprocity is fundamental both inside the organism, and outside in the relationship of organisms with their environment:

“These relationships of reciprocal dependence between the parts of living beings, exist between the beings themselves too and, also between all of these beings and the environment in which they are placed”[16]

The whole depends on the parts, as well as the parts on the whole: each part is an end and a means. The purely instrumental relationship of the part to the whole is outdated because each individual must be considered by the others as an end.

Thanks to the Kantian reference, Bourgeois can therefore rethink the relationship between the individual and society in a biological imaginary which, as has been said,[17]  is in radical discontinuity with two traditions: the tradition that makes individual interests prevail excessively over collective ones and the tradition that affirms the logical and axiological primacy of the collective over the individual.

“The human being is no longer an end for himself and for the world: he is both an end and a means. He is a unit, and he is part of a whole. He is a being having his own life and having the right to preserve and develop this life.”[18]

This is how Bourgeois responds to the question of whether there is a contradiction between the law of solidarity and the law of free development of the individual. There is no contradiction because:

“The actions of the two laws are coordinated—and there is a necessary and sufficient condition for this coordination: the cooperation of individuals in the common action”.[19]

In this new biological imaginary, the parts, he says, are individuals who “develop, and yet their development contributes to the development of the organism they compose; they evolve, and their evolution is a function of collective evolution. They are, in a word, associated, and their association contributes not only to the development of the whole that they form, but also to the development of each of them.”[20]

The bond of reciprocal dependence is not always positive for the individual, as the biological model inspired by Pasteur’s theories highlights: “his (the human being’s) health is constantly threatened by the illnesses of other human beings whose life is in turn threatened by the illnesses he/she will contract himself”[21]

The contagious disease model shows the risk every individual is exposed: relationships of “natural solidarity” left to themselves can be deadly.

Solidarists do not attach any value to social theories derived from Darwinism, indeed when they speak of it, it is to denounce its moral errors.

Bourgeois knew well how the struggle for existence discovered by the natural science in the second half of the nineteenth century, made the concept of competition the central value in sociology. The mechanism of natural selection of the «fittest» brought to the individualist thesis the most powerful arguments to justify the laws of social competition.[22]

For Bourgeois, the lesson of microbiological pathology shows how “vital” competition is ambiguous: it is good for the individual if it is the strongest, and therefore it is a means of fixing the qualities useful for the species, bad for the individual itself if it is the weak and therefore necessarily succumbs. If we want to develop social relationships that defend the existence and safety of all individuals, we need to pay attention to the weakest.

Despite solidarists use the biological imaginary, it is very clear to them that human society cannot be assimilated to the community of living organisms:

“Human society is not an organism similar to the animal organism; it does not constitute a living being where the parts are, as in the biological aggregate, materially united to one another”[23]

In other words, the order of societies isn’t self-regulated.

Even if solidarists affirm a factual solidarity, they don’t derive the normative sense of solidarity from this fact: Bourgeois himself states it very clearly “Solidarity as fact, solidarity as duty: never confuse the one with the other” “Solidarité fait, solidarité devoir: ne confondons jamais l’une et l’autre”[24]

This is why the individuals shaping an association must respond to the risks of natural and factual solidarity with a consciously pursued solidarity, if they want to keep the individual in a state “of prosperity, security, even existence” [25].

However, a key problem appears: how to implement this conscious solidarity, and therefore responsibly respond to the risk which vital competition exposes us to? We must correct the “negative solidarity”: the forms of social solidarity must be thought in discontinuity with the natural ones. For this reason, according to Bourgeois, the individuals who shape the association must recognize the duty of justice. The question is how delineating “a specific rule of the rights and duties of each person, in the common action of all” [26]

To do this, Bourgeois refers once more to Kant, to the Kantian notion of duty. The duty of obeying the law for respect of law, however, is immediately understood through the Swiss philosopher Charles Secretan, and his affirmation that the knowledge of the good that the conscience prescribes is the work of reason, but reason develops historically. And, not secondarily, the Kantian foundation of the moral law, the Kantian universalism is further enriched with a classical reference. The reference is to Cicero’s De legibus: where Cicero “affirms the existence” of a law that is common to all human beings, which commands virtue and forbids injustice “.[27]

Let me mention that in the De legibus Cicero expresses the intimate need for a moral transformation of Roman society and its ruling class. This renewal must be carried out through the implementation of a political-cultural program. The practice of conscious solidarity requires a political-cultural reform, in which the development of institutions and moral development go together.

Debt and the quasi-contract

What form can the rule of justice take? To answer this question Bourgeois developed a new theory of the social pact which, as has been said, is the foundation of social right[28]. As already mentioned, Bourgeois developed his argument from Auguste Comte’s idea that the social bond is the bond of all human beings, dead, living now and in the future. The law of reciprocal physical and moral dependence binds everyone to everything: biologically as we have seen; economically, in the mutual profit of the work indispensable for the satisfaction of the needs; in thinking: “the human being thinks, and each of his thoughts reflects the thought of his fellows in whose brains it will be reflected and reproduced in turn”; in feeling “He is happy or he suffers, he hates or he loves, and all his feelings are the effects or the causes of congruent or contrary feelings which stir at the same time all these other men with whom he is in a relationship of perpetual exchange”. [29]

This bond is not only about the present, it binds us to the past and the future. Coming into the world is not a simple biological fact. Coming into the world means sharing a world already humanized by language, culture, technology, institutions. It also means changing this humanized world, as a legacy for future generations.

“Human being is born debtor of human association”.[30]  “(The debt) is a legacy of all the past to all of the future” [31]

Every human being receives an inheritance by birth. Every human being is therefore born with a load of cultural, material, and scientific debt that they must recognize. This heritage is not the same for everyone: physical, mental, social, national, historical differences make the distribution of the human heritage unequal. Hence the duty to correct the injustice of those who receive a negative legacy.

How to decide what is the sum to be paid by whoever is in debt? How to determine this in solidum obligatio, whereby whoever is in debt undertakes to pay what he has received in usufruct? Bourgeois himself asks: “Who then will set this account of profits and losses, benefits and charges?”[32]

This obligation is based on the quasi-contract of association, which is a way of proceeding to reach consensus on the conditions of the association that “distributes fairly the advantages and charges among all and (the distribution) will be those which the partners would have adopted if they had previously been free, and equally free, to discuss among themselves, with equal morality, the conditions of their agreements.”[33]

The use of the term quasi-contract should be emphasized: let me clarify meaning: the quasi-contract is a juridical concept of obligation of Justinian code. It includes all those obligations deriving from a lawful relationship that had affinity with a specific type of contract but based on an informal agreement. The term derives, in fact, from the expression obligatio quasi ex contractu, ‘obligation as per contract’. The quasi-contract category has reached the Code Napoléon which places them among the “commitments without treaty ” and defines them in art. 1371 “The quasi-contracts are the purely voluntary facts of human beings, which result in any obligation towards a third party, sometimes a reciprocal obligation of the two parties”[34]

By using the term quasi-contract, Bourgeois wants to detach himself from the classical theory of the contract. This defines once and for all the question of the division of power, establishing a “prior agreement” as he expressly says in a critical note on Rousseau. He wants to define obligations in the absence of a treaty and therefore to express that the solution of the socio-political problem of solidarity it is always provisional.

The quasi-contract is “an interpretation and representation of the agreement which should have been established in advance between them (human beings) if they had been able to be fairly and freely consulted: it will therefore be the presumption of the consent which their equal and free wills would have given which will be the only basis of right” [35]

According to Marie-Claude Blais, Bourgeois’ quasi-contract concept was, in a different way, re-launched by John Rawls, with the original position playing a central role in formulating a theory of justice. The function seems the same: the quasi-contract places the associates “in a sort of” original position “of equivalence.” Whatever the inequalities of condition, the quasi-social contract presupposes an “equality of value” among all individuals.[36] As human beings each has the same equal right as all others.

However, the equality of solidarity is not an abstract form of egalitarianism: we have seen in the citations the insistence on the term fairly. By means of fairness, the unequal distribution of social burdens, due to birth, historical contingencies, biological conditions, are thus corrected with attention to concrete situations.

Solidarity: A possible social principle instead of competition?

We saw how Bourgeois took position against the theses of economists (individualists) who, on the basis of the science of evolution, explained the laws of social competition as a natural factor and thus made economic competition one of the natural forms of vital competition. [37] Quoting the conference of 1895 “Les Préjugés socialistes” by Yves Guyot, Bourgeois mentions that for classical liberalism competition is the very condition of life, and society must not intervene to modify and reduce the inequality of its members [38].

Bourgeois does not respond to classical liberalism’s anthropological naturalism with another, but, and the Kantian reference reveals it, he proposes a counter-image based on reciprocity. The Kantian counter-image moves away from the purely instrumental reading of relationships and has a strong ethical significance.

As such, reciprocal relationships are not a simple natural fact. In other words, the order of society does not regulate itself, but requires an implementation by a political rationality whose guiding principle becomes solidarity. In this way solidarity could take the place of competition in the current formation of a new social subjectivity.

To clarify this point, I will refer to the analyses that M. Foucault developed in the courses held between 1977-79 at the Collège de France on that new form of liberal political rationality which he himself called neoliberalism.[39]As we know Foucault tackles the issue through the reading of two distinct currents of economic thought that have in common the criticism of the dirigiste economy: the Neoliberal School of Freiburg, and the libertarianism of the United States , which finds its purest expression in Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Gary Becker, Milton Friedman and many economists of the Chicago school. Foucault talks about the invention of a “reason of the least state”[40] (« raison du moindre Etat ») which claims that the state is ” under the supervision of the market rather than a market supervised by the states” [41]

Foucault clearly warns us: we must not confuse classical liberalism with this new form of political rationality:

“For we should not be under any illusion that today’s neo-liberalism is, as is too often said, the resurgence* or recurrence of old forms of liberal economics which were formulated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and are now being reactivated by capitalism”[42].

What then is the specific of this further form of liberalism? Foucault explains this clearly: “Here, laissez-faire is turned into a do-not-laisser-faire government, in the name of a law of the market which will enable each of its activities to be measured and assessed.” [43]

In other words, for neoliberalism, public policy no longer has the task of correcting any negative effects of the market, on the contrary it is the market with its operating mechanisms that corrects public and social policies. The market takes on the task of verifying what is true and what is false, and of promoting a human model based on the principles of economic processes.

At the centre of this new function of the market there is no longer free trade, but competition which in turn becomes the regulating principle of social, public, and private, behaviour. The role of the state becomes to promote competition conceived as an idea to be implemented and to make society and its members able to face the competition.

“When you deduce the principle of laissez-faire from the market economy, basically you are still in the grip of what could be called a “naive naturalism,” that is to say, whether you define the market by exchange or by competition you are thinking of it as a sort of given of nature, something produced spontaneously which the state must respect precisely inasmuch as it is a natural datum. But…what in fact is competition? It is absolutely not a given of nature…competition is not the result of a natural interplay of appetites, instincts, behaviour, and so on…Competition is an essence. Competition is an eidos. Competition is a principle of formalization… competition as an essential economic logic will only appear and produce its effects under certain conditions which have to be carefully and artificially constructed… Pure competition must and can only be an objective, an objective thus presupposing an indefinitely active policy.[44]

Competition is not thought of as a natural fact whose development can be sustained by eliminating obstacles and correcting their deviations. Competition according to Foucault is a principle of formalization, that is to say it is the abstract syntax that supports a procedure with which the new system of symbols is built; in other words, it is an idea to be implemented with a continuous action at all levels, both public and private. The state must ensure that its members acquire the ability to compete, even by competing with each other.

To fine-tune this new anthropological model, the American neoliberalism will develop the notion of “human capital”. By human capital the US- neoliberalists mean the individual who transforms himself into an enterprise-unit. Individual turns itself into an entrepreneur of himself, who agonistically relates to the market in the same way as an entrepreneur with his business. In this way, the neoliberal biopolitical government makes the enterprise as “a model of social relations and of existence itself, a form of relationship of the individual to himself” [45].

The life of the individual, in its entirety, is absorbed by the market, where the principle of competition reigns. Therefore, any kind of human behaviour must be oriented towards profitability, and the individual is thus directed towards a new form of subjectivity. At the core of this social and anthropological model is the principle of competition, whose engine is inequality.

The market mechanism must include all subjects to function[46], and it is here that the model presents an ambiguity, just mentioned by Foucault, who however does not examine the question in depth. This is the ambiguity highlighted by Wilhem Röpke when he states that competition is the central principle of the market economy, but it cannot be the principle on which to build the whole society, since it is a dissolving principle.[47]

Competition mentions Foucault is a “formal game between inequalities”. This is why it is a principle that splits, rather than binds individuals together. In a society where the competitive individual is its fundamental anthropological model, the action of the state to keep the market in optimal conditions must prevent exclusion, understood as the primary factor that places social subjects out of competition.

However, the new needs of competitiveness ultimately bring out two forms of human capital; the “strong” one who have acquired high skills, knowledge, professional skills, social and relational skills, and therefore are favoured, and those who do not have all this, and therefore, are easily excluded. Today, social exclusion is a huge, if not growing problem.[48] This raises the problem of the validity of the social and anthropological generalization of the enterprise model and presents the need to develop a new model.

If competitiveness is not a natural given, but is the product of a specific governmental form, historically identifiable, it is conceivable being able to modify it. That is, it is conceivable to set another objective that presupposes another policy. It is conceivable that a different governmental form whose principle is solidarity based on interdependence, in function of fighting inequalities. For this reason, Bourgeois’s principle of solidarity is of great interest as an alternative principle to competition, and as regulating principle of social behaviour. Reciprocity concretely brings the individual into social relations and prevents that the individual is conceived metaphysically as an abstract entity, since individual is constantly evolving in relation to others.

This relationship involves risks: disease, damage, death. Solidarity is the principle that regulates social behaviour and defends against risks: we join together because everyone’s activity is useful for the survival and well-being of each and every one.

Starting from the emotional bases of sociality, solidarity – as a feeling already identified by Comte – is expressed as a feeling of reciprocity, of mutual support between free and equal, but not identical, individuals. Through the “quasi-contract” solidarity is objectified and is transferred from the sphere of sentiment to that of law and politics, without the different being excluded. In this way, the role of the state becomes that of executing the quasi-contract that we have seen implies the recognition of the debt that each individual has towards the other. The role of the state therefore becomes to make subjects capable of sharing the debt and of standing surety for it.

“It is only indirectly, by obtaining, so to speak beforehand, from each of the human beings, the payment of the social debt, not towards a particular partner, but towards all, that it will be possible to place the contracting parties in a state of equality where their freedom can henceforth be exercised without injustice. Let human beings agree to organize among themselves truly mutual institutions, supported by all and open to all.[49]

Solidarity can thus become the new regulating principle of social relations.

“…this prior solidarity of social duties and forces which would allow human beings to then exchange fairly the products of their personal activity,”[50] it becomes reasoned project ability that organizes “Truly mutual institutions, supported by all and open to all, having for their object to assure to all human beings as widely as possible the support of the common force, and to warrant them, as  exactly as possible, against the risks of the common life ibidem in a word becomes political rationality”.[51] Thus solidarity becomes political rationality.

To conclude. The solidarity of Léon Bourgeois invites us to reflect on problems that we have begun to glimpse today: the ethical-juridical problems of the quality of our coexistence. Bourgeois’ declared aim was to overcome the dichotomy between liberal “laissez faire” and socialist collectivism: an apparently antiquated problematics, if – as it has been masterfully analysed by Foucault- at the centre of the new liberalism and its new function of the market there is no more free trade, but competition which in turn becomes the regulating principle of social, public, and private behaviour. But competition breaks the bonds of interdependence which, according to Durkheim’s theory, were at the basis of social cohesion. Competition implies a logic of separation that leads, for example, economic, ethnic, or religious groups to turn in on themselves to defend, defend their cultural values or their chances of survival. This is why in a competitive society the lack of social cohesion becomes the problem of problems. Then the thought of the solidarists which, as has been said is complex, subtle, and fragile, can still be captivating. These antiquated solidarists reflected on the articulation of solidarity in relation to the much later idea of the intergenerational pact, the agreement between freedom and justice, and the role of the state and law in a competitive economic world. They propose a path in which solidarity develops from being a moral feeling to a principle that must be implemented consciously and voluntarily, through institutions and regulations, aiming to make solidarity a regulating principle of living together.


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[1] Bourgeois, Leon. La solidarité, Armand Colin et Cie, Paris 1896, p. 116 hereinafter referred to as La solidarité, all quotes from the French text are my translations.

[2] See.  Gide, Charles., Rist, Charles, Histoire des doctrines économiques (1829), Paris 1920.

[3] see. de la Rosa, Stephane : La transversalité de la solidarité dans les politiques matérielles de l’Union, in Boutayeb, Chahira, (ed. by), La solidarité dans l’Union européenne. Éléments constitutionnels et matériels, Paris, Dalloz, 2011, pp. 165 ss., quoted by Giubboni, Stefano : Solidarietà, in Politica Del Diritto / a. XLIII, n. 4, dicembre 2012. p. 526,

[4] See: https://www.ipsos.com/en/social-cohesion-pandemic-age-global-perspective (viewed 02.06.2022)

[5] Le dictionnaire de l’Académie françoise, dédié au Roy. T. 2. L-Z  Vve J. B. Coignard et J. B. Coignard, Paris,1694, p. 485.

[6] Dictionnaire de l’Académie française. Tome 2, Firmin-Didot frères, Paris, 1835, p. 754

[7] Leroux, Pierre : De l’humanité, de son principe et de son avenir : où se trouve exposée la vraie définition de la religion, et où l’on explique le sens, la suite et l’enchaînement du mosaïsme et du christianisme. Tome 1   Perrotin, Paris, 1840, p. 179

[8] Renaud, Hippolyte SolidaritéVue synthétique sur la doctrine de Charles Fourier, Paris 1842

[9] Supiot, Alain : Sur le principe de solidarité,  Rechtsgeschichte – Legal History , January 2005 (06), p. 67

[10] Comte, Auguste : Discours sur l’esprit positif, Carilian-Goeury et V. Dalmont, Paris, 1844, p. 74-75

[11] Ibidem

[12] La solidarité, p. 116

[13]  Kant, Immanuel: Kant’s gesammelte Schriften. Band 8 / herausgegeben von der Königlich Preußilchen Akademie der Wissenschaften, G. Reimer (Berlin) and W. De Gruyter (Berlin), 1910-1983 b.VIII, p. 179

[14] La solidarité, p.44

[15] See Vincent Gilbert : Ethos protestant, éthique de la solidarité. I. L’héritage kantien. Reprises et transformations. In: Revue d’histoire et de philosophie religieuses, 82e année n°3, Juillet-Septembre 2002. P. 321

doi : https://doi.org/10.3406/rhpr.2002.984 , https://www.persee.fr/doc/rhpr_0035-2403_2002_num_82_3_984

[16] La solidarité. p.45

[17] See Vincent, Gilbert : L’ethique de la solidarité : l’apport des solidaristes in La solidarité : exigence morale ou obligation publique?, ed. Soulet, Marc-Henry academic press Fribourg, Fribourg, 2004, p. 57

[18] La solidarité, p. 84

[19] Ibid., p. 53

[20] Ibid., p.54-55

[21] Ibid. p. 47

[22] See ibid. p. 39

[23] Ibid. 60

[24] Quoted by G. Vincent (2004) op.cit p.68.

[25] La solidarité, p. 62

[26] Ibid.p.72

[27] Ibid.p.74-75

[28] See: Ewald, François :L’État providence, Paris 1986, p. 367

[29] La solidarité p. 48

[30] Ibid.p.116

[31] Ibid.p.124

[32] Ibid. p.108

[33] Ibid. p.93

[34] Code Napoléon, édition originale et seule officielle Imp. impériale (Paris), 1807, p.355

[35] La solidarité op.cit. p.133.

[36]  See Blais Marie-Claire : La solidarité.  Histoire d’une idée Gallimard, Paris 2007, p. 39

[37] See. La solidarité op. cit. p. 41.

[38] See. La solidarité op.cit. p. 142

[39] See Foucault,Michel: Cours au Collège de France 1977-78, Gallimard, Paris, 2004, for references; while quotes in English translation are taken from: Foucault,Michel: The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979 . Edited by Senellart, Michel. Translated by Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008)

[40] Foucault, Lectures, p. 30

[41] Ibid. 116

[42] Ibid. p.117

[43] Ibid p. 247

[44] Ibid. p. 120

[45] Ibid. p. 242

[46] See ibid. p.207

[47] See Röpke, Wilhelm: The Social Crisis of Our Times, Part II, c. 2, p. 236: quoted by Foucault, Lectures p. 243.

[48] In 2021 in Europe, more than one in 5 people are at risk of poverty or social exclusion. This is 21.7% of the population. See https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-eurostat-news/-/ddn-20220915-1.

[49] Rapport de M. Léon Bourgeois au Congrès D’ Éducation Sociale en 1900 in, Bourgeois, Leon – Solidarité, 3e éd., Armand Colin, 1902, p. 180

[50] idem

[51] idem

Brief Notes on Solidarity and Political Imagination

The title of the present paper is inspired by David Graeber’s essay “Revolutions in Reverse”.[1] In this piece, the anthropologist and activist – who had been deeply involved in Occupy Wall Street – offers theoretical reflections on the experiences of modern social movements. He suggests that there is a crucial difference between the political ontology of violence or force on one hand (the right) and the political ontology of imagination on the other (the left). This, however, should not be mistaken as a distinction between purportedly ‘realist’ and ‘utopian’ politics. Graeber evokes a traditional concept of imagination as a passageway between experience and reflection, and between intentions and action:

The common Ancient and Medieval conception, what we call ‘the imagination’ was considered the zone of passage between reality and reason. Perceptions from the material world had to pass through the imagination, becoming emotionally charged in the process and mixing with all sorts of phantasms, before the rational mind could grasp their significance. Intentions and desires moved in the opposite direction. It’s only after Descartes, really, that the word ‘imaginary’ came to mean, specifically, anything that is not real: imaginary creatures, imaginary places (Middle Earth, Narnia, planets in faraway Galaxies, the Kingdom of Prester John…), imaginary friends.[2]

Graeber’s essay is not the topic at hand, but I want to explore the idea of a political ontology of imagination by commenting on a semi-classical text: Discours de la Servitude volontaire by Etienne de La Boétie (1530-1563). Even if it does not belong to the central canon of modern philosophy, it has been of inspiration for diverse political currents, from anarcho-communists like Graeber to right-wing libertarians.[3]

Imagination – and precisely in a sense like the one Graeber point towards – is in fact central to de La Boétie’s writing. The discourse on voluntary servitude was most probably written in the early 1550ies; it circulated as a manuscript and was printed for the first time in 1576. Note, however, that Michel de Montaigne did not include it when he published his friend’s papers posthumously in 1571.

The main idea of de La Boétie’s Discourse is simple as it is disturbing: People don’t obey because tyrants are powerful, tyrants are powerful because people obey. This disrupts the idea of an inherent stability of dominance and introduce a relational and dynamic concept of power, which is seen to emerge from below, rather than to emanate from above. De La Boétie does not only criticize tyranny, but he offers a critique, in the sense of investigating the conditions of possibility of tyrannic rule. In addition, he gives a brief sketch of the alternative, an image of how society might be, if people stuck to what nature and reason demand: acting freely, they would treat each other as equals, or rather as brethren, as he puts it. At the end of this paper, I’ll return to the concept of solidarity implied by this. First, I want to expand somewhat on the relational and dynamic concept of power. This serves as an introduction to the second part of my paper: Reflections on the politics of imagination, both as an explicit topic and as a performative aspect of the Discourse on voluntary servitude.

A disturbing concept of power

Without making any claims on the historical reception of de La Boétie’s writings, we may nevertheless say that he the topos of ‘voluntary servitude’ introduced by him has been of lasting importance to subsequent and contemporary social and political theory. That power is relational and emerging from below, rather than emanating from above, is central to Foucault’s conception, to name but one example.

A relational and dynamic concept of power calls for a decentered analysis, and maybe for giving the social priority over against the political. At least, centralized, and hierarchical structures are to be seen as effects, not as causes: Commanding power is the result of obedience, not the other way around. How then, are we to explain obedience? On de La Boétie’s account, pervasive obedience cannot be explained by reference to neither physical force, moral obligation, nor self-interest, but rather as a weakness of the will, the result of habituation, and – crucially – defective imagination. We will return to that in a moment.

De La Boétie’s simple idea is disturbing, I claimed. First, to those enjoying the privileges of power because it implies that the dominant are more dependent on their subordinates than the other way around. This is indeed how revolutions occur; governments are toppled, and state institutions may crumble, when enough people cease to obey. This, however, seem to be the exception; most of the time, most people do in fact obey, and they do so voluntarily, de La Boétie claims. Thus, his idea is no less disturbing to the dominated, who appear to be complicit in domination, and thus (at least partially) responsible for their own situation.

Last, but not least, the idea of voluntary servitude is disturbing to those in intermediary positions of authority. Public servants, teachers, intellectuals, etc., can never be quite sure of whether they act on behalf of the dominant or the dominated. Note that Etienne de La Boétie as well as Michel de Montaigne held positions of this sort, as judges in the Parlement of Bordeaux. Montaigne deplored the publication of the Discourse and maintained that de La Boétie himself would not have endorsed it, precisely because of the disturbance it might provoke. This does not, however, preclude that Montaigne may very well have sympathized with his friend’s views.

Forgetful habits

According to de La Boétie, custom is the first reason for voluntary servitude, i.e., obedience becomes a habit. Habituation occurs when the reason for a practice is forgotten. When people act as usual, simply because they are used to, they demonstrate a lack of imagination. Man is denatured, de La Boétie claims, so that he lacks the memory of his original condition and the desire to return to it.[4] Memory is a primary act of imagination, and it is precisely the faculty of imagining a situation prior to the state of servitude that is broken when people submit:

It is incredible how as soon as a people becomes subject, it promptly falls into such complete forgetfulness of its freedom that it can hardly be roused to the point of regaining it, obeying so easily and so willingly that one is led to say, on beholding such a situation, that this people has not so much lost its liberty as won its enslavement. It is true that in the beginning men submit under constraint and by force; but those who come after them obey without regret and perform willingly what their predecessors had done because they had to. This is why men born under the yoke and then nourished and reared in slavery are content, without further effort, to live in their native circumstance, unaware of any other state or right, and considering as quite natural the condition into which they were born.[5]

It is worth drawing attention to the relationship between experience, reflection and intentionally that comes into view in de La Boétie’s account of voluntary servitude. People who have never experienced freedom themselves, and live in ‘complete forgetfulness’ of previous states, will unreflectively consider the status quo as ‘quite natural’. Thus, the status quo is conceived of as the limiting condition of intentional action. Put in slightly different terms than the ones de La Boétie uses, we might say that imagination constitute the link between experience, reflection, and intention, i.e., the basis of consciousness. Perception becomes experience when what is passing is preserved as images that are emotionally charged, and thus fuel desire.

One never pines for what he has never known; longing comes only after enjoyment and constitutes, amidst the experience of sorrow, the memory of past joy. It is truly the nature of man to be free and to wish to be so, yet his character is such that he instinctively follows the tendencies that his training gives him.[6]

In other words, if you have never enjoyed freedom, you just don’t know what you are missing. And if you don’t know what you’re missing, the idea of achieving it won’t even cross your mind – and you will go on as you are used to. Right before the quoted passage, de La Boétie express pity for those who are born under the yoke: “We should exonerate and forgive them, since they have not seen even the shadow of liberty, and, being quite unaware of it, cannot perceive the evil endured through their own slavery.”[7] If the subordinates are complicit to their own condition, it is not by their own fault, and it would even seem that by lack of imagination, they also lack the capacity to do anything about it.

Writing and the shadow of liberty

If this was the end of the story, there would hardly be any point in writing a discourse – or at least, it seems odd to consider its dissemination as a possible source of disturbance. However, the end of the story is not told. The point of telling it, is to remind the recipient of what was forgotten, and thus to disturb the reader’s habitual ways of thinking. The reader is included in the ‘we’ that should exonerate and forgive those born under the yoke. If this invitation is accepted, it is because the reader’s own imagination is activated. This is decisive for the performative force of de La Boétie’s writing.

Imagination – and the lack thereof – is thus not only a theme, i.e., an important part of the explanations de La Boétie puts forward in the Discourse. His writing is an exercise of political imagination, and notably so on the part of the implied reader. The point of writing, we might say, is to make the shadow of liberty visible. The task of the reader is to imagine what have been forgotten. We tend to forget that that tyranny is parasitic on obedience, and that obedience itself rest on forgetful habits. Obedience is nothing but the shadow of a liberty that has forgotten itself. Liberty, as forgotten, is present in its absence, so to speak.

To show this, de La Boétie plays the oldest trick in the book. He makes use of an ancient, simple, and efficient rhetorical twist. Strictly speaking, he doesn’t make statements, but suggestions, in the form of a rhetorical question: It seems like this, but maybe it’s the other way around?

This could be said to be the very essence of how Socrates’ was doing philosophy, e.g., as portrayed in Plato’s dialogue on rhetoric, Gorgias. Here, Socrates confronts common opinion in this way: It seems good to be able to serve one’s egotistical desires ruthlessly and get away with it, but maybe it’s the other way around? That it is better to suffer injustice than to perform it, must have been rather counterintuitive to the Greeks. This is at least what Hannah Arendt claims, in her lecture on thinking and moral considerations. Also note that ‘thinking’, on her account, consist in active imagination.[8]

This Socratic move seem to be the very prototype of the ‘epistemic rupture’ that distinguish philosophy from sophistry (and for later generations: science from ideology). But maybe it’s the other way around? If philosophy’s superiority over sophistry is based on a rhetorical trick, it may be that those of the ancient writers who placed Socrates himself among the sophists were on to something, after all. – As far as I get it, the case that Barbara Cassin makes in her comments on Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, is of this sort: Even if it does not seem so, “rhetoric” was invented by philosophy, as an invective, a rhetorical tool for establishing true (platonic) philosophy as superior to “sophistics”.[9]

In a section of the essay “Seeing Helen in Every Woman: Woman and Word”,[10] Cassin comments on the grand-scale performance the historical Gorgias made upon arrival in Athens: To demonstrate his oratory skills, Gorgias first gave a speech that corroborated the common opinion on Helen’s guilt – she was responsible for the Trojan wars. In the speech he gave the very next day, preserved as the Encomium of Helen, he acquitted her. For once, it’s unreasonable to make anyone responsible for their fate, and neither could she be guilty of her own abduction. And even if she was seduced, she is not to blame – because in this case, she has been carried away by the power of logos. – Now, the point of this is of course that Gorgias himself demonstrates the power of logos, to the extent that it makes the Athenians perceive the story of Helen in a different way and revise their judgement of her. But even if Gorgias employs the power of logos, it does not emanate from him as an orator, but rather emerges from the audience; they could have chosen not to listen to him, but they let themselves be persuaded. So, the persuasive power of speech or writing, rest on the audience’s experience of freedom. (On reflection, Helen of course remains an ambiguous figure – a main point of Cassin’s essay.)

Rhetoric – or ‘sophistical practice’ – is disturbing, not least to professional philosophers (or teachers in general), who can never be quite sure if they serve a dominant ideology or the intellectual liberation of the dominated. De la Boétie is indeed an irresponsible writer, who release the power of logos, leaving it to the readers to make sense of his text. This power of logos rest on an experience of freedom in the readers – who might be persuaded, who might change their minds, when imagining things in ways different from what they were accustomed to.

Another World is Possible: Images of solidarity

By reminding his readers that even tyranny is dependent on liberty, De La Boétie deconstructs the received concept of power as something that emanates from above. It follows that domination cannot be a necessary trait of human society; it only seems so, because we are accustomed to think it is. Keeping that in mind, we might be able to at least imagine what could be different. And indeed, De La Boétie does suggest an image of what kind of society free human beings would be able to establish. What would happen if people did act from the freedom they possess anyway?

[I]f there is anything in this world clear and obvious, to which one cannot close one’s eyes, it is the fact that nature, handmaiden of God, governess of men, has cast us all in the same mold in order that we may behold in one another companions, or rather brothers. If in distributing her gifts nature has favored some more than others with respect to body or spirit, she has nevertheless not planned to place us within this world as if it were a field of battle, and has not endowed the stronger or the cleverer in order that they may act like armed brigands in a forest and attack the weaker. One should rather conclude that in distributing larger shares to some and smaller shares to others, nature has intended to give occasion for brotherly love to become manifest, some of us having the strength to give help to others who are in need of it.[11]

What de La Boétie describe here, is an image of freedom, equality, and brotherhood – liberté, egalité, fraternité, as the French would later phrase it. Liberty is the natural condition of each and every human being, and in this respect, we are also equal (“cast in the same mold”). This is the basis for imagining our fellow humans as “companions, or rather brothers”, paving the way for a concept of solidarity: Superior capacities could be seen as sources of contributions to the common good, rather than as entitlement to superior positions. De La Boétie’s image of brotherhood is one of mutual aid. Some might even say communism: from each according to ability, to each according to needs.

Another world is possible, de La Boétie seems to say. The crucial point, however, is that he suggests this image of peaceful cooperation without imagining any fundamental change in human nature. On the contrary, he imagines this to be the natural condition of the human race. Once again, he turns the table: Domination seems natural, but maybe it is the other way around. To “behold [i.e., to imagine] one another as companions” would mean that we remember that to have something in common, and to act in concert (Arendt), is primary and available to all. To exploit and command – the modus operandi of tyrants – is only possible as a deviation from nature – which nevertheless is habituated into something like a ‘second nature’. Remembering this could be the first condition for a common hope.

This brings us back to Graeber, whose 2008 essay “Hope in common” turns around a rhetorical twist of the kind outlined here. The gist of his argument is that it that capitalism seem to be based on competitive individualism, i.e., the very opposite of solidarity. However, its real basis is cooperation:

Communism then is already here. The question is how to further democratize it. Capitalism, in turn, is just one possible way of managing communism — and, it has become increasingly clear, rather a disastrous one. Clearly, we need to be thinking about a better one: preferably, one that does not quite so systematically set us all at each other’s throats.[12]

To pose the problem this way, is rhetorically ingenious, its aim is to fuel the political imagination of the reader. The thinking in need, must be imaginative – but not fanciful. If another world is indeed possible, it is not because we might imagine, fancy, a completely different world. It is possible because we can imagine this world differently. This is a necessary (albeit insufficient) condition for change, and thus an important task for social movements. As Graeber puts it, it is a matter of seeing what we already do in a new light: “To realize we’re all already communists when working on a common project, all already anarchists when we solve problems without recourse to lawyers or police, all revolutionaries when we make something genuinely new.”[13] For my own part, I imagine that there is plenty of tasks for philosophy in this, too.



Arendt, Hannah: “Thinking and Moral Considerations” Social Research, 38:3 (1971: Autumn)

Cassin, Barbara. Sophistical Practice: Toward a Consistent Relativism. Fordham University Press, 2014. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt13wzzx6.

De La Boétie, Etienne: The Politics of Obedience. The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. Introduction by Murray N Rothbard, translated by Harry Kurz. Auburn, Alabama, 2008. Online: https://cdn.mises.org/Politics%20of%20Obedience.pdf

Graeber, David: Revolution in Reverse, 2007, Retrieved on May 16th, 2009 from news.infoshop.org theanarchistlibrary.org. Online: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/david-graeber-revolution-in-reverse

Graeber, David: Hope in Common, theanarchistligrary.org, online: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/david-graeber-hope-in-common



[1] https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/david-graeber-revolution-in-reverse

[2] Ibid.

[3] Case in point: The English version cited here was published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. The Politics of Obedience. The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. Introduction by Murray N Rothbard, translated by Harry Kurz. Auburn, Alabama, 2008. Online: https://cdn.mises.org/Politics%20of%20Obedience.pdf Kurz’ translation was first published under the title Anti-Dictator in 1942, full-text available online: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Discourse_on_Voluntary_Servitude

[4] Cf. The Politics of Obedience, p 52.

[5] Ibid., p 54

[6] Ibid, p 58f.

[7] Ibid, p. 58.

[8] Arendt, Hannah: “Thinking and Moral Considerations” Social Research, 38:3 (1971: Autumn), pp 417-446.

[9] Cassin, Barbara: “Rhetorical Turns in Ancient Greece”, Sophistical Practice. Towards a Consistent Relativism. Fordham University Press, 2014, pp 75-86.

[10] Cassin, Barbara: “Seeing Helen in Every Woman: Woman and Word”, ibid. pp 57-71. (On Gorgias, p 66-68)

[11] The Politics of Obedience, p 50.

[12] Graeber, David: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/david-graeber-hope-in-common

[13] Ibid.

“Secure the Blessing of Liberty to our Posterity”: The Founding Fathers and Intergenerational Solidarity


On the eve of September 15, 1787, the Philadelphia Convention approved the final draft of the Federal Constitution of the United States of America. Only 39 delegates out of 55 signed it and, according to a harshly critical contemporary scholar, they wrote «a constitution that was very different from the one most Americans expected and wanted them to write», since the Framers «designed the federal government to be insulated from» democratic politics (Klarman 2016: X, 606). Many voices, however, have focused on the long-term standing of the constitutional project: as per this view, «the delegates were acutely conscious of history», and specifically «of their place in its ongoing flow», but in the meantime they looked so much to the future that «they introduced an entirely new concept to the [political] discourse, that of federalism, and in the doing, created a novus ordo seclorum, a new order of the ages» (McDonald 1985: 6, 262). A commitment to what we might call “the politics of future”, in fact, resurfaced in the words of James Madison, who told his colleagues that they «were now digesting a plan which, in its operations, would decide forever the fate of republican government» (Farrand, ed., 1937: 423), but also in the preamble of the Constitution itself:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America (quoted in McDonald 1985: 299).

The future of republican government and collective responsibility towards upcoming generations were not, however, mere constitutional issues: they called into question the very foundations of the body politic, just like in contemporary debates (Meyer, ed., 2012; Thompson, 2013). What kind of motives should drive us to recognise the existence of moral and political obligations towards those who aren’t born yet? Are these commitments to be grounded on rational assumption over the nature of institutions, or may they rely on an intergenerational version of solidarity conceived, according to the taxonomy proposed by Sally Scholz, not only as the most basic social solidarity, i.e. «the bonds of a community united by some shared characteristic», but political solidarity, that is, a «sort of solidarity [which] indicates political activism aimed at social change», and civic solidarity, or «the obligations of civil society to protect citizens against vulnerabilities» (Scholz 2008: 5) as well? I will argue that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, but also Thomas Paine and his English opponent, Edmund Burke, tried to solve such dilemmas throughout a passionate debate focused precisely on those crucial topics and wonder whether we might consider their dialogue as a fresh look to the role of solidarity within the context of a theory assessing the relevance of future in the shaping of a modern public sphere.

Jefferson and the rights of the living

In 1789, Thomas Jefferson was living in Paris, where he had been engaged on a diplomatic mission for five years. On September 6, he decided to write a letter to his friend James Madison, not only to make him aware of the latest events but to deal with a normative issue, which was evidently the result of long reflections inspired by the making of the French revolutionary process and would have marked his political theory for a long time (Chelsey 2019: 83-124). He asked his comrade «whether one generation of men has a right to bind another» and found it so astonishing that a crucial question alike seemed «never to have been started either on this or our side of the water» (Jefferson 1984 [1789]: 959).

This statement is quite unfair since John Locke, in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, had already addressed the issue and provided an answer that was not free of ambiguity, but which, nevertheless, paved the way for subsequent reflections. Locke, in fact, on one side stated very frankly that «whatever engagements or promises any one has made for himself, he is under the obligation of them, but cannot, by any compact whatsoever, bind his children or posterity: for his son, when a man, being altogether as free as the father, any act of the father can no more give away the liberty of the son, than it can of any body else»; on the other, though, he made crystal-clear that «every man that hath any possession or enjoyment of any part of the dominions of any government doth hereby give his tacit consent, and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment», the last clause applying to future generations as well, at least as long as they please to enjoy the property they have inherited (Locke 1823 [1690]: 156-157).

Locke’s ideas had significant impact over American political and constitutional thought (Smith 1985: 13-33, 63-166). Jefferson, however, deemed them incoherent and in need of revision, since intergenerational relations were «a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government» – and his position was immediately clear and unequivocal: «no such obligation can be so transmitted» (Jefferson 1984 [1789]: 959).

Jefferson set his course assessing the axiom, «which I suppose to be self-evident» that «the earth belongs in usufruct to the living, that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it». What does it mean? That, according to natural law, God has granted the planet and the lands it contains to all men and therefore, upon the death of any usufructuary, the land he owned «ceases to be his when himself ceases to be, and reverts to the society». It is true that he can pass on his usufruct to his heirs, or to his creditors in case he has incurred into debts, if allowed by positive laws; however, heirs and creditors «take it, not by any natural right, but by a law of the society of which they are members, and to which they are subject» (Jefferson 1984 [1789]: 959).

For Jefferson a fundamental inference can be drawn from all this, namely, that «no man can, by natural right, oblige the lands he occupied, or the persons who succeed him in that occupation, to the payment of debts contracted by him», for this would imply that he had been allowed to «eat up the usufruct of the lands for several generations to come, and then the lands would belong to the dead, and not to the living, which would be the reverse of our principle» (Jefferson 1984 [1789]: 959-960).

Even more transparently, Jefferson wrote Madison that «the earth belongs to each of these generations, during it’s course, fully, and in their own right»; which means that the previous generation cannot «charge it with a debt», since then «the earth would belong to the dead & not the living generation». But if this is true of private individuals, the same applies to institutions, «since the rights of the whole can be no more than the sum of the rights of the individuals». It follows that «no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of it’s own existence» (Jefferson 1984 [1789]: 960), a severe limit to the emission of public debt but, in the meantime, a clear sign of social and civic solidarity (in Scholz’s terms) for it should have granted, in Jefferson’s view, a full exercise of freedom of choice to future generations. In sum, he «knew that public debts were dangerous, that they brought corruption and threatened republicanism» (Sloan 1995: 3).

On the other hand, though, this measure could bind more closely the living generation, limiting its freedom in contracting debts and investing to enact policies aimed to ensure, for instance, concrete solidarity towards both its less fortunate members and future generations, something James Madison noted very thoroughly – as we shall see soon. In fact, if one looks more closely to Jefferson’s complex argument, many problems seem to arise when it comes to his belief, restated even 24 years later in a letter to John Wayles Eppes, that «we may consider each generation as a distinct nation with a right, by the will of it’s majority, to bind themselves, but none to bind the succeeding generation, more than the inhabitants of another country». And since Jefferson, relying on the tables of the French biologist Louis Buffon, determined in 19 years the average life of a single generation, any legal act intended to last longer would violate the principles of natural justice, together with the set of rules designed to «give an artificial continuance» to «the will and the power of man» while, according to natural law, they «expire with his life» (Jefferson 1984 [1813]: 1280).

The same logic applied to laws and constitutions alike, Jefferson tried to maintain in his letter:

On similar ground it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please. But persons and property make the sum of the objects of government. The constitution and the laws of their predecessors extinguished then in their natural course, with those who gave them being. This could preserve that being till it ceased to be itself, and no longer. Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right (Jefferson 1984 [1789]: 963).

The logical consequence of Jefferson’s whole reasoning is to recognize that each generation holds the right (and the duty) to write the constitution and the most fundamental laws anew. This would not, however, be a mere power of repeal since, in this case, serious practical obstacles could cyclically arise:

The power of repeal is not an equivalent. It might be indeed if every form of government were so perfectly contrived that the will of the majority could always be obtained fairly and without impediment. But this is true of no form. The people cannot assemble themselves. Their representation is unequal and vicious. Various checks are opposed to every legislative proposition. Factions get possession of the public councils. Bribery corrupts them. Personal interests lead them astray from the general interests of their constituents: and other impediments arise so as to prove to every practical man that a law of limited duration is much more manageable than one which needs a repeal (Jefferson 1984 [1789]: 963).

Jefferson was deeply persuaded of the positive and progressive nature of man, in which he always believed (Matthews 1984: 53-63). He endorsed a vision of the future where a permanent change would improve dramatically the political outcomes of republicanism, «a republicanism no longer at the mercy of the forces of debt and corruption» (Sloan 1995: 9).  To grant every generation the chance to join the process of acting freely and making this dream come true meant, for him, gifting them with the most relevant amount of solidarity (social, political and civic). He put his faith, ultimately, in future generations of republican citizens, sure as he was they would better democratic politics and share his belief that «nothing is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man» (Jefferson 1984 [1824]: 1494). On a similar ground, however, Madison shaped his reasoned reply, which would result in quite a disappointment for his long-time ally.

Madison and long-term solidarity

In his long-pondered letter of February 4, 1790, Madison acknowledged that his friend’s contribution could be, theoretically speaking, «a great one» and stimulate «many interesting reflections to legislators; particularly when contracting and providing for public debts», but in the end it seemed to him a «doctrine…not in all respects compatible with the course of human affairs» (Madison 2006 [1790]: 189-190).

Madison found Jefferson’s perspective on both debt and legal acts highly challenging, but his focus was directed primarily on the latter. And this is precisely where the peculiarity of the Madisonian approach lies: so much Jefferson dreamed of applying a new (intergenerational) principle of justice and solidarity to society, so much Madison doubted that that same principle, once adapted to real life, would have spread the desired effects. And, most of all, he feared that it would bring with it a general delegitimization of republican politics and economics.

As to the application of Jefferson’s theory, Madison detected three levels: constitutional norms, «laws involving stipulations which render them irrevocable at the will of the Legislature», and, lastly, «laws involving no such irrevocable quality». The first troubles, in his view, were to appear on the pure institutional ground:

However applicable in Theory the doctrine may be to a Constitution, it seems liable in practice to some very powerful objections. Would not a Government so often revised become too mutable to retain those prejudices in its favor which antiquity inspires, and which are perhaps a salutary aid to the most rational Government in the most enlightened age? Would not such a periodical revision engender pernicious factions that might not otherwise come into existence? Would not, in fine, a Government depending for its existence beyond a fixed date, on some positive and authentic intervention of the Society itself, be too subject to the casualty and consequences of an actual interregnum? (Madison 2006 [1790]: 190).

If democracy was to be handed down to posterity and possibly enlarged, Madison wondered, why did one need to prescript periodic revisions and expiring laws that would destabilize political order? Not to mention the undoubted obstacles brought with it by the procedures for convening and exercising the popular will at the given time.

The will of those who had lived in the past, moreover, was not to be dismissed as quickly and painlessly as Jefferson wished; indeed, as to the generational handover of land and debts, it would prove wise to refer to it. For even assuming that «the earth be the gift of nature to the living, their title can extend to the earth in its natural State only», since «the improvements made by the dead form a charge against the living who take the benefit of them». In other words, this inheritance could not otherwise be acquired «than by executing the will of the dead accompanying the improvements» (Madison 2006 [1790]: 190).

These improvements could also include debts, «incurred for purposes which interest the unborn, as well as the living»; such debts could, in turn, consist of loans opened to defend a nation against an invasion or public investments made «principally for the benefit of posterity». In contemporary terms, Madison is arguing that social and civic solidarity could be implemented also by means of long-term policies which imply both spending money on behalf of the generations to come and, therefore, creating moral, political and economic obligations that would be almost impossible to repeal within «the term of 19 years» (Madison 2006 [1790]: 190-191).

Herein lies the reversal of the Jeffersonian view, founded, however, on an alternative vision of equity and solidarity between generations and not its denial. In fact, in his perspective «there seems then to be a foundation in the nature of things, in the relation which one generation bears to another, for the descent of obligations from one to another»; it would be required by justice, since «mutual good is promoted by it». For this very reason, a free commonwealth should find and respect the fairest «account between the dead and the living», so that «the debits against the latter do not exceed the advances made by the former» (Madison 2006 [1790]: 191).

A further danger noticed by Madison, and all but ignored by Jefferson, concerned positive rights (chiefly, property rights) protected by ordinary laws. If the non-enforceability clause were applied without any particular amendment, such as a provision to keep the same laws «in force by new acts regularly anticipating the end of the term», he feared that «all the rights depending on positive laws, that is, most of the rights of property would become absolutely defunct», triggering the risk to witness «the most violent struggles…between those interested in reviving and those interested in new-modelling the former State of property». A similar uncertainty was likely to produce substantial economic damage, on the one hand discouraging «the steady exertions of industry produced by permanent laws» and, on the other, granting «a disproportionate advantage to the more, over the less, sagacious and interprizing part of the Society» (Madison 2006 [1790]: 191).

At first sight, Madison’s concern may seem to relate to his celebrated theory of factions, that is, the need to contain, through the adoption of constitutional checks and balances, the destructive drives of parties, organized opinions, and more or less prominent interest groups ready to conquer power and dominate the citizenry – issues he dealt with in the celebrated Federalist n. 10 (Hamilton, Madison and Jay 2006 [1788]: 42-49; Sheehan 2009: 84-123). But much more was at stake, here: first, the negative role of political emotions, which were likely to subdue the weak (or less active) ones throughout the period of interregnum, if any form of intergenerational solidarity were excluded. While Jefferson thought, as we have seen, that passions and chaos were doomed to burst and forbid each generation to write constitutions and laws anew, in case no expiring date had been fixed, this was precisely the issue which worried Madison, since it would overthrow any attempt to preserve civic fairness and a reasonable equality of opportunities (even though, just to mention the point, he seemed to neglect – at least in that specific moment – the legitimate will to change the distribution of positive rights in the life of a given political community).

But the second, and foremost, principle brought into the scene by Madison was nothing less than the legitimacy of republican institutions: and here, quite surprisingly, the theory of tacit consent already outlined by Locke is taken out of his hat. However weak and inconsistent it might have been, he couldn’t see any other solution available, to safeguard the stability of the body politic:

I find no relief from these consequences, but in the received doctrine that a tacit assent may be given to established Constitutions and laws, and that this assent may be inferred, where no positive dissent appears. It seems less impracticable to remedy, by wise plans of Government, the dangerous operation of this doctrine, than to find a remedy for the difficulties inseparable from the other (Madison 2006 [1790]: 191).

A similar position seems strictly connected with his idea of man and society: in William Lee Miller’s words, «Madison’s view of human nature was mixed and realistic, not relentlessly negative…alongside self-love there was a virtue that it was the task of state-makers to encourage» (Miller 1994: 223). My guess is that one of the most relevant components of virtue was an intergenerational version of both social and civic solidarity, grounded as much on rational arguments than a call to empathy. This is why Madison, in the end, rejected Jefferson’s dreams stating that «a limitation of the validity of national acts to the computed life of a nation, is in some instances not required by Theory, and in others cannot be accomodated to practice» (Madison 2006 [1790]: 192).

Burke vs. Paine; or, how many solidarities are there?

The seeds planted by Jefferson and Madison were not left unnoticed. A great struggle on intergenerational autonomy and solidarity, within the context of a wider dispute on French revolution and the rights of man, took place between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine (Fennessy 1963). It is presumed that Burke was not familiar with the Founders’ perspective on intergenerational justice, while Paine knew quite well Jefferson’s stance; nonetheless, their contrast shed new light on the topic of solidarity between generations and the political tools to make it real (Levin 2014: 205-222).

Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) in order to warn the Englishmen against the temptation to import the pernicious (in his view) philosophy of the rights of man into their homeland (Bourke 2017: 676-738). But, all along his rhetorically proficient invective, he also dwelt on the origins of institutions and, while not rejecting at all contractarianism, he sought to downplay the scope of the Lockean theory of the origins and continuity of the body politic, which were to be traced back to a primeval connection that ran through the great chain of beings and bound them together:

Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure—but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico, or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence, because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. […] This law is not subject to the will of those who by an obligation above them, and infinitely superior, are bound to submit their will to that law (Burke 1969 [1790]: 194).

Burke’s perspective seems, at first glance, antithetical not only to Jefferson’s positions, as widely expected, but also to Madison’s, so much emphasis is placed on the union of the dead, the living and the unborn within civil society. However conservative his aims might have been, he nonetheless contributed to shaping an almost romantic principle of intergenerational social solidarity: it is not surprising, then, that he reaffirmed his duty «to claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity—as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom» (Burke 1969 [1790]: 119). The principle of inheritance, then, enabled the defence of liberty and its pursuit by the unborn. The bonds that connected past, present and future generations almost into a living organism meant, though, not only that each generation was expected to move within the path shaped by the previous ones, but also that any change and progress – however small and gradual – would have to be judged in the light of the ancestors’ inheritance. In Scholz’s term, political solidarity enabling positive change had to be sacrificed onto the altar of an emotionally driven, and politically vague, social solidarity.

These shortcomings were duly noted by Burke’s epic foe. In his reply to the English philosopher, The Rights of Man (1791-92), which soon gained him celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic, Paine defended the political fruits of French revolutionary experience (or, at least, of the first phase of it) and tried to refute the legitimacy of the hereditary principle which Burke had so vividly outlined. Thus, for Paine, it was an inviolable axiom that «every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the age and generations which preceded it» and he deduced from this principle that «there never did, there never will, and there never can, exist a Parliament, or any description of men, or any generation of men, in any country, possessed of the right or the power of binding and controuling posterity to the “end of time”». Consequently, «all such clauses, acts or declarations by which the makers of them attempt to do what they have neither the right nor the power to do, nor the power to execute, are in themselves null and void» (Paine 1999 [1791-92]: 9).

But Paine went way beyond that. In his reply to Burke, he openly declared, with words which cannot fail to echo Jefferson’s letter, that he was «contending for the rights of the living, and against their being willed away and controuled and contracted for by the manuscript assumed authority of the dead», while Burke was fighting «for the authority of the dead over the rights and freedom of the living» (Paine 1999 [1791-92]: 9-10).

Moreover, in a short pamphlet titled Agrarian Justice and published in 1797, Paine argued that God had gifted men with land it its uncultivated state as «the common property of the human race»; but because of «the improvement made by cultivation», landed property became sanctioned by inheritance customs and positive prescriptions. Since this state of things did not cherish the principle according to which «it is the value of the improvement only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property», thus violating natural equity and harming a great number of individuals of each successive generation from the introduction of farming, every «proprietor, therefore, of cultivated land, owes to the community a ground-rent» in order to re-establish justice and give the dispossessed «an indemnification» through a sophisticated system of intergenerational solidarity:

I shall now proceed to the plan I have to propose, which is, to create a National Fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property. And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age (Paine 1894 [1797]: 289, 290, 291).

This measure was meant to be financed through an inheritance tax to be demanded upon the passage of property from one generation to the next, that is «at the moment that property is passing by the death of one person to the possession of another». Civic solidarity, then, became the condition for economic redistribution on a generational basis, as well as the tool for reforming «the present state of civilization», where «the contrast of affluence and wretchedness [was] continually meeting and offending the eye» (Paine 1894 [1797]: 292, 295) – something that Burke would see as a challenge to social and political tranquillity.


What could this story teach us? That the intergenerational perspective is really helpful to clarify the nature of solidarity, whether we conceive it as a political emotion or a rational, discursive principle; and, in reverse, that solidarity between generations should be one among the guiding lights for anyone interested in assessing some of the most contested policies within our globalized society – to begin with, anti-climate change remedies (Hiskes 2009; Skillington 2019).

Contemporary debates on intergenerational justice have increased enormously since John Rawls laid down his «just savings principle», according to which «each generation must not only preserve the gains of culture and civilization, and maintain intact those just institutions that have been established, but it must also put aside in each period of time a suitable amount of real capital accumulation». This principle, thus, should be regarded as «an understanding between generations to carry their fair share of the burden of realizing and preserving a just society» (Rawls 1999: 251, 257).

Solidarity, then, has to play an essential role within an intergenerational framework even tough, as David Heyd has argued, in some ways «future-oriented solidarity» could be «of a fairly limited scope», since, for him, it «does not extend beyond two or at most three generations, and secondly, we feel solidarity with previous generations of our society only in the sense that it has to do with our identity rather than with a commitment to carry out their plans and respect their long-term intentions» (Heyd 2009: 184-185).

Looking back to the Jefferson/Madison debate, as well as its Burke/Paine appendix, could help us to approach these dilemmas on a more global scale and revive our sense of responsible solidarity (and not only our rational understanding of it) towards future generations. After all, if «each generation has the usufruct of the earth during the period of its continuance» (Jefferson 1984 [1813]: 1280), we are a sort of planet-keepers, of its environment as well as its democratic institutions, and our solidarity should extend well beyond two or three generations.


Bourke, R. (2017), Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Burke, E. (1969 [1790]), Reflections on the Revolution in France, edited by C.C. O’Brien,

Chelsey, C.J. (2019), The Radicalization of Thomas Jefferson, New York: Cicero Press.

Farrand, M. (ed.)(1937), The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, vol. I, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Fennessy, R.R. (1963), Burke, Paine and the Rights of Man. A Difference of Political Opinion, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Gosseries, A.P. and Meyer, L.H. (eds.)(2009), Intergenerational Justice, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Hamilton, A., Madison, J. and Jay, J. (2006 [1788]), The Federalist, edited by G.W. Carey and J. McClellan, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Heyd, D. (2009), A Value or an Obligation? Rawls on Justice to Future Generations, in A.P.  Gosseries and L.H. Meyer (eds.)(2009): 167-188.

Hiskes, R.P. (2009), The Human Right to a Green Future: Environmental Rights and Intergenerational Justice, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Jefferson, T. (1984), Writings, edited by M. Peterson, New York: Library of America.

Klarman, M.J. (2016), The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Levin, Y. (2014), The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, New York: Basic Books.

Locke, J. (1823 [1690]), The Works of John Locke. A New Edition, Corrected, vol. V, London: Printed for Thomas Tegg; W. Sharpe and Son; G. Offor; G. and J. Robinson; J. Evans and Co.

Madison, J. (2006), Selected Writings of James Madison, edited by R. Ketcham, Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company.

Matthews, R.K. (1984), The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

McDonald, F. (1985), Novus Ordo Seclorum. The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Meyer, L.H. (ed.)(2012), Intergenerational Justice, New York and London: Routledge.

Miller, W.L. (1994), The Business of May Next. James Madison and the Founding, Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia.

Paine, T. (1894), The Writings of Thomas Paine, vol. III, edited by M.D. Conway, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Paine, T. (1999 [1791-92]), The Rights of Man, Mineola: Dover Publications.

Rawls, J. (1999), A Theory of Justice, rev. ed., Cambridge Ma.: Harvard University Press.

Sheehan, C.E. (2009), James Madison and the Spirit of Republican Self-Government, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Scholz, S. (2008), Political Solidarity, Pittsburgh: ‎ Penn State University Press.

Skillington, T. (2019), Climate Change and Intergenerational Justice, New York and London: Routledge.

Sloan, H.E. (1995), Principle and Interest. Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Debt, New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Smith, R.S. (1985), Liberalism and American Constitutional Law, Cambridge Ma.: Harvard University Press.

Thompson, J. (2013), Intergenerational Justice. Rights and Responsibilities in an Intergenerational Polity, New York and London: Routledge.


In Lightning Memory: A Philosophical Dictionary à la Baroncelli

The following definitions combine insightful personal memories and personally memorable insights that I recall from, or associate with, Flavio Baroncelli (1944–2007) qua eloquent and witty teacher, brilliant and ingenious writer, fast and sharp conversationalist, generous and kind human being, and committed promoter of the teacher- and student exchange programmes linking together Iceland, my adoptive country, and the University of Genoa, my alma mater. Not all of them must be taken literally or too seriously; besides, I would not agree with some of them myself! All of them are, however, sincere tokens of gratitude, friendship and love to a truly remarkable individual, who enjoyed entertaining and shocking his audiences, but above all liked making them think, debate, and think some more. Furthermore, these definitions are a creative and inevitably poor attempt at exemplifying for the Anglophone public the sort of pithy and humorous style that, inter alia, made Baroncelli famous in Italy in his day.



Another word for potentiality.



A disease mistaken for moral failure.



Causing pleasure by sly words, even when the listener knows that they are lies. Philosophers, in their stately parlance, would call it a perlocutionary speech act.



The daily demonstration of how little control we have over our own will.



A polite way for educated people to be open-minded pluralists in theory but narrow-minded atheists in practice.


Analysis (of concepts)

The bizarre tendency to turn ambiguous profundity into unambiguous superficiality.


Analytic (philosophy)

A typically modern attempt at making self-conscious philosophers sound like respectable scientists.



The best way to acquire power in a capitalist society, especially if one wishes to destroy it.


Beauty (physical)

One of the most important life-defining characteristics that a person can have the good luck to possess and that philosophers keep stating not to matter.



A seemingly private place where both neighbours and State authorities seem often eager to enter.



The least understood yet most important principle of the French Revolution: without a modicum of genuinely felt compassion among fellow citizens, both liberty and equality will get used to ruin someone else’s life.



A dangerous and stupid way not to listen to dangerous and stupid claims.



When rasping hopelessly and continuously on a hard road surface, they exemplify instinctual behaviour as opposed to deliberate.



Powerful, sweet, devious killers.



The curse of any philosopher who may wish to come across as deep, original and worthy of enduring attention.


Coherence (aka consistency)

The unhealthy obsession with getting rid of all the instances of personal diversity, creativity, capriciousness and experimentalism that make individual life interesting and collective life possible.



The 20th-century political scarecrow that, for the duration of about one generation, made the de iure liberal countries of the world be actually a little more liberal than their de facto oligarchic past and present flag out.



The most important virtue cultivated by Christianity.



A much-cherished liberal value, as long as it does not apply to oneself.



Generally loathed by the very same people who have most reason to complain—an instance of slave morality.


Continental (philosophy)

A not-so-modern attempt at making self-important philosophers sound like profound mystics.



Someone else’s form of madness.



The folklore of the rich.



Coping with far-too-real nightmares.



Its training in infancy reveals how people prefer freedom to be qualified and circumscribed.


Discipline (and Punish)

The most important book by Michel Foucault, who taught us that the more societies publicly incense liberty and call themselves “liberal”, the less freedom common people truly enjoy in order to do as they please.



The ideal sort of loyal, selfless, hard-working and simple-mindedly grateful employees that employers would like to have.


Economics (contemporary)

A branch of mathematics mistaken for empirical science.


Economics (modern)

A branch of philosophy mistaken for empirical science.



Clarification articulating possible meanings of a pithy expression, with consequent loss of aesthetic and thought-provoking value of the latter. Sterilisation by explanation. (E.g. paraphrasing a poem, explaining a joke.)



The possibility for all people to be as bad and as silly as the rich and powerful minorities frequently are.



Aristocracy’s last ditch at controlling modern society.



See “Get lost!” below.



It is only after Darwin that people understood what the heck Lucretius and Telesio were talking about.


Exceptions (making)

The first step towards tolerance and pluralism.



An option generally available only to a person who stops doubting.



The culture of the poor.



Birds that can be confused with swans, especially in Iceland.



An exact formal science that can be used rhetorically as a persuasive labelling method for inexact metaphysical reasoning.


Get (lost!)

Uttered in a timely fashion, it can save a person the trouble of having to answer a difficult question.



If ancient, it is an excellent way to display one’s own erudition.



The true source of happiness, yet regularly forgotten until missing.


Hegel (Georg Friedrich)

A typical German philosopher, he wrote several tomes to demonstrate that nothing stays the same.


History (of ideas)

A way to find out why we think the way we think.



The equalising social process deplored by anthropologists whereby identifying the poor, the outcast, the loathed, the derided and the downtrodden becomes a little less easy.


Hume (David)

An uncharacteristically prodigal Scotsman, he noticed that the only way to be sure that all matches in the box do work is to light them all up.



The misunderstood virtue of avoiding conflict in reality by accepting conflict in principle.



A set of loosely interconnected concepts, some of which may be even mutually contradictory, that allow people to feel justified in their claims and actions, or at least to project an air of justification for them.



The demonstration of the bodily basis of the mind.



The least acknowledged yet most important virtue in a pluralist society: by caring little about what other people believe or do, mutual tolerance can be the norm.


Insight (aka Intuition)

Prejudice we like.



The remarkable social invention whereby to preserve the memory of past errors and make the inexorably ignorant new generations somewhat less likely to repeat them.


Intervention (by the State)

A much-loathed socialist value, which liberals accept as soon as they are in trouble.



A valuable means of instruction that can reach even those who do not wish to be instructed.


Kant (Immanuel)

A typical German philosopher, he wrote two tomes to undo an earlier one.



That which philosophers seek and analyse most, and yet have the least of.



The precious and inevitable source of all misunderstandings.


Lashes (by whip)

As long as someone else gets more than you do, most slaves will not rebel against slavery.



Another good way to show one’s own erudition.



The political wisdom teaching that State authority should be used only to protect a person from her worst enemies: her neighbours.



A rather bothersome business, but also the only one in town.



An open motive among men; less so among women. Gender equality’s lewd horizon.



Another way to understand religion.


Marx (Karl)

A typical German philosopher, he wrote several tomes to demonstrate that, normally, if the employer gets more, the employee gets less—and vice versa.



A neologism by the privileged.


Mixed (marriage)

The easiest and fastest way to explain why a marriage did not last. No such option is available for divorces between people of the same ethnic origin, the explanation of which may then take years of keen psychological scrutiny.


Montaigne (Michel de)

His essays became so famous and commonplace that later philosophers forgot to mention the source of the ideas that they discussed and, eventually, Montaigne himself. There can be such a thing as too much fame.


More (Thomas)

Great wisdom expressed with clarity.


Nietzsche (Friedrich)

An atypical German philosopher, he wrote aphorisms to acknowledge a major yet neglected motive of human thought and action: resentment.



The likeliest outcome of a person’s life, which we spend trying not to think about it.



In practice, the supreme official principle of social life.



The future outcome of the present ignorance about the past.


Pain (and Pleasure)

The fabric of our inner tapestry.



When good, it is the playful use of our imagination and of our reason in order to break apart, toy with and recombine concepts, beliefs and habits of thought, in order to make better sense of them. When bad, it is the skillful use of our imagination and of our reason in order to do the same and, in the end, be even more confused.



An artificial reminder of life’s beauty.


Political (correctness)

The ungainly social process whereby the less respected members of a community can have a chance to be paid a little more respect.



A widespread yet uncomfortable signpost of liberal freedom.



Another word for actuality.



A person’s attribute that, if conspicuous, makes other significant attributes deplorable or intolerable to the surrounding individuals: age, race, religious affiliation, ignorance, ugliness, etc.



Insights we dislike.



A vice leading frequently to virtuous behaviour.



Often confused with quantity.



Often confused with quality.



The best instrument available to reveal how ignorant we are, no matter the number of university degrees we may have.



A historically popular but unnecessary notion which justifies people being nasty to one another. In its absence, freckles or bad pronunciation can serve the same purpose.



The art of making outlandish ideas sound plausible, thus duly impressing unsuspecting young minds and potential sexual partners.



The perplexing faculty to take apart whatever solid conclusion we had reached before.



The unjustly neglected study of how language shapes people’s life under all circumstances.



The most dangerous virtue cultivated by Christianity.



Unwise over-intelligent overthinking—it is by far too delightful an endeavour for most philosophers to resist the temptation of indulging in it despite their own better judgment.



A natural reminder of life’s beauty.


Spinoza (Baruch)

Great wisdom could be expressed with more clarity.



Having someone below you is usually more important than having someone above—another instance of slave morality.


Straw-man (fallacies)

Mistaken by logicians as fictional errors, they are the far-too-real claims of ordinary men and women; if one is willing, and brave enough, to listen to real people.



The regularly underplayed yet visibly increased outcome of greater freedom in human societies.



Birds that can be confused with geese, especially in Iceland.



A structured way of thinking and talking that allows the person using it to come across as astoundingly intelligent and thereby force another to shut up, even if the latter may actually be right.



The socially crucial ability to endure people that we dislike.



The perplexing notion whereby tolerance is not enough in society, for we must also like the people that we dislike.



The most efficient way to get bad information from innocent weaklings and no information at all from guilty brutes.



To modern eyes, an old form of cannibalism.


Ugliness (physical)

One of the most important life-defining characteristics that a person can have the ill luck to possess and that philosophers keep stating not to matter.



That from which all great ideologies wish to free us once and for all, but which all great historians tell us that we must accept for any human endeavour to have a chance to work at all.



See defecation.



Whether threatened or applied, it is in practice the supreme unofficial principle of social life.



The best example of how being a master of style condemns a man to being remembered as a minor thinker.



A person’s attribute that, if conspicuous, makes other significant attributes invisible to the surrounding individuals: age, race, religious affiliation, ignorance, ugliness, etc.



We like thinking of it as free, despite all contrary evidence.


Wittgenstein (Ludwig)

A Continental philosopher mistaken for an analytical one.



One of the many words for the imaginary place of endless joy that all cultures have concocted and that only some silly philosophers would state not to want to go to.



The time of peak performance in a person’s life, the rest of which is spent trying to make use of ridiculous concepts that can help that person to enjoy some respect and self-respect: the wisdom of old age, the charm of grey hair, the value of experience, etc.



Often confused with “Jewish” and “Israeli”, it can be combined with them in the following matrix:

Jewish, Israeli and Zionist

Non-Jewish, Israeli and Zionist

Jewish, Non-Israeli and Zionist

Jewish, Israeli and Non-Zionist

Non-Jewish, Non-Israeli and Zionist

Jewish, Non-Israeli and Non-Zionist

Non-Jewish, Israeli and Non-Zionist

Non-Jewish, Non-Israeli and Non-Zionist