A French moralist and political philosopher, Bernard-Henri Levy (born 1948) won wide recognition as a social critic (especially of Marxism), an advocate of ethics and justice, a cultured non-despiser of religion, and a flamboyant intellectual maverick.
Bernard-Henri Levy was a French moralist and political philosopher of the late 20th century, one of the leading lights of the New Philosophers (Nouveaux Philosophes) school. This group, disenchanted with communist and socialist responses to the near revolutionary upheavals in France of May 1968, articulated a fierce and uncompromising moral critique of Marxist and socialist dogmas years prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In contrast to the "neo-conservatism" of ex-leftist anti-Marxist American intellectuals, however, neither Levy nor the New Philosophers embraced capitalist ideology on the rebound.
Testifying to strong rhetorical skills, timely concerns, and forceful argumentation, Levy's first book, Barbarism with a Human Face, published in 1977, sold over 100,000 copies. This was quite unusual, even in France, for a philosophical treatise. The book appeared in English translation in 1979. Along with Andre Glucksmann's The Master Thinkers, published in the same year, it is one of the central manifestos of the French New Philosophers. "Apply Marxism in any country you want," Levy wrote, summing up the book's thesis, "you will always find gulag in the end. Historical contingencies have not betrayed a pure Marxism still to be tried, they are proof of its essential and real failure."
Without retreating to an ideal world, and without defending either the rule or the values of capital, but arguing primarily and vehemently against the callous (and ultimately cynical) Marxist reduction of meaningful action and belief to realpolitik, Levy insisted positively on the saving autonomy of ethics. "Discredit politics, stick with the provisional, rehabilitate ethics—these are the three orders, the three levels of analysis that must be separated from one another, or else we will sink into the murderous mirages of appearance."
Levy's second book, The Testament of God, published two years later in 1979 (and appearing in English translation in 1980), was equally popular. He again argued for the independence and primacy of ethics over purely political and historical analyses of human affairs. But now, against all the grains of the regnant French intellectual left, he boldly affirmed the foundation of modern ethics in biblical ethics. A list of seven calls to action, which Levy named "commandments," lies at the center of the moral protest that drives The Testament of God: law is superior to events; the world can at all times be judged morally; the moral good must be done now, without concern for the future; undertake only what is immediately worthy of repetition; truth is of another order than politics; resist evil without theory or party; and be committed by first being detached.
In defending ethics and opposing evil, especially the evils of Marxist and anti-Marxist idealism, Levy opposed another strong current of post World War II French intellectual fashion: opposition to the state. "Anti-statism," he wrote, "is once again and unmistakably, a reversal that preserves intact the shape of what it overturns." Levy thus did not oppose the state per se; he opposed the totalitarian state, which, according to a dialect whose contours his analyses trace, is itself an anti-statist institution, appearance to the contrary. The non-totalitarian state, in contrast, is a guarantor of law and justice, and as such is a bulwark of morality. In this line of thinking, including the religious expression of it, Levy was profoundly influenced by the great ethical metaphysics of his French-Jewish senior, Professor Emmanuel Levinas.
Levy's third book, The French Ideology, targeted a wider audience than Marxists and leftist intellectuals. Published only two years after The Testament of God, in 1981, it outraged French sensibilities from left to right by exposing in the French character and in the French world view deep strains of a xenophobic nationalism, tending dangerously, as he saw it, toward fascism. The behavior of an entire generation of Western Europeans before and during World War II—not only the more obvious moral compromises that produced and sustained a Nazi regime in Germany, but also those that produced and sustained Vichy cooperation and lack of resistance in France—left a contemporary heritage of a deep political repression, whose surface twists and turns of self-deception Levy unflinchingly exposed.
Ever vigilant and faithful to the independence and height of a moral perspective, Levy wrote prolifically in pursuit of both negative and positive themes: attacking Marxism and socialism in their theory and practice, as well as in both their crude and sophisticated forms; attacking capitalist materialism; and defending a new appreciation for the redemptive power of ethics, the Bible, and religion in a modern world all too morally adrift. From 1983 to 1991 Levy published one book per year: Questions of Principle, Vol. 1 (1983); The Devil in the Lead (1984); Impressions of Asia (1985); Questions of Principle, Vol. 2 (1986); In Praise of Intellectuals (1987); The Final Days of Charles Baudelaire (1988); Frank Stella: The Difference (1989); Questions of Principle, Vol. 3 (1990); and Adventure of Freedom: A Subjective History of Intellectuals (1991). In 1994, he published Women and Men: A Philosophical Conversation, which was reviewed as fluctuating between perception and provocation in its views towards feminism and the feminist movement.
Levy's choice of media besides books placed him among philosopher icons of popular culture. In 1997, he wrote and directed his first feature film, Day and Night. Levy regarded the film, which starred his wife, the actress Arielle Dombasle, as a beautiful film, despite it turning out to be a critical disaster. Levy often appeared on television and radio shows to discuss philsophy, and was a part of a trend, based in France, popularizing philosophy.
Readers and commentators are usually struck not only by the directness and clarity of his argumentation, but by the trenchant, combative rhetoric Levy put in its service. In an interview published in 1985 Levy said of his own manner of philosophizing: "I do not and would never, it seems to me, philosophize without responding, provoking, perturbing, retorting—in brief, without in one way or another being polemical. Passionate to convince, deliriously logical, obsessed to demonstrate … my books really are less 'treatises' than 'essays.' This does not mean, to be sure, that they are less serious, weighty, or less erudite. But it means that they are books which always take 'positions'."
The same rhetorical flair contributed to Levy often being ignored in "serious" academic discussions of political thought. But there is no doubt a second, deeper reason, one more symptomatic and less self-conscious, for this exclusion. Levy's nuanced but unabashed retrieval of biblical themes and sources for European spiritualism flew in the face of an intelligentsia and an intellectualism whose commitment to atheist secularism had perhaps become, as Nietzsche suggested more than one hundred years earlier in On the Genealogy of Morals, its last and least questioned point of honor.
The best sources of additional information on Bernard-Henri Levy are his own writings, which are listed in the text. □