Jacques Ellul

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0. From the Wikipedia:

"Jacques Ellul (January 6, 1912 – May 19, 1994) was a French philosopher, sociologist, lay theologian, and professor who was a noted Christian anarchist. Ellul was a longtime Professor of History and the Sociology of Institutions on the Faculty of Law and Economic Sciences at the University of Bordeaux. A prolific writer, he authored more than 60 books and more than 600 articles over his lifetime, many of which discussed propaganda, the impact of technology on society, and the interaction between religion and politics.

The dominant theme of Ellul's work proved to be the threat to human freedom and religion created by modern technology. He did not seek to eliminate modern technology or technique but sought to change our perception of modern technology and technique to that of a tool rather than regulator of the status quo. Among his most influential books are The Technological Society and Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes.

Considered by many a philosopher, Ellul was trained as a sociologist, and approached the question of technology and human action from a dialectical viewpoint. His writings are frequently concerned with the emergence of a technological tyranny over humanity. As a philosopher and theologian, he further explored the religiosity of the technological society. In 2000, the International Jacques Ellul Society was founded by a group of former Ellul students. The society, which includes scholars from a variety of disciplines, is devoted to continuing Ellul's legacy and discussing the contemporary relevance and implications of his work"


1. A Biography of Jacques Ellul (1912–1994), by Patrick Chastenet:

"Jacques Ellul adhered to the maxim “think globally, act locally” throughout his life. He often said that he was born in Bordeaux by chance on January 6, 1912, but that it was by choice that he spent almost all his academic career there. After a long illness, he died on May 19, 1994, in his house in Pessac just a mile or two from the University of Bordeaux campus, surrounded by those closest to him. Not long before his death, the limitations of the treatment for this illness confirmed to him once again one of his favorite themes: the ambivalence of technological progress.

Although he was deeply attached to the Aquitaine region in southwestern France, his cosmopolitan roots produced a deep dislike of any nationalistic feeling. His paternal grandmother was Serbian, a descendant of the Obrenovic’ family, his grandfather was Italian but came from Malta, and his father, who was from Trieste, was both an Austrian citizen and a British subject. His mother was the daughter of a French woman and a Portuguese man named Mendès.

Their paths converged in Bordeaux where Jacques Ellul’s father, after his studies in Vienna, was recruited to be a representative of Louis Eschenauer wine merchants. His mother taught art in a private school, while his father found himself unemployed on several occasions because of his uncompromising personality that placed honor above all other considerations.

Ellul’s childhood was poor but happy. He was brought up to be committed to the aristocratic virtues. In high school (at the Lycée Longchamp, now the Lycée Montesquieu), he was at the top of his class. When he finished his homework, his mother would allow him to wander freely around the docks in Bordeaux or the marshlands of Eysines.

The family lived near the Jardin Public (one of the Bordeaux city parks), where he and his public school classmates regularly fought Homeric battles with the boys from the private Catholic school. This did not prevent him from later becoming an advocate of “non-violence” or, more precisely, “non-power.”

Ellul excelled in Latin, French, German, and history, and at the age of seventeen obtained his baccalauréat (college preparatory high school diploma) at the Lycée Montaigne. He wanted to be an officer in the navy, but his father made him study law instead. Although Jacques Ellul may not yet have been converted to Christianity when he first went to the University of Bordeaux (his faith took some time to develop its final form), on August 10, 1930, God appeared to him in a vision that forever after he modestly refused to describe. Two further decisive encounters took place during his student years, one with Bernard Charbonneau and the other with his wife, Yvette, with whom he had four children: three boys, Jean, Simon, and Yves, and a daughter, Dominique.

Ellul and his friend Charbonneau (Ellul would have us believe that he was no more than his friend’s bright sidekick) elaborated a Gascon variant of personalism (the social philosophy associated with Emmanuel Mounier), the originality of which is only now beginning to be appreciated by historians of ideas. True pioneers of political ecology, the two men carried out a “libertarian/anarchist”-inspired critique of modern society. Jacques Ellul wanted Esprit (the publication edited by Mounier) to be the voice of a truly revolutionary movement, regionally rooted and based in small, self-directed groups, rather than a mere Parisian intellectual publication. He eventually broke off his relations with Mounier, notably criticizing the latter’s uncompromising Catholicism.

After obtaining his doctorate in 1936 with a thesis titled “The History and Legal Nature of the Mancipium,” Ellul began teaching at the Faculty of Law in Montpellier (19371938), before obtaining posts in Strasbourg and then Clermont-Ferrand.

He was dismissed by the Vichy government in 1940 because of his father’s status as a “foreigner,” and then went to live in the Entre-deux-mers area between the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers. There, in the little village of Martres, he was active in the Resistance and took up agriculture in order to feed his family. He later confessed that he was just as proud of harvesting his first ton of potatoes as he was of receiving his agrégation (the qualifying exam for university teaching) in Roman law (1943).

After the war, Ellul was briefly a member of the Bordeaux city administration (October 31, 1944 to April 29, 1945) but forever after steered clear of all party politics, except for an unfortunate episode as candidate for the Union Démocratique et Socialiste de la Résistance in October 1945.

Ellul did, however, wish to continue embodying his Christian concept of “presence in the modern world”—as distinct from the fundamentalist approach as from that of the liberation theologians. He held national office in the Reformed Church of France until 1970 but was never more than on the fringes of Protestant circles. From 1958 to 1977, he was president of a club for the prevention of juvenile delinquency and was also actively involved in the ecology movement, notably with the Committee for the Defense of the Aquitaine Coastline.

His active engagement in the events of the century nourished a considerable amount of writing: almost a thousand articles and fifty or so books translated into more than twelve languages. The Technological Society, the first volume of his trilogy on the subject, appeared in France in 1954. This book was discovered and promoted by Aldous Huxley, the English author of Brave New World, and brought him fame in American universities ten years later—a fact borne out by the hundreds of Californian students who came to study at the Institute of Political Studies until his retirement in 1980. Ellul was a demanding professor but open to discussion, knowing how to capture the attention of his audience without resorting to dramatic effects or giving in to fashion. He regularly taught classes on the technological society, propaganda, and Marx’s thinking or that of his various disciples (be they German, Italian, Russian, Chinese, or Czech).

He was an engaged thinker in the noblest sense, that is, a participant in all of the most essential debates of his time, and he did not hesitate to take up his pen to communicate with the general public by way of deliberately polemical articles published notably in Réforme, Quotidien de Paris, Ouest-France, and Sud-Ouest Dimanche.

His five-volume History of Institutions has been used by generations of French university students. The book he was proudest of, however, was Hope in Time of Abandonment.

It is impossible to separate the sociologist from the theologian in this polygraph whose tone was deliberately prophetic. As he told the newspaper Le Monde in 1981, “I describe a world with no exit, convinced that God accompanies man throughout his history.” The author of Living Faith (the French title literally reads, “faith at the price of doubt”), died with that certainty."


2. Samuel Matlack:

"Jacques César Ellul was born in Bordeaux, France in 1912. His father, an Austrian tradesman with roots in Italy, Serbia, and Malta (Ellul is a Maltese name), had come to France to work for a wine merchant. Ellul’s mother was a Portuguese-French art teacher and painter. It was thus “somewhat by chance,” Ellul said, that he was born in Bordeaux, but he would remain there almost all his life. Both parents, even though they had come from lofty families, possessed but lowly means; Ellul, the only child, was raised on aristocratic values of honor and honesty while suffering the economic hardship of his father’s frequent joblessness. That he grew up in a poor family, he later recounted in the autobiographical book Perspectives on Our Age, was one of the “most decisive elements in my life.” When Ellul discovered Karl Marx’s writings in 1930 in the midst of the Depression, while studying the history of law and institutions at the University of Bordeaux, he felt that “at last I knew why my father was out of work, at last I knew why we were destitute…. Thus, for me, Marx was an astonishing discovery of the reality of this world…. I had finally found the explanation.” Even though Ellul came to reject communism and the Marxism then fashionable among the intelligentsia, Marx continued to be the dominant influence on his sociological thought.

But he “quickly realized that Marx did not have answers for everything,” especially for the existential questions of life, death, and love. For these he found answers, also in the early 1930s, in Protestant Christianity. Ellul had had no religious upbringing — his father was “a complete Voltairian,” highly critical of religion despite his own Greek Orthodox background, and his mother was a devout Protestant but at her husband’s wishes remained strictly private about her faith. As we will see, these two commitments — to Marx and to Jesus, and to both in a nonconformist fashion — would come to shape much of Ellul’s life and virtually his entire body of writings.

After receiving his doctorate in the history of law in 1936, Ellul became a law professor at a number of universities. He was deeply engaged in anti-fascist resistance groups, and even met his wife, the Dutch-English Yvette Lensvelt who would be the mother of his four children, at a counter-protest against extreme right-wing students who were demonstrating to defend Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. These experiences were formative, as Ellul would go on to reject all mass movements, whether political, propagandist, or technological. (The two main sociological works he wrote after The Technological Society were Propaganda [1962] and The Political Illusion [1965].) In 1940, he was dismissed from his teaching position by the Vichy government for having warned a group of students not to go home to Alsace, which had been taken over by Germany. With his wife and newborn son he returned to occupied Bordeaux, but the arrest of his father by the Germans and the threat of his wife being apprehended as well — both were foreign nationals — forced the family to withdraw to the countryside where Ellul farmed and raised sheep for the remainder of the war. For some time, he also pastored a local church and participated in resistance groups, helping Jewish families and resistance fighters find safe haven in the free French zone, often by arranging for forged papers. (In 2001, Israel’s official memorial to Holocaust victims honored Ellul as one of the “righteous among the nations.”)

From the liberation of France in 1944 until his retirement in 1980, Ellul taught the history and sociology of institutions at the University of Bordeaux. But he was never only engaged in the life of the mind; he was also involved in politics and social activism: “intellectual interest means concrete commitment.” He served on the Bordeaux city council, although for less than a year, and held out hope that with his experience in the resistance movement he could help bring about thoroughgoing social change after the war, which had torn to shreds the fabric of society. From this stint in politics, however, he concluded that “the politician is powerless against government bureaucracy; society cannot be changed through political action,” a view that would become the topic of his 1965 book The Political Illusion. Social change, he came to feel, would need to rise from the bottom up, and he began leading student groups on extensive mountain hikes combining practical work with thinking about society. In the late 1940s, he became involved in the founding and activities of the ecumenical World Council of Churches before serving as a national council member of the French Reformed Church, but again he discovered that institutionalism was an obstacle to effective social reform. More successful toward that end by his own estimation was his work with juvenile delinquents and helping to convince government, police, and legal workers that social maladjustment was often a function of society’s flaws, not the individual’s. Perhaps his most direct and practical strike against the authority of the technicist in society was his environmental activism, for instance to protect a coastal region against the encroachment of mass tourism.

Ellul died in 1994 after a long illness. He left behind a legacy of committed Christian faith and a staggering amount of writings of penetrating social-historical and biblical-theological analysis — over fifty books and about a thousand articles. Since 2000, the International Jacques Ellul Society in partnership with a sister society in France has sought to preserve his scholarly legacy and to apply his ways of thinking to contemporary issues, with articles appearing in The Ellul Forum, published semi-annually since 1988. His main work as a legal scholar, a massive five-volume history of the development of legal institutions from antiquity to modernity, has not been translated into English. But his best known and perhaps most disputed work, especially in the English-speaking world, is The Technological Society."


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