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

The celebrated Sir Francis Bacon was called the reformer of human reason for having replaced the syllogism with observation in the natural sciences; the philosophers, following his example, teach today that philosophy is a collection of observations and facts. But, certain thinkers have said to them, if truth and certainty exist in philosophy, they must also exist in the realm of politics: thus, there is a social science responsive to evidence, which is consequently the object of demonstration, not of art or authority, not, that is, of arbitrary will.
This conclusion, so profound in its simplicity, so innovative in its consequences, has been the signal for a vast intellectual movement, comparable with that which manifested itself in the Roman empire, at the time of the establishment of Christianity. We have set ourselves to seek the new science; and as the investigation cannot begin with anything but critique, we have arrived methodically at the negation of everything that makes up and sustains society.
Thus we have asked: What is royalty? And the response has been: A myth.
What is religion? — A dream of the mind.
What is God? — An eternal X.
What is property? — It is theft.
What is community? — It is death.
Christianity signaled its entry into the world in absolutely the same way; before positing its dogma, it said to itself:
What is Caesar ? — Nothing.
What is the republic? — Nothing.
What is Jupiter? — Nothing.
What is nobility, philosophy, glory? — Nothing.
The negation that Christianity began against ancient society was then pursued against Christianity itself; and we told ourselves that the truth would appear to us only after we had demolished everything. When will this be accomplished?
But, if the present and the past cannot give us truth in its essential form, they contain it substantially, since truth is eternal, and eternally manifests itself. It is thus as much in the institutions that have been destroyed, or are at the point of disappearing, as it is in the facts that spring up anew each day, that we should seek truth in itself, the face-to-face contemplation of the absolute, siculi est, facie ad faciem.
Among the monuments of antiquity, the laws of Moses are unquestionably those that have most occupied the meditations of the savants. For ourselves, the sublimity of the mosaic system would astonish us, perhaps, if we did not know that by virtue of the laws of human understanding, every primitive idea being necessarily universal, every primitive legislation must have been a summary of philosophy, a rudiment of knowledge. What we have taken for profundity and divine inspiration in Moses and the other legislators of antiquity was, at base, only a general intuition and aphoristic conception; as for its form, it was the living and spontaneous expression of the first apperceptions of consciousness.
But how did the Sabbath become, in the thought of Moses, the pivot and rallying symbol of Jewish society? Another law of the intelligence will explain it to us.
In the sphere of pure ideas, everything is connected, supported and demonstrated, not according to the order of filiation, or the principle of consequences, but according to the order of coexistence or coordination of relations. Here, as in the universe, the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere; that is, everything is at once principle and consequence, axis and radius. Moses, having to formulate the totality of his laws by deduction, was free to choose for the culminating point of his system whatever economic or moral idea he wanted. He preferred the weekly division of time, because he needed a sensible and powerful symbol which constantly recalled to the hordes of semi-savage Israel the feelings of nationality, fraternity and unity, without which any subsequent development was impossible. The Sabbath was like the common meeting ground where all the Hebrews should gather themselves in spirit, at the beginning of each week; the monument that expressed their political existence, the link that held together all their institutions. Thus, public and civil right, municipal administration, education, government, worship, customs, hygiene, family and city relations, liberty, public order: the Sabbath supposed all these things, fortified them and created their harmony.
The author of this discourse has been reproved for lending to Moses views that could not have been his own, but this reproach is unreasonable. Today, it is much less a question of knowing what the individual who wrote them thought of these laws, than it is to know the very spirit of his legislation. Certainly Moses was not thinking of the Catholics or protestants; however, the vigor of the institution of the Sabbath was such, that the Jews passed it on to the Christians and the Mohammedans; that from them it extended around the globe; and that it will outlive all the religions, embracing within its vast reach pre-historic times and the most distant future ages.
We do not know who first imagined the division of time into weeks. It doubtless sprung from that spontaneous genius, a sort of magnetic vision, which discovered the first arts, developed language, invented writing, created systems of religion and philosophy: a marvelous faculty, the processes of which elude analysis, and that reflection, another rival and progressive faculty, weakens gradually without ever being able to make it disappear.
Today, when the questions of labor and wages, of industrial organization and national workshops, of political and social reform, occupy public attention to the highest degree, we believe a legislation based on a theory of repose, if we can put it this way, could be useful. Nothing comparable to the Sabbath, before or since the legislator of the Sinai, has been imagined and put into practice. Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, for which respect seems to have diminished, will be revived in all its splendor, when the guarantee of labor is won, with the well-being that is its prize. The working classes are too interested in the maintenance of the dominical holiday to ever let it perish. Thus all will celebrate the day, even though they don’t attend the mass: and the people will see, by this example, how it is possible that a religion be false, and the contents of that religion be true at the same time; that to philosophize about dogma is to renounce faith; to transform a religion is to abolish it. The priests, with their scientific tendencies, march toward that inevitable conclusion: let them pardon us for having gone before them, and not refuse us the final benediction, because we have arrived first at the tomb of religion.
[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]
[to be continued]
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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.