Sylvain Maréchal: Pastoral Simplicity and Patriarchal Government


I’ve found myself perhaps a bit obsessed with the work of Sylvain Maréchal—despite finding it fundamentally reactionary in certain ways. He has earned a place in many of the histories of anarchism as a kind of precursor and he did, in fact, reject most forms of government. As a result, there are numerous passages in his work that are bound to delight anarchists, but virtually all of his works eventually draw the line that he will not cross. The family was, for him, the natural unit of society and government—and the need was less to reject hierarchy and authority, as the anarchist might suggest, but to limit it to its proper and natural scale. For example:

XI. The savage is not yet man. The city dweller is no longer man.

The father of the family, living with his children, in his house, in the midst of a domain no larger than he needs to feed himself and his own, that is man par excellence.

The savage is man unformed.

The city-dweller is man deformed.

The simple man, the rustic man, the one who occupies the happy medium between the cannibal brute and the polite Pharisee; that is the man of nature. — (Corrective to the Revolution, 1793)

There is an anti-civilization element here, as well as an emphasis on simplicity—douce médiocrité—and a rejection of everything not ultimately close to nature—or Nature—conceived in fundamentally pastoral terms. References to a clearly Arcadian Golden Age are common in the works, and the conditions of that age are treated as at least close to attainable, provided we give each other the requisite space, find purpose in our families and allow our patriarchs to rule.

As a body of work, these writings on simplicity are perhaps not so simple. While the preoccupations remain roughly the same throughout, they are addressed in a variety of ways, through a variety of literary genres. There are tales, short plays, parables, poems, manifestos, fake “psalms” and philosophical essays. Individual collections often contain multiple works that address key concerns from different perspectives. Key episodes and proposals are repeated. It is a remarkable enough set of texts that I might be tempted to translate a good chunk of it, even if there was not an anarchist history lesson to be learned.

There is, however, a lesson to be learned. The close (but no cigar) resemblance of Maréchal’s work to anarchism makes it an interesting foil for works that really do seem to qualify for that designation. For example, much of what we find in the work quite closely resembles a certain caricature of Proudhon’s thought. (The extent to which some of resemblances are not the product of caricature is something that also needs to be explored.) But we might also note resemblances to some of conservative elements in Lewis Masquerier’s writings.

I’m not prepared to try to do the comparisons before I’ve really digested the material—and provided enough in translation that others can compare as well—so my focus at the moment is to determine which of Maréchal’s many works seem relevant and to translate key pieces from those work, as I try to find my own way through this rather complex body of work. I’ve posted a tentative list of works in the sidebar and will link translations as I complete them.

To push forward a bit more here—and in the absence of a page (yet) dedicated to Le livre de tous les ages—I am appending two chapters relating to that douce médiocrité that occupies such an important place in Maréchal’s thought.


Of Mediocrity.

Tranquil observer of scheming mortals,
Happy, he who is free of all difficult choices,
Without daring to take part in Society,
Always free, only kept that way by Humanity.

It is necessary to be something! This is what is usually said, in justification, by those who, being nothing by themselves, want, at any price, to play a role in the world. So, what! Is a peaceful citizen, who passes pure days in a sweet mediocrity, nothing? Whether the links in a long chain be gold or bronze, are they not always an indispensable part of the whole? If a single one should be detached, isn’t the series interrupted and the union destroyed?

A modern sage has said: The glory of a woman is to be unknown. If we generalize this proposition, it does not cease to be true.

The ambitious call inertia or weakness a kind of life that is secluded and obscure. Yet what is the aim of their wearying intrigues? Isn’t it repose? Is it in the midst of a shipwreck or on a slippery rock that we must seek it? Isn’t it more prudent to remain in port? Why run so far, through so many perils, to find a good that is within us: like those young botanists, still without experience, who tread under foot the plant that they seek and will long still seek in vain.


Of Sweet Mediocrity.

Happy is he who in the port, sheltered from the storm,
Only fears for others the dangers of shipwreck,
And can say for himself: “Oh, fate! I fear nothing;”
“I have done, or I have always wanted to do, good.”

A Prince belongs to his Courtiers, the Courtier to the honors that he craves; the Miser belongs to his gold, the Pleasure-seeker to the caprices of his Mistresses: the Good man belongs only to himself.

But it is only in the heart of a sweet Mediocrity that the Good man can walk free in the midst of passions. We cannot recommend too much this sweet Mediocrity, this variety of private life which does not take us away from ourselves, which does not make us seek Happiness outside of ourselves, & which we never scorn with impunity. In the midst of a brilliatn & tumultuous party, the man of the Court, the rich City-dweller recalls, with a sigh, the humble home of his ancestors. He misses the tranquil pleasures of his original state. He was not jealous or envious; he did not fear enemies, although he was happy, because his Pleasure came at no cost to his fellow-man.

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