It’s tempting to describe Jean-Louis Chrétien’s 2017 book Fragilité as an extended meditation on one tragically neglected form of human finitude. Chrétien’s exploration of the rich legacy of “fragility” as a literary theme certainly complements the treatment of other “dimension[s] of finitude” elsewhere in his work, particularly vulnerability and embodiment.1
Yet such a description would ultimately be inadequate, for Fragilité actually calls into question the privileging of “finitude” in contemporary philosophical vocabulary. Chrétien reminds us that “all civilizations and languages have thought finitude, without necessarily calling it such.”2 Latin had a wide array of terms which overlap with the more abstract term “finitude” today, among them (in their English forms): vulnerability, perishability, imbecility, infirmity, debility, fragility/frailty, fallibility, caducity, lability, lubricity.3 Each metaphor, in the vivid concreteness of its particular imagery, highlights something unique about the human condition, and each has its own history, both linguistic and literary. Each has spread from Latin into the Romance languages and beyond, while shifting in semantic range, gaining and losing forms, and merging with other etymological lines.4 The usage of each forms a sedimented literary tradition spanning poetry, philosophy, and theology.
Given the subtle differences between these terms and their literary traditions, one cannot do justice to the complex legacy of reflection on the constraints of the human condition by means of the single term “finitude.” In fact, it is essentially arbitrary to subordinate the other terms to finitude. One could just as easily claim, as Chrétien does multiple times, that finitude is a modern word for fragility!5 The rich treasures of this linguistic heritage cannot be reduced to a master term or used interchangeably. In place of an abstract anthropology of “finitude,” Chrétien allows fragility to deploy its own distinct voice and shades of meaning, while exposing the forgetfulness that threatens it with oblivion.6
I. Specifying Fragility
Chrétien’s first task is to allow fragility’s specific meaning to come to light, beginning with the deceptively simple definition: “that is fragile which can break,” especially “suddenly and in an unexpected fashion.”7 Yet Chrétien quickly notes that in current usage, the term’s precise import has been obscured. For fragile does not have a lexical opposite in French (or in English—there is no “infragile”), and this has helped “to erode the singularity” of the word by “inserting it in false oppositions.”8 Fragility is often opposed to “hardness, firmness, resistance, strength.”9 Yet things which are hard are often quite breakable, glass being the classic example. Morally or spiritually: “far from guaranteeing against rupture or break, an excessive rigidity… can lead irresistibly toward them.”10 Fragility cannot be escaped by hardening ourselves against the world.
Similarly, the opposition to strength conflates fragility with weakness, obscuring its essence. Greek culture, which did not see fragility as a facet of the human condition, focused on the contrast between weakness and strength.11 But part of what makes fragility such a fruitful concept for the Latin and Christian tradition is that it escapes this contrast. Weakness “is negative, and designates a lack, an absence, a privation… Fragility, on the contrary, designates the presence of a line of fault or rupture, whether structural or circumstantial.”12 Fragility’s “greater richness… is due precisely to its positive and structural character.”13 Rather than, like weakness, existing in the shadow cast by the strength of another, fragility points within, to the internal structure by which a thing is what it is. Fragility “is properly mine or properly ours.”14 Our distinctive fragility testifies to our unique way of being a creature: “each type of body having its own fashion of losing its integrity,” susceptible to breaking “according to its own structure,” like a mineral breaks according to its distinctive crystalline composition.15 Not only are there distinctively human ways of being fragile, but there is also “great historical and social variability” in human fragility.16 In this, the individualized nature of fragility also distinguishes it from caducity, “the condition of that which is destined to ‘fall,’ to grow old, or to be used, to perish or to decompose,” which is “the natural destiny of all temporal being.”17
Moreover, whereas weakness passes, fragility is something which marks us forever. For fragility is “a permanent condition,” or “an internal possibility.”18 It is “inscribed in the being in question’s own constitution, and does not cease to belong to it,” even if it has not yet been actualized in a break.19 Fragility becomes “the title of a dimension of the human condition” “ineffaceable from temporal life.”20 Fragility is a deeper and abiding reminder of our limitation, present as a possibility even when we are at the height of our powers. In this sense, it is closest to vulnerability, which is also a permanent possibility inscribed in a being’s constitution.21 Chrétien himself notes that vulnerability is often “confounded with fragility.”22 Yet while vulnerability requires that the blow by which one “can be wounded… come from the exterior,” with fragility “nothing indicates… whether it is internal or external.”23 For “one can break on one’s own, and not by a shock or an aggression coming from elsewhere.”24 Fragility puts into play possibilities of internal collapse, decay, and fracture which vulnerability does not, deepening awareness of the many ways in which human creatures are subject to dissolution.
By extricating fragility from false oppositions to hardness and force, and distinguishing it from weakness, caducity, and vulnerability, Chrétien both dilates and clarifies our vocabulary, arming the theological imagination with an array of subtly distinct terms to convey creaturely constraints. Fragility is no longer just another word for finitude, but is a permanent property belonging to the constitution of a being by which it can break, suddenly or unexpectedly, either from an internal failure or an external blow. In the meantime, weakness, caducity, and vulnerability have achieved new clarity as well, expressing other distinct aspects of creaturely existence. Rather than being piled up in lists or treated interchangeably, these terms form a many-hued palette or polyphonic register by which the human condition can be explored in all its dimensions.
II. Amplifying Fragility
Yet precision does not imply narrowness, and fragility is not reduced but amplified by Chrétien’s careful analysis. For there are at least as many forms of fragility as there are fragile objects, since everything breaks according to its unique structure.25 Moreover, a single thing may have many dimensions of fragility, able to break in different ways. Thus while Chrétien may appear at first glance to have contracted fragility’s meaning by specifying it, in a second moment he amplifies it, unfurling the many dimensions of human fragility.
A first dimension of human fragility is the fragility of flesh, which injury, sickness, and death can break at any moment. Chrétien writes of “the fragility of the human body, which anything can affect or wound, like that of our life, of which the least incident can sever the thread or interrupt the course.”26 In Chrétien’s work as a whole, the trembling human voice is the most important locus of bodily fragility.27 But in this work the newborn infant is a symbol of human fragility; in another work, Chrétien has analyzed sleep, in which the “human body [is] abandoned, offered, and exposed without measure to the gaze and the mockery of others, deprived of any possibility of withdrawal or resistance.”28 The fragility of being a body exposes us to the obvious dangers of sickness, injury, and death, but also to the gaze of others, to violence, and even to abuse. Yet this same fragility hands us over to the care of others, opening the possibility and necessity of trust. As Chrétien writes, it can “be a way to rely upon the other… The nudity of the human being [here in sleep] is one, here, with her fragility, but also with trust.”29 Fragility need not be a defect; it can be the occasion of solidarity.
A second dimension extends to the works of our hands. Everything we build, from our highest works of art to our most magnificent buildings, is in some way fragile, even if they may outlast their makers. Chrétien writes that “the fragility of human works is not only that of their structure, for there is no building so solid that it cannot be destroyed, but also their exposition to the violence of human beings.”30 Yet even if the ruins of this violence horrify, in other cases the fragility of human works can have a positive dimension, serving as a reminders of our own fragility.31 Moreover, in the case of works of art their fragility is “the signature of their highest truth.”32
The fragility of our social world or civilization, the metaphorical “ground” on which we rely, is a third dimension of human fragility. Chrétien writes of the terrifying possibility of the sudden loss of this “ground,” of “the trembling of the earth, physical or social, which renders the ground itself uncertain or snatches it away,” such as the twentieth century knows far too well in the experience of “terrible wars, revolutions, mass exoduses” and genocidal purges.33
Finally, a fourth dimension concerns the tendency towards evil among human beings. One must not conflate fragility with sin; there is a fragility which belongs to creatureliness, apart from any fall. Yet there is a crucial Christian amplification of the term, which Chrétien calls “moral” fragility, an important part of the Latin literary tradition.34 Our wills are broken and susceptible to further and repeated breaks, which not only fracture us internally but wreak havoc on the fragility of others.35
Chrétien’s reflection on fragility’s meaning and dimensions is unparalleled. He develops a refined vocabulary for describing the creaturely condition, allowing nuances to emerge which were previously overlooked. Furthermore, by exploring four of its major dimensions, he amplifies the fragility which marks us forever.
III. Forgetting Fragility
Despite his recovery of rich veins of literary reflection on fragility in the Latin tradition, Chrétien would not dispute the claim that fragility has often fallen into oblivion, or even that this oblivion is particularly pressing today. For Chrétien also diagnoses a persistent tendency towards forgetfulness of fragility, even in the philosophies supposedly dedicated to its memory. He diagnoses how fragility came to be forgotten and warns of its elusiveness, even when it is recognized by name.
Counterintuitive as it may seem given stereotypes about classical and Christian anthropologies, there were ancient and early modern philosophies and theologies which not only focused on fragility but were obsessed with the danger of forgetting it. As Chrétien explains:
The Latin tradition and its European posterity never ceases to highlight the fragility of the human being as that which she most often tries to hide from herself and bury under oblivion, even if it forms an essential dimension of her ‘condition’… From the pen of Christian as much as pagan authors, the ‘forgetfulness of human fragility’ returns over the centuries as the place of a grave peril which it is necessary to surmount, for this forgetfulness, far from lessening fragility or leaving it intact, only deepens it, and delivers us more even more destitute to the events where it will manifest.36
Chrétien illustrates this by examining the Stoic Seneca and the seventeenth-century Jansenist Pierre Nicole.37 Both emphasize the danger of pride, which makes us forget our fragility, rendering us unprepared and more fragile than ever.38 For both, the memory of fragility is a major distinctive of the wise person, and both go into almost obsessive detail in listing the forms of human fragility. For Seneca, this memory “fortifies us” against assaults from without, protected in an inner fortress, “the superior and divine part of ourselves.”39 The one who remembers fragility can surmount it.40 Meanwhile, for Nicole, memory of our fragility reminds us of our constant dependence on grace.41 Fragility was not ignored, but was the very heart of “a rigorous program of moral formation.”42
Yet Chrétien does not give these examples of the memory of fragility in order to idealize them. Rather, they are among his numerous examples of “forgetful memory.” Despite their lip service, they too are complicit in fragility’s oblivion.43 For the danger of forgetting it is “never greater nor more menacing than when one you think you have everything under your gaze.”44 Chrétien’s book is a veritable catalogue of the elusiveness of the memory of fragility.
A first form recognizes fragility only to escape it. In Stoicism, “it is precisely the one who scrutinizes human fragility to the bottom who will be able to tear herself away from it.”45 Human beings are only fragile in “a peripheral, inessential dimension [the body and the lower parts of the soul] from which it is a question of extricating oneself by wisdom in rejoining a sure center.”46 This allegedly sure center is “the acropolis” or “interior citadel” of the soul, in the words of Pierre Hadot.47 The belief that one can fortify oneself in this way is in fact the denial or forgetfulness of fragility stemming from the same pride it attempts to combat.48 It claims to bestow on us a divine sort of invulnerability or impassibility, whereas in truth we are fragile all the way down.49
Another form of forgetfulness is one-sided, misanthropic emphasis on the depths of human fragility, the contempt Tertullian diagnosed in Marcion.50 As Chrétien argues, excessive focus on human indigence can actually be a sign of pride. Nicole transforms “into humiliating signs of ‘baseness’ the very conditions of human life as such—hunger, thirst, sleep, the finitude of a lifetime—that is to say that by which the human being is a creature.”51 Scripture is not ashamed of these forms of our fragility, but dignifies them by speaking analogically of hungering and thirsting for God.52 One must beware of a “self-loathing, a denial of one’s fragility at the very moment where one pretends to recognize it with lucidity.”53 Pascal struck the balance: “to the one who would be… discouraged by the memory of her fragility, it is necessary to call to mind her dignity.”54 Fragility can only truly be conserved by those who see it as a blessing.
“Finitude” is ultimately an abstraction, going proxy for the irreducibly multiple faultlines which run through the human being. Attending to human condition means naming these one by one, in all their particularity. Fragilité demonstrates the richness contained in the literary, philosophical, and theological legacy of just one of these words. If, however, their rich plurality is to be recovered, Chrétien’s history warns us that it is not enough to revive old terms. Nothing is easier than to pay lip service to fragility while secretly attempting to surmount or denigrate it. Elusive and itself fragile, only vigilance can keep it from slipping away. Yet this vigilance does not arise from our sovereign responsibility alone. It is itself sheltered by a history of reflection which we did not begin, to which we can add only the gift of our fragile and irreplaceable voice.
- Chrétien refers to fragility as a “constitutive dimension of finitude.” Jean-Louis Chrétien, Fragilité (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 2017), 253. My translation. For vulnerability, see the essays “How to Wrestle with the Irresistible” and “A Polyptych of Slumbers” in Hand to Hand: Listening to the Work of Art, trans. Stephen Lewis (New York: Fordham University Press, 2003). See also Jean-Louis Chrétien, “The Wounded Word: The Phenomenology of Prayer,” in Phenomenology and the Theological Turn: The French Debate, ed. Dominique Janicaud (New York: Fordham University Press, 2001), 147–75. For just two of his essays on embodiment, see “Body and Touch” in The Call and the Response, trans. Anne Davenport (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004) and “From the Limbs of the Heart to the Soul’s Organs,” in Carnal Hermeneutics, edited by Richard Kearney and Brian Treanor, trans. Anne Davenport (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), 92-114.
- Jean-Louis Chrétien, Michaël Fœssel, and Camille Riquier, “Sens et formes de fragilité,” (interview) Esprit (May 2018): 100. My translation.
- For Chrétien’s discussion of these terms in Fragilité: vulnerability, 7; perishability, 8; imbecility, 16; infirmity, 16; debility, 16; fragility/frailty, 17; fallibility, 19; caducity, 19-20; lability and lubricity, 23.
- For an example of these etymological histories, see ibid., 9.
- Ibid., 130-131, 191.
- For the importance of polyphonic voices in Chrétien’s theology, see Jean-Louis Chrétien, The Ark of Speech, trans. Andrew Brown (New York: Routledge, 2004), especially chapter 5.
- Fragilité, 7.
- Ibid., 9.
- Ibid., 9.
- Ibid., 9-10.
- Ibid., 16, 252. “Sens et formes,” 102.
- Fragilité, 252.
- “Sens et formes,” 102.
- Fragilité, 65, 8, 75.
- Ibid., 9.
- Ibid., 148, 80.
- Ibid., 8.
- Ibid., 7-8.
- Ibid., 25.
- Ibid., 7.
- Ibid., 8, 132.
- Ibid., 29.
- See especially The Ark of Speech. The theme does recur in Fragilité, especially in the closing pages of the book.
- Hand to Hand, 75.
- Ibid. The translation has been modified for inclusive language.
- Fragilité, 81
- See chapters II and IV for the way in which fragile objects can mediate knowledge of our own fragility.
- Ibid., 120.
- Ibid., 45.
- “Sens et forms,” 106.
- Fragilité, 81.
- Ibid., 134.
- Ibid., 135.
- See Ibid., 150.
- Ibid., 147, 141.
- Ibid., 255.
- Ibid., 157, 149.
- Ibid., 134.
- Ibid., 144.
- Ibid., 253.
- Ibid., 142.
- “Sens et formes,” 104.
- Cited in ibid.
- Fragilité, 253. See also 33.
- Ibid., 140-142.
- Ibid., 257.
- Ibid., 157.
- Ibid., 153.
- Ibid., 35.
- Ibid., 37.