This past July, the Center co-hosted a conference in Rome, “Liberalism’s Limits: Religious Exemptions and Hate Speech.” with our longtime partner, Università di Roma LUMSA. The conference, which addressed the challenges that religious exemptions and hate-speech regulations pose for liberalism, was divided into three workshops, for which participants submitted short reflection papers.

The distinguished political historian and philosopher, Chantal Delsol, gave a keynote address for the conference. We are delighted to publish her talk here. The address is in French, and I link to the original below. With Professor Delsol’s permission, I have translated it for our English speaking readers (the footnotes remain in the original).

The Insurrection of Particularities, Or, How the Universal Comes Undone

Rome, July 8, 2022

Chantal Delsol


On October 18, 2017, the French National Assembly adopted the State Law on Religious Neutrality. Article 11 provides that an accommodation for reasons of religion may be granted if 5 criteria are satisfied: the request is serious; the requested accommodation respects the equality of men and women, as well as the principle of religious neutrality of the State; the accommodation is not excessively constraining; and the requester has actively participated in finding a solution. By the same token, there will be no accommodation with respect to the obligation of all employees of the State to work with their faces uncovered and without wearing any religious sign.

One sees here the extent to which the legislator struggles to preserve as far as possible State neutrality tied to secularism, without actually achieving it, and doing so less and less. We are today on a kind of slope, which is the subject of our conference today: that which was accorded an exception more and more becomes the rule. The Quebecois speak of “reasonable accommodations,” to underline well that one should not surpass the limits of good sense. The example is cited in France of the authorization given for prayer in the streets which stops traffic. So, too, laws forbidding the scheduling of exams for students during the holidays of various religions, which made one journalist say, “soon only February 29 will be left to schedule exams.” The question is in fact posed about the diversity and plurality of exemptions, but that is only a subsidiary question consequent on others. These concessions, which raise a vision of equality solely constituted of privileges, interrogate our vision of the universal, and finally our way of being a society.

Our societies appear more and more to be aggregations of minorities disparate in every respect (they may be social, sexual, religious, or cultural, etc.). And everything happens as if the goal of governments is nothing more than to establish equality among these groups, which, always claiming and becoming indignant about not obtaining enough, monopolize public space. At this point, leaving behind Tocqueville who feared a tyranny of the majority, we could, as Philippe Raynaud put it, [1] fall into a tyranny of minorities.

This is not a superficial phenomenon. It is instead the result of a transformation of our view of the world.

Christianity is universalist: it affirms (it claims?) to bring customs, laws that are good for all peoples irrespective of their cultures. Once Christianity lost influence and even was largely effaced in Western societies, those societies preserved a universalist philosophy under the name “human rights.” Human rights are supposed to be valid for everyone and apply to everyone, as at one time were Christian principles. In their name we apply democracy and liberalism, supposing them to allow the fulfillment of all humanity without distinctions of culture, another “good news” valid for all the earth.

However, the universalism of human rights is undergoing in this very moment, and for the last few years, some scathing setbacks.

We have tried without success to foment democracies in foreign lands every time we have had the chance. We have tried to impose human rights everywhere, in creating international bodies, using mockery and depreciation. In the 1970s and even the 1980s, none of our governments went to China without the intention to give a moral lecture on human rights. Believing our culture universal, we thought that everyone had to join it one day or another, sooner or later.

The present moment is one of retreat from universalism. We have understood that we could not install democracy everywhere, like software one lends, and today a large number of societies in the world denies human rights as we describe them. It is natural that this rejection corresponds, within our own societies, to an insurrection of particularities.

In France, where the republic especially supposes the cult of universal secularism and a common neutrality, there is great distress to see the concession to the Muslim veil triumph over the equality of men and women…is not there any universal culture? Republican universalism, which had a tendency to believe itself almost ontological, sees itself disavowed in this crumbling. It is no longer rationally “true” to defend the equality of men and women: depending on the culture, one can defend another “truth” with the Islamic veil…For us, this is a revolution: it is a form of relativism that seems to carry the day.


Nations were built in the modern era. They represented ensembles unified around a culture, and for many of them (the US, Great Britain, France), entities unified around a certain universal idea of human progress. It was clear for the whole world that the safeguarding of the common culture on the road to progress had to come before the defense of particularities and small, local interests. These particularities were called factions, in a pejorative sense. Madison said that factions were a necessary evil: one had to account for them, but to watch that individuals were not enclosed by them, because they ran contrary to the public interest.

Today, by contrast, one must understand that there is no longer a public interest, that there are only “factions,” or rather that the interests of “factions” have literally replaced the public interest.

What happened? We know what happened: the post-modern citizen no longer dies for Alsace-Lorraine nor for a “brighter future” [Trans: a phrase used in post-WWII France]. He has understood that nationalism bred monsters, that great systems hid terrifying utopias. He now mistrusts common expectations, including that of progress. So he fights for the particularities of his culture.

In the first volume of his history of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire [2], Gibbon spoke of the decline of the will to be powerful in the flourishing Roman Empire, in a description of the weakness that accompanies periods of comfort and assured glory. A well-known observation, passed on, if one likes, in the expression “Delights of Capua” [Trans: describing the sort of wallowing in pleasure indulged by Hannibal after some decisive victories, but which led to his demise]. But Gibbon adds some interesting details. He says that, in this situation where the Roman imperial monarchy functioned as it were on its own, where the provinces furnished it soldiers and where the provincial governments did not need people, the citizens of the empire had nothing to care about except themselves. They ceased to develop any public virtues, those that concern the defense of the homeland or the liberty of the community. They sank insensibly, said Gibbon, “into the languid indifference of private life.” Hegel, who was a reader of Gibbon, cites this passage and analyzes in his turn this type of situation in “On the Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law.” [3] The person, he says, who finds himself safe and secure thanks to a durable peace and a durable comfort, goes during those periods to occupy himself entirely of secondary questions and to become involved in details, and notably to drown in the juridical procedures concerning his property and particular contracts. This individual excluded from the universal sinks without even knowing it, as Gibbon said, “into the languid indifference of private life.”

This invasion of the private domain, which we see at work before us, is the consequence of the sagging of public virtue due to the decline of the common ideal and the common will. Tocqueville saw in it a sad expression of the democratic process: “do not speak to him of human interests and human rights; this small, domestic enterprise absorbs for the moment all of his thoughts and makes him wish to bury all public agitations in another age. These not only stop him from making revolutions but turn him away from ever wanting them. Violent political passions have little hold on men who have thus attached all of their soul to the pursuit of being well off. The ardor which they put into small affairs calms them as to large ones.” [4]

Hannah Arendt observed this phenomenon in Western modernity: the decline of great battles and great ideals incites citizens to find refuge in the passion for the “little things,” “within their four walls, between the bed and the armoire, the armchair and the table, the dog, the cat, and the flowerpot,” [5] which suffice for their happiness, and even more, which excite the same attractions, inspire the same enthusiasms, which the high ideals did previously. She concludes by saying that, “Greatness has yielded to charm.” This is the French petit bonheur [trans: small happiness]. The difference between greatness and charm is obvious: what is charming is without consequence, to taste in an instant. It is the first sip of beer, of which we know the immense credit and fame in our lives, so avid for charm and not avid at all for greatness.

It is significant that the greatest passions are today unleashed about so-called “social issues” that concern the private domain, even if naturally they are not stripped of importance and impact the future shape of the society. In contemporary Western societies, the attraction of private life goes together with a lack of interest in historicity, and a distrust of great history. It suffices to observe our societies to perceive to what degree their literary and cinematographic output carves out a large and almost monopolistic place for what Arendt called “small things.” Our movies tell practically exclusively about the minuscule adventures of ordinary life, and portray only psychological intrigues or domestic dramas. It is enough to survey some titles to become convinced (of the genre: “My Dad and Me”; “The Three Friends”; “The Little Handkerchiefs,” etc.).

This phenomenon has already been observed and analyzed elsewhere. Vaclav Havel [6] described what he called the post-totalitarian society (after the great terrors of the beginning) as a world without history, otherwise stated without any defining events, entirely beating to the rhythm of private habits and worries, by the manifestations of private life such as weddings or funerals. The movies tell minuscule histories, and Havel concludes: “calligraphy replaces drawing”: meanings are reduced, reduced to details. The post-totalitarian society is exempted from terror, but it remains in a state of spiritual, political, and moral enslavement, within the very atmosphere of consumption: the twin sister of contemporary Western society.

Western societies live outside History because they no longer support the explosion of life, disorder, risk, possible violence, greatness that also can hurt, the defeat of losers, and everything that jostles, terrifies, unequalizes, anguishes. They prefer “periods” to “epochs,” to take up Péguy’s comparison. They want small and tranquil lives, “between the bed and the armoire, the dog, the cat, and the flower pot,” and since it is necessary for entertainment to tell one another about some odysseys, they produce films that trace minuscule, but tragic, adventures of private life.

The process of individualization has turned the citizen inward toward himself. Political movement is no longer eschatological, as in modernity, but archeological.

The constraints of a unified ensemble no longer have meaning. The accommodations that you have made the subject of this conference, signify that we have accepted multiculturalism, for better or worse. The united society is perhaps the land of the past. The question for the present is to try to understand what the consequences will be.


What type of government, of authority, will this process produce? We know, to begin with, that in the past the heterogeneity of a population called forth strong power. Multiculturalism is historically tied to empire, which generally comprises numbers of ethnicities and composite cultures – from which also comes its difficulty to endure, and the need for great [military] power. When an empire is no longer able to hold together all these dissonant elements, it dissolves into feudalisms. Because the feudalisms are already there, alive and ambitious, just waiting for weakness to constitute themselves as powers. One remembers how, at the beginning of the 1990s, the end of the Soviet empire saw the resurgence of the problem of minorities.

One can therefore imagine that an exploded society will lead to an autocratic power. But there is another possibility, more elegant and more plausible, because it comes from our recent history.

A form of federalism is at work, which resembles less classical federalism (Switzerland) than a federalism of personal autonomy (Hungary). Here, the individual finds himself less connected to the State; only his communities matter to him. In the federalism of personal autonomy of [Karl] Renner, the State and the nation are dissociated, the State includes many nations, and the “nations” are made up of corporations of public right. Democracy renders possible, then, the representation of existences, rather than the representation of hopes.

When a society cannot or will not discuss common ends, the organization that suits it is one form or another of federalism. A federated society tends toward converting the kingdom of ends into the kingdom of particularities. In guaranteeing the autonomy of groups in response to the desire for peace among diverse entities who want to remain diverse, the federation weakens by the same blow the common good. The common purposes concern, from now on, essentially entities so small that they have the traits of appetites more than of purposes: one invents no ideologies in the village. Thus it is that the worldviews of pluralistic democracies are hung up on the future, rooted in the present and the past, never growing.  Cultural and identitarian defense occupies all the space. “Progress” consists, from now on, solely in recalibrating the egalitarian balances among identities.

Of course, the primary consequence of this state of affairs is a political explosion, a dispersion – common ends represented universals that reunited individuals on the other side of particular cultural memberships. But one should not think that the common purpose has disappeared – no political entity can live without an end. The common purpose is no longer discussed, it is uniquely made the object of a soft consensus. As in pre-modern epochs, the common ends remain in the hands of power. Today it is a libertarian liberalism, or what is called the “democracy of the market,” controlled by the government and never called into question. As in pre-modern governments, our States are, as one might say, proprietors of common hope. Because for citizens, the drive toward the future has been abandoned to leave place for a retreat from the present, and even from the past. Expectation has been replaced by protection. Promise by the certitude of existence. We are in the process of passing from a democracy that discusses the future happiness of all, to a democracy that defends the entrenched particular happinesses rooted in one’s origins. This does not signify stagnation in one’s traditions or habits, because all particular culture can renew itself in permanence to adapt to the exterior world. But it does signify a withdrawal into oneself, or into those similar to oneself, a manner of abandoning the plural and diverse common world.

But I would like to insist on this point in saying that a multicultural society, when it is democratic, stimulates the emergence of a strange democracy from our modern point of view, a democracy of the ancient type. In fact, ancient Greek democracies were not established based on worldviews (one could not discuss public matters then, from the time of the condemnation of Socrates), but on the representation of groups (the demes). It is the kind of democracy that we have today in Africa, when representation is ethnic. It is not impossible that we will have in the West in the near future a return to just such representation, reflecting the return of worries that have moved from a common future to particular identities.


The concessions of which you [at this conference] speak have become necessary. They are less concessions than expressions of a transformed politics: the coming of multicultural societies into our universalist lands. A universalist current tries to resist: will it succeed? Nothing is less certain. Thence the question comes: what becomes of “the people” under those circumstances, when there is no more war for the common culture, but only cultures which clash and claim their own place under the sun, with the apparatus of the State for mother and judge? Here the goal of the state is peace and justice among communities, far more than the protection and safeguarding of a common culture.

One last point in the form of a conclusion and a warning. “Reasonable accommodations” suggests a rejection of the universalist culture that has been for more than two millennia our worldview. And it has been the universalist worldview, in the beginning Christian, then modern, which has allowed the West to deploy the sciences. This is the reason one senses, with dread, the beginning of the rejection of science through these famous “accommodations.” One sees, for example, in Quebecois “accommodations” the placing science on the same rank as “native knowledge,” for fear that inequality might enter the diverse peoples of the land. [7] These new practices constrain us not only to reexamine the foundations of our politics, but to ask ourselves about the necessity to protect scientific knowledge. It is not only classical democracy that finds itself put in question, but also scientific reason, for they are intimately linked. We stand before the upheaval of our vision of the world.

[1] De la tyrannie de la majorité à la tyrannie des minorités, Le Débat 1992 n°69, p.48-56

[2] trad MF Guizot, Robert Laffont 1983, p.42

[3] trad B.Bourgeois, Vrin, 1972, II, 74_75, p.66 et ss

[4] Démocratie en Amérique, Flammarion 1981, vol 2, 3° partie, ch XXI, p.315

[5] Condition de l’homme moderne, Calmann-Lévy 1983, p.92

[6] Essais politiques, Calmann-Lévy, 1990, p.183

[7] Cf Yves Gingras, dans L’irrationnel aujourd’hui,  Dir J.Baechler et G. Bronner, Hermann 2021 ; et L’impossible dialogue, Sciences et Religions, Editions du Boréal, 2016

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