IN PRAISE OF WEAKNESS — Alexandre Jollien in Conversation
UWSP: Mr. Jollien, your biography, it is safe to say, is one of the most unique and unlikely survival-cum-success stories ever lived and told. Could you briefly sketch your trajectory and some of its milestones and turning points?
AJ: I was born in 1975. Due to a complication with the umbilical cord, I was born handicapped. At the age of three, I was placed in a center for the severely disabled, where I remained for seventeen years.
What struck me most was that the weakest people were often the most joyful. There was deep solidarity among us. I understood that the main goal in our lives was to attain unconditional joy. I was not very good in school because I didn’t understand that studying could help me in everyday life. But one day I met a highly educated—and very generous—priest. I asked him many questions, such as, “If God exists, how can there be handicapped people?” The way he responded to me awakened my desire for learning. I rushed to the bookstore, and for the first time in my life I was truly reading. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Nietzsche became my companions. Much later, I studied philosophy in Switzerland, Dublin, and South Korea. Today, I have three children. The sources of my art of living are Western philosophy, but also the Zen tradition and the Christian mystics.
UWSP: What inspired you to write In Praise of Weakness
AJ: I remember that even as a child I would tell myself that one day I will bear witness to my suffering. Very early in life, I felt the call to writing. But writing to me was a truly sacred art, which is why I felt that I needed to read a lot first, before taking the leap and embarking on my own first book. My main goal was to capture to the state of mind I had witnessed among the weak whom I had encountered. I find the idea that even people who are considered the weakest can teach us lessons of wisdom very compelling.
And so: I began reading widely, finding myself profoundly influenced by the figure of Socrates. In the past, when I had to face daunting challenges, I imagined Socrates speaking to me as a friend. Actually, there is a good precedent for this in Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. The author is unfairly condemned to death and incarcerated; awaiting his punishment, he imagines Lady Philosophy herself coming to his rescue. In my view, philosophy is this kind of internal dialogue, so I tried to imagine what might happen if Socrates came to my aid. Naturally, I imagined that the subject of our discussion would be “What is normality?” —because, after all, we are both ‘disabled’, or at least different
with regard to the norm.
Attempting to debunk a narrow definition of ‘normal’ implies viewing human beings as beautiful precisely because they escape any narrow definition of normality. Our true nature is always deeper than what we can physically grasp. The mystery of every human being is extraordinary, formidable.
UWSP: How old and where in your life were you when you wrote In Praise of Weakness
AJ: I wrote the book at twenty-two. I was a bit naive (I still am!), and at the time I viewed life as a struggle. In my opinion, joy is tied to progress. The more progress we make, the happier we become. There are three areas where we can make progress: as a disabled person, in particular, I was eager to progress every day by improving my health; I also endeavored to become a little more generous every day, and to connect with other people on a deeper level; finally, I realized that inner peace requires certain exercises, and inner peace is precisely what philosophy strives for.
By the way, asceticism comes from a Greek word meaning “exercise.” Progress requires us to ever more often say yes to reality as it is. Today I think that progress means accepting the chaos within us and having no enemies at all. Incidentally, Nietzsche says, “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” As Bergson pointed out, progress attests that life is gaining ground, and the beauty of life is that everybody can progress, even someone who is dying. There are no restrictions to accessing inner peace.
In Praise of Weakness
is an attempt to sketch the art of living by considering every weakness, every obstacle, every ordeal as an opportunity for growth.
UWSP: How did its publication come about?
AJ: Many people advised me to publish my work, but since writing for me has always been a sacred art, it took me a long time to take that step. Eventually, however, I did want to bear witness. When I was at university, some of my professors greatly assisted me, including finding a publisher.
UWSP: You are not only the first and only congenitally severely disabled major thinker in the history of philosophy, but you are also the first original philosopher to have consistently reflected on what it means to be born and live with physical and intellectual disability not as an insurmountable obstacle but as a source of strength and creative energy. Does being aware of your singular status impact your thinking and being in the world?
AJ: It’s very important to distinguish the concept of difference from the concept of singularity. We are always different from the norm. If there is no norm, then we cannot be ‘different’. However, the concept of singularity invites us to consider every person in his or her uniqueness.
Spinoza provides a very eloquent and illuminating reflection on this subject. Spinoza asserted that all of reality is perfect. One of Spinoza’s opponents disagreed, however, proposing the example of a blind man and suggesting that the blind man, for one, is not perfect. Spinoza had a great response: he asked his opponent if he regretted not having two wings, like birds. The man replied that of course he didn’t regret not having wings. But Spinoza continued: if everybody had wings except you, would you regret it then? In other words, comparison brings deprivation, and one powerful tool in spirituality consists in no longer comparing oneself with others. So I try to free myself from the feeling of being different.
UWSP: In Praise of Weakness
enjoins your readers to engage in sustained ethical reflection on a variety of philosophical, metaphysical, and social themes, such as love and friendship; the pitfalls of prejudice and stereotyping; how to survive under crushing conditions; the role of faith and spirituality in our lives; the power of thought and philosophy. How did you go about interweaving this tapestry of themes with your narrative proper so as to achieve your book’s singular level of intellectual-spiritual appeal and ‘suspense’?
AJ: In every Socratic dialogue, there is dramatization, so I just imagined what Socrates would have said to someone who had experienced disability, and also what he would have intended to do to free himself from the prejudice of comparison.
UWSP: What readership do you ideally have in mind for In Praise of Weakness
? And how would you describe its differences in appeal for readers across the generational spectrum?
AJ: I think In Praise of Weakness
has a universal message. The experiences of a handicapped person are a particular window into the human condition, like a magnifying glass that shows something about the condition of life. Everybody has to find a way to be more generous and joyful in everyday life.
The spiritual life, I believe, rests on three pillars: first, one needs to engage in daily spiritual practice, be it prayer or meditation; second, one ought to have a spiritual friend in order to progress and to free oneself from illusion (and delusion); finally, one should commit at least one act of solidarity every day. As Nietzsche said, the best way to begin a day is to ask ourselves whom we can help today?
UWSP: What would you say is the main—or most important—thought or ‘message’ of In Praise of Weakness
AJ: That our weakness and our fragility are great opportunities to become more human, and that the first step on the spiritual path consists in acknowledging that we are constantly tempted to live on autopilot. So, to think independently, to pursue true happiness, is the way of philosophy.
UWSP: Who are your favorite authors and thinkers, and did you have any particular contemporaries or precursors at the back of your mind as you were writing In Praise of Weakness
AJ: I love Socrates because he shows us how to dig deeper into our inner structure. I also adore Nietzsche precisely because he helps us to say yes to reality and to accept all the chaos that we face within us. Spinoza helps me to understand that joy is the motor of life. I am also very influenced by Zen meditation. For me, the Buddha revealed himself as a great physician in making the accurate diagnosis that attachment and ignorance are the poisons of life. I also read the gospels, which invite me to have a trusting relationship with transcendence.
© 2016 Upper West Side Philosophers, Inc.