Xenophon Tenezakis


Greece's Cycladic Islands, Firenze, rue Saint Martin in Paris, the center of Strasbourg. These are some of the locations cherished by Xenophon (pronounced (/ˈzɛnəfən, -ˌfɒn/) Tenezakis. The 26 year old Greek-Belgian philosophy teacher loves anything that evokes a sense of the past. It’s only fitting that his namesake was a student of Socrates!

"I really like reading before going to bed," he says. He describes his main passions as political and social philosophy and literature. His favourite books are Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu and Borges' Ficciones. For someone who can occasionally live up to the reputation of an absent-minded professor, he has a system of organization in place. He even keeps a notebook next to his bed to write down his dreams and any interesting thoughts he has before sleeping.

And interesting thoughts he has many. He defines his personal philosophy as equilibrium. "I read Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics when I was in first year of my philosophy bachelor," he tells me. “Aristotle says our goal should be the ‘juste milieu,’ which means trying to avoid excesses and insufficiencies in our actions. Like, in pleasure, trying to find the point where pleasure is strongest without having bad consequences. It’s something of an equilibrium point.” You shouldn’t let one sole activity, person, or characteristic define you, Xeno reminds us. When I ask him what qualities he looks for in friends or people he'd collaborate with professionally, he tells me, "I like most of all dedicated people." The last time he felt truly happy was when his pupils gave him a gift for the end of the school year. Keep reading to learn more about this humble homme de lettres.   ///

RS: Where did you grow up?
XT: I grew up in Athens, and I spent a lot of my childhood in archeological places like the Akropolis where the Parthenon lies (temple of Athena) or the Agora where citizens used to gather in fifth century BC.

RS: So you loved Greek mythology.
XT: And this has evidently been an influence in my work since I like authors like Arendt, Foucault, or even Castoriadis, who tried to find ways to renew our thought through the works of Ancient authors.

RS: Where do you live right now?
XT: In France, in the nice middle-sized town that goes by the name of Nancy.

RS: The fact that you moved from Greece to France very young made you especially sensible to strangeness, or alterity, as a fact of life.
XT: From the beginning I was exposed to the fact that there isn’t one absolute and perfect way of being but rather diverse ways of being and world conceptions that have their own [pros and cons] related to circumstances.

RS: What do you miss about Greece?
XT: The smells, the food, the green, the expansive and warm-hearted people. Getting out in the streets of Athens and walking under sour orange and olive trees. And the sea. It may sound strange but Athen’s suburbs are a magical place, especially in mild weather - streets are covered in rather lush vegetation (pines, daphne, etc). I must also be saying that because of nostalgia.  

RS: What do you do in Nancy?
XT: I am a secondary school philosophy teacher, and I am doing a thesis on the side, as well as contributing a little of my time to associations and volunteer work. I conceive my volunteer work as a way to assume my political views as well as an experience that can help me explore the issues that are at stake in my philosophical work.

RS: What sparked your interest in philosophy?
XT: Well, I don't really know, my interest for philosophy developed as I grew up. The Norwegian novel Le monde de Sophie certainly had a great influence on me since I loved it. In my last year of secondary school I took philosophy and I understood then that this discipline was made for me.

RS: 9/11 also had a great influence on you?
XT: Certainly. Ever since then, I've been very much interested in current events, "actualité" as they say in French. In other words, what are we now, what is our present world, what is bad or good in it.

RS: What happened the last time you were stuck in the airport for a whole day?
XT: I read One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse and it struck me as reflecting in a pretty faithful way my surroundings, the way they were organised, the way (especially in an airport) everything was used as merchant value, and pleasure was reduced to material consumption.

RS: How does capitalism affect you?
XT: It destroys nature and creates places with no soul or past, whose sole function is value maximisation.


RS: On an unrelated note, can you tell me how solitude can become a trap? What are the challenges of your work?
XT: To write philosophical essays you must spend a lot of time alone in front of books. It can become a trap or even a source of uneasiness if you do not have other activities. I'd say sports, cooking, volunteer work, or anything else that confronts you to be more practical and [have] precise objectives to attain is a good thing to maintain energy and focus for writing.

RS: Is it hard to get your students interested?
XT: They are used to writing what the teacher says without really thinking about the meaning of what is told. Maybe that is one of the faults of the French teaching system; being in a purely listening (and somewhat passive) position is not the best way to get everyone interested. It is not made for everyone.

RS: How do you introduce variety then?
XT: With collective discussion, or taking examples from everyday life, but there is also the pressure of the curriculum that you have to finish (to be sure that students will be able to pass the final exam).

RS: So, what's a day in your life like?
XT: I usually wake up early, read The New Yorker or some other newspaper or magazine and then go to school, where I give lessons, but also spend time talking with my colleagues. It is always helpful because it is this way that you can gather experience. When I have time in the afternoon, I take notes on the books I have to read for my thesis and write little remarks on another file on my computer, notes that usually can form the content of another article or chapter in the thesis. I usually spend the evening either with a friend or reading or correcting my pupils' work.

RS: What's the problem you try to solve in the thesis?  
XT: Can there be a collective way of action that doesn’t reduce the individuals that contribute to it into blind instruments of ideas that are not their own? How can we reconcile collective action with individual empowerment?

RS: What do you think are the great issues of our time?
XT: The environment, as well as the rising inequalities in the world, and the power that mass media and modern technologies have to shape our behaviour. Therefore, one of my objectives in my thesis works and the other articles I have written is to find a way to conceptualize political means of action and organisation that can contribute to solve these issues.

RS: What does your article Secularisation & biopolitique chez Spinoza deal with?
XT: Contemporary politics directed at maximising the output and growth of human life. This is what Foucault calls « biopolitique », i.e. the development of instruments and knowledge in order to manage whole populations. My argument is that this kind of politics was anticipated by thinkers like Spinoza in modern ages.

RS: What did Spinoza argue is the function of a state?
XT: To maximise the well-being of its citizens by force or rather more insidious means.

RS: Why is a thorough critique of such premise necessary?
XT: Because it treats societies as if they were mechanical apparatuses that could and should function independently of the will and conscience of citizens. I think that is a kind of deprivation of freedom, especially political freedom, since it puts forth a technocratic model where the citizens play only a very small role.

RS: Your second article deals with Spinoza in a slightly more positive way.
XT: I try to explain how in Spinoza’s way of thinking about democracy, the institution of the vote/democratic decision can be used as a way to make individuals believe in their own freedom.

RS: Voting implies that individuals make choices they believe they are free to do (even if they’re not).
XT: The existence of these institutions and their integration in daily lives could be conceived in Spinoza’s terms as a way to make us believe in our own freedom and, moreover, be more obedient to political institutions because they are the condition of our possibility to exert our right to vote (even if this right to vote is not as free as it seems). But, by making us believe in our own freedom, they can make us more conscious of our own desire and will, and more confident in our capacity to realise our [desires].

RS: So, the takeaway is that social institutions are there to discipline and coerce us into obedience to general social norms.
XT: Yet by doing that they always have counter-effects on which we should count to build opposition to those norms, which can be alienating.

RS: What do you appreciate in particular about Spinoza’s philosophy?
XT: Its architectonical and systemic manner. It feels as if it tried to embody the whole of human experience, and it does succeed, in a way. Spinoza thinks that we are not at all free but rather the products of our environment and physical/biological/social constitution.

RS: How does he underline what is good in humanity?
XT: He doesn't link it to some "good nature" or "good" human essence or conscience, but merely the way we react to or try to build solutions to the problematic situations we face. 

RS: And our capacity to resist emotions which do not give us a correct apprehension of the world.
XT: Like hate. When we hate somebody we focus on an individual whereas the behaviour of that individual is a product of an infinite number of external causes; by knowing that, we may vanquish hate.

RS: What do you dislike about his definition of conatus?
XT: He says that the primary force that moves us is a force that is an affirmation of our own existence, and that implies negating or destroying what lessens our force.

RS: What would you rather focus on?
XT: The way humans try to affirm, not only themselves, but rather, more generally, values that their lives are linked with, such as the Army for a general, the School for a professor, etc., and that may contradict the individual life of the person.

RS: Also, Spinoza is a little too rationalistic for you.
XT: I find seductive but unrealistic the perspective that we could comprehend and understand the whole of our experience.

// Academia.edu / Esprit article / LinkedIn