The Political Ethics of Paul Ricoeur: Happiness and Justice

In the series of lectures on Paul Ricoeur’s thought that I wanted to present while travelling in your country, in Washington, Chicago and now here, I would like to talk about Paul Ricoeur’s political ethics. Why talk about Paul Ricoeur? Because to me he seems to be, among the 2 or 3 most important French philosophers, the one most useful in building an intellectual bridge between the two continents: he has written as much in dialogue with continental authors as he has with American or Anglo–Saxon authors; he has taught at the Sorbonne, in Munich or in Louvain, but also in Tokyo and Chicago where he was presented the Paul Tillich Chair. The « entrances » into his body of work are manifold because he has worked on a great diversity of philosophical themes, disciplines and styles: Kantian criticism, existentialism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, analytical philosophy, but also on mythologies, Freudian psychoanalysis, theology, structural semiotics, biblical exegesis, literary criticism, historiography, political and legal philosophy, etc. This way of alternating between different styles, languages and themes, makes Paul Ricoeur, for each of them, an authorial eclipse, like a light-house which alternately sheds light and plunges into darkness! In short, an ideal author for free trade between philosophical cultures…

I have another reason for choosing Ricoeur, besides the fact that I know him well, that I was his student and that I continue to work with him frequently: it’s that he is Protestant. He is also « Latin », in the sense of a Roman culture and language (Italian, French, Spanish). I would like to present you his political ethics as the paradigm of what might constitute a Latin Protestant ethic. My aim is to contribute to the dialogue of our philosophical and theological cultures, and personally I would like to show how protestant thought can be grafted onto a Latin tradition: awaken within our Protestant culture, dormant possibilities that history has not yet brought about. After all, Calvin could be considered the prototype of Latin Protestantism! I’ve chosen political ethics because their main lines need urgently to be redefined (politics have been laminated by conflicts between the two « economisms » known as liberalism and communism), and because it’s the area in Ricoeur’s work where the meeting of the Protestant principle and the Latin principle is the clearest.

The discussion is organized in an ellipse around two focal points, around the questions: « what is the just? » and « can we speak of happiness in politics? » I chose these heterogenous questions because each one, in its own way, tends to cancel out the other; my aim is to make them respect each other. And above all this two-fold lighting brings out well the structure of Ricoeur’s thought, which I will simplify (in the extreme!) into three moments: 1) a hermeneutic of the just, from the idea of happiness; 2) a critique of happiness, from the rule of justice; and 3) the poétique of the Kingdom of God. Further simplifying, I will relate these three moments to those with which Ricoeur distinguishes the ethical intent, the moral standard, and practical wisdom (SA, 7th, 8th, and 9th studies).

1. The Political Hope for Happiness (a hermeneutic of the just)

As we know, the relationships between religion, politics, ethics and law are not the same, according to the anthropology developed by the religions and cultures in question. In a study entitled « The just between the legal and the good » (L1 178), Ricoeur situates the just in a mixture between two models of justice that reflect two different anthropologies. One of these models presents justice less as a standard or a rule than as an ethic, a virtue, the fulfillment of the intent towards a « life

that is good ». The Aristotelian tradition is a good example of this. This intent provides a « sense of justice » more than it defines a consensus: for the « good » can be taken in several acceptations, and the whole issue is one of distributing diverse goods and obligations. Here, the institution expresses the « wanting together » as a participation in the obligations and a sharing of the goods (SA 227). The intention of justice is the common happiness, the common good.

Looking again at the same theme, under the question of happiness which is uppermost here, we notice that this first model refers positively to happiness, through a teleological procedure that expresses finality: happiness, that is to say not only ethical good but goodness, is a necessary intention of politics. Without this shared, sudden feeling of a « wanting-to-live together » (SA 227-230), of a common will which lasts through the diversity and transience of the moment’s concerns, the social bond disintegrates, allowing only the most archaic bonds show through (today, different forms of patronage and mafias). The articulation between this more teleological model which seeks the common good, and the second, more deontological model, which fearing the depth and strength of evil grasps onto « duty », is clearly shown in an article entitled « The Political Paradox » (in HV), wherein Ricoeur distinguishes two main traditions: one, the more optimistic, establishes the specific rationality of politics, with Aristotle, Rousseau, Hegel; the other, more pessimistic, resists political irrationality, with Plato, Machiaveli, Marx. The first tends to reveal the possibility of political happiness, and the second tends to condemn political idealizing and illusion. We’ll leave this more critical line of enquiry for the second part of the presentation.

1.1 Political happiness

Aristotle’s Nicomacian Ethics finds happiness in an activity which is, in itself, its own goal: autonomy, to be self-sufficient is what appears to charaterize happiness. Man, he writes, is a « rational animal » since his autonomy is brought about through the activitiy of reason. But this activity takes place in the political City, which is why he also writes that man is a « political animal ». The City, the area where rational debate takes place, is the place for human happiness, the place where his finality, human « teleology » is acccomplished. Ricoeur develops this idea by showing that the category of happiness is that of meaning; happiness is the totality of goods, a kind of final totality which gives a place and a meaning to each one of them, what Kant would refer to as the Kingdom of Ends.

Along the same line of thought, Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes: « The better the state is organized, the more public matters win out over the private in the minds of the citizens. There are even a lot fewer private matters, because, the sum of communal happiness providing a more sizeable portion to that of each individual, he has less to seek out from private good offices. » Ricoeur radicalizes this analysis with regard to the contemporary crisis of legitimation by showing that people today have come to hate what they love, access to goods, and to the private area that is nevertheless so necessary to moral autonomy itself: « part of modern man’s identity includes the joint creation of a public area for debate and decision and a private area for family life and intimacy -but also, beyond this double goal, the simultaneous dissenchantment with political practices and with the emotional bonds within the nuclear family » (in « Political Language and Rhetoric », L1 172).

Here, therefore, is a major philosophical « tradition » which develops the feeling of respect for public matters, the civic area, as the possible place for happiness. Without hesitation, we can place Ricoeur in this tradition; through the bulk of his articles, he has fought against an individualistic, privative conception, not only of ethics, but of sin and redemption. This is what we read in program-texts such as « The Socius and the Neighbour », or « God’s Image and the Human Epic » (in HV).

And even the misgivings about the manipulation of « happiness » in communist society are derive from the same argument. In an article entitled « Jan Patocka, the philosophe-résistant » (1977), Ricoeur, along with Vaclav Havel, shows the corruption of the citizenry by « a regime that systematically organizes leakage out of the public sphere into private, « petit-bourgeois » style comforts (L1 70). It’s this argument which surfaced right after the Budapest coup, in a text we have already mentioned entitled « The Political Paradox » that appeared in Esprit, in May, 1957: the rationality and the autonomy of politics must be maintained and bolstered against the Marxist idea that reduces it to being no more than a residual effect of economic contradictions. As long as we fail to recognize this autonomy of politics, which have their own specific functions, vices and virtues, as well as a specific violence (irreducible to economic exploitation), we can’t consider politics as « just » (in other words, as that which establishes and that which limits). This point cannot be stressed enough: Ricoeur’s criticism of communism adopts this line, not criticizing the excess of politics in Marxist regimes, but rather their want of politics. Communism considers economic happiness and justice; it doesn’t consider political happiness and autonomy. But this argument is just as valid applied against the idea of happiness in a consumer society or one of showcase-democracy. And as well against the individualistic moralism of a certain weak-kneed Christianity, which places itself outside of politics and surrenders this area to human evil and discontent.

Ricoeur agrees with Hannah Arendt in saying that the autonomy of politics consists in the fact that power, before being a system of domination, consists in the ability to act in common, which implies a common memory and a common project, a wanting-to-live together. This is why « the contract occupies, at the level of institutions, the place that autonomy occupies at the level of individual morality. » And this contract is not only constructed through pure deliberation; what will become obvious in Ricoeur’s debate with the ideas of John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas is this: the true contract is to be continually rediscovered together, as a forgotten project that is more original than all our rules; something like a dream that comes through the forgetting, a shared dream of fairness and brotherhood. It presupposes an idea and an intent towards what we believe to be the common good. This is what we might refer to as the political hope for happiness; and it is from this point of view that happiness in politics must be considered.

1.2 The Sense of the Just

In that case, what is the just? In a word, one might say that it’s not a rule, but an intent. If we grant Ricoeur the distinction between ethics as an intent towards the good, as the desire for goodness, and morality as a more or less universalizable rule, justice and the sense of the just would indicate here the anchoring of law in an ethical intent. It’s this anchoring which can be distinguished by the term « hermeneutic ». If hermeneutic expresses the appurtenance of the interpreting subject to the interpreted being, there is, in fact, a true ethical and even religious precomprehension of the just, with an imaginary apparatus (figuratives, rhetoricals,…) specific to each tradition, to each « style » of culture. The feeling of the just thus takes root in pre-judicial feelings, in « pre-judices », which are simply ways of expressing good and evil, but also their ambivalence, the tragic, the excess of evil over meaness, the wanting-to-live together. Two remarks can be drawn from this articulation between a teleology of public happiness and a hermeneutic of the just.

The first is that law doesn’t thrive in a void, without presuppositions. This, essentially, comprises the reservations that P.Ricoeur has concerning John Rawl’s Theory of Justice: under the pure contractural procedures of law, there are certainly always, already expectations, a little idea of what is just and of what is good, something that expresses the desire, the wanting-to-be of a community (SA 275-277, L1 208-215). Indeed, these feelings of injustice or of legitimacy have, in each instance, the « style » of a culture. Law doesn’t choose its roots: all it can do is proceed by careful « grafting », where the real tolerance of the other necessitates the modification of oneself. In this way « the ethico-mythical nucleus of a culture » (HV 292, 299) may be criticized, pluralized, revitalized.

A parallel argumentation can be found in the reservations that Ricoeur has regarding Jürgen Habermas’s ethics of discussion. Habermas opposes argumentation and convention which he assimilates into tradition and ideology. Ricoeur recommends establishing, over against the critical argumentation, an instance with more breadth, more « body », and which he calls conviction or testimony. For testimony isn’t merely the sample-discourse of a closed tradition, dead and sedimented: it is also that innovation, that imagination which has the power to take on traditions and open them to other horizons. In this way, testimony, through the force of conviction, balances out that which, in the pure ethics of the discussion, is too cerebral, too well brought up. For convictions cannot be entirely explicated, they pertain to subjects that are also bodies, suffering, desiring, acting, anchoring point of our initiatives and our responsibilities (SA 72,135,198). This corporality indicates the finiteness of our convictions, their singularity: among other possible points of view, here is the one I’m hanging on to.

The second remark is that this nearly silent appurtenance of judiciary statements to an implicit sphere of ethical and mythical « prejudices » determines a kind of archeology of law, essential to the understanding of political and judicial differences, and often denied or neglected; this appurtenance is actually stronger the more it is denied and left uncriticized. In this sense, even our « universals » of law (the Democracy and Human Rights the West is so proud of) remain therefore universals in context, and only a long conversation between cultures might allow their relationships to be established (L1 266).

In other words, and here we are on the outskirts of the second half, the basis for law and politics is missing. The presuppositions of law that might be called « absolutely » original have been irreductibly « forgotten ». Ricoeur shows that it is this forgetting that the various fictions of origin (myths, but also Plato, Rousseau, Rawls) attempt to name. It is also this absence and this forgetting that all religions illustrate and that none of them is capable of palliating. To put it plainly: this forgetting is perhaps constitutive of the need for law, the rules of justice, in the absence and the blotting out of any « revelation » that might pretend to be original.

2. The Rule of Justice (a critique of happiness)

If you don’t mind, I will pick up again from a point of detail, but a rather significant one. The ethical and political anthropology put forward throughout the first model may be characterized as « Latin », in the sense that it is very much marked by the political experience of Rome, by the very positive sense that the Romans had of the political institution. This anthropology is more generally Mediterranean, in the sense of that Greco-latin Antiquity which lends so much importance to the political area. One might therefore say that it is also a Catholic anthropology, and it’s certainly very close to this in a number of regards, with one small exception: that the teleology put forward here is pluralistic (even if it is balanced out by a rule of moral universalization, as we shall see), whereas the Catholic anthropology would favor a universal and monistic « teleology ». Indeed, Catholic anthropology is a « natural » anthropology: according to it, there is a universal morality possible, the morality of natural man, but crowned, by way of exception, with the supernatural morality of the Gospel. Calvinism, however, does not believe in this natural man, nor in this natural morality. The radicalness of evil and the rupture of « Grace alone » are such that its anthropology is pragmatic: humans are responsible for the way they respond to this Grace, they are responsible for what they make of themselves. In this second « moment », more Protestant than Latin, we therefore see that justice is not so much rediscovered together as it is invented, or constructed (L1 203). But Latin Calvinism, rather than looking for a « natural » model, reinterprets the ethical teleology in terms of a irreconcilable pluralism of « goods » and intentions.

This point is very tangible in the debate that Ricoeur stages between Michael Walzer (for the teleological model) and John Rawls (for the second model, which as we shall see is more deontological). A rule is just, proposes John Rawls in his Theory of Justice, if those who falls under it could have subscribed to it, each of them, in calculating their interests behind a make-believe veil of ignorance about their social positions, and if they all arrive at the same conclusions. The preferred rule will then be the one which only allows inequalities if these are in fact more advantageous to the more unfortunate than would be a rule with more equality. Rawls’s argumentation is therefore based on the consensus implicit within every society, and by which a population, a generation or a social class cannot be sacrificed for the interests of another.

But fortunate or unfortunate according to which scale, in which types of advantages? The objection that M. Walzer raises, in Spheres of Justice, is that there is an irreducible plurality of the types of advantages and goods (employment, inheritance, milieu, family, education, painfulness of work, social circle, health, civic dignity, or religious, freedoms, social security, etc.) The advantage of this analysis is that it differenciates the goods, the social distribution of roles and identities, the contexts within which they are inscribed, whereas exchange would reduce all to single market terms. He thus highlights a fundamental ethical « dissensus ». In fact, this dissensus can, at the same time, be found upstream from the « rules », within the cultural diversity of the representations of the just; and downstream, in the diversity of contexts where they are applied.

In other words, it is because of this original dissensus that we must agree to pass by certain universal rules, even if this critical stage, where ethical intents balance themselves out within moral standards, does not manage to eliminate every dissensus (sometimes this effort of universalization actually renders the dissensus sharper than ever).

2.1 The principle of universality

If the teleological model construed justice as the fulfillment of an intention towards a « good life », the second model, more deontological to use Ricoeur’s terminology, refers more to the balance of duties and rights. The tone here is more formal: law doesn’t seek the good, it tries to avoid the bad. This model, very diversely illustrated in Kant’s categorical imperative, Habermas’s ethics of discussion, or Rawls’s principles of justice, substitutes the sense of justice with principles and procedures of debate, in such a way that other points of view (above all the weakest) are respected in the decision.

Here, the institution is less a wanting than a contract, agreement on certain practical rules (SA 264). The contract is a form of law which corresponds to a certain modern individualism, and if Calvinism is supposed to have been one of its offshoots, it is above all for its ethical nominalism: the only responsibility is that of the individual. We cannot grasp Protestant rigorism or puritanism if we forget that an ethic of the contract could not replace an ethic of honor without a terrible discipline, an asceticism, a true self exercise, even if the contract is still a form of promise, of respect for the word given or taken. Thus, before others (SA 312), the subject maintains a certan non-contradiction between his saying and his doing, an ethical identity throughout the variations of his desires and his self-interests (SA 195-198). He can follow a rule by « fair-play », even if that rule is neither judicially nor physically binding. Ricoeur defines justice as the ethics of the institution (in the very broad sense of the word institution): a deontology. « The formalism of the contract has the effect of neutralizing the diversity of goods in favor of the rule of sharing » (L1 186), in other words equality between persons.

What is the « moral » heart of this conception wherein justice is no longer a sort of total intent, but the set of procedures that allow the organization of conflicts between intents, without prejudging these intents, and simply in order that the conflict remain bearable? It’s the idea that anyone has the right to use the justifications that I grant myself: in this sense, even if my justifications, my standards or my intents (what Kant calls the « maxims of my will »), remain completely particular, bound to a context, etc., they must always be able to be universalized (this is what Kant calls the « categorical imperative »). I must be able to grant them to my adversaries. This is why, beyond the pure moral formalism of this non-contradiction of my maxims (I’m not only talking about logical non-contradiction, but about « pragmatic » non-contradiction: not doing the opposite of what one says), the content of this principle is very concrete, vital and even tragic. Submerged, as we are, in the darkness of a warring world, we must find the rules for our conflicts themselves.

Beyond these procedures of democratic legality (that is to say the set of rules of law which allow the negotiation of conflicts and the establishment of a public and political area), Ricoeur thus proposes: « don’t exercise power over others in such a way that you leave them without power over you » (SA 256, 259). The advantage of this proposal, besides displaying the very heart of justice, the principle of reciprocity, is in the fact that it is a more powerful rule than the rules of legality: indeed, it sheds light on larger and poorly represented contexts in democratic procedures, since these apply to neither all types of conflicts, nor to the totality of global conflicts (the rich democracies appear to tolerate well enough and even take advantage of non-democratic societies on their borders!).

Just because coming to power is always, in a way, coming to the universal (L1 107), those dominating shouldn’t believe themselves within the universal, and forget the particularism of their domination. Rather, the universality of the principles of justice is defined by a universal debate. It’s not a case of a scientific and demonstrable universal, as certain totalitarian or technocratic ideologies, which sought to eliminate all subjectivity, have claimed. Because to eliminate the subjects is ipso facto to eliminate politics (L1 138), and subjectivity then reappears in pathological form: the personality cult, demagogy, pure sophistics. But between sophism and scientific demonstration, the language of politics and justice remains rhetorical; wherein the probable is sought, the likely; wherein the plurality of language forms is accepted. The rule remains the critique.

2.2 Happiness as perversion

By the importance that he lends to this universal critique, in the ethical resistance to political abuses, we see that Ricoeur subscribes, with no less determination, to another important tradition, far less optimist with regard to politics than the traditions of Aristotle and Rousseau. This tradition, which can be found in authors as different as Hobbes and Kant, has been particularly marked by the Reform and its distrust of humanist enthusiasm. It is easily observed in criticism of the political utilization of the idea of happiness. For example, for Kant morality doesn’t have as its object the way for us to become happy, but the way we can become worthy of happiness. Even then, this worthiness is probably more a regulatory idea than an achievable objective.

In L’homme faillible, Ricoeur quotes Kant to supplement Aristotle, according to whom the pursuit of happiness is perhaps no more than the unending compilation of all desires: « Reason (…) demands the absolute totality of conditions for a given condition. » However, this totality can never be found in the phenomena. And Ricoeur comments: « This is why it was necessary that Kant begin by excluding happiness from the search for the principle of morality (…) But this epokhé (suspension) of happiness, understood as the lasting pleasantness of life, reintroduces the authentic problem of happiness, as the totality of fulfillment » (HF 81). For the idea of totality resides in human will. But, to put it in theological terms, the idea of totality, of happiness, must reside in human will according to an eschatalogical mode.

This is what Ricoeur says in « Freedom According to Hope », speaking of the Supreme Good as the accomplishment of the will:  » In fact, it doesn’t allow any knowledge, but a requirement which, as we shall see further on, has somthing to do with hope (…) supreme signifies not only not subordinated, but complete and accomplished (ganz und vollendete); However this totality isn’t given but required (…) what it indeed requires is that happiness be added to morality; it requires therefore adding to the object of its intent, for it to be whole, that which it excluded by principle, in order to be pure. » (CI 407). Pure, meaning not corrupt: to practice justice because this brings us happiness, other than being an illusion (as Sade illustrated), radically corrupts justice even as it’s being exercised.

In his text on Theory and Practice, Kant takes up again the same argumentation, passing from the ethical to the political sphere. Of the contract that founds the civil constitution he writes that it « has absolutely nothing to do with the end which is in a natural way that of all men (the inclination to achieve happiness), nor with the prescription of means by which to achieve it; so that, for this reason also, this end must absolutely not interfere in this law as a determining principle. Law is the limitation of the freedom of the individual to the condition of his agreement with the freedom of all, in as much as this is possible according to a universal law » (p.30).

Further on, after having explained that men are very divided in their conception of happiness, Kant considers that a « paternal » government, which claims to decree for the subjects-children the way to be happy, would be « the greatest despotism that one can conceive of » (p.31). When he writes « the greatest despotism » it is not a figure of rhetoric: for radical evil, that goes to the root of human will, is precisely this, to turn virtue itself into the means of happiness. The best will is in this sense the worst, that wants everything at once: it wants the synthesis of the good act with the good feeling (physical or emotional), it wants happiness as a totality.

In fact, this will is politically the most perverse and perilous. Because this synthesis doesn’t appertain to us. Ricoeur comments: « Real evil, the evil of evil, isn’t the transgressing of a taboo, the subverting of a law, disobedience, but cheating within the work of totalization (…) While the evil of evil may come into existence on the the way to totalization, it only shows itself in the pathology of hope, as the perversion inherent in the problematic of fulfillment and totalization. To put it succinctly, man’s true malice only appears in the State and in the Church, as institutions of gathering together, of recapitulation, of totalization » (CI 414).

3.The Wisdom of the Imagination

The two preceding discourses now in place, how do we put their articulation into play within Ricoeur’s overall thought? Basically, by correcting them one with the other we can justify the political hope for happiness, while limiting this hope and refusing to accord it a synthesis which doesn’t appertain to it; one might also defend the universality of the principles of justice, while requiring it to recognize that it is rooted and interpreted in diverse contexts. But how to unite the Aristotelian syle of the ethics of virtues and the Kantian style of a morality of duty?

The mixture would appear to be successful: 1) an « ethic of well thought-out convictions » (SA 335), in the Aristolelian style, recalls to the discussion, sometimes a little cerebral, that the just is, in a very concrete way, anchored and rooted in a history and a geography; 2) an « ethic of the discussion honestly argued », in the Kantian syle, submits the wishes and convictions of the political subjects to the demands of universality, in other words to the infinite obligation of taking the « other point of view » into account. But how to graft these models one onto the other, the « teleological » anthropology, dominant in the Latin countries, and the « deontological » anthropology, dominant in the Protestant countries?

In fact, this polarity can no longer be reduced to the simplicity of an opposition. Already, in Ricoeur’s thought, the graft has taken so well that the two discourses have been deeply related and modified. For example, both have a transcendental orientation (the desire for the good or for universality) and both have a pragmatic form (preoccupation with context and with the « performative non-contradiction »). Both have a « pluralistic » structure: pluralism of goods « intended », and of points of view « intending ». Both have a form of coherence: a more corporal one pertaining to the convictions, and a more formal one pertaining to the non-contradiction of the answers that the subject brings to the discussion.

Another example of this complex graft is the example of the ethical relation to the political institution and to law. This polarity of discourses appears to pull us in two directions. On one hand it brings law face to face with its own rationality, which is the truly political rationality of organizing justice, establishing social cohesiveness by righting inequalities through the fairness of the project or the contract that law here expresses. Ethics establish here, from the inside, judicial and political rationality in its autonomy (HV 262). On the other hand, ethics resist from the outside the judicial integration, in the name of an irreducible plurality, and oblige law to keep to the minimum of rules that allow the coexistence of various forms of life within the same society. In doing so, ethics require law to criticize the abuses of power (HV 268), and to limit that irrationality, properly speaking political, which claims to define the common good and to impose a unified model of humanity and of society.

This complex model seems to me to be already the case with Calvin, where we mustn’t con fuse: 1) criticism of governments and law, whose function is to maintain order and to resist the worst, but whose hierarchical or democratic development is always the doing of men, and falls within diverse contexts, cultures and climates; and 2) the ethical institution of the commandment to love one’s neighbour, which opens up the possibility of imagining and interpreting an obligation that is too metaphorical (AJ 20), but which covers all the modalities of communal life.

Basically, we pass over, here, from an ethic or a morality of principles (teleological principle, deontological principle) to a situational ethic. With Ricoeur (see SA) the starting point is the search for the goods which express the ethical intent’s implantation in desire and the plurality of its forms; a possible univerzalisation is then sought by constructing moral rules of a fairness, a possible reciprocity between two intentions; it’s the tragic conflict that appears not only between desires but sometimes between the moral imperatives, each as legitimate as the others, which lead us not to an impossible sythesis between two principles, but to a practical wisdom which imagines and interprets the just in the singularity of situations.

These conflictual situations are the same that Hegel finds in Greek tragedy, the opposition Cities-Individuals, Men-Women, Old-Young; but it’s also the conflict between political principles that are as different and ultimately as incompatible as security, prosperity, equality, freedom, etc. Ricoeur has devoted himself to this conflict between diverse forms of the social bond, and to the construction of compromise between them. And the tragic culminates in the impossible sythesis between Love and Justice (Amour et Justice)(AJ): in its exegetical section pertaining to the Sermon on the Mount, Ricoeur shows the juxtapostion and the conflict between the commandment to love one’s enemies, and the golden rule not to do onto others what you would not have them do onto you. In fact the two statements thus juxtaposed have absurd consequences: with pure pardon the exchange is destroyed, and with mere reciprocity we go straight to utilitarianism. It’s their simultaneity that opens novel significations up in them. If the last word of ethics falls to wisdom, alone worthy of the tragic in our histories, it is in the sense that Ricoeur bridges the gap between that supra-ethical which is the singular sense of situations, the wisdom of sollicitude, and the supra-ethical which might be called, to use one of his terms, a poétique of love. First, it is because a text opens and deploys before itself an (other) possible world that we can act, inspite of the tragic and the discontent, in such a way that this world isn’t finite, isn’t totalizable (TA 270); « It’s in the imagination that at first the new being takes shape in me. I say clearly imagination and not the will. For the power to let onself be embraced by new possibilities precedes the power to decide and to choose » (TA 132).

With this the most radical ethical question arises: what is this world if it must contain the possibility of another world? In theological language: what is this world if it must not realize, but rather contain within itself the possiblitity of or the proximity to the Kingdom of God? Here, the role of the imagination is essential. It can be just as well shown regarding the theme of justice as the theme of happiness.

First we should remark that the practice of the « just » always results from the separation between two rights which may or may not be compatible in the same possible world. This separation expresses the relative non-pertinence of each of them relative to the situation. As if there were no language possible for this situation, no expression of the question acceptable for each and everyone. The intervention of the « just » act or judgement is then quasi-poetical: it reconstructs a judicial pertinence, and in doing so leads the way to a new representation of reality.

Thus judgement is neither pure appraisal nor mere jurisprudence. It redescribes reality otherwise. It is the interplay between the critical distance (since justice is not of this world) and the creative adherence (since justice can be represented in one way or another). As Ricoeur writes of the metaphoric imagination, it is « a free-playing with possibilities, in a state of non-engagement with regard to the world of perception or of action. It is in this state of non-engagement that we try out new ideas, new values, new ways of being in the world » (TA 220). This world must be neutralized in order to make another possible world appear. And in doing so, the judicial imagination remakes the world from another perception and from another acting; it shows what has never been seen, it puts the invisible before our eyes; it develops the ability to give a new configuration to the situation.

Concerning happiness, the keystone holding together the two arches is perhaps still the idea that happiness requires totality. Our happiness can only exist upon condition of the happiness of all others, and further more: it can only exist upon condition of all the other happinesses. A happiness can only be complete. Happiness would like it « all to be there ». All those whom we love, of course. But also that not one point of view be « sacrificed », for all possible points of view (and further more; all possible points of view on happiness) belong by right to the circle of the total community which would be the happy City.

However this City is invisible. And it’s the work of the imagination to continually re-open the visible City to all the invisible points of view that it leaves on its edges, or that it has excluded, or even that it has forced to enter into its form of visibility! There is always that « debt » towards others who are missing from the community, and without whom political autonomy, the democratic social contract, and democratic debate are simply not complete, not completely sound, not totally « authorized » (L1 41). This lack does not disqualify democracy, but attests to its incomplete, debatable, fragile character.

Then again, the imagination doesn’t only relate to unhappiness as debt. It relates to happiness as hope. Otherwise, what is the meaning of the often repeated expression in the Gospel according to John: « The Kingdom is near », if not to perceive the absence of happiness, and to try to say what its presence would be. Thus the total community that « the happy City » would be is invisibly conveyed through the solidarity between, and with, its victims themselves; it remains « a community of the shaken », according to Jan Patocka’s expression L1 81). A community according to hope.


Olivier Abel

Conférence à l’Union Theological Seminary, New–York le 30/10/92.