P.-J. Proudhon, The Celebration of Sunday — I



It is rare that a law can be well understood and appreciated at its true value, if we limit ourselves to considering it separately, and independent of the system to which it is linked: that is a principle of legislative critique which no one contests, and suffers hardly any exceptions. How is it that this rule has been so badly followed with regard to the laws of Moses, that no one has yet thought to present them in their totality? I would not exempt from this criticism even Mr. Pastoret himself, whose work on the legislation of Moses seems to have been composed under the dictation of rabbis who wanted to mock their disciple. How is it, I say, that no publicist has even tried to sum up that governmental machine, to show its workings, to show the correlation of the parts with the whole, and the exact proportion between them? We have given ourselves up to minute researches on the laws of Lycurgus; for them, we have exhausted all the resources of erudition; by means of sagacity and critique, we have managed to give, if not a complete idea, at least an approximate, of the political state of the Lacedaemonians. The same work on Moses would be much easier; most of the materials exist; and, in order to reconstruct the edifice, it is a question only of arranging the scattered fragments.
We would hardly believe such an insufficiency on the part of the commentators, if the causes were not found recorded in their writings. According to the rabbis, it is not necessary to seek any reason in the Jewish laws other than the autocratic will of God, no other motive than the absolute, sic volo, sic jubeo, which allows neither examination nor verification. It is an impiety to probe the ways of the divinity. Obedience, in order to be meritorious, must be blind. Submission to the law loses all its prize, as soon as it is accompanied by science. That absurd opinion is ever so ancient and so profoundly established among them, that when a Pharisee, Saint Paul, came to proclaim before the nation that heretical aphorism, Rationabile sit obsequium vestrum, “Let your obedience be reasonable,” a revolution was accomplished in religion.
On the other hand, Moses had not prepared himself to erect a dialectical monument; he did not want to make a theory. He never explained his principles. The needs of the people demanded a rule; Moses rendered an oracle. A question of right presented itself to be resolved; he dictated a law. But, despite that incoherence in the redaction, we need not imagine that his plan of legislation was as disordered as the collection of his decrees appears to us today, and that he had not had constantly in mind the archetypal idea of the simplest and most magnificent system. The Decalogue is the reduced expression and like the most general formula of that mass of detailed ordinances scattered in the Pentateuch. The very number of the commandments of the Decalogue and their sequence is not at all fortuitous: it is the genesis of moral phenomena, the scale of duties and crimes, based on a wise and marvelously developed analysis.

  1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th       Impiety.                           1. Religion, homeland.
          5th               2. Parricide.                      2. Filial piety, obedience,  discipline.
          6th               3. Homicides, assaults,  etc    3. Love of the neighbor, of humanity.


          7th               A. Luxury.                       4. Chastity, modesty.
          8th               5. Theft, rapine.                S. Equality, justice.
          9th               6. Lies, perjury.                6. Truth, good faith.
         10th              7. Concupiscence.            7. Purity of heart.

What a magnificent creed! What philosopher, what legislator has there been but this one who has established such categories, and who has known how to fill out this cadre! Seek in all the duties of man and citizen something which does not boil down to this, but you will not find it. On the contrary, if you show me somewhere a single precept, a single obligation irreducible to that measure, I am justified in advance in declaring that obligation, that precept, outside of conscience, and consequently arbitrary, unjust, and immoral. We have exhausted all the forms of admiration and praise with regard to the categories Aristotle; we have not said a word of the categories of Moses. I will not do the same.
Supported by these certain foundations, the work of Moses was raised like a creation of God: unity and simplicity in the principles, variety and richness in the details. Each of the formulas of the Decalogue could become the subject of a long treatise: I will not explore even one of them in depth. The ordinance on the Sabbath is only one section of the first law, of which it forms the fourth paragraph.
“It is necessary,” said J.-J. Rousseau (The Social Contract), “that there be fixed and periodic assemblies, that nothing can abolish or defer, so that on the indicated day the people will be legitimately called together by the law, without there being need for any other formal convocation.”
What Rousseau asked, with the sole aim of forcing the people to show itself from time to time in all of their majesty, and thus to act as sovereign, Moses ordained, but not to gather a deliberative assembly:—about what would they deliberate? They have no right to claim, no privilege to destroy: all affairs, private or public, should be dealt with according to the constituent principles and by a sort of casuistic algebra. The marvel of modern times, the standing vote, taken on questions which could be resolved only by science and study, the preponderance of majorities, in a word, would then have appeared absolutely absurd. The laws like the institutions, founded on the observation of nature and deduced from moral phenomena in the same manner as the formulas in a treatise on physics are deduced from the phenomena of bodies, were immutable; and there was a penalty of death for whoever proposed to change or remove them. For extraordinary cases, the ancients gathered themselves in the public square: they did not wait for the Sabbath. The government of the Hebrews was not, as some imagine, a democracy in the manner of the Social Contract; neither was it a theocracy, in the sense of a government by priests. Moses, founding his republic by making the people swear to be faithful to the Alliance, had not submitted his work to the judgment of the multitude: that which is just in itself, the absolute truth, cannot be the object of an acceptance or a pact. Free, at his own risk, to obey the voice of his conscience, man has not be called to compromise with it: so the Jewish people were subject to the law. As for the priesthood, we will see what it was later.
Moses knew that man, rather than being born for society, is often dominated without knowing it by an unsociable instinct which leads him to isolation; he knew that reason, interest, even friendship, does not always suffice to vanquish his natural sloth; that suffering and labor, far from bringing him closer to his fellows, pushes him from them, and that his somber sadness is increased by the energy of his thought and his silent contemplations. Who should be more disposed than the preacher of Mount Horeb to absolve the reclusive man? For forty years, alone with his genius, always lost in the infinite, conversing only with the beasts, he had tasted all the delights and all the rancors of meditation. His soul, exalted by continual ecstasy, had made enthusiasm a habit. And suddenly the anchorite of the desert said to himself: Man is not made to live alone; he must have brothers. The interior life is not of this world. On this earth, action was required. And he was soon on his way: Israel had a liberator.
What Moses wanted then for his young nation, was not associations or musters, nor was it rallies and fairs. It was not only the unity of government, nor the community of usages. All of that is consequence, rather than principle; it is the sign, not the thing. What he desired to create in his people was a communion of love and faith, a fusion of intelligences and hearts, if I may put it that way. It was this invisible link, stronger than all material interests, that forms among souls the love of the same homeland, the worship of the same God, the same conditions of domestic happiness, the solidarity of destinies, the same memories, and the same aspirations. He wanted, in short, not an agglomeration of individuals, but a truly fraternal society.
But, in order to sustain the social sentiment that he desired to give rise to, something tangible was needed. For the symbol to be efficacious, it would be necessary to bring together consciences. On the day of the Sabbath, the children asked their fathers: “Why these celebrations, these ceremonies, these mysteries, that Jehovah our God has instituted?” And the fathers responded to their children: “We were slaves of an Egyptian Pharaoh, and Jehovah took us from Egypt by the strength of his arms! He led us to this land that he had sworn to give to our fathers. That is why he instituted all these solemnities, testimony to our gratitude and token of our future prosperity.” Let us note these last words. While the common Jew saw in the Sabbath only a commemoration of his deliverance, the legislator made it the palladium to which the salvation of the republic was attached. And how is that? Because every system of laws and institutions needs to be protected by a special institution that encompasses and sums it up, which is its crown and its basis; because the Sabbath, suspending the rude labors of an almost entirely agricultural population, and connecting minds through the connection of persons, a day of public exaltation, national mourning, popular instruction and universal emulation, stopped the speculations of interest and directed the reason towards a more noble object. It softened manners by the charm of a rest that was not sterile, aroused a mutual goodwill, developed the national character, made the rich more liberal, evangelized the poor, and excited the love of the homeland in every heart. Let us examine some of these consequences.
Every man in Israel was required to read and meditate all his life, and copy with his own hand the text of the law. Some sentences drawn on the doors of houses and even on clothing, constantly recalled to memory that sacred law. Now, as there were no public schools, and as the entire week was filled by labor in the fields, it was during the rest of the Lord that the first writing lessons were given, and it was the Book which provided for this pious exercise. The first result, and the most important, of the sabbatical law, was instruction, and what instruction? That of religion, politics and morals. The teaching of the synagogue later developed the spirit of the letter that kills; the Levites and the prophets learned to sing it. “Such were,” said Fleury, “the schools of the Israelists, where they taught not curious sciences, but religion and manners, and where on instructed, not children and some individual idlers, but all the people.” Religion means, to express myself in our language, the science of government, political and civil right, the knowledge of duties, the principle of authority, obligation of discipline, the conditions of order and equilibrium, the guaranties of liberty, equality, or more accurately the original consanguinity. Our catechisms are, I cannot help noticing, a quite a ways from all that.
It is that spirit of religion that Saint Paul, so learned in the Hebraic traditions, tried hard to create among the Christians converted among the Gentiles. Already in his time, the pride of wealth and the luxury of sensual pleasures had crept in even among the agapes, or love feasts, which were taken in common. The wealthy did not want to eat with the poor, or eat the same food. “Each of you, St. Paul reproached them, brings home what pleases him: one gets drunk, the other dies of hunger.” And he cried out indignantly: Can you not stay in your houses to eat and drink? And do you come to the meeting (in church) only to insult those who have nothing?How much these merchants of Corinth must have made the apostle miss the brothers of Palestine, so fervent, so disinterested, so pure! But they had been prepared by the Jewish religion, while the others had foresworn from paganism only the worship of multiple gods.
The same social tendency shows itself in the famous Apology of Saint Justin. We see there that the principle exercises of Sunday were, after the catechesis, acts of charity and mercy, that part of religion which could then be reconciled with the secular power and with the obedience that one believed due to it.
A people, it is said, must have spectacles. I am far from contesting it; but since in everything we encounter evil alongside good, the question is to know what spectacles it is suitable to give to the people. For that, it is necessary to consult the times, the places, and the men. The representations of Aristophanes would have been an abomination to Orientals; the fierce Roman preferred the butchery of the circus to the pomp of the theaters; our fathers, in the Middle Ages, interrupted the offices of the church in order to perform the mysteries in the presence of the bishop and his clergy; and I would dare say that after two centuries of admiration, our Greek tragedies begin to seem a bit too distant from us. Besides, we don’t even have spectacles: among us there exist only curiosities—more or less amusing, and more or less costly—in which nine-tenths of the people do not participate.
It has been said that the Sunday vespers were the comedy of servants: that disparaging phrase, cast on the ceremonies of worship, and a thousand times more insulting to the people than to religion, shows better than anything I could say how much the mania for distinction stifles the spirit of society, and how little we in France respect divine or human things. What’s more, the priests, by a deplorable emulation, try to justify that mocking definition; the opera music introduced into the church, the theatrical effects, the taste for charms and incantations, the search for unknown devotions and new saints, all that, we must say, invented or foreseen by the priests, degrades the majesty of Christianity more and more, and manages to destroy the little bit of religious faith in the nation that escaped the libertinage of the eighteenth century.
What more beautiful spectacle than that of a whole people assembled for the rites of its religion, for the celebration of the great anniversaries? Such a spectacle suits the taste of all men; no nation ever did without it. “The feasts of the Israelites, says the same Fleury, were true feasts, real rejoicings. They were not profane spectacles, and contented themselves with some religious ceremonies and the mechanism of sacrifices. All men were obliged to be in Jerusalem at the three great solemnities of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles; and women were permitted to come. The assembly was thus very numerous: each appeared clothed in the best that they had. One had the pleasure of seeing parents and friends again; one attended the prayers and sacrifices, always accompanied by music. After that, in the magnificent temple, followed the feasts where the peaceful victims were eaten. The same law commanded rejoicing, and united sensible with spiritual joy… It need not astonish us then that it was agreeable news that the festival approached, and that one would soon go to the house of the Lord; so, to go there, one traveled in great troupes, singing and playing instruments…”
These solemnities were rare, it is true; but each week brought their abbreviated image, and maintained their memory. The ceremonies of the synagogue finished, the fathers and elders gathered at the gates of the town; there they talked of labor, of the opening of the harvests, of the approach of the sheep-shearing, of the best methods for working the land and raising herds. There was also talk of the affairs of the country and of relations with the neighboring peoples. The young men, to the approving cheers of the women and girls, engaged in martial exercises: they held races, learned to draw a bow, tried to show strength and flexibility by lifting heavy loads, and by handling weights intended for that purpose. Sometimes they even competed in wit and subtlety, by riddles and apologues. We find traces of all these customs in the Old Testament; for we need not believe that prior to the migration in Babylon, the observation of the Sabbath was carried to that point of superstitious fastidiousness that Jesus Christ criticized in the Pharisees when he said to them: The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. One of the most unfortunate effects of the sojourn of the Jews in Chaldea was to give them a taste for metaphysical reveries and a narrow, petty critique, a passion for disputes, a hunger for vain curiosities in speculation and refinement in practice. When we compare the Jews of the restoration of Cyrus with the Hebrews of the time of Samuel, Solomon and Hezekiah, we would think we see two different races. The greatness and simplicity of the Israelite genius has given place to the fault-finding, persnickety and false spirit of the rabbis; the good sense of the public seems eclipsed, and the nation has fallen. Between Horace and Attila, the distance is undoubtedly great; but between the Prophets and the Talmud, the contrast is monstrous. In general, we shouldn’t seek the truth of the usages of the Hebrew people in the Talmudic traditions.
With regard to the government, the people should gather on the seventh day, not to make laws or vote on anything: I have already said that, according to Moses, all matters of legislation and politics are the object of science, not of opinion. The legislative power belongs only to that supreme reason that the Hebrews worshipped under the name of Jehovah: consequently all law, in order to be holy, should be marked with a character of necessity; all jurisprudence consisted of a simple exposition of principles, the knowledge of which was no one’s privilege. To attribute to an official personage the right of veto, or of sanction, would have appeared to Moses as the height of absurdity and tyranny. Justice and legality are two things as independent of our consent as mathematical truth: to compel, it is enough for them to be known; to let themselves be seen, they demand only meditation an study. But,—and this will appear unprecedented,—the assembled people, whom Moses did not recognize as sovereign, in the sense that the will of the people makes law, formed the executive power. It was to the people, gathered in its families and tribes that the charge of watching over the law was confided; it was for this great and sublime function that the legislator had wanted them to gather for a full week, judging that the people alone have a right to constrain the people, because they along can protect themselves.
What then was the legislator himself? A man inspired by God, which is to say a saint, a philosopher, a poet. Interpreter of that wisdom that founded the law, he was still, by his enthusiasm and his virtues, its herald and reflection. He commanded nature, conjured heaven and earth, ravished imaginations with the magic of his songs; but he spoke to the people in the name of God—in the name of truth. That is why he referred the guardianship of the law to the entire nation, why he allowed it that guarantee against the audacity of imposters and tyrants, the obligation to gather on a set day to oversee itself and its agents. Every citizen can affirm: This is true, this is just; but his conviction obliges no one but himself. The nation alone has the right to say: We command and require…
Such would be the institution of Sunday, if fatal circumstances, which did not exist for Moses and which time has not caused to disappear, had not stopped the development. In the cities, Sunday is hardly anything but a holiday without motive or aim, an occasion for parades for the women and children, for consumption for the restaurateurs and wine-merchants, of degrading idleness, and increased vice. On Sunday, the tribunals are closed, the public courts recessed, the schools vacant, the workshops idle, the army at rest: and why? So that the judge, casting off his robe and his gravity, can freely attend to concerns of ambition and pleasure, the scientist can cease to think, the student stroll, the worker stuff themselves, the grisette dance, and the soldier drink or just be bored. The trader alone never stops. If all of that was honest and useful, the aim of the institution would still be missed, and for two reasons: one, that all these amusements are without relation to the general good; the other, that they foment selfishness even in the connecting of persons.
In the countryside, where the people yield more easily to religious sentiment, the celebration of Sunday still preserves some of its social influence. The appearance of a rustic population, gathered as a single family to listen to their pastor, prostrate in silence contemplation before the invisible majesty of God, is touching and sublime. The charm works on the heart of the peasant: on Sunday, he is more gracious, more loving, more affable; he is sensible of the honor of his village, and he is proud of it; he identifies with the interests of his commune. Sadly, that happy instinct never produces its full effect, for lack of sufficient culture; for if religion has not lost all its influence on the heart, it has long since ceased to speak to the reason. And I do not intend this as a reproach: religion is immobile by its nature; it only modifies its discipline at long intervals and after endless delays. Moreover, the brusque changes that have occurred in our mores and social relations have, so to speak, taken it unawares. It has still not had time to adapt itself to the new order of things, or to harmonize itself with it. The people understand nothing of the ceremonies; the dogmas have no relation to their understanding. The prayers are not translated; and if sometimes they are recited in their language, the object of these prayers no longer interests them. Placed between the spiritual and the temporal, accustomed by their education to separate them, how would they grasp the connection? They believe that on entering the church they pass from one world to another, and rarely do they abstain, on that occasion, from sacrificing a present interest to some obscure and uncertain one. The priest teaches morals, but does he speak of the conditions of the social order, of the equality which should reign here below between the different classes of citizens, as it reigns among the orders of the blessed in the times that he heralds? Does he speak of the duties of the government, of the majesty of the sovereign nation, of the independence of reason, which alone can legitimate respect for the earthly powers and faith in God? Does he speak of progress, of the incessant transformation of religious dogmas and political institutions? No, the priest does not speak of these things. The mayor and the bishop forbid it; he could not do it without kindling revolt and incurring the blame for himself.
Incedo per ignes: I have touched on a revolutionary question, resolved in the eyes of all parties, but on which I dare to battle the common opinion, and defend the paradox which forms the basis of my discourse: I mean the identity of religion and politics.
The separation of powers, consummated in the era of Constantine and Theodosia, goes back to Jesus Christ himself, who did not make a dogma of it, but tolerated it: it is the result of certain metaphysical oppositions which should resolve themselves harmonically in a higher form, but which the routine of the legalists, as much as the fanaticism of the devout, has claimed to render eternal. Since the world has become Christian, paganism has always existed in the civil life: at the very center of Christianity, the state has not entered into the church, nor the church into the state. The monarch of Rome and the pope are two different things. Some attempts were made in the middle ages, sometimes by the sovereign pontiffs, and sometimes by the bishops, to reestablish the unity of government among the people, which is not the same thing as universal monarchy, to which the vulgar accuse Gregory VII of having dared to pretend. It is no longer priestly theocracy, for religion is no more the supremacy of the priest, than the law is the government of the judge; but it is necessary to believe that this idea of unity, or, to put it better, of synthesis, fair and true in itself, was premature, since it has ended by collapsing under a unanimous disapproval. The declaration of 1682, composed by Bossuet, sanctioned the distinction of powers, and nearly made it an article of faith. I will return to this question.
[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.