L’Amour des autres. Care, compassion et humanitarisme. Revue du MAUSS semestrielle n° 32, (Paris 2008).

Pour la table des matières du numéro de la revue en ligne:  cliquer ici

The indefatigable group of academics, who since 1981 formed MAUSS (Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste dans les Sciences Sociales), are a splendid example of how engaged scholarship can be cutting edge, informed and infinitely fruitful at the same time. With their journal (Revue du MAUSS) and website full of articles and multi-media material they have shaped the French academic landscape. Unfortunately, their vibrant brand of scholarship has seldom broken the linguistic barrier to be used outside the francophone world. The basic principle that unites those active under this platform is the critique of utilitarianism that is “d’une manière de voir les affaires humaines sous le seul angle de l’intérêt individuel calculé” (see the article of S. Dzimira here). It is obvious, that MAUSS alludes to Marcel Mauss and his celebrated Essai sur le don written in 1923-24. In it he showed that gifts were only seemingly given voluntarily. In fact, they were to a large degree obligatory and as such part of a complex system spanning all aspects of social life. On the basis of empirical examples from a wide range of societies, Mauss described the obligations attached to gift-giving: the obligation to give gifts (by giving, one shows oneself as generous, and thus as deserving of respect), the obligation to receive them (by receiving the gift, one shows respect to the giver), and the obligation to return the gift (thus demonstrating that one’s honour is – at least – equivalent to that of the original giver). « Donner c’est manifester sa supériorité, être plus, plus haut magister ; accepter sans rendre ou sans rendre plus, c’est se subordonner, devenir client et serviteur, devenir petit » – that is how Mauss himself puts it (M. Mauss, Sociologie et anthropologie, Paris 1950, 269-270). Each gift is part of a system of reciprocity in which the honour of giver and recipient are engaged.

The latest issue of the journal is devoted to the “Love of others” and the concept of care. The following review will be limited to topics and ideas that I found profitable as a social historian of the Byzantine period working on charity and remembrance, poverty and wealth – thus, I will not discuss articles that deal with contemporary issues, although I can only urge everyone to read them, if not as a professional academic at least as an informed contemporary citizen eager to understand the complex world around us.

In the Presentation (5-32) Alain Caille and Philippe Chanial give an overview of the volume, which includes both texts originally written for it and older texts (at times translated or excerpted) that supplement the discussion at hand. “L’homme est-il un animal sympathique ?” is perhaps the central question behind the debates – and if love can and does indeed extend to others, does it include those who are not ones’s own, “ceux qui n’ont rien, qui sont pitoyables, voire méchants, qui ne rendront rien ou seulement de la haine”? Sympathy (in its literal sense: to be affected by like feelings), compassion, enthusiasm, care – these are some of the key concepts that form the background to the texts assembled here.

The ensemble of these texts (and of the MAUSS texts in general) suggests a juggernaut of good will and of everything we would like to believe is good in humans. I was reminded of the wonderful prose and vision of Lewis Hyde in The Gift: How the creative spirit transforms the world (first ed. 1979, now reprinted in London 2006) with his juxtaposition of the gift, fecundity, blossoming and plenty (and the exploration of the idea that exploitation creates want). This is particularly true of the text by Jean-Marie Guyau (L’amour de l’humanité comme irreligion de l’avenir, 35-40, originally published in 1886). “Les actions exclusivement égoïstes sont des fruits pourrissants sur l’arbre” (p. 39), he says, which don’t feed anybody besides the worms. I am unsure on how this idea could be used by medieval historians (although I would very much like to make use of it). As with the original work of Mauss that has sparked these debates it is difficult not to slip into models that would fit more to literary criticism than to historical enquiry. Mauss’ work was in many ways a response to his own political, economic and social reality, in the same way that MAUSS urges us to rethink our own. But while Mauss delineated this system of reciprocity, he did not seem to question the social stratification it constructed and enforced. He writes that « il faut revenir à des mœurs de “dépense noble” », pour « que les riches reviennent ― librement mais aussi forcement ― à se considérer comme des sortes de trésoriers  de leurs concitoyens ». (Mauss: 262). This is viewed by some modern scholars as “an arcadianism in service of a utopianism”, as a system celebrating a “paternalistic and arcadian vision of aristocratic extravagance and paternalistic generosity” (S. C. Shershow, ‘Of Sinking: Marxism and the General Economy’, Critical Inquiry 27, 2001: 474; 481). How is this different to the current notions of “Philanthrocapitalism” or the “Creative Capitalism” of Bill Gates (see now the critical overview by M. Edwards, Philanthrocapitalism: after the goldrush) as well as the article by J. T. Godbout, Bill Clinton et le don, in this volume, pp. 237-245)? Answers are, naturally, difficult and complex, and possibly contradictory for each of us – but the least I can do is to signal caution.

The idea of the free gift is a recurring theme in this volume. It is discussed at length in an excerpt from a book by Alvin W. Gouldner, a pioneering sociologist of the 1960s and 1970s with an extensive reformist agenda (Pourquoi donner quelque chose contre rien?, pp. 47-68). The text is part of a discussion on reciprocity in sociological theory (see his ‘The Norm of Reciprocity: A Preliminary Statement’, American Sociological Revue 25 [1960] 161-78) and apart from offering interesting insights on the notion of reciprocity and problems associated with it, has little to offer for the exploration of medieval social realities. Gouldner is right to delineate the limits of reciprocity (when it involves giving to those who cannot reciprocate, as children, the elderly or the handicapped) and contrasts this concept to beneficence, which largely covers the category of giving something for nothing (as altruism, charity or hospitality). When it comes to Christian practices of beneficence (and, subsequently to medieval notions of charity), however, the author misses the point, in my mind. He claims that the Church authorized the laity to abstain from beneficence and embrace “la morale bien moins exigeante de la réciprocité” (p. 60). Furthermore, he goes on to suggest that those receiving beneficence from the elites had nothing to reciprocate (p. 61). But this is far from the truth: the needy recipients of charity offered (at least in theory) their ideal mediation in reciprocity for beneficence. The prayers of “the least of the brethren” were highly desirable in the quest for salvation, not to speak of the prestige and potential for power and office conferred by clients to their patrons.
Other contributions in this volume tackle the subject from an anthropological (G. Pommier) or theological (A. Nygren) point of view, or choose to draw boundaries by defining adjacent concepts such as compassion (P. Audi), or care (A. Le Goff, J. C. Tronto). These are highly interesting texts, destined to contribute to current debates, providing food for thought of the highest order. In my understanding of the problem of “the love for others”, however, there is an important blind spot. The debate on the personal aspect of charity, compassion, beneficence and reciprocity suggests that those in need of help and support should expect this from individuals, whether at horizontal or vertical level. We are all, indeed, compelled to display such emotions towards them and realize them through our actions. The concept of care, as discussed in this volume, or the support given to NGOs or through telethons to victims, say of the Tsunami in Asia, earthquakes in Turkey or the flood in New Orleans are a clear testament of this. The point, however, is that despite its nobility such a concept is tainted for it seems to me to liberate the state from such commitments. Would it not be preferable to try and bring about a real change in how resources are shared at the level of states, rather than rely on the kindness of strangers (in many instances, no strangers at all in fact, when publicity and the right photo op are part of giving)? If we depended on the support of others would we not prefer to receive it from an anonymous, impersonal state agency rather than from the hands of generous individual to whom we would then be bound in gratitude, as Mauss has clearly shown? I would like to finish by citing the prophetic words of A. Tchekhov, written in a letter dated to 1890: “In my opinion it is harmful to place important things in the hands of philanthropy, which in Russia is marked by a chance character. Nor should important matters depend on leftovers, which are never there. I would prefer that the government treasury take care of it.”

Dionysios Stathakopoulos / King’s College London


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