the “philosophy” chronicle of Roger-Pol Droit


“The Meaning of the Earth. Thinking about ecology with Nietzsche”, by Benoît Berthelier, Seuil, “The philosophical order”, 300 p., €24, digital €17.


The project is surprising. Finding in Nietzsche (1844-1900) decisive elements for rethinking our relationship to the earth and to future life is by no means obvious. The author of gay know knew nothing of the upheavals of the Anthropocene. Global warming, collapse of biodiversity, depletion of fossil resources, water crisis were unknown to him. Furthermore, rather than respecting scientific facts, he encouraged questioning them. Finally, far from advocating decrease and restrictions, he shattered ascetic ideals and glorified the will to power. How could it help us?

At first glance, we easily find, in Nietzsche, enough to combat the failings of ecological discourses – sadness, puritanism, morality… – but not much to make them more intelligent, more acute, more mobilizing. This situation would not fall to Nietzsche but to us, who would read him badly, without precision or acuity. This is what the first book by a young philosopher, Benoît Berthelier, brilliantly demonstrates, achieving both a stroke of brilliance and a salutary demonstration. Normalien, agrégé in philosophy, currently reader of French at Oxford, he signs, with The meaning of the earth, a passionate and often thrilling essay. We discover, step by step, how the teachings of Zarathustra could play a leading role in breaking the impasses in which our time is macerating.

The work obviously does not consist in extracting from the immense Nietzschean corpus a ready-to-use ecological philosophy, which no one would have discerned. It is rather a question of identifying – and reworking, with Nietzsche, and sometimes against him – several central themes of his thought, in order to transform the perspectives of ecology, taking them well beyond catastrophism and the apologies of the decrease. Because the essential would not be played around the constraints, but well around the power, the entirely terrestrial life and the end of nihilism.

Plea for more life

Benoît Berthelier revisits several pairs of notions playing a crucial role in Nietzsche – “human-superhuman”, “near-far”, “death of God-meaning of the earth”, in particular – and highlights their relevance to the multiple, often trapped questions that we face today. He thus maintains that ecology only has a future by becoming “will to power” – which does not primarily mean domination or authority, but rather the construction of a desirable, more intense life, stretching towards a future that is highly desirable. It also explains how Zarathustra makes it possible to think of both the “close things” essential to life (food, sleep, education, relationship to time, etc.) and their relationship to the distant future. The overall goal is to take the challenges of the Anthropocene very seriously, and to try to meet them, but without falling into these traps that have become common: sad passions, punitive restrictions, nihilism of the “last man” believing in inevitable catastrophes.

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