JUSTICE: Law of Progress

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, Volume I, “Program,” section XI.

§ XI. — Law of progress: Social destination.

An objection is posed.—If the center or pivot of philosophy, namely Justice, is, like that of being, invariable and fixed, the system of things, which, in fact and in right, rests on that center, must also be defined in itself, and consequently fixed in its ensemble and tending to immutability. Leibnitz regarded this world as the best possible; he should have said, in virtue of the law of equilibrium that presides over it, that it is the only possible one. One can thus conceive of creation, at least in its thought, as being completed, the universal order being realized in a final manner: then, as the world would no longer have a reason to exist, since it would have reached its perfection, all would return to the universal repose. This is the secret thought of the religions: The end of things, they say, is for the Creator, just as for the creature, the consummation of glory. But strip away the mythology: underneath this unutterable glory, one finds immobility, death, nothingness. The world, drawn from nothing, i.e. inorganic immobility, amorphous, dark, returns, under the terms of its law of balance, to immobility; and our justification is nothing other than the work of our annihilation. Justice, balance, order, perfection, is petrification. Movement, life, thought, are bad things; the ideal, the absolute, the Just, which we must continually work to realize, is plenitude, immobility, non-being. It follows that, for the intelligent, moral and free being, happiness is to be found in death, in the quiet of the tomb. Such is the Buddhist dogma, expressed by this apothegm: It is better to sit than stand, to sleep than to sit, and to be dead than to sleep. Such is also the conclusion to which one of the late philosophers of Germany arrived; and it is difficult to deny that any philosophy of the absolute, just as any religion, leads to the same result. But common sense is repelled by this theory: it judges that life, action, thought are good; morality itself is repelled by it, since it gives us constantly to work, to learn, and to undertake, in a word, to do the very things that, according to our final destiny, we should regard as bad. How to escape from this contradiction?

We believe that, as the space in which the worlds whirl about is infinite; time infinite; matter, hurled into infinite space, also infinite; consequently, the power of nature and the capacity for movement infinite: in the same way, without the principle and the law of the universe changing, creation is virtually infinite, in its extent, its duration and its forms. Under this inevitable condition of the infinity, which falls on creation, the assumption of a completion, of a final consummation, is contradictory. The universe does not tend to an opposition to progress; its movement is perpetual, because the universe itself is infinite. The law of balance which presides over it does not lead it to uniformity, to an immobilism; it assures, on the contrary, eternal renewal by the economy of forces, which are infinite.

But if such is the true constitution of the universe, it mustg be admitted that such is also that of Humanity. We are not heading for any ideal perfection, for a final state that we might reach in a moment by crossing, through death, the gap that separates us from it. We are carried, along with the rest of the universe, in a ceaseless metamorphosis, which is all the more surely and gloriously achieved as we develop more in intelligence and morality. Progress thus remains the law of our heart, not in the sense only that, by the perfection of ourselves, we must approach unceasingly absolute Justice and the ideal; but in the sense that Humanity renewing themselves and developing without end, like creation itself, the ideal of Justice and beauty which we have to carry out always changes and always increases.

Thus, the contemplation of the infinite, which led us to quietism, is precisely what cures us of it: we are participants in universal, eternal life; and the more we can reflect the image of it in our own life, through action and Justice, the happier we are. The small number of days which is allotted to us has nothing to do with this: our perpetuity is in the perpetuity of our race, which in turn is linked to the perpetuity of the Universe. Even if the very globe upon which we live, which we presently know with some scientific certainty to have had a beginning, should crumble beneath our feet and disperse in space, we should see in this dissolution merely a local metamorphosis, which, changing nothing with respect to the universal organization [l’organisme universel], could not cause us despair, and consequently would not affect our happiness in any way. If the joy of the father of of a family on his deathbed is in the survival of his children, why shouldn’t it be the same for our terrestrial humanity, the day when it will feel life become exhausted in its soil and consequently in its veins? After us, other worlds! … Would this idea be beyond the reach of the simple, or too low for the philosophers?

Thus determined in its nature, its conditions, its principle and its object, philosophy gives us, in its own manner, the word of our destiny.

What is philosophy?

Philosophy is the search, and, as far as the strength of the human mind permits, the discovery of the reason of things. Philosophy is thus defined as opposed to theology, which would be defined, we dare say, as the knowledge of the first cause, the inmost nature, and the final end of things.

Who created the universe?

Theology answers boldly, without understanding the meaning of its proposition: It is God. Philosophy, on the contrary, says: The universe, such as it appears to the eyes and the reason, being infinite, exists for all eternity. In it, life and spirit are permanent and indefectible; justice is the law that governs all its metamorphoses. Why should the world have a beginning? Why an end? Reason sees no need of it, and repudiates it.

What is God?

God, says theology, is the author, the creator, the preserver, the destroyer, and the sovereign lord of all things.

God, says metaphysics, auxiliary and interpreter of theology, is the infinite, absolute, necessary and universal being, which serves the universe as its substratum and hides behind its phenomena. This being is essentially one, consequently possibly personal, intelligent and free; moreover, because of its infinity, it is perfect and holy.

God, philosophy says finally, is, from the ontological point of view, a conception of the human mind, the reality of which it is impossible to deny or affirm authentically;—from the point of view of humanity, a fantastic representation of the human soul raised to the infinite.

Why was man created and put on the earth?

To know God, says theology, to love him, serve him, and by this means, to acquire eternal life.

Philosophy, pruning the mystical data from theology, answers simply: To carry out Justice, to exterminate evil, to contribute by the good administration of his sphere to the harmonious evolution of the worlds, and by this means, to obtain the greatest sum of glory and happiness, in his body and his soul.

We will continue this questionnaire. The catechism, with its mythology and its mysteries, served, for eighteen centuries, as a basis for the instruction of the people. Today, children no longer want it. Would philosophy, concrete and positive, arriving at its moment, prove less popular than the catechism has ever been?


  1. The coming of the people to philosophy
  2. The definition of philosophy
  3. On the quality of the philosophical mind
  4. The origin of ideas
  5. That metaphysics is within the province of primary instruction
  6. That philosophy must be essentially practical
  7. The character that must be presented by the guarantee of our judgments and the rule of our actions.–Conversion from speculative to practical reason: determination of the criterion.
  8. Justice, universal reason of things: science and conscience.
  9. Supremacy of Justice.
  10. Conditions for a philosophical propaganda.
  11. Law of Progress. Social destination.
  12. A word about the situation. (next)
  13. Conclusion.

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