The place of the Brazilian university



The exercise and dignity of thought.

"And? I'm not a gravedigger." I take that statement as an emblem of what I intend to say to you today.


Enemy of tyranny, the philosopher Montaigne wrote an essay entitled “Cowardice is the mother of cruelty”. Cowardice, explains the philosopher, is born from the fear of the other who, therefore, must be fiercely eliminated. The coward is driven by the fear that the other, being better than him and brave, can defeat him and that is why he must be exterminated, whether physically, morally or politically. The cruel is a liar because he presents himself with the mask of courage when, in fact, he is inhabited by fear, he is moved by anger and there is nothing worse for a society than a cruel and angry ruler, since he does not judge according to the law, but according to your fear.

One of the most beautiful counterpoints to the essay against cowardice and cruelty is the one on friendship, which Montaigne dedicated to the memory of his friend, Etienne de La Boétie, who died prematurely and who, like Montaigne, had risen up against tyranny, writing a text known as speech by voluntary servitude in which we find the figure of the tyrant as cowardly and cruel.

O Voluntary servitude speech, as its title indicates, deals with an enigma: how did men, beings that Nature made free, use freedom to destroy it? How is a voluntary servitude possible? In fact, writes La Boétie, voluntary servitude is something that Nature, God's minister and good ruler of all things, refused to have done. More than that. Voluntary servitude is something that the language itself refuses to name, as this expression is a contradiction in terms, since free will and servitude are opposites and contraries: all will is free and there are only servants by coercion or against the will, something of which even the animals bear witness. The riddle, then, is twofold: how were free men freely willing to serve, and how can servitude be voluntary?

The strength of the tyrant, explains La Boétie, is not where we imagine to find it: in the fortresses that surround him and in the weapons that protect him. On the contrary, if he needs fortresses and weapons, if he fears the street and the palace, it is because he is a coward, he feels threatened and needs to show signs of strength or acts of cruelty. Physically, a tyrant is a man like any other – he has two eyes, two hands, one mouth, two feet, two ears; morally he is a coward, the proof of which is in his display of signs of strength and acts of cruelty. If so, where does his power come from, so great that no one thinks of putting an end to tyranny?

Answers La Boétie: his strength comes from the colossal enlargement of his physical body through his body politic, which gives him a thousand eyes and a thousand ears to spy on, a thousand hands to plunder and strangle, a thousand feet to crush and trample. The tyrant's physical body is not only enlarged by the body politic like the body of a colossus, his soul is also enlarged by means of false laws, which allow him to distribute favors and privileges and seduce the unwary to live around him to satisfy him. at any time and at any cost.

However, one must ask: who gives him this gigantic, seductive and malevolent body politic? The answer is immediate: it is we who give him our eyes and ears, our hands and our feet, our mouths, our goods and our children, our souls, our honor, our blood and our lives to feed him and increase his power with which it destroys us. For this reason, says La Boétie: it is not necessary to fight him, it is enough not to give him what he asks of us; if we don't give him our bodies and our souls, he will fall. But if the answer is so clear, the enigma of voluntary servitude is even greater, because if it is an easy thing to overthrow tyranny, it is necessary to ask why we voluntarily serve what destroys us.

La Boétie's answer is terrible: we consent to serve because we also expect to be served. We serve the tyrant because we are tyrants: each one serves the tyrant because he wants to be served by others below him; each one gives the goods and life to the tyrant because he wants to take possession of the goods and lives of those below him. Easement is voluntary because there is desire to serve, there is a desire to serve because there is lust for power and there is a desire for power because tyranny inhabits each one of us and institutes a tyrannical society, that is, tyranny is not found at the top of the social, but spread across it and cruelty spreads everywhere. Cowardice manifests itself in the physical, psychological, moral and political cruelty with which everyone wants to crush and exterminate anyone who refuses tyranny. There is not just the tyrant, but a tyrannical and cruel society.

Brazil is a perfect example of this, in which violence is not perceived right where it originates and right where it is defined as violence itself, that is, as every practice and every idea that reduces a subject to the condition of a thing, that internally and externally violates someone's being, which perpetuates cruelty in social relations of profound economic, social and cultural inequality.

Preserving the marks of colonial slave society, Brazilian society is strongly hierarchical in all its aspects: in it, social and intersubjective relations are always carried out as a relationship between a superior, who commands, and an inferior, who obeys. Differences and asymmetries are always transformed into inequalities, which reinforce the command-obedience relationship. The other is never recognized as a subject or as a subject of rights, he is never recognized as subjectivity or alterity. Relations between those who consider themselves equal are those of “kinship”, that is, of complicity; and, among those who are seen as unequal, the relationship takes the form of favour, clientele, guardianship or co-option, and, when inequality is very marked, it takes the form of oppression. Thus, there is the naturalization of economic and social inequalities, just as there is the naturalization of ethnic differences (considered racial inequalities between superiors and inferiors), religious and gender, as well as the naturalization of all visible and invisible forms of violence, such as racism, sexism, homophobia.

In it, laws are weapons to preserve privileges and the best instrument for repression and oppression, never defining concrete and comprehensible rights and duties for all. For the great, the law is a privilege; for the popular strata, repression. In our society, there is neither the idea nor the practice of authentic political representation. Political parties tend to be private clubs of local and regional oligarchies, they always take the clientelistic form in which the relationship is one of guardianship and favor. It is a society, consequently, in which the public sphere never manages to constitute itself as public, since it is always and immediately defined by the demands of the private space (that is, the economic interests of the dominant ones).

Socially and economically, the social division between the great and the people appears in the polarization between the absolute need of the popular layers and the absolute privilege of the dominant layers, consolidating a tyrannical structure that blocks the institution and consolidation of a democratic society. In fact, founded on the notion of rights, democracy is able to differentiate them from privileges e needs. A privilege is, by definition, something particular that cannot be generalized or universalized without ceasing to be a privilege.

A lack is also a particular or specific lack that is expressed in a demand that is also particular or specific, failing to generalize or universalize. A right, unlike needs and privileges, is not particular and specific, but general and universal, either because it is the same and valid for all individuals, groups and social classes, or because, although differentiated, it is recognized by all (as is the case of so-called minority rights). Thus, the economic-social polarization between need and privilege lays the foundations of a tyrannical society and stands as an obstacle to the institution of rights, which defines a democratic society.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the cruelty of the “So what? I'm not a gravedigger" can be socially reproduced with the cruelty of the so-called "wind vaccine". Thus, our question: why does nothing happen in the face of the cruelty that plagues the country? has the answer: because tyranny is the way of being of our society.


Cruelty is also expressed in a specific type of cowardice: that of political lying. Let Hannah Arendt speak: “the deliberate denial of the truth of facts – that is, the capacity to lie – and the ability to change facts – that is, the capacity to act – are intertwined”, and, she continues, “ the veracity of facts is never necessarily true. Historians know how vulnerable the texture of facts in which we spend our daily lives is and is always in danger of being pierced by common lies or being torn apart by the organized lying of groups, classes or nations, of being denied and distorted, often carefully covered up. by layers of falsehood, or simply be left to fall by the wayside. Facts need testimony to remember and reliable witnesses to establish so that they can find a safe haven in the field of human affairs... it is this frailty that makes deceit so easy and so tempting (...) The liar has the great advantage to know in advance what the audience expects to hear. He prepares his story very carefully for public consumption, in order to make it believable, since reality has a disconcerting habit of confronting us with the unexpected for which we are not prepared”.[1]

Deliberate lying consists of what the philosopher Theodor Adorno called cynicism. Cynicism is not just the deliberation to lie, but to make the distinction between true and false irrelevant. Nothing is more cynical, for example, than the governmental statement that indigenous people are responsible for the deforestation of our forests and destroyers of the environment.

Now the distinction between the true and the false is the essential mark of thought and that is why we can say that cruelty manifests itself as hate the thought. Not by chance, the first example chosen by Montaigne to illustrate the link between cowardice and cruelty is that of Socrates, who, in his tireless search for truth and justice, bravely faced a court that was afraid of him and therefore condemned him to death. death.

The hatred of thought is the fear of questioning common sense, pre-established ideas. Why do hate and fear come together here? Why thinking, when questioning common sense, has a transforming force: when thinking, thinking makes you think, gives food for thought and shakes the foundations of common sense. The hatred of thought appears in the hatred of the public university.


Since its appearance (in the XNUMXth century in Europe), the university has always been a social institution, that is, a action social, a practice based on the public recognition of its legitimacy and attributions, on a principle of differentiation, which gives it autonomy from other social institutions, and structured by orders, rules, norms and values ​​of recognition and legitimacy internal to it. The legitimacy of the modern university was based on the conquest of the idea of ​​autonomy of knowledge in the face of religion and the State, therefore, on the idea of ​​a knowledge guided by its own logic, by needs immanent to it, both from the point of view of its invention or discovery as well as its transmission.

For this very reason, the European university has become inseparable from the ideas of training, reflection, creation and criticism. With the social and political struggles of the last centuries, with the conquest of education and culture as rights, the university has also become a social institution inseparable from the idea of ​​democracy and the democratization of knowledge: either to realize this idea, or to oppose In addition to it, the university institution could not escape the reference to democracy as a regulating idea.

The university is dedicated to training and research.

What does this mean formation? First of all, as the word itself indicates, a relationship with time: it is to introduce someone to the past of their culture (in the anthropological sense of the term, that is, as a symbolic order), it is to awaken someone to the questions that this past engenders for the present, and is to stimulate the passage from the instituted to the instituting. What Merleau-Ponty says about the work of art helps us here: the work of art collects the immemorial past contained in perception, interrogates present perception and seeks to overcome the given situation by offering it a new meaning that could not come into existence without the work itself. In the same way, the work of thought is only fruitful when it thinks and says what without it could not be thought or said, and above all when, by its very excess, it gives us something to think and say, creating a posterity within itself. that will overcome it.

By instituting the new on what was sedimented in culture, the work of art and thought reopen time and form the future. We can say that there is formation when there is a work of thought and that there is a work of thought when the present is apprehended as that which demands from us the work of interrogation, reflection and criticism, in such a way that we become capable of raising ourselves to the level of the concept what was experienced as a question, question, problem, difficulty. Formation collects the past – what was thought, said, done -, understands it in its present and in ours; interrogates the present – ​​what there is to be thought, said and done; and opens up the future as to come – what our interrogation leaves for those who will come after us when they begin to think, say and do.

Training is what allows the birth and development of research. What defines the search, what are your most important brands?

(1).a innovation: either because of the theme, or because of the methodology, or because of the discovery of new difficulties, or because it leads to a reformulation of previous knowledge on the issue;

(2).a durability: research is not subservient to fads and its meaning does not end when the academic fad ends because it was not born out of a fad;

(3). the idea of work: research is not an isolated fragment of ideas that will not follow, but creates steps for subsequent work, by the researcher himself or by others, whether his advisees or participants from the same group or research sector; there is work when there is continuity of concerns and investigations, when there is a resumption of someone's work by another, and when a tradition of thought is formed in the area;

(4) give to think: the research allows new related, parallel, or same-field questions to be thought about, even if they have not been worked on by the researcher himself; or that already existing, connected, parallel issues or issues from the same field can be perceived differently, prompting a new work of thought on the part of other researchers;

(5) social, political or economic: research reaches extra-academic recipients for whom the work becomes a reference for action, either because it leads to the idea of ​​applied research, to be carried out by other agents, or because its results are perceived as directly or indirectly applicable to different types of action;

(6) autonomy: the research raises effects beyond what the researcher thought or predicted, but the essential thing is that it was born from the researcher's own and internal demands and from his field of activities, from the intellectual and scientific need to think about a certain problem, and not by determination external to the researcher (even if it was other academic, social, political or economic subjects that may have awakened in the researcher the need and interest in research, this can only become excellent if born from an internal demand to the thought and researcher's own action);

(7) articulation of two different logics, the academic logic and the historical logic (social, economic, political): the innovative, long-lasting, autonomous research that produces a work and a tradition of thought and that provokes effects in the action of other subjects is the one that seeks to answer the questions posed by historical experience and for which experience, as experience, does not have answers; in other words, the quality of research is measured by its capacity to face the scientific, humanistic and philosophical problems posed by the difficulties of the experience of its own time; the more a research is reflection, investigation and response to its time, the less perishable and more significant it is;

(8) articulation between the universal and the particular: excellent research is that which, dealing with something particular, does so in such a way that its reach, its meaning and its effects tend to be universalizable; the less generic and the more particular, the greater the possibility of having universal aspects or dimensions (for this reason, and not to count points, it may be published and known internationally, when the time for this publication arises).

As a social institution, the university cannot avoid tensions between its academic dimension and its socio-political dimension. The first tension arises when we take into account the difference in temporality that governs teaching and research and that which governs politics. The second tension, when we take into account the alternation of governments, typical of democracy.

Let's look at the first voltage. The time of politics is the here and now. Political planning, even when it distinguishes the short, medium and long term, is done with a completely different calendar from scientific planning, as the time for action and the time for thought are completely different. In addition, political action takes place by taking a position and deciding on conflicts, demands, interests, privileges and rights, and must take place in response to the plurality of simultaneous social and economic demands.

Democratic political action is both heteronomous and autonomous. Heteronomous, because the origin of the action is outside it, in the groups and social classes that define their needs, needs, interests, rights and options. Autonomous, because the origin of the political decision is found in the groups that hold power and that evaluate, according to their own criteria, the deliberation and the decision. In any case, however, the speed, promptness of the political response and its symbolic impact are fundamental, and its meaning will only appear long after the action taken.

On the contrary, the time of teaching and research follows a different pattern and a different logic. The years of teaching and training for the transmission of knowledge, the invention of new teaching practices, the curricular changes required by the consequences and innovations of research in the area being taught and learned, the material working conditions, libraries and laboratories require that the time of teaching is constituted according to its logic and its specific internal needs.

On the research side, the preparation of researchers, data collection, methodological decisions, experiments and verifications, trials and errors, the need to retrace paths already taken, the return to point zero, the recovery of previous research in the new , the change of thought paradigms, the discovery of new concepts made in other fields of knowledge (not directly linked to the researched field, but with direct or indirect consequences on the progress and conclusions of research), the logical requirement of periodic interruptions, the need to discuss the steps taken and control them, in short, everything that characterizes scientific research – not to mention here the material conditions of its possibility, such as the lack of resources to continue in a line that will have to be abandoned for another for which there are material and human resources in addition to accumulated knowledge – makes scientific time and political time follow different logics and different patterns of action.

Just as it would be political suicide to intend to act only through clear, distinct and absolutely precise, rigorous and logically true ideas, it would also be theoretical suicide to intend to submit the time of research to that of the speed and immediacy of political action. Politics does not seem to have time to anticipate the results of its own work. This is why, incidentally, politics is not a science, although there is a political science that is not politics per se (it is a science about politics and not of politics).

This difference in temporalities leads to the assumption that the socio-political dimension of the university needs to be subordinated to its academic dimension, that is, political action can only appropriate scientific research after it has been consolidated and cannot impose another rhythm other than that of thought. This leads to two consequences. Firstly, that the objectives of a policy can materially help the research time, making it faster, thanks to the material conditions for its realization; second, that scientific research can guide political projects, insofar as it can offer elements to elucidate political action itself.

The second tension between the two dimensions stems, as we said, from the nature of democratic politics, founded on the periodic alternation of government occupants. This alternation, essential to democracy, means that, periodically, society can decide whether to continue or discontinue policies, that is, a political project or a set of public policies. The humanistic and scientific dimension of the university, however, can only be realized if there is continuity of projects and training and research programs. The tension between the two dimensions can be overcome as the university engages in long-term policies that are not subject to the discontinuous time of state policy.


Inspired by Claude Lefort, I want to conclude by talking about our work, that is, the work of thought with the job.

Immersed in a story, the work of thought inaugurates a new story, opens up an unprecedented field of thought thanks to the criticism of instituted representations, which obscure the present and the future. But this inaugural act is grounded in a radical state of not-knowing. It is as an absence of knowledge and action that the present gives rise to the work, whose work establishes knowledge and action. Indeed, to say that the work of thought is an intellectual work means that there is a matter to be transformed by reflection. This material is the immediate experience and the work of the work consists in undoing the supposed positivity of this material, unveiling the questions that it raises and is incapable of answering.

The work of the work begins when it reveals the sleep in which immediate experience is immersed, when it belies and demystifies it, forcing it to think about itself and, in doing so, leading it to recognize itself as necessary e illusory. To interpret the present is to interrogate it in order to undo its appearance, that is, its positivity and, with it, the positivity attributed both to the fixed image of the past and an appeasing calculation of the future. Thus, the articulation between knowing and not-knowing, which inaugurates the work as a work of reflection, also inaugurates the possibility of questioning another work, born of the first one, namely, the transformation of the present. work of the work: way of reaching the work at its most obscure point in the articulations between theory and practice, in the folds of historicity.

Claude Lefort takes up an expression coined by the Neapolitan philosopher, Vico, the “heroic mind”, taken up by Michelêt as “heroism of thought”. These expressions appear “to celebrate the risk of a search without models, freed from the authority of established knowledge, very appropriate to claim the excessive desire to think beyond the separation of the disciplines of knowledge, in search of the truth (...) to create, to make the emergence, through the exercise of a vertiginous right of thought, of speech, the work in which meaning arises (...) when one assumes the endless risk of thought, speech or action”.[2]

Exercise and heroic dignity of thought: this is our place in the fight against cowardice, cruelty, lies and cynicism.

*Marilena Chaui is Professor Emeritus at FFLCH at USP. She is the author, among other books, of In defense of public, free and democratic education (Authentic).

Lecture given at the opening of the Second UFBA Virtual Congress, on February 22, 2021.


[1] Hannah Arendt Republic crisis. São Paulo, Perspectiva, 1973, p. 9.

[2] C. Lefort Écrire à l'epreuve du politique. Calman-Lévy, Paris, 1992,

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