Michel Onfray

Michel Onfray
Born (1959-01-01) 1 January 1959
Chambois, Orne, France
Alma mater University of Caen Lower Normandy (PhD)
Era 20th-century philosophy, 21st-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Atheism
Main interests
Atheism, religion, ethics, Cyrenaic school, hedonism, Epicureanism, pleasure, history of philosophy, materialism, aesthetics, bioethics
Notable ideas
The principle of Gulliver (le principe de Gulliver), existential hapax (hapax existentiel)

Michel Onfray (French: [miʃɛl ɔ̃fʁɛ]; born 1 January 1959) is a contemporary French writer and philosopher who promotes hedonism, atheism,[2] and anarchism.[3] He is a highly prolific author on philosophy, having written more than 100 books.[4][5]

He has gained notoriety for writing such works as Traité d'athéologie: Physique de la métaphysique (translated into English as Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), Politique du rebelle: traité de résistance et d'insoumission, Physiologie de Georges Palante, portrait d'un nietzchéen de gauche, La puissance d'exister and La sculpture de soi for which he won the annual Prix Médicis in 1993.

His philosophy is mainly influenced by such thinkers as Nietzsche, Epicurus, the cynic and cyrenaic schools, French materialism, and individualist anarchism.[6]


Onfray in Spain in 2009

Born to a family of Norman farmers, Onfray was abandoned by his parents to a Catholic boarding from age 10 to 14 (his mother had been placed into the same boarding in her own youth). Overcoming these early hardships, Onfray graduated with a PhD in philosophy. He taught this subject to senior students at a technical high school in Caen between 1983 and 2002, before establishing what he and his supporters call the Université populaire de Caen, proclaiming its foundation on a free-of-charge basis and on the manifesto written by Onfray in 2004 (La communauté philosophique).

Onfray's Traité d'Athéologie "became the number one best-selling nonfiction book in France for months when it was published in the Spring of 2005 (the word 'atheologie' Onfray borrowed from Georges Bataille). This book repeated its popular French success in Italy, where it was published in September 2005 and quickly soared to number one on Italy's bestseller lists."[2]

In the 2002 election, Onfray endorsed the French Revolutionary Communist League and its candidate for the French presidency, Olivier Besancenot. In 2007, he endorsed José Bové, but eventually voted for Olivier Besancenot, and conducted an interview with the future French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whom he declared was an "ideological enemy" for Philosophie Magazine.[7]

Onfray himself attributes the birth of philosophic communities such as the université populaire to the results of the French presidential election, 2002.

His book Le crépuscule d'une idole : L'affabulation freudienne (The Twilight of an Idol: The Freudian Confabulation), published in 2010, has been the subject of considerable controversy in France because of its criticism of Freud. He recognizes Freud as a philosopher, but he brings attention to the considerable cost of Freud's treatments and casts doubts on the effectiveness of his methods.[8] He is an atheist[2] and author of Atheist Manifesto.

In 2015, he published "Cosmos", the first book of a trilogy. Onfray considers ironically that it constitutes his "very first book".[9]


Onfray writes that there is no philosophy without self-psychoanalysis. He describes himself as an atheist[3] and considers theist religion to be indefensible. He regards himself as being part of the tradition of individualist anarchism, a tradition that he claims is at work throughout the entire history of philosophy and that he is seeking to revive amidst modern schools of philosophy that he regards as cynical.

View on the history of Western philosophy and philosophical project

Onfray has published 9 books under a project of history of philosophy called Counter-history of Philosophy. In each of these books Onfray deals with a particular historical period in western philosophy. The series of books are composed by the titles I. Les Sagesses Antiques (2006) (on western antiquity), II. Le Christianisme hédoniste (2006) (on Christian hedonism from the Renaissance period), III. Les libertins baroques (2007) (on libertine thought from the Baroque era), IV. Les Ultras des Lumières (2007) (on radical enlightenment thought), V. L'Eudémonisme social (2008) (on radical utilitarian and eudomonistic thought), VI. Les Radicalités existentielles (2009) (on 19th and 20th century radical existentialist thinkers) and VII.La construction du surhomme: Jean-Marie Guyau, Friedrich Nietzsche (on Guyau´s and Nietzsche´s philosophy in relation to the concept of the Übermensch). VIII Les Freudiens hérétiques (2013). IX Les Consciences réfractaires (2013).

In an interview he establishes his view on the history of philosophy. For him:

There is in fact a multitude of ways to practice philosophy, but out of this multitude, the dominant historiography picks one tradition among others and makes it the truth of philosophy: that is to say the idealist, spiritualist lineage compatible with the Judeo-Christian world view. From that point on, anything that crosses this partial – in both senses of the word – view of things finds itself dismissed. This applies to nearly all non-Western philosophies, Oriental wisdom in particular, but also sensualist, empirical, materialist, nominalist, hedonistic currents and everything that can be put under the heading of "anti-Platonic philosophy". Philosophy that comes down from the heavens is the kind that – from Plato to Levinas by way of Kant and Christianity – needs a world behind the scenes to understand, explain and justify this world. The other line of force rises from the earth because it is satisfied with the given world, which is already so much.[10]

"His mission is to rehabilitate materialist and sensualist thinking and use it to re-examine our relationship to the world. Approaching philosophy as a reflection of each individual's personal experience, Onfray inquires into the capabilities of the body and its senses and calls on us to celebrate them through music, painting, and fine cuisine."[11]


He defines hedonism "as an introspective attitude to life based on taking pleasure yourself and pleasuring others, without harming yourself or anyone else."[12] "Onfray's philosophical project is to define an ethical hedonism, a joyous utilitarianism, and a generalized aesthetic of sensual materialism that explores how to use the brain's and the body's capacities to their fullest extent while restoring philosophy to a useful role in art, politics, and everyday life and decisions."[2]

Onfray's works "have explored the philosophical resonances and components of (and challenges to) science, painting, gastronomy, sex and sensuality, bioethics, wine, and writing. His most ambitious project is his projected six-volume Counter-history of Philosophy",[2] of which three have been published.

For Onfray:

In opposition to the ascetic ideal advocated by the dominant school of thought, hedonism suggests identifying the highest good with your own pleasure and that of others; the one must never be indulged at the expense of sacrificing the other. Obtaining this balance – my pleasure at the same time as the pleasure of others – presumes that we approach the subject from different angles – political, ethical, aesthetic, erotic, bioethical, pedagogical, historiographical....[10]

His philosophy aims for "micro-revolutions", or "revolutions of the individual and small groups of like-minded people who live by his hedonistic, libertarian values."[13]


Recently Michel Onfray has embraced the term postanarchism to describe his approach to politics and ethics.[14] He advocates for an anarchism in line with such intellectuals as "Orwell, la philosophe Simone Weil, Jean Grenier, la French Theory avec Foucault, Deleuze, Bourdieu, Guattari, Lyotard, le Derrida de Politiques de l'amitié et du Droit à la philosophie, mais aussi Mai 68" which for him was "a Nietzschean revolt in order to put an end to the "One" truth, revealed, and to put in evidence the diversity of truths, in order to make disappear ascetic Christian ideas and to help arise new possibilities of existence".[15]

Relation to hedonism

In La puissance d'exister: Manifeste hédoniste, Onfray claims that the political dimension of hedonism runs from Epicurus to John Stuart Mill through Jeremy Bentham and Claude Adrien Helvétius. What political hedonism aims for is to create the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers.


Blogger J. M. Cornwell praised Onfray's Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, claiming it "is a religious and historical time capsule" containing what he sees as "the true deceptions of theological philosophy".[16]

Recently he has been involved in promoting the work of Jean Meslier,[2][17] an 18th-century French Catholic priest who was discovered, upon his death, to have written a book-length philosophical essay promoting atheism.[17]

In the atheist manifesto, Onfray has said that among the "incalculable number of contradictions and improbabilities in the body of the text of the synoptic Gospels"[18] two claims are made: crucifixion victims were not laid to rest in tombs, and in any case Jews were not crucified in this period. Ancient Historian John Dickson, of Macquarie University, has said that Philo of Alexandria, writing about the time of Jesus, says that sometimes the Romans handed the bodies of crucifixion victims over to family members for proper burial. The Roman Jewish historian Flavius Josephus even remarks: "the Jews are so careful about funeral rites that even malefactors who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset".[19] Regarding the second claim, Dickson calls this a "clear historical blunder".[20]

The Université Populaire

Onfray was a high school philosophy teacher for two decades until he resigned in 2002 to establish a tuition-free Université Populaire (People's University) at Caen, at which he and several colleagues teach philosophy and other subjects.[2]

"The Université Populaire, which is open to all who cannot access the state university system, and on principle does not accept any money from the State -- Onfray uses the profits from his books to help finance it -- has had enormous success. Based on Onfray's book La Communauté Philosophique: Manifeste pour l'Université Populaire (2004), the original UP now has imitators in Picardy, Arras, Lyon, Narbonne, and Le Mans, with five more in preparation."[2]

"The national public radio network France Culture annually broadcasts his course of lectures to the Université Populaire on philosophical themes."[2]



  1. Michel Onfray. L'ordre Libertaire: La vie philosophique de Albert Camus. Flammarion. 2012.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Ireland, Doug (Winter 2006). "Introductory Note to Onfray". New Politics. X (4). Retrieved 2014-04-06.
  3. 1 2 "He is a self-described hedonist, atheist, libertarian, and left-wing anarchist".(en) France, Media, Michel Onfray, A self labeled Anarchist Philosopher
  4. Ireland, Doug (Winter 2006). "Introductory Note to Onfray". New Politics. X (4). Retrieved 2014-04-06. a gifted and prolific author who, at the age of only 46, has already written 30 books
  5. Complete list of works on the French Wikipedia page
  6. Onfray says in an interview "L'individualisme anarchiste part de cette logique. Il célèbre les individualités...Dans cette période de libéralisme comme horizon indépassable, je persiste donc à plaider pour l'individu."Interview des lecteurs : Michel Onfray Par Marion Rousset| 1er avril 2005
  7. Nicolas Sarkozy et Michel Onfray - CONFIDENCES ENTRE ENNEMIS http://www.philomag.com/article,dialogue,nicolas-sarkozy-et-michel-onfray-confidences-entre-ennemis,288.php
  8. http://www.lexpress.fr/culture/livre/un-psychanalyste-reagit-au-crepuscule-d-une-idole-de-michel-onfray_886463.html
  9. http://www.philomag.com/les-livres/lessai-du-mois/cosmos-une-ontologie-materialiste-11291
  10. 1 2 Michel Onfray: A philosopher of the Enlightenment
  12. "Atheism à la mode"
  13. (en) France, Media, Michel Onfray, A self labeled Anarchist Philosopher
  14. Michel Onfray : le post anarchisme expliqué à ma grand-mère
  15. "qu'il considère comme une révolte nietzschéenne pour avoir mis fin à la Vérité "Une", révélée, en mettant en évidence la diversité de vérités, pour avoir fait disparaître les idéaux ascétiques chrétiens et fait surgir de nouvelles possibilités d'existence."Michel Onfray : le post anarchisme expliqué à ma grand-mère
  16. Cornwell, J. M. (2007-01-24). "Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism and Islam". The Celebrity Cafe. Retrieved 2010-06-01.
  17. 1 2 Michel Onfray, "Jean Meslier and 'The Gentle Inclination of Nature" (translated into English by Marvin Mandel), New Politics, Winter 2006
  18. [Atheist Manifesto, 127]
  19. [Josephus, Jewish War 4.317]
  20. The Nouveau Atheists on the Historical Jesus

Further reading

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