Historian Paul Veyne is dead. He had spoken to us of Antiquity and of love

Specialist in Greek and Roman Antiquity, holder of the History of Rome chair at the Collège de France, Paul Veyne died on Thursday, September 29, at the age of 92.

In 2014, on the occasion of the publication of his book of memories, “And in eternity I will not be bored”, we met him to discuss his commitments and his passion for Antiquity. We republish this interview with sadness.

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You tell in your new book, “And in eternity I won’t be bored”, that your vocation as a historian was born, in sixth grade, by reading “the Iliad”, which bores you, and “the Odyssey”, which excites you. Why, and is it still true?

Paul Veyne. It’s Gérard Genette, I believe, who says that “the Iliad” is an epic and that “the Odyssey” is a novel. For the child that I was, a reader of Jules Verne, a novel is more accessible than an epic, than such a great epic as “the Iliad”, with its simple force, its “epic tranquility”, the diversity of its heroic figures, simply but strongly characterized. “The Odyssey” was an often fantastic adventure novel and the story of a vendetta. It was more at my 12 year old reader size.

But this novel directed the schoolboy that I was towards the history of pagan antiquity; it fascinated me because its theater was a world other, a world which was not our boring world and which, however, was not imaginary: this pagan world had really existed, but on a remote planet inaccessible, even disappeared, under the same sky as ours, but under other gods.

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According to you, “the sacred operation of the historian is to think against himself”. Why ?

Because one is not born a historian: one becomes one. You have to acquire knowledge and ideas (sociology, economics, a bit of philosophy, etc.) and you have to react against the prejudices that come to us from our family, our environment, our time. It’s very educational. A physicist doesn’t need that, I guess at least.

However, when I entered the Normale, to react against the political and social prejudices which come to us from our environment, nothing was better than the new historical school which had just been formed, the School of the Annales, because this school broke with traditional history, with the history of reigns, with the history of treaties-and-battles; she wanted us to study the economy, society, mentalities. It will one day make the greatness of the French historical school.

But, in 1950, when I was 20, she still had no power in the university. Only I was intellectually more ambitious than institutionally, because, according to one of my closest friends, who is no longer of this world, I was naive and romantic. My first publications and my thesis on “Bread and the Circus” come from the Ecole des Annales, I hope so.

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You have spent your life studying the Roman world and yet you confess that your heart is more Greek than Roman. Why ?

The Roman world, I had it at hand. Since my childhood, I was fascinated by ancient Latin inscriptions that I deciphered in the museum of Nîmes, and, in my Provence, I picked up and collected Roman shards and ancient coins. And then, Greek or Roman, what does it matter? Roman culture was very quickly Hellenized, became a branch of this Greek civilization which was the culture “universal” time, from Morocco to Mesopotamia. Just as Japan has become a western country. For a Japanese, what is the most popular musical masterpiece? The Ninth Symphony. For a Roman scholar, for Virgil, who is the greatest poet in the world? It’s Homer. The greatest philosopher? It’s Plato. Roman scholars were bilingual. In the Roman Empire, Greek was the international language of commerce, science, medicine, as for us English.

You write that your left-wing sensitivity was born when watching John Ford’s film “Grapes of Wrath” and that your conviction as a democrat was affirmed when reading “La Grande Epreuve des democrates” by Julien Benda. Can you explain it to us?

“Grapes of Wrath” made me see society, for the first time, through the eyes of the underprivileged, when my father was a plebeian turned wealthy and very right wing. And Benda’s book, published at the Liberation, was an apology for this democratic regime which, in my family environment, I had heard worse than hang.

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I was the first bachelor in my family and I am a product of“republican social lift”. It allowed me to realize my dream, to become an archaeologist, a teacher.
Indeed, around 1937, secondary education, colleges and high schools, had become free, to the great scandal of the right, but its access remained subject to an entrance examination, and, moreover, families had to buy from their scholarship class books. Secondary education opened access to the bourgeoisie, to the bourgeois professions, doctor, lawyer, engineer.

As for the Ecole Normale Supérieure, it was a place of friendship, equality and intellectual freedom, from which one graduated as an associate professor, but in addition one was encouraged there to prepare to do research. And then it was a rare opportunity to learn about human diversity: there were two hundred young individuals there who were all different and who had not yet all put on the uniform of a profession, nor taken on a useful role. to play. However, one sometimes suspected among them a future politician, a future academician…
In this environment, I became politicized out of guilt, because I came from a family of collaborating opinions whose ideas I had shared during the war, until I was 15 years old. And then it was appropriate, out of dignity, out of vanity, to take an interest in three things, culture, women and politics. Otherwise, having become an archaeologist and rummaging through ancient shards, I would look like a pedant.

At 22, I took my card from the Communist Party [Paul Veyne l’a déchirée en 1956, lorsque les chars soviétiques sont entrés dans Budapest, N.D.L.R.], which was in my eyes the party of the disadvantaged, of the proletarians. And in fact, far from the Ecole Normale, in proletarian circles, in the suburbs of Paris, I learned afterwards what was the admirable devotion of the “grassroots activists” for their proletarian brothers. No, we must not condemn the former Stalinists too much, nor even the much-mocked Maoists: these intellectuals were egalitarian, altruistic; the heart was good…

Unfortunately, the hierarchs remaining indispensable to any organized society and the men not being angels, a new bourgeoisie is formed with them, an all-powerful and corrupt nomenklatura.

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From Foucault (“the great friend of your life”) to Char (“the only charismatic personality you have met in your life”) or Le Gof (“an example for your generation”), friendship often takes hold in you the form of an exercise in admiration. Do you need to admire to love?

Let’s make a clear distinction: admiring does not prevent me from feeling friendship, quite the contrary; what I admire attracts me, because I hope not to be envious. Love, on the other hand, is something else, it is egalitarian and foreign to admiration. Certainly, he needs a minimum and it is difficult to be in love with a fool (whereas one can, unfortunately, fall in love with a very gifted bitch: more than one novel has taught us this) . The personality of a woman is a source of enjoyment: one holds in one’s arms a being heavy with meaning (or one is in one’s arms). If one held in one’s arms a great poetess or a brilliant politician, a Catherine II, one would not admire, I imagine: one would savor.

With Foucault, you often spoke of death. What were you saying to yourself?

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We repeat today that the “consumer society” neglects and forgets death, the cult of the dead, mourning, visits to the tomb. Foucault, on the contrary, praised it, he praised a death in all simplicity, what he called death-erasure. So erase death from his thought. Which supposes that you stop yourself, once you get old, from being obsessed with the idea of ​​your own death, a difficult thing… What helps to do this is to think often about suicide, which takes away from death his all-powerful initiative. Become master of his death.
We often talked about suicide. Ah, you also ask me how I met Foucault. It was at the Normal School. We were 20 years old and we were students, he was 25 and he was “caiman” of philosophy, like Althusser. When I was 45, I met him again as a colleague at the Collège de France and we became great friends. He had awarded me the title of honorary homosexual.

You have never yielded to the facilities of intellectual self-satisfaction. So we can ask you what you are most iron in your work?

From my book on René Char and from my bilingual and annotated edition of the “Aeneid” which has just appeared in two volumes at the Belles Lettres, because this Char and this Virgil are the two books that I had the most pleasure in TO DO.

You who have been through so much personal tragedies, experienced “ecstatic states” and are an “in spite of yourself believer”, how do you view death?

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I believe neither in the personal God of Christians nor in Spinoza’s god-nature nor in the immortality of our soul, but I want to believe that nevertheless we “let’s die” not: death is not the black hole, the nothingness, because the Spirit, or Soul of the world, or generative Thought, is always there and ” we “ finds himself in it. Only, once dead, ” we “ don’t know, ” we “ is no longer self, the ” I “ does not exist anymore, ” we “ forgot what we were. In contrast, ” we “ do not get bored, since the Soul of the world acts constantly.

It is science which, among other things, invents and builds living beings, it is their final cause and their formal cause, while our science, which can and only wants to know material and efficient causality, the physical causes -chemicals, remains unable to explain life.

As to “ecstatic states” of which you also speak to me, ecstasy (which is not such an esoteric experience as one would think) has never taught me anything, neither to me nor to anyone. If we see in ecstasy the Virgin Mary or the Being according to Heidegger, it is not because they exist, but because we believe in them. Ecstasy is the opposite of trance, with which it is often confused: it is a calm and immobile state, dreamlike and lucid at the same time (we know very well that we are in ecstasy); on the other hand, it brings to life a few minutes of waking dream which are of unequaled, incomparable, paradisiacal intensity and bliss. So, opium, drugs, in comparison, it makes you smile… Unfortunately, you access them very rarely and not at will.


Paul Veyne, born in 1930, was one of the greatest historians of Roman antiquity. He published, with Albin Michel, an important work, including “When our world became Christian”, “Foucault, his thought, his person”, “My imaginary museum”, and a translation of “the Aeneid”. in eternity I will not be bored” was published in 2014.

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Historian Paul Veyne is dead. He had spoken to us of Antiquity and of love

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