Roger-Pol Droit

The Genealogy of Barbarianism Publication date : October 18, 2007

In recent years, barbarianism has become a crucial and widespread notion. But what does it mean? What are the origins of the term? What are the ancient and modern connotations superimposed in our minds when we hear the word “barbarian”? In this philosophical enquiry, which spans the centuries from Homer to the present and combines historical facts, literary references and conceptual analyses, Roger-Pol Droit offers some in-depth answers to these questions.

When the Ancient Greeks first coined the term “barbarian”, it meant simply an alien or foreigner. Only later did it come to refer to a brutal and threatening inhumanity in each individual and to a destructive force gnawing at the core of civilisation — both essential aspects of the modern meaning of the term. How did this meaning originate? Can its genealogy be traced?

Barbarians are no longer regarded as alien, destructive forces, but the idea of “barbarians on the inside” has been widespread from the nineteenth century to the present and has been used to designate brutality within the individual human psyche and within civilisation (totalitarianism, genocide, dehumanisation).

Is there a definition of barbarianism that would combine its various contemporary aspects and, perhaps, open the way to new types of action to check its spread? The author suggests that barbarianism today lies in our society's dream of absolute control, in its desire to eradicate everything that is unpredictable or hazardous.

How are barbarians to be defined? Do we regard them as aliens, as inferiors? Or do we, instead, see them as strangers who are nonetheless very close to us — almost part of us? Where does the notion of barbarianism come from? What does it reveal about our fears and fascinations? Roger-Pol Droit, a philosopher and lover of Ancient Greece, re-examines the origins, the past and the present of barbarianism. What he describes here, in a lively, elegant style, is perhaps what we fear most. Our society claims that it is working toward entrapping or extricating barbarianism, yet barbarianism remains in our midst. Is it simply because of the brutality that lies within each of us? By examining the history of an idea that has left its stamp on our culture, the author illuminates our understanding of today's world.

Roger-Pol Droit is the author of, most notably, 101 Expériences de philosophie quotidienne, La Compagnie des philosophes and La Compagnie des contemporains. He is a research fellow at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), a teacher at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques (IEP), in Paris, and a columnist for Le Monde and Le Point. He is a member of the French National Ethics Committee.