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Jésus parmi les Docteurs (Livre d’heures d’Enkhuizen, folio 39v)
Jésus parmi les Docteurs (Livre d’heures d’Enkhuizen, folio 39v)

Polemics are everywhere in our democracies. We are fed with scandals, controversies, from the most unbearable to the most futile or the ridiculous ones, occupying the whole landscape of the medias, far from the deep and necessarily slow meditation on the important, philosophical, metaphysical, political, topics about our world and destiny.

And yet we enjoy it. More: we are all convinced that democracy relies on these overflowing speeches, that it needs this disorder, this waste of time, to ensure the common human right to participate to the public debate. Polemics, defined as uncontrolled excess in the debate, appears as a foundation of our culture, in the most noble, classic, traditional meaning of the word.

What is the connexion between frivolous laughter, despicable mockery, vile attack on one side, tolerance in dispute, respect of each other’s discourse and point of view, common competition in elaborating and preserving our most respectable values on the other side? Where does this paradox of polemics come from and how have polemics become, quite peacefully, a constituent part of our world?

I shall question, first of all, the classical uses of the words gravitating, in the Enlightenment, around what we nowadays call polemics. In the French Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert, the ‘Dispute’ article, by Formey, appears to be the main document showing the fundamental ambivalence of the process.

As a second point, I’ll focus on dispute as a display, as an operative device (in French: un dispositif ), the configuration of which I’ll study through its iconographic representations from the middle ages to the classical period. The iconographic approach will show us an unexpected aspect of the problem: dispute was not originally dialogical. The history of dispute can be understood as the process of accepting a second equal antagonistic voice, as the transformation of the primary, monological, operative device of dispute to a dialogical one. The rise of polemics as a global phenomenon of social regulation could directly depend on this new dialogical device.

The possibility of a dialogical representation of the dispute can be connected to a phenomenon described by Hegel in the Phenomenology of Mind as entfremdung , which is the fact of becoming a stranger to oneself. According to Hegel, who takes Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, as a paradigm for this phenomenon, the mind is, from the 17th to the 18th century, submitted to division between noble and vile conscience. This division could mark the beginning of polemics as a world. But Hegel’s demonstration relies on an exclusively verbal interpretation of Rameau’s Nephew, the singularity of which is composed by the mime shows of the foolish philosopher’s interlocutor. Mime show is not verbal, though situated at the heart of the dispute, considered not as a rhetorical, but as an operative, both verbal and not verbal, device.

1. Good and Evil: polemics in the Encyclopédie

The anonymous ‘Polémique’ article of the Encyclopédie reminds us that the word, in 18th century French is exclusively an adjective, and was originally used only in a theological context:

And so one says polemical theology , to signify a theology of controversy . 1

The ‘Controverse’ article is preceded by an asterisk, which indicates that it was written by Diderot himself, who showed by this means his personal interest in the question. The whole of Diderot’s article is an ironical reference to the article of the Dictionnaire de Trévoux , directed by his Jesuitic opponents. The Jesuits had paradoxically approved the freedom of controversy:

One says ‘preaching controversy’ for a preacher who discusses and clears up ex cathedra the subjects disputed between the Catholics and the Protestants. One must not fear to disrupt peace among the Christians by the use of controversy, when establishing the truth in Religion is at stake. 2

Rhetorically, horizontally, this seems to be a very tolerant position, since, in the preaching, an equal part will be devoted to catholic and to protestant arguments. But there is only one, catholic, priest preaching, ex cathedra , which is from above, to the congregation of believers, on the floor, where the opinions may be mixed and split. From the top to the floor, the configuration of space is vertically unequal: the operative device of the preaching ensures the superiority to the Jesuitic priest even before he has begun to preach, by his mere position above the audience.

Diderot perfectly understood what a cheat this apparent Jesuitic tolerance was. For that reason he added:

May we add that, for the controversy to produce the promised good effects, it must be free on both sides. 3

But his most mischievous contribution relies on the logical sequence of the articles, which though apparently arbitrary, and merely owing to alphabetical order, is in fact rarely meaningless in the Encyclopédie . In the Trévoux, ‘Controverse’ is followed by ‘Controuver’, which is using a lie, a trickery, which Diderot must have laughed about as an unintentional self caricature of the Jesuitic practice of controversy. In the Encyclopédie , ‘Controverse’ is followed by ‘Contumace, du latin contumacia , qui signifie désobéissance’ (from the latin contumacia , which means disobediance). As a commentary on the preceding article, controversy according to the encyclopedists is becoming an act of disobedience, a subversive practice.

As the ‘Controverse’ article by Diderot constitutes itself a controversy with his Jesuitic opponents, it does not develop the original theory that we find in the ‘Dispute’ article by Formey, a long article written with a certain pomp. Controversy was still thought of in the theological context; dispute is the same mechanism, but extended to a wider range of topics, which permits Formey to make it the leaven of society as a whole, for the best as for the worst. Formey first describes dispute as a natural consequence of the inequality that God established between Men. The development of mankind should have diminished inequality and then should have made dispute disappear. On the contrary, the rise of sciences, the development of human curiosity, opened new fields for dispute.

Dispute, though born from human disparity, should nevertheless become for mankind a source of advantages if disputing men could cast out its outbursts, the dangerous excess of which appears to be a poison. 4

This is the paradox of dispute: the origin of dispute is a human deficiency; but dispute reverses that deficiency into a source of advantages, first supplementing the natural human disparity; then, the supplement becomes an excess, that leads the disputing society toward its corruption and loss. The logics of dispute is the Platonic logics of the pharmakon , as Derrida analysed it in The Dissemination : dispute must be considered both and simultaneously as a poison and as a cure, the two meanings of the Greek word pharmakon .

Formey first describes the moderate use of dispute as the leaven of an enlightened society, where the wit of conversation provides the pleasure of social life and rouses, sharpens and stimulates the mind. Dispute must be defined then as a weakened fight:

The more temperate, the stronger our shafts will be shot; the softer is the knock, the surer is the score; we’ll defeat our opponent without injuring him. 5

The metaphor of fighting indicates the deep articulation between dispute and polemics, which means fight in Greek. The good and usefull dispute is a reversed war: the reversed war of dispute brings the logics of the pharmakon into play.

Then moderate dispute becomes a model for a civilized and polite society:

A moderate dispute, far from sowing in society the seeds of division and disorder, can become a source of pleasure. How charming it makes our discussions ! So many people need this sting to stimulate their mind. Cold and dull in a quiet discussion, they seem to be stupid and unproductive. But if you shake up their laziness with a polite dispute, they get out of their lethargy to charm those who listen to them. Provoking them, you awoke their creative genius, which was, so to speak, asleep. Their knowledge remained buried and lost for society if dispute had not drawn it out from indolence. 6

Dispute is acting as a drug spreading over society, like a disease, reversing the variety of natural deficiencies of the mind, which is a source of dissension, into the variety of delights of the mind: this variety is not of nature, but of language; it is not a defect the disputing man is suffering from, but a progress his mind spreads upon others. Its efficiency is that of witty conversation, it is the enjoyment of moderate dispute, bringing the fundamental energy of thought into play. There is no thinking without disputing: Formey’s definition of dispute outlines the patterns of an enlightened way of life.

Dispute is contagious, for good as for evil.

Dispute can therefore become the salt of our discussions. 7

This salt is not cooking salt, nor even the rhetorical salt of witticism. It is a chemical reference: salt may be acid, alkaline or neutral. In any case, whether it results from a precipitate or, dissolved into a liquid, it is about to precipitate, salt is a chemical agent for more or less controlled reactions.

Dispute is a source of pleasure, a source of light: the chemistry of dispute changes discourse into energy, speech into enjoyment, wit into sense. The rhetorical device of dispute, its logical pattern and arguing methods break up into the pleasure of connecting matters one to the other, and understanding them thanks to these new connections. Then, the aim of dispute stops being defined as a verbal matter and is considered, from a distance, as a visual scene, offered to various points of view:

In that accurate discussion, the matter is described to him from all its angles, most of which he overlooked; and as he considers it in its whole, he is getting close to a perfect understanding. 8

But the change from a verbal to a visual paradigm of dispute conversely precipitates dispute from light to dark, from the clarity of mind to the blindness of fanaticism:

But only rationality can remove the clouds wrapping up opinions: and reason, so clear sighted and active when calmly thinking, loses when troubled both its lights and its efficiency […]. It came out, but to distracted and unfocused eyes, that misrated it: as a revenge, reason slipped away into a final eclipse. 9

However, this terrible eclipse of mind, provoked by the overflow of dispute, is not as irrevocable as it first seemed to be, and the last sentence of the article is optimistic:

But moderation flushes out all the obstacles to clear sight and truth; at the same time moderation moves away the clouds veiling the truth and gives it the charms that make us appreciate it so much. 10

This article is extraordinary for the reversal it describes: dispute, even a moderate one, does not guarantee an irreversible progress of rationality in society; it may always, at any time, revert into an uncontrolled overflow of blindness, misunderstanding and fanaticism. But it is worth trying the experiment: dispute raises the light of mind and makes the charm of conversation and sociability; dispute makes us love the truth. The prize is conditioned by the danger: on the one hand, the pleasure of a witty talk contributes to scientific emulation, thanks to a moderate use of dispute; on the other hand, an overflow of dispute generates the political disaster of fanaticism. Dispute appears then as an interface between the noble side of the Enlightenment and its reverse, which is not simply opposed to it, but set at the heart of it.

2. Dispute as an operative device: looking at the iconography

There is no doubt that this article had a personal meaning for Formey. For writing the ‘Dispute’ article, Diderot did not pick at random when he chose a French emigrated Protestant born and living in Berlin. During the Reformation, dispute was used by both parties either to convince or to eradicate one another, more rarely to show or to obtain tolerance. Dispute was then at the center of the public life, so that the time of the Reformation can be considered as the moment where the theological practice of dispute extends the scope of its activities and turns into polemics as a world. This political turn implies a management of whatever overflows from the rhetorical patterns of dispute. The conflict of the Reformation politically and ideologically expressed a prior demand, raised during the middle ages, to transform the exercise of dispute into a major social and public practice for making the common judgement and opinion.

The relationship of man with his own and others’ speech, of the single mind with the common opinion, of the community with protest, dissidence and subversion is completely turned over. Obviously, it doesn’t mean that the political institutions of the European states suddenly became democratic: on the contrary, the political response to the generalization of dispute during the Reformation was Absolutism. But, despite this loss of freedom, or as a compensation for it, the polemical outbursts of dispute gained access to representation and became valuable as successful performance on stage. The visual patterns of dispute, as a purely fictional operative device, anticipated from afar the political demands of the French Revolution.

Jesus disputing among the doctors

Jesus among the doctors, Enzhuiken Book of Hours, end 15th cent., Oxford, Bodleyan Library, ms Buchanan f. 1, fol. 39 v°
Jesus among the doctors, Enzhuiken Book of Hours, end 15th cent., Oxford, Bodleyan Library, ms Buchanan f. 1, fol. 39 v°

Dispute is first theological. Its most archetypal pictorial representation, that will give the pattern to all the other disputes, is the evangelical sequence of the child Jesus disputing among the doctors in the Temple. The illuminated Book of Hours from Enkhuizen, from late 15th century, located in the Bodleyan library in Oxford, presents at folio 39 an illustration of this scene. The characters are seated on benches in a circle. On the top right, next to Christ, a young man wears a double-pointed beard, symbolizing the Ancient and the New Law, the alliance of traditional knowledge with new teaching. At the opposite, on the lower left, an old man raises his forefinger for contradiction. In the center, the child Jesus, barefoot , whose shoeless feet come out from beneath his blue tunic, brings together all the arguments of the dispute, that he lists counting them on his fingers.

The circle of those taking part in the dispute makes the apparently egalitarian, horizontal structure, of the operative device. But one can also read the picture vertically: Christ is seated on the top, on the magisterial chair, heightened by a platform, the Doctors being placed beneath him, on simple benches. The colours of the clothes also indicate a hierarchy, from the green of treason and heresy to the red of incarnation and the blue of faith.

In that magisterial hierarchy, the evangelical narrative of Jesus among the doctors however introduces a reversal: in the magisterial chair, it places a barefoot child, while the doctors are seated on the benches set for pupils. The second disruption of the vertical hierarchy, that one can barely notice in this picture, is brought into play by the two characters on the top left, the couple who just came in from the door behind:but in fact don’t take part in the erudite lecture. They are Mary, clothed as a nun, with her blue dress and white neckerchief, and old Joseph, bareheaded, leaning on his walking-stick.

Mary and Joseph have at last found their child, they had been seeking for three days; though they have just arrived at the Temple, Jesus seems not to have noticed them.

This illustration is a perfect exemple of the magisterial operative device of dispute as it was set towards the end of the middle ages. The apparent plurality of discourses, horizontally expressed, is vertically supervised by Christ. But his supervision is itself twice disrupted: first, a child teaches doctors, reversing the magisterial hierarchy; second, the child is searched for by his parents, who could (but don’t) disrupt the circle established for the dispute. The operative device can’t be reduced to the double-dealing of rhetorical and spatial structure, of horizontal discourse and vertical preaching. It also manages the random, unexpected disruptions of structure; it takes advantage of them and makes sense of a soft adaptation to them. Indeed, the theological teaching of Christ gets value from the reversal of the magisterial operative device. His learning is not from the learned; it is both divine and childish. It is both a teaching and a mischievous child’s escapade from his parents who come for him. The circle and the magisterial chair guarantee the perfection and reliability of the Word; but disruption in the circle allows and promises its opening to the world.

Jesus among the doctors, Utrecht Bible historiale, The Hague, Meermanno Koningklijke Bibliotheek, 78D38 II, fol. 147 v°
Jesus among the doctors, Utrecht Bible historiale, The Hague, Meermanno Koningklijke Bibliotheek, 78D38 II, fol. 147 v°

In the Bible historiale from Utrecht, located in the Meermano royal library of The Hague, and dated 1430, Jesus is kneeling at the center of a Chapter Hall where the doctors are seated; he is taking his university examination of theological controversy. The illuminator placed Jesus just before the central column of the Chapter Hall, the gothic arches of which sustain the whole vault, painted in red just as the tunic of Jesus is red, because Christ himself is the column. Maria and Joseph attend their child’s performance from behind a second, foreground grey column, at the lower left of the picture. The pattern of architecture creates compartments in the illustration: on the one side, the sacred room of the holy dispute; on the other side, the secular opening to the outside, from which any disruption can happen. Compartments are typicalof gothic art and open to the illustrator a way for showing disruption, which could not structurally occupy a definite place in the prior magisterial operative device.

Tintoretto, Jesus among the doctors, 1542-3, oil on canvas, Milano, Museo del Duomo
Tintoretto, Jesus among the doctors , 1542-3, oil on canvas, Milano, Museo del Duomo

In the sixteenth century, the operative device of dispute takes disruption more and more into account: its structural pattern weakens, while its dramatic efficiency grows. The interpretation of Tintoretto in 1542 chooses Mary’s point of view for the scene. Mary, standing on the left in a blue dress, depicted as a woman of the working class, with stout legs and thick arms, after a three days agonizing seeking of her child, is falling upon an incredible, unbelievable sight. She is frightened by the books she is not used to, and they are magnified in her eyes: Tintoretto did not paint the real size of the books, but the size they appeared to an amazed Mary. She is desperately looking for her child, whom she first doesn’t see at the far end of the hall. She understands he was presiding the dispute only when, having noticed her, he stretches out his arms towards her. The depicted scene is no longer the dispute itself, but the moment just after disruption, which is related in the Gospel according to Luke in these words:

“When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.’
‘Why were you searching for me?’ he asked. ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’
But they did not understand what he was saying to them.” (Luke 2: 48-50)

This is a failing family reunion, and no more a theological dispute: a pathetic scene is superimposed upon the learned performance.

Veronese, Jesus among the doctors, 1566-7, oil on canvas, Madrid, Museo del Prado
Veronese, Jesus among the doctors , 1566-7, oil on canvas, Madrid, Museo del Prado

Veronese goes on disconstructing the magisterial operative device in the composition he imagines in 1566: Mary and Joseph henceforth definitely don’t supplement the inner dispute from an additional lateral compartment. They are placed in the very middle of the canvas, from which the scene stretches out.

At a first glance, it seems that the composition of the scene is structured by the impressive palladian architecture of the church. A compartment had been designed on the left, where the Virgin is used to appear to disrupt the dispute. But Mary is elsewhere, and the compartment is occupied by the doctors. On the right, the columns form a circle, the circle of the dispute we are used to. But before them we don’t really see the regular participants in a magisterial dispute, but rather an upset troubled public, sceptically attending the performance of Christ, and hastily seeking counterarguments in the Book.

On the first step of the rostrum where Christ is standing, an hourglass measures the speaking time of performing Jesus: the hourglass refers to the university rules for controversy. Jesus was speaking, but time stops when Mary comes in, looking for him. The theatrical moment depicted in the picture gathers and displays the successive steps of the narrative that Veronese re-elaborated: on the left, the man in red with a turban was just ending his speech, his left hand eloquently leaning on his chest; in the center, Jesus was answering him, and taking God as a witness, putting his forefinger up; on the right, the second group of doctors is preparing for the next speech.

The raised forefinger is a Renaissance innovation, splitting the dispute into the dramatic scene we see and the matter of the dispute, the truth we cannot see. It actually also splits the scene between the left and the right group of doctors, as a theatrical direction of disturbance and disorder. But this theatrical direction is not any more a magisterial one. The only trace of the previous magisterial operative device remains in the architecture despite the place the characters occupy in the canvas.

Dispute as the process of making the Symbolic: Ecumenical Councils

The iconographic representation of Jesus among the doctors, and its historical evolution, show us the archetypal operative device from which we can imagine how all kinds of dispute were performed and, most of all, received.

The Council of Constantinople, in Gregory of Nazianzus Orations, 879-882, National Library of France, Ms Grec 510, fol. 355
The Council of Constantinople, in Gregory of Nazianzus Orations , 879-882, National Library of France, Ms Grec 510, fol. 355

In the first times of the Church, the Ecumenical Councils not only fixed the canons of the Christian faith and legitimated the ecclesiastical institutions, but also, if it did not set a pattern for other secular political institutions, at least, it had an influence on their beginnings and evolution. Every Council is run and is laid out as a dispute and has no connection with the judicial proceedings of what was much later the Inquisition.When Arius and his followers were charged and sentenced as being heretics, during the first Council in Nicaea, in 325, it was not exactly a trial, according to legal proceedings, that was exerted against them, because the law was still to be established, the dogma to be set. The most celebrated theologians of the time request leave to speak at the Council and take part in the dogmatic elaboration. Even when clashing, all the speeches contribute to the building of one single Church. The theological matters that are set in focus may be extremely subtle and seem frivolous; they give an opportunity to the contestants to show off all their rhetorical cleverness and virtuosity. The official matter of the dispute is not a pleading for accusation or defence, but a demonstration about a point of a doctrine.

In an 880 illumination from Gregory of Nazianzus Orations, located in the National Library of France, we can note that the first Council of Constantinople (381), which he presided, is represented according the patterns of a magisterial operative device. In the top center, presiding over the whole assembly from a golden cathedra, a Bible is open on a purple velvet cushion. Under that tabernacle, the characters taking part in the Council are seated in a semicircle: the semicircular shape is repeated on the floor.

If we compare the layout of this place to the basic magisterial operative device we inferred from representations of Jesus among the doctors , we understand that the Council does not recognize any magisterial authority above its disputing bishops, except that of the Holy Book. The President of the assembly, Gregory of Nazianzus, cannot be seated at the top of the semicircle, but, on the right, as close to it as possible. By this setting, the pattern of the magisterial performance is, if not reversed, at least shifted.

The Council of Nicaea and the death of Arius, in Vincent de Beauvais, Speculum historiale, National Library of France, ms. Français 51, folio 130
The Council of Nicaea and the death of Arius, in Vincent de Beauvais, Speculum historiale , National Library of France, ms. Français 51, folio 130

A second element is typical of the representation of a Council: a box table is set at the lower center of the picture where two scrolls and a register have been laid to record the dispute. This table shows the matter of the dispute, which means both its process and its result, its contribution to the common law of the Church. The table is the central point from which representation stretches out, on which all the seated participants focus, at which the standing speakers go.

Unfortunately, the bottom of the illumination has been spoiled. On the lower left we can only assume that Marcianus of Lampsacus and Eleusius of Cyzicus, the Arianist opponent leaders, are quitting the Council in protest.

Comparing this picture to a much later illumination, from a 15th century Speculum historiale by Vincent de Beauvais located in the French National Library, we can infer how the basic operative device of the Council is being altered by the new dramatic pattern of a play. On the left, we still recognize the magisterial display of the dispute, here presided by emperor Constantine holding the sword of command. There’s no doubt that Constantine is seated on the imperial throne: but is it the magisterial one, set in this way back from the actual assembly, while the presiding position is doubled with a second character, the man in red, probably Osius from Cordoba, running the debate from the box table at which he is seated, and visually closing the semicircle, which thus appears reverted, turned to the back of the room? On the left side, the characters wear an episcopal tiara, while on the right side, towards the exit door on their back, the heads of the heretical Arianists are only covered by a cap. The assembly appears thus divided into two equal standing (and not seated) parties, spatially and symmetrically opposed. However, the symmetry is distorted by the fact that the orthodox Church occupies the inner part of the room, while the Arianists are placed near the exit door, which shows the way to them… This can already be considered as a stage play, though the columns still divide the illuminated space into compartments in the gothic pre-scenic way we already met in the Bible historiale from Utrecht.

Outside the Council, on the right side of the illumination and on the real secular space, the illuminator depicted the outrageous death of the heretical Arius, seated in ruined toilets in front of his terrified followers, while his soul is being picked up by a devil.

Pasquale Cati, <i>The Council of Trent</i>, 1588, frescoe at the Santa Maria in Trastevere Church in Rome
Pasquale Cati, The Council of Trent , 1588, frescoe at the Santa Maria in Trastevere Church in Rome

The reversal of the semicircle and the opening of the operative device of disputation to the real, that is to a secular room out of the closed sacred space, are the signs of a deep alteration of the operative device, which finds its final outcome in the representations of the last pre-modern Council, the Council of Trent, convened in 1542 to fight the Reformation. In a 1588 fresco he painted for the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, in Rome, Pasquale Cati clearly did not represent the assembly in the shape of the traditional magisterial semicircle, presided from the back and turned towards the believer in front of him, wrapping him in as innermost part of the Church. Instead of the magisterial semicircle, he designed a lecture theatre, where the participants become spectators of a trial, with cardinals vested in red seated on a stage, while the secretary’s table, placed behind the rather accused than disputing speaker’s chair, definitely loses its symbolic function of showing the matter of the dispute. This function is held by the allegorical show in the foreground, showing the triumphant Church crushing longhaired Heresy. On its right, Charity holds children in her arms, while Science as Minerva wearing a helmet, and Architecture carrying a marble column next to a globe and open books laid down, symbolize the Arts contributing to its Triumph.

The door in the wooden partition closing the theatre on the lower left is guarded by two keepers, by the means of whom the spectator’s eye is warned that it will have to cross a boundary before penetrating a private, forbidden room. This boundary prefigures the convention of the fourth wall in the modern realistic theatre: we can see what we shouldn’t see and we must suppose an imaginary wall between where we are and what we see. But the matter of the play, allegorically stated in the foreground, and the room of the play, displayed on the back after the wooden partition are still dissociated.

The Synod of Dort in 1618: publicity and parody

<i>The Synod of Dort</i>, 1618-1619
The Synod of Dort , 1618-1619

The symbolic machinery of dispute has never been the only privilege of the catholic Church. I already suggested that the scenario of Jesus among the doctors had been borrowed from the Talmudic dispute, that may have provided the semicircle and even the hierarchic disruption. I could also refer to the Disputation of Barcelona held in 1263 in the palace of James of Aragon between Rabbi Nachmanides and the freshly converted Dominican Pablo Christiani. The king awarded Nachmanides as the winner, but sentenced him to exile. In the mid-15th century, Giovanni di Paolo, and then Benozzo Gozzoli represent Thomas Aquinas confounding the muslim Averroes in a dispute. Christianism took over for its own benefit a practice widely spread in Europe and around the Mediterranean sea.

Thus one should not be surprised that Protestants made an intense use of dispute to emancipate from the Roman Church and establish their own canons of faith. The episode of the Synod of Dort in 1618 strikingly shows the phenomenon. The Calvinist majority of the Dutch Reformed church wanted to put an end to the opposition raised by the followers of Arminius, whose theses about Predestination and free will were published in the The Remonstrance of 1610. Facing the 14 Remonstrants summoned before the Synod, Franciscus Gomarus was the Counter-Remonstrants’ spokesman: his theological conceptions prevailed and were formalized in the Canons of Dort. In 1619, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, abreviated to Barnevelt in French, a 72 years old man who supported the Remonstrants, was sentenced to death and beheaded in The Hague.

Satirical allegory of the Synod of Dort, 1622
Satirical allegory of the Synod of Dort, 1622

What we could call an official etching was printed during the Synod, and then reproduced in the medals distributed to the participants at the end. One can at once recognize the display of a courtroom or a house of Parliament, without any more obvious reference to the magisterial operative device of dispute. On the foreground, spectators are represented, who are not involved in the Synod as participants and just attend the political event. We can notice a dog in the middle, wandering at the gate between their legs, as a ridiculous figure of common curiosity. In the center, there are two big tables, at which participants are seated as well as others are seated in the rows of benches behind: places were allotted according to where the participants came from, as explained in the lateral legends, thus without any consideration of who is speaking and who is not. Empty chairs were displayed in honour of the French delegation, who was not allowed to come by the French government. The pattern of the room is submitted to a geographical rather than to a theological arrangement: the outside, secular logic has taken over even the inner sacred room, formerly devoted to the magisterial dispute.

As the result of the synod was not a model of tolerance, it was followed by what we could call a war of images. A satirical pannel dated 1622 and located in Delft, certainly painted by a catholic artist, represents the Synod of Dort as a dispute between animals. It is explained by a latin rebus:

“Sects give birth,
With the cat and the Wallachia, the British whale, the frog
and all the other renegades,
to the synod of Dort, all together they work
for giving life to Discord.” 11

The coats of arms of Holland above the cat and of Zealand above the frog, the crown of the Orange-Nassau reigning family above the monkey finish the rebus, that denounces the political takeover of the theological dispute. On the foreground, beheaded Barnevelt holds his head on his right hand, and the Reformed church, painted as an emaciated mother, leans over the cradle of her child Discord. The secretary of the synod, seated at the central red table, which regained, though negatively, a basic function, burying his head in his left hand, can’t achieve the redaction of the canons he is repelled by.

Abraham van der Eyk, Disputes between Remonstrants and Counter-Remonstrants in 1618, 1721, Lyon, Museum of fine arts, H1151
Abraham van der Eyk, Disputes between Remonstrants and Counter-Remonstrants in 1618 , 1721, Lyon, Museum of fine arts, H1151

The display of the allegory is that of the former magisterial operative device used for representing oecumenical councils: the satirical reversal certainly refers to a widely held feeling of injustice, not only after the synod of Dort, but during all the history of theological disputes from the first councils onward. The special interest of this picture is that Dispute here has not given birth to a Canon, even a hated one, but to Discord, that implies and acknowledges, even negatively, plurivocity.

One century later, in 1721, Abraham van der Eyk imagines another, more radical, allegory in a painting now located in Lyons. Between the two parties, the Remonstrants on the left side and the Counter-Remonstrants on the right, directed by Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange, in his purple ceremonial dress, and Franciscus Gomarus, seemingly praying, in fact kneeling down in front of him, van der Eyk painted huge scales, on the pan of which each party placed its arguments. On the left side, Remonstrants laid a Bible and duly sealed treatises; on the right side, the thin book of the Canons of Dort is made heavier by the sword of the Prince. The operative device henceforth clearly identifies dispute with the opposition of two parties, each of which develops its own valuable arguments, and participates to the life of the community, whether it claims for justice or it prevails by strength,: in fact, in 18th century Netherlands, the followers of the Remonstrants were finally tolerated by the Reformed church, and the country became one of the most tolerant in Europe.

3. The dialogical split

In the Phenomenology of Mind, Hegel identifies the historical moment of the Enlightenment to the philosophical moment of the mind becoming a stranger to itself by the process of culture. In other words, French classicism would have initiated a split in the mind, both in the common mind of the culture and in the individual consciences. Dispute would play a major role in the process of that splitting, that Hegel named Entfremdung (oddly translated into French by Jean Hyppolite as ‘extranéation’).

To illustrate Entfremdung , Hegel refers to Rameau’s Nephew, the only literary text quoted in the Phenomenology of Mind: he could read Diderot’s dialogue in the translation by Goethe published in Leipzig in 1805. The text, now the most famous of Diderot’s, was unknown in France and in French at the time. For Hegel, the conversation between the philosopher and the failed nephew of the great composer Jean-Philippe Rameau is an illustration of the split between noble and vile conscience. The process of the splitting is the Entfremdung.

According to Hegel, this process is a matter of overflowing language: the simple fact of speaking forces the single conscience to deal with others, to adapt itself to the community. Language makes conscience enter into social life, which implies that it overflows from its inner room. This is the beginning of a splitting between the pure, ideal, inner conscience and the corrupted social speaking I, which takes its autonomy.

Language is not only a form and means; it also implies a social content and split. Actually, the language of the noble conscience should have displayed the aristocratic values of faithful duty towards the Sovereign and hence towards the authority of the State. But, as he commits himself to sociability, the noble man has to become a courtier, and from a courtier a sycophant, his language passing from noble praise, in agreement to his service, to vile flattery. This necessary corruption of language, and hence of conscience, is due to his need of wealth: he cannot maintain his noble state without a perpetual pursuit of wealth, that he cannot obtain in the Court but by flattery.

The splitting of conscience is thus not only a first metaphysical split between the inner I and the speaking I, but, at a moral and ideological level, a second split between aristocratic values and duty on one side, courtier’s needs and sycophant’s baseness on the other side. The particularly brilliant side of this analysis is not, according to me, the usually pointed out dialectical mechanism; it is the fact that Hegel had an intuition about the basic univocity of the dispute, which he understood as the historical process of both personal and social progress of the mind.

To describe that process he called Entfremdung , Hegel imagined to bring together various heterogeneous phenomena (in langage, morals, economics…), the combination of which led to a common global understanding and representation of split mind. But he designed the process in a logical way, that is to say as the inner development of a discourse, managing contradictions, producing and solving them, sliding from step to step, running from a beginning to an end. This discourse, or discursive pattern, is not a subjective one, as one could be tempted to reduce it to, if focusing on Master-Salve dialectics in an other part of The Phenomenology of Mind. But even split and submitted to Entfremdung , this process is basically described as conscience turning to language and thus patterned as discourse.

However, I against Him, the reference to Rameau’s Nephew, also implies the fire of disputing fight, the outburst of uproar, which is not simply the regular alternation of a dialogue, but the overflow of uncontrolled polemics, its everlasting trouble and disturbance, its disrupted space. It’s no more a matter of discourse but of an operative device from which voices overflow. Mind develops from the device of dispute and the space it designs. This space is not intended for a final, post-process split. It is dis-pute : it was split from the beginning. The outcome of the process is not the split but the institutional consent to it and its dialogical translation into language. What is at stake is that the Word is not unique, and that polemical overflow must be accepted in the public space not as a necessary evil, but as a conquest of the mind.

In the beginning of Rameau’s Nephew, the philosopher is seated on a bench, in the public garden of the Palais-Royal. From that bench Diderot makes us slide into a chair in the Regency coffeehouse, where he is looking at chess-players. The beginning of the dispute is a monological reverie. It is not a dialogue: the text defines itself, in its subtitle, as a satire. It does not either begin as a shock between two constituted discourses. The principle of the dispute is a reversal and a disruption:

Here you are, Mr. Philosopher: what are you doing here among that bunch of lazybones? 12

The Nephew is not the one that is being a blight on an assembly of doctors. On the contrary, it is Diderot himself, the great philosopher seated in the coffeehouse among chess-players, that is the one: he shouldn’t be there, he mixed with the riff-raff, he wasted his time. While he should hand out his knowledge, he is having fun looking at a frivolous sight, taking a lesson, and a bad one. The Nephew then expresses his spite to the chess-players of the coffeehouse: none is a genius; that is to say, none can teach anything valuable.

There goes the matter of the dispute: genius, which is the vacant position of the Master in the magisterial operative device that the philosopher has reversed. The philosopher could aspire to it, but according to the Nephew; he demeaned himself the Nephew’s jealousy towards his uncle reveals that he too aspires to it; and that the uncle is the absent genius. Three characters for one position: that is the play.

To the three figures of discourse, in the operative device of dispute, correspond three ways of expressing thought: the noble speech, its verbal parody and cynical reversion, and the mime show, which turns the dispute into a show. Those three ways refer to the three historical steps in the genealogy of dispute: the magisterial position, its reversal and its disruption. All the subtelty of Rameau’s Nephew consists in not strictly identifying each of those figures (I, Him and the absent Uncle) to a single way of expressing one’s thought.

From this first approach to Rameau’s Nephew we can infer that the philosopher on stage does not come from a Platonic or a Socratic pattern, but inherits the medieval tradition of disputing and presiding at a dispute. At the end of the satire, I and Him don’t refer to Socrates, but to Diogenes, as they wonder whether he must be incorporated to the worldwide beggars mime show.

I. — But there is however one human being exempted of the mime show: it is the philosopher, who doesn’t possess nor demand anything.
Him. — Having so strictly fasted, your Diogenes must not have suffered from disobedient organs.
I. — You are wrong. In former times, the Cynical dress looked like our monastic dress, with the same morals. The Cynics were the Carmelite and the Franciscan friars of Athens.
Him. — Here you are caught. Diogenes thus danced in a mime show: if not for Pericles, at least for Lais or Phryne. 13

“I” first champions the philosopher’s magisterial precedence, above and slightly outside the disputing semicircle that the beggars mime show here parodies. In the background, the show refers to dances of death: “Him” evokes all that Diogenes misses as far as he is leaving aside the chain of needs, and goes as far as the final lack, the lack of sex he must barely have had, with sexual organs submitted to such a strict fasting.

Then the dialogue slips and overflows: the philosopher is cut to the quick and leaves the severe and virtuous discourse he used to employ as a defence for manly privileges of philosophy. Diogenes could’nt be an impotent: he must not be sexually weaker than the most lustful monks of literature, all those Carmelites and Francisans haunting Bocaccio’s tales and libertine novels.

By this comparison, the philosopher is not shaped according to an antique model, but to a medieval one, passing from Greek nakedness to monastic dress. Turning aside through lustful convents is necessary to send Diogenes back to the mime show: this doesn’t make an exemplum , neither a moral nor an immoral one, but a visual display of characters in a disputing room, a room where monastic lust and controversy are going on, dance and split of mind, a room for body expression and mystic allegory, a room that is a world.

Getting out from among the friars, Diogenes also quits Pericles and comes into a dance with Alcibiades and Praxiteles concubines. In the company of these dreamy women, he learns and teaches; having sex with them, he overflows into the dispute he had expelled himself from, entering at the same time mime show and democracy.



“Ainsi l’on dit théologie polémique , pour signifier une théologie de controverse .”


“Prêcher la controverse se dit d’un Prédicateur qui discute, éclaircit en chaire les points contestés entre les Catholiques et les Protestants. […] On ne doit pas craindre de troubler la paix du Christianisme par des controverses, quand il s’agit d’établir les vérités de la Religion.”


“Ajoutons que pour que la controverse puisse produire les bons effets qu’on s’en promet, il faut quelle soit libre de part et d’autre.”


“La dispute, quoique née des défauts des hommes, deviendrait néanmoins pour eux une source d’avantages s’ils savaient en bannir l’emportement, excès dangereux qui en est le poison.”


“Nos traits émoussés n’en auront que plus de force; nos coups adoucis n’en seront que plus certains; nous vaincrons notre adversaire sans le blesser.”


“Une dispute modérée, loin de semer dans la société la division et le désordre, peut y devenir une source d’agréments. Quel charme ne jette-t-elle pas dans nos entretiens? […] combien d’esprits qui ont besoin d’aiguillons? Froids et arides dans un entretien tranquille, ils paraissent stupides et peu féconds. Secouez leur paresse par une dispute polie, ils sortent de leur léthargie pour charmer ceux qui les écoutent. En les provoquant, vous avez réveillé en eux le génie créateur qui étoit comme engourdi. Leurs connaissances étaient enfouies et perdues pour la société, si la dispute ne les avait arrachés à leur indolence.”


“La dispute peut donc devenir le sel de nos entretiens.”


“dans cette exacte discussion, l’objet lui est présenté par toutes ses faces, dont la plupart lui avaient échappé; et comme il l’envisage tout entier, il se met à portée de le bien connaître.”


“ Mais c’est la raison qui écarte ce nuage: et la raison clairvoyante et active dans le calme perd dans le trouble et ses lumières et son activité: étourdie par le tumulte, elle ne voit, elle n’agit plus que faiblement. […] elle a paru, mais à des yeux distraits et inappliqués qui l’ont méconnue: pour s’en venger, elle s’est peut-être éclipsée pour toujours.”


“mais la moderation lève tous les obstacles à l’éclaircissement de la vérité; en même temps elle écarte les nuages qui la voilent, et lui prête des charmes qui la rendent chère.”


“Parturiunt sectae,
Cum Catto, et Valachia balæna Britannica rana,
Apostatisque ceteris :
Dordraci in synodo concordi mente laborant,
Nascatur ut discordia.
Michael de Marisael. Brug. in Coll.
S August. Gand. Rhetor. 1622”


“Ah, ah, vous voilà, M. le philosophe, et que faites-vous ici parmi ce tas de fainéants?”


“Moi. — Mais il y a pourtant un être dispensé de la pantomime. C’est le philosophe qui n’a rien et qui ne demande rien.
Lui. — […] Avec la diète austère de votre Diogène, il ne devait pas avoir des organes fort indociles.
Moi. — Vous vous trompez. L’habit du Cynique était autrefois notre habit monastique avec la même vertu. Les Cyniques étaient les Carmes et les Cordeliers d’Athènes.
Lui. — Je vous y prends. Diogène a donc aussi dansé la pantomime: si ce n’est devant Périclès, du moins devant Laïs ou Phryné.”

Référence de l'article

Stéphane Lojkine, “Polemics as a World”, lecture at the Tel-Aviv university, Nadine Kuperty's course about Fears and Violences in the French Ancient Regime, December 2011.

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Critique et théorie

Généalogie médiévale des dispositifs

Sémiologie classique

Dispositifs contemporains

Théorie des dispositifs

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