A French Humanist’s Philosophical Last Will and Testament

A few weeks ago, my very good friend Pascal Bouveret died of lung cancer and pulmonary fibrosis. Pascal was a blue-collar intellectual—a man from modest circumstances who was remarkably cultured, exceedingly informed, and opinionated yet open-minded. He was a bon vivant who appreciated human experience to the fullest and who managed to transform his life, enrolling in college in his forties to eventually obtain a master’s degree in human development.

Pascal was also very much a humanist, active in a number of political and social organizations. Having written a number of articles for the American Humanist Association about humanism in Europe, I thought it would be of interest to AHA members to hear the philosophical last wishes of a French humanist, for Pascal penned a document just before his death that he asked to be read at his memorial service. I have abridged it, primarily to protect his more intimate remarks, and translated it.

Here we are. This is the last time you will hear from me. As I write this I am in my bed, in a center for palliative care. I don’t know how much time I have left, nor do the doctors.

It is a fundamental truth that all human beings stand equal before the facts of life and death, intimately linked.

When you’re twenty years old you think you’re immortal. It’s an age at which you’re capable of putting your life in danger via extreme sports: slung underneath a hang-glider or clinging to the side of a cliff, as I have done. At that age, you even laugh at death; you cheat it, as we say. You look for the ultimate sensation, the thrill you feel when death passes close. Happily, more often than not, we become more reasonable with age. Nevertheless, we don’t always think about death, it’s still far off. And then we begin losing people dear to us. That happened to me at the age of forty, when my father, then my mother, then my brother all died within a few short years. In that time I began to think about death, about its fundamental injustice. I thought about how frustrating it is when it takes from you someone to whom you still had so much to say, so much love to give.

No one knows when he or she will die. For some, like for me, death comes faster. One day, a doctor informs you that you are doomed, that science can do nothing more for you. It’s possible to take refuge behind a god, a religion, in a search for some kind of significance. That is not my choice. I prefer to think that I was “chosen” by sheer chance (make sure you include those quotation marks) and that no being made some kind of decision about my fate. As such, you see me today with flowers on my belly, an irregular situation for me, a bit coy even. But what will I leave behind? What is worth remembering about me? It is for you to decide.

Should I attempt to take stock of my life? Not an easy task. Do I think that the positives outweigh the negatives? Yes, undoubtedly. I don’t know what footprint I’ll leave behind but what I am sure of is that I always tried to live in harmony with my fundamental values: humanism, secularism, tolerance, and open-mindedness. I always tried to convey these values via my activities: militating for liberal political causes and my involvement in charitable organizations. I have never regretted these activities, despite the considerable material and intellectual efforts they required. Sometimes I was tired, but I never renounced my values and always endeavored to promote them in any way I could.

If I were to summarize my personal philosophy, the principles that have guided me these fifty-seven years, I would say that I hope to have left behind me the mark of someone who has tried throughout his life to respond with intelligence, love, and benevolence to those who are guided by aggression, hatred, and exclusion. You who are hearing this, never forget that our republic, and democracy as a whole, as represented by the words “liberty, equality, and fraternity” needs you more than ever. You must defend our society against anti-democratic forces, for the danger is real.

I am no longer among you. Those who believe in destiny might say that my hour has come. I prefer to point out simply that yours has not yet come— life goes on.

Pascal always represented to me the importance of doing something about ones’ values. I have not been as active as he was, and as a French-American going through two elections in the space of eight months, both featuring a right-wing populist assailing humanist values, I am inspired by Pascal’s words and by his example. He always taught me that while debate is good, open-mindedness is important, and tolerance is crucial. When our core values are assailed by those preaching aggression, hatred, and exclusion, we must actively respond with intelligence, love, and benevolence, and we must remain intransigent in our refusal to bow.

I am also inspired by his attitude towards his own death. My religious friends sometimes ask me how I deal with death, being an atheist. Like Pascal, I think that we need no soul to represent what lasts after death. Rather, we need to reflect upon our impact on others, for that is what survives us. As I pointed out at his service—given the influence Pascal had on me, on his family, and on the hundreds of people who were in attendance, who could dare say that a person with such lasting influence is no longer among us?