Examining Paul Veyne’s Foucault: Chp. 5

books5Chp. 5 of Paul Veyne’s Foucault, entitled “Universalism, Universals, Epigenesis”, is another short chapter, and a partial detour away from his analysis of Foucault. The main purpose of the chapter is to demonstrate that Christianity, despite its universalist aspirations and pretensions, is a discursive formation riven with scattered intentionalities, unpredictable origins, and unintended alterations. This chapter is an exercise in genealogical analysis, and reveals the localism and contingency inherent in the Foucauldian worldview.




The Accidental Nature of The Christian “Universal”:

The first Christians became universalists only in the narrow sense of the word and without deliberately deciding to. (60)

So what is the explanation for Christian proselytism? … Jesus the prophet was not his own hero (he spoke in the name of his heavenly Father). But, fascinated by his charisma, between AD 40 and 100, his disciples and preachers constructed a religion in which he was the hero. (60)

The stroke of genius was that invention of a man-God, a man like the rest of us, real, with a date, a guru or doctor who was also a deity, a true one, not some mythological figure. Christianity thus became an emotive metaphysical novel about love, in which the deity and humanity loved one another passionately… (61)

In another stroke of genius, Jesus of Nazareth preached, not observance of the Sabbath and the other commandments of their Law, but an internal ethic, a morality for the way one thought… (61)

And it has the air of a morality for the whole of humanity. But that was not Jesus’ intention, for he was preaching solely to his own people. To us, his lofty language seems universalist because it claimed higher ground than Jewish legalism. However, when Jesus spoke in a less elevated mode, he reverted to being the Jewish prophet that he was… However, after his death it was his more elevated, popular and new message, that relayed by the synoptic Gospels, that his disciples were to preach to their Jewish compatriots. (61-62)


Temperament and Circumstances

Should proselytism be considered a natural inclination and an anthropological universal. No, it is always a matter of temperament and the circumstances. In each disciple’s soul waged an unconscious battle between ambition, laziness and devotion to the Law of his people; and sometimes one of those elements won out, sometimes another. For, behind a man’s consciousness and elevated reasons, impulses are at work. (62)

Universalism was not introduced into Christianity by an intrusion of Reason or Spirituality. It reflected a shift on the part of ambitious, non-elitist temperaments, an inclination which, de facto, then became customary. (63)


Origins are Seldom Beautiful

In the space of three decades, the admission of non-Jews into Christianized Judaism led to a split between ethnic sects of circumcised Judaeo-Christians and the new religion that reached out to all and sundry. Platonic metaphysics and certain pagan superstitions (ex-votos, prayers for rain, etc.) or new ones (involving relics) contributed to the formation of Christian doctrine and pious practices. Origins are seldom beautiful; realities and truths develop through epigenesis; they are not pre-formed in any seed. To speak of the Christian roots of Europe is not just mistaken, but simply nonsense: in history, nothing is pre-formed. At the very most, Europe possesses a Christian patrimony; it lives in an old house whose walls are hung with old religious paintings. (64)

The present-day West possesses a vast and precious architectural, artistic, literary, musical and even phraseology patrimony that is largely Christian, but there is no longer anything Christian about its morality and values. (64)

Ever since the 1891 encyclical on the conditions of the working class, Christianity has acquired modern roots. And the 2,000-year-old history of dogmas, piety and interpretations of the Holy Books show that Christianity, as it has developed (through epigenesis), has never ceased to construct itself and adapt. (65)


*Veyne, Paul. Foucault: His Thought, His Character. Malden, MA: Polity, 2010.

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