“the fecund source of all our aberrations and misfortunes”

In a recent thread on the Forums of the Libertarian Left, I expressed my frustration with the extent to which left-libertarianism threatens to become yet another of the anarchist/libertarian flavors-of-the-month, largely reduced to defending a poorly defined territory against equally ill-defined invaders, at a time when we probably have more than enough on our plate just trying to work out what, in practical terms, our alliance really means. While the full post, and its context, may or may not be of general interest, I think this passage from Proudhon’s Philosophy of Progress is:

Did Christianity exist in Jesus? I do not address this question to the Christian, but to the philosopher. Did it exist in St. Paul, in Augustine, in Photios, in Thomas, in Bossuet? Does it exist in Pious IX, in Nicholas or in Victoria?

Christianity would be truncated, if one reduced it to any particular profession of faith. The ancients did not know all that the moderns accept; the moderns, for their part, do not retain all that the ancients accepted. At no epoch has the form been the same for all contemporaries. According to Christ and the apostles, the kingdom of the Gospel is not of this world; according to Hildebrand and the ultramontanes, the pope, elevated above all power, is the master of the world; according to the Greeks and the Anglicans, the natural head of the Church is the head of State. All these oppositions can be equally justified by tradition, by Scripture, and by the general system of religions; and it would not be difficult to show that the difference of opinions on the independence or the subordination of the temporal power leads to a similar case in dogma. Who is one to believe, Christ speaking for himself, or the Church affirming its supremacy? Gallicans who separate the two powers, or Russians and Anglicans who reunite them? All that is equally a part of Christianity, and it is in perfect contradiction. What becomes the criterion?

The theory of Progress alone can give a reasonable explanation of the variations of the Christian faith, but on the condition that Christianity loses its Absolute character. That theory considers Christianity as a current of opinions, which formed in the time of Alexander all across Greece and the Orient; which grew and became complicated by a multitude of tributaries, from Augustus to Theodosius; which divided next at Photius; which, under the name of Catholicism, seemed to reach its apogee, from Gregoire VII to Boniface VIII; which subdivided again with Luther; which finally, while frightened of its own movement, attempted to fix itself at Trent, and, killed as Catholicism by the negation of it inevitable mobility, went on to scatter and lose itself, as protestantism, in the sables of American democracy.

To know Christianity is not to affirm such and such a system of dogma, more or less harmonically combined and aiming for stasis; it is to have traveled and visited the Christian river, first in its oriental, Jewish, Egyptian, Greek, Latin, Germanic, and Slavic sources, then in its tumultuous and so often divided course, and finally in the innumerable ramifications where it little by little lost its character and disappeared.

Religion, like the State, like all human institutions, manifests itself in a series of essentially opposed and contradictory terms: it is for this reason alone that it is intelligible. Its true criterion is its variations. When Bossuet pointed to the instability of the dogma in reformed churches, and demanded of his own a constancy of faith which does not exist, he made, without knowing it, an apology for his adversaries, and pronounced the condemnation of catholicism.

Religion is like speech. Nothing is more mobile, more varied, more elusive than human language, and yet language is one in its essence, and the laws of language, much more than formulas of the law and the definitions of theology, are the very expression of reason. Here, as everywhere, the absolute is a pure idea, while the accident is reality itself. Do you say that speech is only a vain sound, grammar a folly, poetry a dream, because the universal language is and can only be an abstraction?…

All truth is in history, as all existence is in movement and the series; consequently every formula, philosophical or legislative , has and can have only a transitional value. Neglect of that maxim is the fecund source of all our aberrations and misfortunes.

If you replaced “religion” with “anarchism” and the names of the various Christian sects with their anarchist/libertarian counterparts, you would probably have as sane and useful an approach to anarchist history and tradition as is available to us. The truth of anarchism is not in its factions, and focusing on the individual tendencies probably draws one’s focus away from the central problems. If, as Proudhon believed, “it is the clash of ideas that casts the light,” then we need the clarification of positions, and we need debate, but we will be defeating ourselves if we substitute assertion and dogma for those much more critical processes.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.

1 Comment

  1. that is a really great passage, and it more or less applies to all concepts and disciplines and doctrines and institutions, other than those just invented or stipulated.

Comments are closed.