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

[Continued from Part III]
It remains to examine the importance of the Sunday celebration with regard to public hygiene. This text will perhaps appear rather petty after the serious subjects that I have treated; and I do not know if, by reversing the order of the question proposed, I could reasonably flatter myself that I had fulfilled the law of progression so recommended by the rhetoricians. However, I do not despair of succeeding: the reader will decide if my boldness has been felicitous.
There is no doubt that Moses, in establishing the law of the Sabbath, had in mind the health of the people and the healthiness of their homes; and if he did not invoke this motive in the Decalogue, it is because he avoided with the most extreme circumspection allowing human motives to appear in his laws. He had observed that where the mysterious and impenetrable did not exist, reason, too soon satisfied, is uncontrollable, faith vanishes, and obedience slackens. Moses thus prescribe nothing in particular for the Sabbath with regard to hygiene, judiciously awaiting the effects of his institutions and of the numberless guarantees with which he surrounded them, which he would certainly have had more trouble obtaining by a rule regarding property. If he was not mistaken in his predictions, things should develop by themselves; he had only to command that which would produce by itself the zeal for religion and competition in propriety. Don’t we see every day the most laudable efforts of authority fail before the indifference and idleness of individuals? The walls are covered with immense placards on the public roads, the cleaning of the sewers, the removal of refuse, the care of trees, etc.; what effect results from all this prefectorial eloquence? The people allow themselves to be eaten away at by gangrenous humors and infected by miasmas, rather than remove what poisons them. The insects eat them and they do not stir. But let opinion, the point of honor or passion be mixed in, and the people will work miracles: they will drain lakes, move mountains, exterminate swarming breeds; after which, not being able to believe in the prodigies that its strength gives birth to, they will glorify heroes and geniuses for it. That contradiction of the human mind, which accuses in such a conclusive manner the preponderance of sentiment over reason, and which the makers of passional theories have explained so little, Moses made the most powerful spring of his policy, and it is to that fact that we are still indebted for the only hygienic habits which triumph over popular apathy. I will linger no more on this section; for, if I exhausted all the reflections that the metamorphosis of the malign Sunday would suggest, if I countered in a thousand ways that vulgar thesis, I would not depart from this same idea. I would fatigue the attention without enlightening the mind. We must see the thing from higher up. Let us eliminate all pointless discussion.
Rest is necessary to health;
Now, Sunday commands rest;
Thus Sunday is beneficial to health.
Thus would an inattentive observer reason, concluding too quickly from coexistence to likeness. This syllogism lacks precision, because rest is not linked to the celebration of Sunday in such a way that, the latter being suppressed, the former would be irrevocably lost. Where Sunday is no longer respected, it is clear that one does not labor more—and perhaps one will labor less. In the second place, the argument misses the question; for it is not here a question of rest in itself, an excellent thing, which has few detractors. Rest is the father of movement, generator of strength and companion of labor. Rest, taken moderately and at useful times, sustains courage, enlivens thought, fortifies the will, and makes virtue invincible. But all that has nothing to do with our subject: it is not as the sanction of rest that Sunday exerts an influence on hygiene.
What matters is this fixed and regular periodicity, which cuts, at equal intervals, into the succession of works and days. Why this constant symmetry? Why six days of labor, rather than five or seven? Why the week, rather than a period of ten days? What statistician first observed that in ordinary times the period of labor should be to the period of rest in a ration of 6 to 1, and according to what law? That the two periods should alternate, and why?
Doubtless no one expects me to respond to these questions: they are the despair of all science and modern erudition, and I pity whoever, facing this same matter, does not perceive that abyss. The origin of the week is unknown: as for the law of proportion between the duration of labor and that of relaxation, we don’t even suspect the reason, and I do not believe that it has excited the attention of the economists and physiologists. Our ignorance is complete on all these things. Excuse me, then, if, lacking positive documents, I find myself reduced to giving some reports on that ancient philosophy, which, in the times of Moses, already bore the same fruits.
“Going back to the first days of humanity, we see the men who cultivated wisdom occupied particularly with three principal objects, directly relative to the perfecting of human faculties, of morals, and of happiness. 1) They studied man, healthy and ill, in order to know the laws which rule him, and to learn to preserve him and bring him health. 2) They tried to draw up some rules to direct their minds in the search for useful truths, and laid out their lessons, either on the particular methods of the arts or on philosophy, whose more general methods embrace them all. 3) Finally, they observed the mutual relations of men, but in that determination they included as necessary data some more mobile circumstances, such as time, place, governments, and religions; and from them arose for them all the precepts of conduct and all the principles of morals.”
I would observe in passing that it is this linking of the moral and physical in the mind of the ancient legislators which has contributed everywhere to the assumption of a primitive pantheism, or worship of the soul of the world.
Pythagoras was the first who applied mathematical calculation to the study of man. He wanted to subject the phenomena of life to mechanical formulas; he perceived between these periods of feverish activity, of development or decline in animals, and certain regular combinations or recurrences of numbers, relations that the experience of the centuries seems to have confirmed, and the systematic exposition of which constituted what we call the doctrine of crises. From that doctrine followed not only several indications useful in the treatment of illness, but also some important considerations on hygiene and the physical education of children. It would perhaps not be impossible to still draw from it some views on the manner of regulating the labors of the mind, of seizing the moments when the disposition gives it the most strength and lucidity, to conserve all its freshness, by wearying it inappropriately, when the state of remission commands it to rest. Everyone can observe in themselves these alternations of activity and languor in the exercise of thought: but what would be truly useful would be to restore its periods to fixed laws, taken in nature, and from which one could draw some rules of conduct applicable, by means of certain individual modifications, to the diverse circumstances of climate, temperament, age, in short, to all the cases where men can be found…
“Such is the data from which the different founders of religious orders began, who, by hygienic practices more or less happily combined, strove to adapt minds and character to the sort of life of which they had conceived the plan.” (Cabanis, Relations of the Physical and the Moral.)
It is through an error of memory or attention that Cabanis proclaims Pythagoras the first who applied mathematical calculation to the study of man. Long before that philosopher, the secrets of numbers were known. What he knew of it himself was very little, and came to him from elsewhere. His glory is to have been their initiator and promoter in Magna Graecia. Nearly a thousand years before Pythagoras, Moses made use, in his legislation, of all the science of the Egyptians; and that science, already old in that period, appears to have consisted above all in a sort of metaphysics of rhythm and number, of which it is perhaps easier to conceive the general reason than to find the principles and facts. The Greeks retained something of it, which they expressed by the name of mousiki, which included aesthetics, moral science, poetry, oratory, and grammar, and which we properly call music. But the relations of the physical and the moral, those of religion and politics, the multitude of relations between all the parts of intelligent, living and animated nature, the analogies between the various branches of human knowledge, that the numerical operations served to calculate and formulate, all of that was excluded from their music, and philosophy itself has retained hardly any of it. Some have sought, in our own times, to recall attention to these objects of antique curiosity; but up to the time in which I write, they have only succeeded in giving caricatures or puerile allegories. It is not with the imagination, but with observation and fact, that we will create such a science. It will not be guessed. We must infer it from phenomena. Moreover, what renders it so difficult for us is the unequal development of the sciences: in order for a synthesis to be able to occur, there must be one single intelligence which embraces all the parts, which presumes either all the infinite sciences, or their parallel progress.
But were the sciences more advanced in Egypt, four thousand years ago, than they are in France in the nineteenth century? I will not speak about matters whose nature is foreign to me: perhaps the Egyptians had discovered methods and sciences of which we are unaware, as they were necessarily unaware of ours. In any event, according to Chainpollion, the arts and sciences appear to have been in decadence in Egypt from the reign of Senusret, 2,000 years before Christ. And I will add that, to judge by all of the propositions that one could extract from the most ancient Hebrew books, modern philosophy still lags behind its inspiration.
It was by a sort of methodical materialism analogous to the doubt of Descartes, that the ancient sages theoretically raised themselves to the knowledge of God and the soul, and let them deduce the persistence of the self beyond the tomb, and the eternally active and conservative personality of the Great Being. Very different in this regard are the modern spiritualists, who, always alarmed by the progress of a pretentious physiology, want to isolate it from psychology, and, to insure the subjective reality of thought, reduce all the phenomena of organic life, and even the determinations of the sensibility, to a crude mechanics,. They knew, these first observers of nature, that the notion of God and of a future existence had been revealed in the beginning to the conscience of man by a mysterious utterance, and that it is still by an immediate transmission from person to person that this notion is preserved in society. But they also thought that, reason having been given to us to contemplate the ineffable ways of the Divinity, no less than to admire his works, that reason extends his domain over that which is above him and that which is below; that he is within his rights to reduce the study of God and the world to one unique point of view, to subject that double study to a single mode of development, and to imitate the cosmogonic succession of beings in the synthesis that they exhibit. The universe, in their eyes, was an immense pyramid of which the visible substance formed the base, the phenomena that this substance proved made up its various tiers, and at the summit of which appeared the Spirit.
“Matter, said the Hierophant, is extended and impenetrable. These two properties, which signify for us only indestructibility, are essential to matter; without them we could not conceive of it. Considered with regard to solidity and surface, it gives rise to the science of number and measures, an infinite science, capable of absorbing the life of the man. The dimensions of matter will be sufficient for the exercise of the created intelligence.
“It is a fact that mass will rush towards a center; bodies seek one another, and matter is drawn towards matter: why is this? But while this tendency is general and constant, it does not appear essential to bodies; for we can conceive of them perfectly without gravitation, something that we cannot say of extension or impenetrability. What is more, there is, in this propensity of bodies to join, a circumstance quite contrary to their nature: they are limited and circumscribed, while their sphere of attraction is infinite. The intensity of that attraction is increased or diminished in certain proportions; it is never extinguished. If there had existed only two molecules of matter, they would have been drawn towards one another across all possible space: the subject is without proportion to the attribute. Bodies finally according to the relations of their masses, and by their resilience or expandability, halt, transmit or reproduce movement; they do not create it. There is an external force, distinct from the bodies, that moves and directs them. The science of quantities can calculate the apparent proportions formulate the laws of that force, but it is unable to explain the principle. The knowledge of the effects of bodies, considered as acting on one another by their mechanical power, namely, their movement and their weights, gives rise to a new science, physics.
“You think you know something already: enter into the laboratory of nature, and all that you know will vanish like a dream, and leave you only the feeling of your ignorance. What produces between this inert masses this mutual penetration, these sudden metamorphoses, these aversions and preferences, these loves and hates? This is the second incorporation of force. An uncontrollable and certain power presides over all the combinations, and, varying its laws according to the variety and quantity, awaits before acting only contact or repose. See these products so different from their elements; admire the complex geometry of this precipitation. The snow, like a crystallization of transparent flowers, floods with its symmetrical flakes the heights of Mount Lebanon and the Caucasus, father of rivers: what paintbrush has ever drawn figures more regular, and more elegantly varied? But here, the more the intelligence sparkles, the more illusive the cause becomes: science is nothing but a series of names and phenomena. Each fact recorded by the observer blurs his classifications; each discovery is a refutation of his systems; and the deeper you penetrate into this labyrinth, the more its detours increase and entwine. There is still no chemistry.
“Who has examined the sources of life? Who has discovered the principle of the sensibilities? Who has seen the lighting of the torch of instinct? Tell me by what virtue plants and animals assimilate their nourishment; from whence comes the autonomy that preserves and guides them?… 0h, mystery! All living beings are armed for reproduction; individuals die, but species are indestructible. Before these marvels, what is the science of the chemist or the physician? What is it that gross matter can teach you about living matter? Gravitation, the attraction of cohesion, the elective affinities, soon find the end of their action. The elementary combinations, once carried out, remain fixed. The spring released, the machine stops and everything returns to rest. There is no resurgence, no internal development, no perpetuity, and no center of operations. You will never explain life by weights and resistances, by molecular attractions or atomic combinations. We need, for this new order of phenomena, a new mathematics, a new physics, and a new chemistry. You may, if you like, call that science physiology.[1]
“But, Fate! What can physiology do for the theory of intelligence? Are ideas acquired as the organs grow? Are judgments formed by a digestion of the brain! Is it the nervous system or the vascular system that produces metaphysicians and geometers? You speak of organic predispositions, natural appetites, temperaments, etc.; that is to say that an organism is necessary as a substratum, or place of exercise, for thought, but not that it engenders the thought, just as matter is necessary to the production of force, and is not force; to the development of life, but is not life. No one knows the genesis of the soul. No one has sounded the abyss of his faculties.
“What use will man make of that light which illuminates his instinct? Isn’t it to be feared that he will put it in the service of his selfishness, at the expense of all those around him?… A brake is imposed on his fierce greed; an inner voice warns him of what is allowed, of the rights he must respect, and of the punishments that await if he disobeys. Well! You will succeed in knowing this invisible legislator, whose dictates arrest the appetites of the nature, this reason to act independent of speculative reason, no better by reducing it physiology, than you have by attempting to reduce it to sensibility, to reduce sensibility to attraction, or weight to expanse. We require morals: who will give them to us?
“The sciences we have just enumerated form so many systems, which are distinct but do not contradict one another. The facts proper to each being varied, but not opposed, can only give rise to different laws: the expression of one of these laws is not the negation of the other. On the contrary, the object of the second and the third of these sciences being the object of the first, plus a new element, force; the object of the fourth being the object of the first three, plus another element, life; the object of the fifth being the same as that of the previous ones, plus a third element, reason; the object of the sixth, finally, being the object of five others, plus a last element, justice, it follows that they form an ascending gradation, along the whole extent of which the mathematical formulas must find their application. There is thus a science of sciences, a philosophy of the universe, of which number, which is to say rhythm, series, is the object.
“Thus, all the sciences demonstrate one another, and serve reciprocally as cross-check and criterion. If, for example, the succession of days of rest, instead of corresponding to the arithmetic progression 1, 8, 15, 22, 29, 36, etc., had the relation: 1, 6, 14, 25, 29, 39, 47, you could conclude, with no other demonstration, and by that fact alone, that the numbers 1, 6, 14, 25, 29, 39, 47, did not form a regular period, that such a distribution of holidays is contrary to hygiene, morals, and liberty.
“A living, intelligent and moral creature, a creature of both mind and matter, man is subject to the laws of life, thought and science; shape, force and number are the bases of his intelligence as was as his being. To understand something of this microcosm, you must have observed all of nature; to aspire to direct it, you must know all the orders of phenomena and the secret of their balance. Of all the studies, the study of man is the largest; of all the arts, that of governing him is the most difficult.
“When you raise a building, you use the plumb and lever to assure that the centers of gravity of all the stones meet in a single perpendicular plane; for you know by statistics that by neglecting that precaution you compromise the solidity of the structure. Likewise, you have observed that, to farm successfully, it is necessary to observe the times of grafting, germination, flowering and maturity, the advantages of the season and the soil, and all the rules of vegetable life. You can accelerate and multiply the development of that life, but you can only do it by virtue of its own laws: to act on it, you need a pressure point, and it is in that pressure that you will find it. Thus, the eagle that plane in the sky triumphs over gravity by the use of gravity itself.
“What! Man is order and beauty, and you will abandon his education to chance! His will is free, and, instead of directing him, you will impose chains on him! His conscience raises him towards his maker, and you will render that conscience impious! Under the pretext of emancipating reason, you will proclaim your republic without God! To build up the flesh and blood, you will recommend passion and deny duty! Legislator of swine, your barn will not stand: the conscience, the will and the intelligence will react against a blind tyranny, and since you have not been able to rule them, and you have been afraid to destroy them, you will see them burst out in a frightful confusion, until finally, exhausted by their excesses and obeying their nature, they return to their legitimate ordination and harmonize themselves in an eternal society.”
I would like now to be able to say how, with that powerful method of induction, the ancient philosophy escaped the reef, so common today in a certain kind of shipwreck, of speculative and practical pantheism; how it resolved the subsequent problems of the destiny of man, of the origin of evil, of the principle of our knowledge and of the foundations of certitude. But I have not been initiated in the sanctuaries of Heliopolis and Jerusalem, and I have not inherited the mantle of Elijah. Moreover, such a reconstruction, not being made of special fragments, but only inferred from the general spirit of the beliefs and institutions, would always preserve an arbitrary character, and however plausible one makes the ensemble and the details, they will attest less to the exactitude of the doctrine than the spirit of the critique.
Moses, having thus to rule in a nation the works and day, the feasts and holidays, the labors of the body and the exercises of the soul, the interests of hygiene and morals, political economy and the subsistence of persons, had recourse to a science of sciences, to a transcendent harmonic, if he will permit me to give it a name, that embraces everything: space, duration, movement, minds and bodies, the sacred and the profane. The certainty of that science is demonstrated by the very fact with which we concern ourselves. Reduce the week by a single day, labor is insufficient in comparison with rest; add the same quantity, and it becomes excessive. Establish a half-day of rest every three days, and the fragmentation multiplies the loss of time, and by splitting the natural unity of the day, you break the numerical balance of things. Grant, on the contrary, forty-eight hours of rest after twelve consecutive days of effort, you kill the man with inertia after having exhausted him with fatigue. I omit, for the sake of brevity, the mass of similar considerations that might suggest the inversion of relations in the family and city, and which would bring to light other disadvantages. How then did Moses calculate so well? He did not invent the week, but it was, he believed, the first and only thing that would serve for such a great purpose. Would he have adopted that proportion, if he had not calculated in advance its whole impact? And if it was not the effect of a theory he held, how are we to explain such a prodigious intuition! Moreover, as for supposing that chance alone had thus favored it, I would rather belief in a special revelation that had been made to him about it, or the fable of a sow writing the Iliad with its snout.
We rightly mock the foolish mania of those people who exalt the ancients beyond measure, and who discover the vestiges of the most sublime knowledge where the judicious observer only perceives the mark of good sense. But when the facts are multiplied and clarified by each other, when several monuments render a common testimony, the probability increases as the doubt diminishes. We have seen at the beginning of this memoir the septenary number figure in the categories of duty; the same number is present in the cosmogony of Moses and in a multitude of other circumstances, for example, in the symptomatology of the leper; finally, we have cited the reflections of Cabanis on the relations of numbers: were all these laws recorded by the ancients, or just dreamed up at random? The response would presume the very science of which I have spoken—and spoken too long, since I don’t even know the name it bears.

[1] “[A]ll the efforts of philosophers have not yet been able to discover matter in the act of organization, either of itself or by any extrinsic cause. In fact, life exercising upon the elements which at every instant form part of the living body, and upon those which it attracts to it, an action contrary to that which would be produced without it by the usual chemical affinities, it is inconsistent to suppose that it can itself be produced by these affinities.”
G. Cuvier.
Introduction to the Animal Kingdom

[Concluded in Part V]
[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]
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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.