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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Paul Ricoeur 1913-2005

A bright shining star went out. A luminary of impeccable scholarship, the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur was the author of more than twenty books and hundreds of articles. The field of his meditation embraced epistemology, phenomenology, hermeneutics, ethics, the philosophy of law, the philosophy of psychoanalysis, and more. While Paul was indeed well known for his outstanding contributions to the field of philosophy, those who met and knew him also discovered an exceptional human being. Showered with honors (he received innumerable "honoris causa" degrees from universities the world over), he never lost his innate and refreshing humility. He taught philosophy at universities in different countries, including Louvain, la Sorbonne, Nanterre, and the University of Chicago, and he lectured on all continents to the delight of students who became not disciples but thinking partners. He was above all a man of faith, in the deepest meaning of the word. His active faith translated in particular into generosity and commitment. The latter is exemplified by his covert activities during the Cold War for the benefit of East European intellectuals choked up by a mad regime. He visited occupied Prague several times and established a secret channel of communication with his Czech colleagues. After the collapse of the Soviets in the 1970s, President Vaclav Havel received him as a hero. As often as he could, Paul continued to visit scholars in the former Soviet block, bringing with him books and, of course, ideas to a starving community of researchers.

Paul was born in 1913 in Valence, France. He became very early on a double orphan. He never knew his mother, who died when he was seven months old, and hardly knew his father who was killed during WW I in Verdun. He was raised by his paternal grandparents, who idolized their fallen son but sadly excluded Paul's mother! Paul was profoundly affected by his grandparents' silence about his mother; he was confronted with the problem of his filiation and by his sense of lacking knowledge of origins.

Paul suffered many losses. He had a sister who died very young from tuberculosis. Many years later, one of his adult sons, Olivier, passed away. These ordeals and the fall of comrades in arms during WW II contributed to giving him a sense of urgency in his philosophical reflection. The latter demanded a certain distance from the subject, whereas the personal consciousness of the non-gratuitousness of thinking made it hard to remain dispassionate. The philosophical inquiry starts with a hermeneutics of suspicion, but the human condition demands sympathy. In response to a book celebrating his ninetieth birthday, called Between Suspicion and Sympathy: Paul Ricoeur's Unstable Equilibrium (Toronto: The Hermeneutical Press, 2003), Paul wrote that, indeed, his work maintains a tension "between suspicion and sympathy" and "between critique and conviction."

From the outset of his intellectual quest, evil—especially the evil inflicted by man upon man—became a focus of interest. The Symbolism of Evil was published in French in 1960 and never fell into obsolescence. Time and again, Paul would return to the topic, both in French and in English. Human guilt is all the deeper in that man is a voluntary, responsible being. The human is capable of the best or the worst. Paul had witnessed in a special way such capability during his long imprisonment in an East Pomeranian PW German camp (1941-45). The inhumanity of such prolonged condition was tempered by a demonstration of the human will to survive and "redeem the time" on the part of the inmates. Paul and other scholars organized a sort of "university" tapping their respective expertise in different fields. While in the camp, Paul learned the German language, read, translated into French, and commented upon Edmund Husserl's Ideen I on phenomenology. Due to the extreme scarcity of writing material, Paul wrote in microscopic longhand in the margins of Husserl's book and on scrap paper collected haphazardly. When the prisoners escaped towards the end of the war, Paul walked hundreds of miles carrying the manuscript home in a backpack. His beloved wife, Simone née Lejas, typed his notes.

In 1950, Paul received a Ph.D. degree from the Sorbonne, and in 1956 he became the head of its Department of Philosophy. In 1967, he accepted the post of Dean at Nanterre University during that troublesome decade. From 1971 to 1991, he happily filled a Visiting Professorship at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. Among his greatest works, let us mention (with the members of the Society of Biblical Literature in mind) The Symbolism of Evil; The Conflict of Interpretations; Freud and Philosophy; The Rule of Metaphor; Time and Narrative; Thinking Biblically; Oneself as Another . . . . Bringing a striking conclusion to his literary production, he published in 2000 with Le Seuil, Paris, La mémoire, l'histoire, l'oubli (now in English: Memory, History, Forgetting, University of Chicago Press, 2004) and in 2004 with Editions Stock, Paris, Parcours de la reconnaissance (now in English: The Course of Recognition, Harvard University Press, 2005).

Paul's tight argumentation makes his books at times hard to understand by the layperson. They require some familiarity with his way of thinking, even a kind of initiation. But, what his reflection makes difficult, his personal engaging affability made accessible to his students and friends. On a more general scale, the true graciousness of the man is manifest in the way he discussed the position of scholars with whom he could not agree. Never patronizing and still less scornful, he recognized in everyone some worthwhile insights to be honored. Any derogatory remark made about someone would incense him. He had too great a respect for humanity to allow it. Paul's positive attitude towards everyone contributed to his peaceful personality. Racism or sexism had no grip upon him. Not surprisingly, he was politically a pacifist. He was very impressed with Emmanuel Levinas's thinking about the human face as reflecting the face of God. On another related subject, he wholeheartedly agreed with Levinas when he says that we are all in the process of discovering the trace of God's passage.

A man of his century, Paul was an unflagging and appalled witness to the twentieth-century atrocities. His response was a passionate search for justice and love. He said: "Justice proceeds by conceptual reduction; love proceeds by poetic amplification." There is no conflict between the two, but justice without love is a paralyzing concept and can itself become lethal.

It is at this point that we must emphasize the Christian stance of the French philosopher. In a thoroughly dechristianized country as is modern France, such an intellectual position demanded great courage. Realizing, however, the extent to which the modern rejection of the religious is in fact aimed at a caricature of Christianity, Paul emphasized the total disinterestedness of Judeo-Christian faith. For love is without expectation of any kind of reward. Paul Ricoeur trusted God, not for what he might receive in return but "for naught," as the book of Job puts it in such magnificent succinctness. In fact, he insisted, we do not believe in God's goodness "because" but rather "in spite of." Faith is extravagant as the parables of Jesus show time and again. But faith or love is not without its intrinsic "benefit." No one indeed would exchange love for "all the wealth of the world" (Cant 8:7). It is an immeasurable treasure and Paul deeply believed in the Pauline thought that human capacity for care and compassion is transcended by the "how much more" of God.

The "in spite of," the extravagance of the Gospel, and the "how much more"—this trilogy summarizes Ricoeur's confessional conviction. He must keep a certain distance between his faith and his philosophical inquiry, he said. But this cannot be understood as an intellectual dichotomy. He could not allow his faith to prejudice his conclusions. It has been said that Paul was not a Christian philosopher, but a philosopher with a Christian conviction. Nothing was more foreign to him than fundamentalism. The Bible, "thinking the Bible," occupied a place of privilege in his preoccupations. He thought that the Bible is interpretative and itself in need of interpretation. Thus, its reading is a "lecture infinie" (according to the beautiful title of a book by David Banon). Nothing here is static or stated once and for all. The Bible is not monologic. Produced by the people's experience of the divine, it is addressed to its collective author, hence the Bible's dialogism. There is no way to tell who or what came first, the people or the text (its kerygma). What interested Paul was especially the Bible's trajectory, including of course its bifurcation at the beginning of the common era between the Rabbinic and the New Testament literatures.

Neither of them comes with a definitive answer to the problem of evil. But both address evil, not as a "thing" but as a phenomenon in a perturbed creation and as an option of the human capacity. Evil must be fought in all of its aspects; it is always unacceptable. Paul himself acted in conformity with his exhortations. Among the most powerful weapons against evil are honesty, generosity, love, repentance, and forgiveness. Paul exemplified all five, including the difficult forgiveness of the Germans for their multiple culpability towards him personally and towards millions of others, particularly the European Jews. It is not that he would take upon himself to forgive the evil inflicted on others; he affirmed that no one can forgive but the victims themselves. His forbearance was a purely personal move. On another level, the Protestant Ricoeur was fervently in favor of dialoging with other faiths. John Paul II invited him annually with a select group of scholars to Castel Gandolfo to discuss philosophical and political issues with him.

Among the great number of prizes and honors that Paul Ricoeur received, he was awarded a crowning honor when, in 2004, he was given the John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Human Sciences.

A man of peace, Paul died serenely in the night of May 19-20, according to witnesses. Characteristically, his very last words were the first sentences of the Lord's Prayer before falling into endless sleep. Requiescat in pace.

André LaCocque, professor emeritus of Hebrew Scriptures and former Director of the Center of Jewish-Christian Studies, both at the Chicago Theological Seminary.

Citation: , " Paul Ricoeur 1913-2005," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2005]. Online:


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