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True to her principles

I was moved by this story in the Times:

French philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle drowns saving children off St Tropez

A leading French philosopher who argued that taking risks is essential to life has drowned while trying to rescue two children off Saint-Tropez.

The government and the intellectual world paid tribute to Anne Dufourmantelle, 53, who was famous for decrying the caution imposed by a risk-averse society.

Ms Dufourmantelle was in the water about 50 yards from two children, one of them the ten-year-old son of a female friend, off Pampelonne beach in Ramatuelle when a strong wind worsened and lifeguards raised the red flag to indicate that swimmers ought to return to shore.

The children were saved by lifeguards but Ms Dufourmantelle was overcome while swimming against a strong swell driven by an east wind, the local newspaper, Var Matin, said. She suffered a cardiac arrest and the rescuers were unable to revive her. Françoise Nyssen, the culture minister, praised “the great philosopher who helped us to live and understand the world of today”. Raphaël Enthoven, the philosopher and former companion of Carla Bruni Sarkozy, tweeted his sorrow and shock over the death of the woman “who spoke so well of dreams”.

Ms Dufourmantelle, whose partner was the writer Frédéric Boyer, devoted much of her career to the relationship between fatality and freedom.

In 2015 she told Libération newspaper, for which she wrote a monthly column, that “zero risk” was a fantasy. “When there really is a danger that must be faced in order to survive . . . there is a strong incentive for action, dedication, and surpassing oneself,” she said. In 2011 Ms Dufourmantelle published Eloge du risque (In Praise of Risk), in which she said that “risking your life is one of the most beautiful expressions in our language”.

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38 comments to True to her principles

  • Alisa

    Wow. What most upsets me at the moment is that I have never heard of this woman before. May she rest in peace.

  • Patrick Crozier

    Would it be in bad taste to cast doubt on this story or at least the part relating to her philosophy? I mean, I hope it’s true but a) as Alisa points out we have never heard of this woman – if her ideas are so good why not? b) she has written for Libération – no friends of, er, liberation and c) “risking your life is one of the most beautiful expressions in our language” sounds like romantic claptrap.

    In Praise of Risk, on the other hand, sounds impeccably sound.

  • Alisa

    if her ideas are so good why not?

    That was exactly what upset me: I presumed that here ideas were too good to be heard. Or maybe it was her expressing them in French, or both.

  • Alisa

    Ed:

    It said the phrase is unbiblical, un-Protestant, and a form of superstition connected to Catholicism.

    Guilty as charged on first two counts, as for the third – not to the best of my knowledge… 😀

  • Patrick Crozier (July 27, 2017 at 7:36 pm), she appears to have been unknown in the English-speaking world prior to her death but if you search for ‘Éloge du Risque’ there are references enough to her book, published in 2011.

    I would rather be sceptical of the RIP-objected-to story.

  • bobby b

    Patrick Crozier
    July 27, 2017 at 7:36 pm

    “In Praise of Risk, on the other hand, sounds impeccably sound.”

    I’ve heard estimates that one third to one half of Westerns GDPs get spent on some form of risk management, be it insurance, investment decisions, food and health regulations, building codes, policing, that component of the cost of new cars devoted to safety, hippo inspection, new drug reviews . . .

    So it may be sound, but it’s certainly not general. We are profoundly risk-averse.

    (Excuse me while I update my antivirus program and take my daily aspirin . . . )

  • bobby b

    No more RIP?

    Ah. Once they’re dead, their fate is already decided, and voicing further entreaties is a rebuke to God.

    Where would be be without God’s scolds?

  • Philip Scott Thomas

    It sounds as if she died putting her money where here her mouth was. Good for her. And I mean that sincerely.

    If only we could say the same for our current crop of UK politicians…

  • Runcie Balspune

    We are profoundly risk-averse.

    Seconded.

    I work in IT for a large organization, and there are often cases when a release of new software is met with a barrage of risk adverse nonsense and a minefield of bureaucracy which spontaneously aborts if you tick the wrong box. The reason behind this is the separation of the development team (who create and test the new software) and the support team (who have to deal with it when it goes wrong), the latter have a latent risk adverse rule saying “it’s stable now, so don’t change it”, analogous to the engineer’s maxim “if it aint broke don’t f*ck with it”, consequently they don’t like change.

    Unfortunately this falls down for two reasons; first is that often not releasing a software fix is a greater risk once a defect has been identified, and second the bureaucracy involved means that often several fixes are bunched up together creating an even bigger risk. The risk adverse attitude perversely creates more risk.

    Another risk adverse tactic is to use excessive testing of software prior to release, but I have often observed that testing teams find this so laborious and the timescales so tight it just becomes a box ticking exercise for them, and consequently no worthwhile testing is actually achieved, thereby increasing the risk.

    The risk adversity is taking a turn around, though. Modern software development uses Agile methodology, which dispenses with the bureaucracy and prolonged testing, getting small changes released instantly, and being able to revert them should they cause an issue, the software is confirmed every time using an ever growing sequence of small tests.

    However, whilst this is all being bound up in new and fancy concepts that bemuse business types, the bottom line is the abandonment of the “zero risk” fantasy and accepting things can and do go wrong, what is needed is a quick and efficient way to correct software defects as they appear.

    Strangely, this was how it was when I started in IT over 30 years ago,

  • Paul Marks

    The lady did indeed live her philosophy – the only objection to her conduct that I can think of is if (if) she led to harm for someone else. For example a child copying her swimming in a dangerous current, or a lifeguard dying trying to save her. But if the lady was simply saying “I want to personally take risks that may result in my own death” that is fine – after all we are mortals and even if we hide away from death it will still find us. At my age I also regard death as a friend – a release from an increasingly irritating and pointless life.

  • Runcie Balspune (July 28, 2017 at 7:35 am), happily, the part of IT where I work has instead gone for the approach of defining tasks by implementing tests that will fail unless the task succeeds.

    – This saves the wasted time of writing huge ‘specifications’ that are much argued over, then agreed, then rarely consulted.

    – If you can’t implement any test, you at least know you have so unclear an idea of what you are trying to do that you are not going to succeed.

    – The implemented tests drive the functional coding. They evolve into acceptance tests for the release, and regression tests for future releases.

    – Support are involved, and provide support cases as tests, or co-operation to write tests. We have no separate acceptance-test group; if we did, they’d be involved in test writing from the start, so would have their tests ready to run by the end of coding.

    Having worked in Build-then-Test mode and in Test-then-Build mode, I pronounce the latter far superior for software, and for every product that is malleable (as code is). It is not a good idea to build 20 storeys of a 40-story skyscraper and then realise you’ll need 60 stories so must jack it up and relay the foundations, but it;s a very good idea to assume the first version of your software will serve to show the customer you did not understand what they wanted, so it will need editable regression tests as much or more than its functional code.

    This idea is almost 25 years old but has been a while percolating through IT. I can eel; believe there are places still using the methods of 30 years ago, which I recall only too well. 🙂

    This replies to Runcie’s comment but is arguably just as risk-averse. It is simply based on the idea that humans are stupid, that customers rarely understand what they really need or communicate it well to coders or are understood by coders, so advance planning is worth little, and the rigidity it imposes is worth less, whereas flexibility is everything. (I’d better stop here before I write a treatise. 🙂 )

  • Paul Marks (July 28, 2017 at 8:27 am), your comment reads as if you thought the lady had drowned through herself choosing to swim riskily, not through trying to save children who were already in trouble.

    Trying to save swimmers in trouble is a common cause of the death of the would-be saviour, a fact I expect the lady knew (since she had researched risk) and probably accepted. When the people in trouble are children, it is rational for an adult to think, “Though they are drowning, I, being a grown-up, may still be able to handle that current.” In this case, that guess was wrong but I can see her logic. In a fast current situation, when it may be obvious that you either dive in right away or you will not reach the person in trouble, you may have all of ten seconds or less to decide between

    – dive in; hope to reach them and support them, thus saving them from immediate drowning; hope someone else eventually turns up and saves you both, otherwise you will sooner or later drown with them

    – stay on-shore; throw life best/rope whatever if possible and/or get help, knowing that if the target cannot keep themselves afloat, it will arrive too late

    In her case, help did arrive in time to save the children IIUC so while in one sense she made a bad guess, in another sense her calculation – “I merely have to reach them and keep them afloat; someone will then arrive and rescue us all” looks like a reasonable one.

  • Johnny boy

    Boring question – does anyone know if an English translation of ‘Eloge du risque’ exists? I’ve searched the omniscient Google and have drawn a blank.

  • a release from an increasingly irritating and pointless life.

    That indicates a failure of imagination, Paul. Unless someone is in a vegetative state, life is never pointless. You have things to say and people willing to listen. And might I suggest that compared to a great many points in living memory, viewed from a eudaemonic perspective human life has reached hitherto unimagined heights. And as will all things, humanity’s Long Bull Market in progress is and always has been a jagged trend line.

  • PeterT

    It is not risk aversion per se that is a problem in the west but the combination of:

    – risk aversion
    – very poor understanding of risks, and the relative rankings thereof (e.g. terrorism risk vs. car death risk)
    – satisfaction from flashy but ineffective solutions
    – low priority given to the cost of addressing risks, both in terms of money and in terms of liberty lost. In both cases it is usually assumed that somebody else pays for it.

  • Mr Ed

    That indicates a failure of imagination, Paul.

    Perhaps, but he does wake up in Kettering.

    More seriously, Paul should start a YT channel and set out the history of the world and its ills, with his own perspective. We could watch and play ‘Fichte Bingo’ and tick off every bad philosopher who ever lived. With Patreon, there might even be some money in it.

  • Jacob

    “risking your life is one of the most beautiful expressions in our language”

    I suspect we are facing, again, the issue of whether self-sacrifice is a virtue.

    I haven’t read the book (written in French), but I suppose she means “risking you life for a noble cause” (like saving the lives of two children).
    Surely, risking your life for no reason (or just for the thrill of playing Russian roulette) is not beautiful or wise or good.
    Suicide might be a good option for some people, but surely not recommended as a virtue, for all.

    So, again – is self sacrifice a virtue or not ?

  • Alisa

    Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and so is virtue.

  • Alisa

    Ed, the Youtube bit is a brilliant idea. As to Patreon, they have just “deplatformed” Lauren Southern, so I’m not sure they will tolerate Paul any better…

  • More seriously, Paul should start a YT channel and set out the history of the world and its ills, with his own perspective. We could watch and play ‘Fichte Bingo’ and tick off every bad philosopher who ever lived. With Patreon, there might even be some money in it.

    ^this.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Jacob, I guess the problem is the use of the word “sacrifice”, if you mean that you are giving up a greater value for a lesser one. If you think that your life is the standard of value, and life proper to a rational, benevolent being, then putting your life at risk for a cause/other people you value very highly need not be seen as a sacrifice.

    I had not heard of this lady before, so I agree with Patrick’s initial reaction.

  • Mr Ed

    Jacob,

    Sacrifice‘ can also be applied to crops, rabbits etc. it literally derives from the Latin for (in short) ‘make holy‘.

    Surely, risking your life for no reason (or just for the thrill of playing Russian roulette) is not beautiful or wise or good.

    Neither beautiful nor good, but it might be a magnificent demonstration of freedom.

    Suicide might be a good option for some people, but surely not recommended as a virtue, for all.

    The First Earl Haig springs to mind as one who might helpfully have found an un-British use for his sword, or better his baton.

    And Flt-Lt Quinton’s situation was different, he had a binary choice, me or him, one excluded the other. He had no ‘win-win’. There was (ironically enough) a German Army (I think pre-Wehrmacht) saying that might be applied more nobly to Flt-Lt Quinton, which translated as ‘To life your life as a Lieutenant is to live your life as an example to your men. Dying as an example is thus part of it.’.

  • Watchman

    Mr Ed,

    I hope the expression was better in the original German…

  • Quinton’s foremost responsibility was to his infant son, not his cadet. In my opinion anyway.

  • bobby b

    Paul Marks
    July 28, 2017 at 8:27 am

    “At my age I also regard death as a friend – a release from an increasingly irritating and pointless life.”

    You write things that people all over the world read, struggle with, and sometimes learn from.

    My life has been in places where I have yearned for the significance that your life now has.

  • Jacob

    “but it might be a magnificent demonstration of freedom”
    “Magnificent”?? Sick.
    People should find some other way of enjoying (no need to demonstrate) their freedom. Risking one’s life should not be done frivolously.

    But she wrote: “When there really is a danger that must be faced in order to survive . . .” – in that case, of course, acting (even a risky act) is called for.

  • Jacob

    Mr Ed:
    If your German saying means that a Lieutenant should lead his platoon into battle (when needed), thereby risking his own life, i.e. advance in front of his men – then yes – it is correct.
    Risking one’s life is not the same as sacrificing it.

  • Richard Aubrey

    The lieutenant risks his life, or sacrifices his life, depending on whether the enemy manages to shoot him, or not.

  • Mr Ed

    Jacob,

    ‘magnificent’ in the sense that one may say ‘Live free or die’, in the ‘out of my cold, dead hand’ sense. A demonstration of self-ownership over those who would aggress against others, be it mountaineering, pioneering aviation or even testing scientific theories on yourself. If you can’t see that, look at how unmagnificent life in Cuba is, and Venezuela might be.

    The German Army saying makes no mention of risk. It is an error to read ‘risk’ into it, it does not mean what you might want it to mean, but only what it says, it refers to dying as an example, but as Richard points out, that’s not a certainty due to factors outside of one’s control. It is part of the job, not the essence (as it were) of it, like a jihadi, a kamikaze or a Vietnamese Communist Death Volunteer.

  • Eric

    To life your life as a Lieutenant is to live your life as an example to your men. Dying as an example is thus part of it.

    Ah yes, but it was British officers that don’t duck.

  • fcal

    Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. (Horace) – It is sweet and proper to die for the fatherland.

  • Jacob

    The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.

    Accept the challenges [i.e. risks] so that you can feel the exhilaration of victory.

    General Patton.

    Another formulation of the same ideas about risking one’s life – one that I like better.

  • Paul Marks

    I am sorry to hear that booby b – I hope things are better for you now.

    Niall – yes I am very sorry indeed for my implication. The lady, of course, died trying to save others – a noble death.

  • Jacob

    “died trying to save others – a noble death”

    Again… self sacrifice is noble…

  • “If I have learned one thing in my fifty-four years, it is that it is very good for the character to engage in sports which put your life in danger from time to time. It breeds a saneness in dealing with day-to-day trivialities which probably cannot be got in any other way, and a habit of quick decisions.”
    Nevil Shute

  • Again… self sacrifice is noble…

    And sometimes it is, and sometimes it is not.

  • Richard Thomas

    Niall, the problem is, making that wrong decision may not only endanger yourself but also others who then have to rescue you and may hinder the proficient rescue of those who you were hoping to rescue in the first place.

    Probably the ideal thing is to have considered the aspects of risk beforehand. If this is not possible, one should probably take extra time, *even when it seems like there is no time* to properly assess the situation and consider ones own capabilities and options. It is quite possible that the situation could be improved greatly with a little forethought. Act in haste, repent at leisure.