Last week in Le Monde, philosopher Étienne Balibar was interviewed about his recent book Des Universels, in which he writes about universal values. He sees the universalist attitude as inevitable, but notes that there are competing universalisms in the world.
The claim of universality has been key to the self-understanding of the West in its historic period of expansion. It first came from the possession of the true religion. Then the true philosophy. In all cases, there were missionaries eager to carry the universal message to the world.
The claim of France to be in possession of universal values like “reason” or “the rights of man” has been explicit since the 18th century when the country got its chance in to dominate Europe culturally with its soft power, and sometimes militarily with its hard power. Then it flourished beyond Europe in the colonial era.
Balibar says France does not have to give that claim up. Instead of “noblesse oblige”, he comments, the French should tell themselves “République oblige”. In other words, if you claim to have an enlightened republic, you have to assume the obligation of spreading your ideas and values. Balibar is quoted as saying: “It obliges us to a kind of universalism, which can no longer be based on the identification of the Republic with the nation. To remain truly republican, France would have to get outside itself, and formulate the idea of an extension of citizenship beyond its frontiers. So, then: Français, encore un effort…”
He is echoing the words of the Marquis de Sade at the time of the French Revolution. Sade mockingly urged the people to “try harder” if they really wanted to be a republic. What Sade actually meant was that they should question their underlying values and assumptions, not just overthrow the monarchy.
It is actually a wonderful idea to reach out as a nation to the rest of the world. Whether a nation like France would really be prepared to do this is doubtful. The French are focused on their own local and national concerns. There is another, more general reason too: the Republic is a product of the nation, in other words, culture. And once you go beyond your own frontiers, you have to realize that your values and assumptions are culturally determined. Competing universalisms would need to acknowledge their limits. The missionaries would have to be cultural relativists – ready to learn as well as to preach.
A difficult project, to be be sure. But it would be a fine project to make up for the imperialism of days gone by.