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  • Christian Delacampagne: Philosopher of the World
  • Stephen G. Nichols (bio)

Christian Delacampagne was a philosopher of the world, rather than a worldly philosopher. He chose to practice a kind of philosophy all too often misunderstood (in the United States at any rate) because it focuses on the effect of thinking about problems in the “real” world, rather than exploring the rarified sphere of technical speculation. For Christian, it mattered very much to understand why people do or do not think about certain things and to reflect upon the consequences of failing to engage fundamental issues, particularly in the realm of human rights . . . les droits de l’homme.

Why, for example, did a moral and religious philosopher as compassionate and influential as Saint Augustine not condemn slavery? He certainly perceived that it is not natural; he also argued that it was not part of the original state of human being. But still he accepted it as an immemorial social practice, a consequence of historical iniquity, and a result of the slave’s “adverse fortune.”1

It doesn’t occur to Augustine to ask how slavery can exist. But that’s just the kind of fundamental question of human rights that Christian Delacampagne devoted his life to raising. In this case, he did it in a way that shows why Augustine, like so many other thinkers before and after him, could not get to the heart of the matter: they simply looked at the phenomenon itself rather than reflecting on the sociopolitical forces that make it possible. By treating it as a problem in the context of political power, Christian demonstrates that the issue [End Page 692] transcends slavery itself. It is a logical manifestation of the exercise of power that makes sovereignty superior to human rights in the nation state, whether that state be ancient Rome, a modern superpower, or a nation hesitantly emerging from colonial domination.

If slavery is a phenomenon of nation states, as Christian argues, then it is not a historically contingent phenomenon limited to certain places—the Antebellum South in the United States, for instance. It is not, in short, something legislated out of existence in France under the Revolution, in the US in 1808 and 1863, or in Great Britain in 1836. It is, Christian asserts, a combat every bit as urgent today as it was in the nineteenth century. “Face à l’esclavage,” he declares, “de même que face au racisme, il n’y a pas de compromis possible. Il n’y a pas de tolérance possible. C’est une réponse qui peut paraître radicale. Mais c’est la seule réponse concevable si l’on entend avoir, sur ce problème, une attitude cohérente et efficace.”2

With a shock of recognition, Christian makes us see that far from being a phenomenon of the past, slavery is every bit as present in the world today as are the arms race, the AIDS epidemic, terrorism, or the drug culture, with all of which it is, in fact, indissolubly linked:

Comme le combat contre le terrorisme, en effet, comme le combat contre le trafic de drogue et contre le trafic d’armes, mais aussi comme le combat contre le sida ou pour la protection de l’environnement, le combat contre les réseaux internationaux et clandestins qui permettent la survie de l’esclavage n’a aucune chance de réussir s’il demeure confiné à l’intérieur de l’Etat-nation. Ce n’est qu’en devenant un combat supranational qu’il parviendra à atteindre sa cible.3

In other words, what we began to read as a history of slavery suddenly morphs into an analysis of our own complicity into an evil we had assumed a failing not of our own consciousness and moral compass, but those of our ancestors. This is quintessential Delacampagne: the practice of a Kierkegaardian strategy of indirect argument that forces us to face with brutal abruptness something we had chosen to ignore. Christian initially makes us feel superior to our forbears, but soon strips our smugness away, by making us realize our own blindness to the continuing existence of slavery. He leaves us with the chilling thought...


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pp. 692-696
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