Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, Seventh Study: Ideas, Ch. I


[This translation is based on a working text, compiled from bit and pieces by me, Jesse Cohn and at least one translation engine. I have gone back to the original text to double-check everything, and all the final choices are my responsibility. Some of the pretty parts are definitely all Jesse.]

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Jesus replied to the Pharisees who questioned him about the adulteress: “He who is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”

Speaking for myself, as a sinner, I cannot use the language that the holiest of the holy, defending a sinner, allowed himself to use towards the hypocritical and fornicating Pharisees, with regard to you, an archbishop who, not content to indict my ideas, throws suspicion on my morals. I do not therefore accuse you or any of your colleagues in the priesthood of sin; I believe your life to be as pure as your faith, and abstain from any recrimination. Odiosa restringenda. You strike me in my person: I shall make no reprisal in kind.

But here is what I shall say to you all, pontiffs of the Most High: Those of you who know the law have cast stones at me.

Yes, I would consent to any shame if you could prove to me that the Church knows Justice, and having been raised in her bosom, I would say that it is my fault, my fault alone, and my very great fault, to have been guilty; I should wish, I say, to be humiliated, punished, chastised, as if I were the first and only prevaricator.

But you know nothing of law or right. With regard to all aspects of life, you lack principles and rules. I have already proven this five times over; allow me, at the beginning of this study, to remind you of this.

With respect to Persons, you have no morals. Your Decalogue is a catalogue of categories, your Gospel a collection of parables, your charity merely the first stammering of Justice. Far from having a theory of individual right, your dogma recoils from it, and the Church having founded its hierarchy and its discipline on this dogma, your priestly interests oppose any theory that would contradict it.

Regarding Goods, you have no morals: your dogma recoils from it, and your interests are opposed to it.

In matters of Government, you have no morals: your dogma recoils from it, and your interests are opposed to it.

In matters of Education, you have no morals: your dogma recoils from it, and your interests are opposed to it.

In matters of Labor, you have no morals: your dogma recoils from it, and your interests are opposed to it.

And I will show you that with regard to Ideas, you have no more morals; that in this, as in everything else, your maxims reduce to pure arbitrariness; that the application of Justice to the intellect is incompatible with your dogma, and that your most valued interests opposed it.

“What!” you cry, “a morality of ideas! What is this? We have never heard morality spoken of in such a connection. What could the precepts of the conscience and the conceptions of intellect have in common? That which enters the brain is not what pollutes man, only that which comes from the heart. Will you argue that logic, metaphysics, dialectic, are all branches of morality?”

Patience, monsignor, and you shall see what this is all about. It is a discovery of the Revolution. It cannot be taught in the seminary, and the archbishop would turn up his nose at it.


Idea of a method for directing the mind in search of truth, in accordance with modern science. — Elimination of the absolute.

I. — Man is subject to error: this is an imperfection of his nature which cannot be attributed to crime.

But strangely, and only for our species, from this infirmity of judgment man has made crime into a specialty. The more he knows himself to be subject to error, the more likely he is to lie, so much so that, in general, there are no greater hoaxers than the people who know best how man errs. Rather than extend a hand to their brother, they knock him down: Omnis homo mendax.

It is therefore of great interest, not only for the health of our minds, but for the integrity of our conscience, that we learn, from the outset, to direct ourselves without the help of anyone in the search for truth, then to check each other in our judgments and safeguard each other against all kinds of lies: our honor and our freedom depend on it.

Where can I find this guidance?

As I wish, even when dealing with ideas, to stay faithful to my system of experimentalism, I will give the floor to one of our most positive scientists, one who is least suspected of any metaphysical and revolutionary tendency, M. Babinet, of the Institute.

Question. — Why, wonders M. Babinet, have the end of the last century and the first half of this one seen so many physical inventions, so new, so beautiful, so useful, and so wonderful, while the progress of the imaginative arts, or even of the metaphysical and philosophical sciences, has utterly lacked such brilliance?

You see, my lord, the witness whom I call should not frighten you at all. M. Babinet, a popularizing mind who does not engage in empty talk, excludes from the progress made over the past century the metaphysical and philosophical sciences; in which regard I have no doubt that he is in agreement with you. Of course, if he dared say what he thought, he would add to the metaphysical and philosophical sciences the moral and political, in which, my lord, your religion greatly rejoices. But read between the lines. M. Babinet, by listing the modern discoveries of railways, the electric telegraph, the daguerreotype, the stereoscope, the bioscope, the electrotype, electrical gold- and silver-plating, all relating to physics, allows us to clearly understand what he includes in the category of the philosophical. He will not count as part of our progress English political economy, free trade, moral restraint, centralization, popular suffrage, the principle of nationalities and natural boundaries.

Answer. – When schools and books have concerned themselves with knowing whether matter could be conceived without the concept of space and time, if the essential qualities of existence depended on such and such necessary quality, if matter, space and time, these three major foundations of the universe in which we live, or rather in which we think, if, as I say, these three major events are indispensible to the existence of beings, so that, for example, we might create a world with no physical substance, without space or time: what intelligence could manage to solve such questions?

But modern science is more modest. It does not seek the absolute, which is so difficult to discover; it contents itself with relations, which are not easily accessible to our intelligence. So I do not know the essence of the material substance, but I can compare a given weight, the gram, and state what some body weighs in grams and milligrams. The essence of the space is unknown to me, but I can measure a given space, the whole earth, France, or Paris, in kilometers and meters. I do not know what time is in itself, but I can say that this duration is so many seconds, the second being the 86400th part of the day, with invariable periods. I do not know what mechanical force and movement is in itself, but I imprison steam, and I measure its elasticity in order to use it later on to move huge masses … Man no more knows the inmost nature of the power of the steam locomotive he has created than he has known, for some thousands of years, the nature of the force in the horse, camel, or elephant that served his locomotion … (Revue des Deux-Mondes, July 1853.)

II. — Manibus et pedibus descendu in tuam sententiam, M. Babinet. All this is supreme good sense, I would even dare say great philosophy. After all, it should not be the word that frightens us, or that the learned M. Babinet should forget it: this beautiful method, which does honor to the physicists of the past hundred years, is a discovery of the philosophers, who have borrowed it from those engaged in labor and industry; I would venture to say that it is the first article of any real philosophy. But, without going back to the ancients, who first groped with experimentation, without even speaking of the people of the Middle Ages, who also made some progress in the art of experimenting with things before venturing to speak of them aloud, was it not Bacon who, in the seventeenth century, signaled this decisive renovation, marked in advance in the fifteenth century by the Renaissance and by the Reformation in the sixteenth.

And notice how, when ideas are ripe, everything contributes to their spread.

The world, for the past few thousand years, disdaining the crude empiricism of its artisans, has lost itself in abstractions, universals, and categories. Because the understanding, analyzing acts of spontaneity, as we said in the previous study, had attained its own ideas, its own instrument of thought, its own tools of knowledge, it had imagined it possessed the truth of nature in its notions, and that it no longer needed, in order to grasp this truth, any data of experience. God knows how much time humanity lost in chasing after chimeras! The reaction of observational and operational common sense had yet to arrive: now it has arrived.

It is Bacon first of all who, under the name of induction, invites science to seek the truth, not in the unobservable substance, but in the relations of the phenomena observed; it is Descartes who recommends the creation of precise classifications, according to these same relations; it is Montesquieu who defines law as the relation of things; it is freemasonry that symbolizes relations by the compass, the level, and the square, and personified them in its great architect; it is Aug. Comte who makes relations the basis of his positivism, and thereby excludes metaphysics and theology; it is M. Cournot who gives as the sole purpose of philosophy the search for the reason of things; finally, it is M. Babinet, a good witness, who attributes all the discoveries, all the advances of modern science exclusively to the discovery of relations. Is it not true that the reign of the relation has begun for civilization, which from now on swears only by this idea?

What distinguishes the philosophical movement after Bacon, it is not, as has been said, and as M. Frédéric Morin took quite useless pains to it, having invented the experiment, but having reduced the pure idea to the technical operation technique that gave rise to it, it is having learned, by putting philosophical reason at the service of experience, to formulate conclusions methodically, always relative to reason, to the relations of things, whereas previously the experiment, being subject to philosophical reason, seeking with it the in itself of things, the absolute, concluded nothing at all. This was the tendency of Descartes, who, completing the work of Bacon, tried to transport into the study of the human mind the method of which he had so well proven the power in the physical sciences and mathematics, and by that supreme attempt achieved the renewal of philosophy and made the Revolution possible. Because, you see, most of those who, in our modern age, were reputed as philosophers—Bacon, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Newton, Pascal, Galileo, Rousseau, Kant, etc.—had started by doing experiments of physics, practicing a profession, inventing machines, calculating, measuring, etc. They were, to be honest, industrious men of the first rank, men who remade philosophy all by themselves, with hand and brain.

Descartes was mistaken in his metaphysics, as he was mistaken in his vortex, and this can prove just one thing: how much experience, what a difficult are experiment and observation is, and what traps the imagination lays for the philosopher. But the sort of spiritualist reaction brought about by Descartes, which we can look regard as completed, has itself served progress, since it confirmed, by a final and memorable example, the principle of Bacon, namely that pure ideas, concepts, categories and universals, removed from the fertilization of manual work and experience, are only proper to maintain in the mind a sterile daydream, which depletes and kills it.

The principle of M. Babinet is thus impeccable, and for my part I do not hesitate to make it mine. There are in things only relations that are accessible to our intelligence: as for nature in itself, it escapes us. To concern ourselves with it, is to demonstrate an anti-scientific spirit. Neglecting the absolute, as Babinet says, to deal only with relations: this is the summary of the method that industry pursues in knowledge, that philosophy has spent two thousand years formulating, to which we owe all the knowledge that we possess of physics, which has earned us already, in the sciences of the mind, the valuable researches of Montesquieu, Vico, Herder, Lessing, Condorcet, and the raw materials of social economy.

Thus, here is what is understood. What Mr. Babinet calls the things in themselves, as when he speaks of matter in itself, time in itself, space in itself, force in itself, or the Absolute, is just that which philosophy calls the metaphysical, ontological, or transcendental aspect of things, in opposition to the observable, measurable, comparable part, which constitutes the phenomenal aspect. To the examples cited by Mr. Babinet, we can add cause, substance, life, soul, mind, matter, and all the pure concepts or ideas, up to and including that of God.

And the scientific method, that which has produced all modern discoveries, consists, as it have just been said with incomparable lucidity by Mr. Babinet, not of negating the in itself of things, that which the mind conceives as their subject, substratum, or support, without which it is able to penetrate it and understand nothing, but in leaving behind this in itself, this transcendental aspect, caput mortuum of the intellectual alembic, in order to attach itself exclusively to phenomenality, to relations.

III. — Here monsignor, I imagine that you are ready to reply, with an ironic smile:

“We know the high pretensions of modern philosophy. We know that it aims at nothing less than to submit all ideas, all beliefs, to the test of its empiricism, to render perceptible to the crudest intelligences what can only be achieved by a deep meditation, further aided by a long preparation of the heart. The grace of Jesus Christ, in our view, does not only justify, it illuminates. Philosophy flatters itself that it may speak cogently of Justice and morality without the help of grace; that it may penetrate the secrets of the Divine without the aid of revelation; that it may govern society without religion. In short, since Bacon, philosophy has aspired to do without God. Diderot, Buffon, La Place and so many others, did not hide their intentions in this regard. Rather than admit his intervention anywhere, they set limits to his power, they attributed it to the universe. What the eye cannot see, the ears cannot hear, induction or generalization cannot explain, in their view, does not exist. These are their maxims, and we understand them fully.

“Unfortunately, we see that this philosophical pride cannot be sustained. Hardly was its career begun, its method given, its goal indicated, before philosophers began to theologize more than the Scholastics ever had. Certainly they made some fine discoveries in the physical sciences: but it was only ever to return with even greater force to metaphysical things, those things that, according to their own definitions, they should not be concerned with at all, since according to them, they do not exist. Galileo comments on the Bible, Descartes demonstrates the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, Pascal writes on grace and refutes the Jesuits, Newton explains the Apocalypse; Spinoza—like Malebranche, who sees everything in God—reconstructed religion after his own fashion; Kant declares the impotence of Pure Reason to reach God, from whence he returns to practical reason; Rousseau and Voltaire are deists, in other words, libertine and inconsistent Christians; Leibniz invented his pre-established harmony, his monads, his best of all possible worlds, all in order to reconcile God’s prescience with the philosopher’s freedom. What particularly torments them is to know, in the absence of God and his religion, upon what moral law and political order may be established: it is then that we must see them theologize and metaphysicize with a vengeance. And to achieve this, oh, my God! One of them, the skeptic Bayle, had vainly maintain—and he certainly was, in this respect, perfectly in agreement with the method—that an atheist society was possible: the proposition was regarded as a philosophical eccentricity. Nobody followed him. The only one who wanted to follow him, Hobbes, took the side of denying Justice; he replaced it with power and despotism. This was the signal for a retreat. Spinoza, that Hercules of the Absolute, entitles his book the Theologico-Political Treatise, and the first book of his Ethics is a proof of God’s existence. Voltaire took for his motto: god and freedom. Rousseau declared that he does not believe that an atheist can be an honest man. Robespierre decreed the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. Napoleon makes the Concordat. Let us not speak of others, who have neither the merit of audacity, nor the good faith to repent: they are Tartuffes.

“How then, if philosophy is so sure of its method — if, since Bacon, it has really renounced any research on the in-itself of things — why is it that, since Bacon, philosophy has continually returned to this? Why has it not yet been able to apply itself to moral and political affairs, where it would be so useful, where it would be so interesting to see it prove itself? What prevents it from advancing? Why is it that, particularly over the past century, while the physical sciences have given us in rapid succession the steam engine, railroads, the electric telegraph, etc., the progress of the moral and political sciences, represented by one of the five classes of the Institute, in which there is always one or more scientists, has been so mediocre, if not absolutely zero? What do I say? Why is our whole moral philosophy reduced to a perpetual tribute to the Absolute, to religion? Would that not be proof that matters of morality and politics are not within the competence of human knowledge, that revelation is necessary here, etc., etc.?”

IV. — Whence comes all this, monsignor? Is it for you, minister of the Church, in possession for over eighteen hundred years of a monopoly on education and morality, charged by divine authority to agitate the conscience and intimidate the mind, to whom the secular arm has never denied its office for the suppression of free thinkers, is it your place to pose such a question? Eh! Otherwise, there is barely two centuries ago that the world began to philosophize with a little result and method, to observe before concluding. It is not a hundred years since the Revolution has freed philosophers and their books from the pyre, and you are surprised that we have not made more progress! You do not know, or you feign not to know, that the first in philosophy were almost always the first in faith, and that it is for the religious and reasoning soul at the same time a terrible crisis that the moment where we are must cross, never to return, the chasm separating philosophy and religion from one another! You do not understand that prejudice, when it is so deep, so universal, so perfectly organized, and so well defended, takes a long time to destroy; that truth is acquired only at the cost of enormous effort, that if the intuition is quick, generalization is slow and difficult, and that in every revolution there are retreats and relapses? Yes, certainly, what stops, since Descartes, the materialistic, pantheistic and idealistic philosophers, makes them all grapple, and fosters contradiction and doubt among them, what has put the philosophy at your feet and is always consideration of this in itself, sometimes mind, sometimes matter, sometimes universe or soul of the world, sometimes pure idea, which sensualism and spiritualism accustom us from infancy to seek in all things, by which we return ceaselessly like the pagan to his idol, and for whom we are fighting in our books, until we meet on the public square. But do not lose patience: the spectacle you are witnessing is the last battle given by positive philosophy to the Absolute. The lost time will soon be regained. Already we are beginning to recognize ourselves. Do you not sense the ironic intent of this scientist who, in speaking of metaphysics, embraces all your theology?

See how far M. Babinet would have led you with his argument, if academic caution had not closed his mouth!

V. — We have spoken of the physical sciences, you say. Let us speak of the sciences of life and society.

If we consider the vital phenomena in the animal kingdom, I can classify the animals by genera and species, according to the laws of their organizations. I can compare the events of life in all conditions of structure and environment. This study will provide me with zoology, or the science of living beings, but as for life itself, I know nothing about it. Truly, I see Zoological phenomena as relating to some je ne sais quoi, some fluid or anything you like, which I call life or the for principle of, which chooses its materials and organizes them, protects them against chemical attraction and dissolution, distributes them throughout the organized bodies, particularizes them, animates and sustains them all, as the waterspout supports sustains the bodies that it carries off in its vortex. For all these reasons, I can conceive of life as an essence, a particular in-itself, an absolute, to which I relate vital phenomena; it is even necessary for me to conceive of it as such, in order to distinguish the facts of organic nature from those of inorganic nature. The confusion of physiology and physics, based on the hypothesis, impossible to prove, of the identity of the vital principle and the chemical principle, becomes for me the cause of a disorganization of science itself. But science, which goes just as far as the concept and posits it, can no longer tell whether the object conceived is matter or something other than matter, if it is a substratum different from matter or a particular state of matter; it does not penetrate so far, and so stops short. Not to deny the in-itself of life, but to suppose it, to distinguish it, is all that I can do. Before science, this life becomes an intelligible reality only within phenomena; beyond that, it is no longer anything but a hypothesis—a necessary one, it is true, but a hypothesis.

Any speculation on the vital principle considered in itself, and apart from the organisms in which it appears and is determined, therefore, is prohibited to me: it could only lead to confusion in science. Is life a principle apart, or the same thing as attraction, heat, and electricity? Do crystals form like plants, and plants like quadrupeds? What is the universal life that some religionists propose to put in place of the crucifix? Does the ensemble of all organized beings form an organism, and does that organism form another along with inorganic bodies? Are the earth and sun living or dead? Is the universe a great animal? What makes life enter a body, or, more accurately, what makes up a body, and then abandons it?… Such questions are of the ultra-experimental order; they exceed science, and pursued to the end, can lead to superstition and madness.

VI. — Considering, then, the manifestations of life in a given animal—the human animal, for example—I can, by distinguishing among these manifestation those that that have as an object the life of relationship, sensation and intelligence, conceiving them as a distinct system design separate, whose substratum will always be borrowed from life, widespread in the universe, but which, because of the form it has received, will no longer be the same as that which I place in the lion or horse. To this animic totality, within which I discern some organs which are supposed to contain and serve it, I give the name of soul, anima, ψυχή; then, confining myself to the observation of its abilities, its attributes, its modes, as they are manifested in the relationship of man with his fellow man and with the universe, I can make these new researches into a separate science, what I might call psychology. And as I have spoken of the soul of man, the psychology of humanity, I could also speak of the soul and psychology of animals. Up to this point, the science is of good quality; it is not based on abstractions, but on phenomena.

But what is the soul itself? Is it simple or compound? Material or immaterial? Is it subject to death? Does it have a gender? What is a soul separated from its body, and what was meant by the departure of heroes, as Rabelais put it? Where do souls go after death? What is their occupation? Do they return to inhabit other bodies? Can a man’s soul become the soul of a horse, and vice versa? Can we further distinguish, in the soul, the spiritual principle from the physical principle, in the same way that we distinguished the physical principle from the vital principle? Are there angels, and what is the nature and function of these pure spirits? Are they above or below humanity? Must we believe in apparitions? What are we to make of the rapping spirits that, at this time, disturb the Americans’ reason?

Ultra-scientific questions, says Mr. Babinet, which reason can not help giving a few hours, if only to consider them, but the pursuit of which could only lead to charlatanism, hypocrisy, the degradation of truth, the corruption of the mind and the stultification of the people. In order for us to be entitled to assert the existence of separate souls, it would have to be because that existence was revealed to us by specific phenomena, other than those that have gave risen to the conception of these transcendental natures. But we only know the human soul through manifestations of which the body is the essential vehicle, so that, since physical phenomenality has physiological phenomenality for its condition, and vice versa, we find ourselves, having distinguished the soul from the body for the necessities of scientific observation, we are equally powerless to conclude that the soul apart from the body, or the body apart from the soul, is anything. The most learned philosophy, that of Spinoza, identifies the soul and the body, spirit and matter, as two modes of being of the cosmic substance, the quid of which is increasingly mysterious. It is the concept of the fusion of two concepts: what a beautiful science!

VII. — Considering, finally, each soul, each self, as a focal site in which are reflected and combined all the relations of things and society, I give to this soul, in so far as it receives the representations or ideas of things and their relations, comparing, combining, and evaluating them, giving or withholding its support to them, the name of intelligence; in so far as it observes, compares, and combines the relations of the society of which it forms a part, drawing general formulas from them, from which it then constructs mandatory rules, I give it the name of conscience.

But while distinguishing in the soul the conscience and intelligence, with their respective manifestations, I am not going to take these two faculties, in themselves, as the object of my study, as if I wished to make myself acquainted with these new characters directly. I remember that life, as well as matter, is only one way to conceive of the in-itself of unobservable things, the soul, another in-itself, the intelligence, another in-itself, a concept grafted onto another concept, something that is not nothing, as it is a function of the soul, which is, like life, gravity and light, a function of life, but which, apart from the use that philosophy makes of them, in order to tie up the thread of its observations, becomes as nothing for us.

It is on this condition that there exists, for the intelligence and for the conscience, as for the soul and life, a whole order of phenomena, events and relations to study, and consequently a whole science of phenomenal realities to be constructed. This is what the Academy of Philosophical and Moral Sciences was established for. Mr. Babinet must know this better than anyone.

The science of the laws of the intelligence, will be called, if you like, logic. The science of the laws, or the rights and duties of conscience, shall be Justice, or, more generally, moral science. For both, as for all the sciences without exception, the first condition of knowledge will be to guard very carefully against any intermixture of the absolute. For it is obvious that if, for the mathematical and physical sciences, research on matter in itself, force in itself, or space in itself, now offer little danger, if, for anthropology, zoology and history, the belief in spirits [manes] is still basically harmless, it is no longer such when it comes to the direction of the understanding and the conscience. Here the slightest eccentricity gives rise to charlatans and rogues.

VIII. — Let us conclude this review of things-in-themselves.

What if now, having distinguished, with each successively emerging science that arises, a series of the in-itself, absolute, distinct from one another, first an in-itself of matter, then an in-itself of movement or force, then the in-itself of life, and so on, we conceive through thought all of these in-themselves of which science has no right to speak, even though it presupposes them, but that it has no right to deny, although observation teaches nothing of them; if, I say, we conceive of all these various in-themselves as the parts or facets of a single and universal in-itself that contains them all, then we will have an idea of a first and final subject, the father and substratum of all things.

We can say, therefore, that the in-itself of the universe, resulting from all part that of which it is made up, which we instinctively posit when we think about the universe, is substance, life, mind, intellect, will, Justice, and so on; that it necessarily exists, that it is eternal, etc. But as, according to all our analogies, an in-itself without manifestations, without phenomenalities, without perceptible relations, is the same thing, for knowledge, as pure nothingness, it follows from this deduction, which summarizes all of metaphysics, that the in-itself of the universe, the absolute of absolutes, is nothing for us, and that only creation is something; that our science begins with visible things; and that the invisible, these in-themselves, of which the Nicene Creed speaks, of which we could well, through the progress of our science, see the number increase, are a plague on reason and the conscience, considered in themselves.

IX. — Here is what science would say, if it had the courage of its own discoveries, but what the prudence of scholars conceals, what the hypocrisy of philosophers will never avow, providing, as needed, some sophistries to the theory of the absolute and again, as in the past, putting reason in the service of theology.

Who could deny the defection of the princes of science? The reign of the absolute draws to a close: for sixty years, the systems it has produced have barely lasted an hour, as the progress of observation impoverishes, disrupts, and kills transcendentalism. And here, suddenly, with the connivance of those learned in us, es and xs, we are carried away by all the fantasies of the most hyperbolic gnosis!

The gnostic, whom the Orthodox Church declared anathema after having looted him, was not content to seek what matter and life are in themselves, to speculate on the soul of the world and eternal Being; he wondered about reason in itself, Justice in itself, ideas in themselves; about where these last were before entering into the human understanding; if they resided in God or on the surface of things; how they flew into the soul and crashed into the intelligence, etc. From this came about a genesis of metaphysical entities divided into groups and families, of which the most notable, the only one retained by Christianity, is the famous Trinity.

There exists, said the gnostic, in the womb of the divine soul, a reason that is coeternal with it and that emanates from it, the principle and type of all of our own reasons, we poor mortals: this is the word, the logos, the sophia, which enlightens every soul being born into life, uniting itself with it by a mysterious infusion. Then there is a conscience, a love, equally eternal, arising out of the supreme soul and the protogenic reason that inspires all conscience on earth, illuminates all charity, as the word illuminates all intelligence. This is the spirit, source of grace, consoler, sanctifier, life-giver.

The Father, the Son, the Spirit; Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis: we have seen great philosophers, men endowed with all the gifts of intelligence, eclectics, pantheists, mathematicians, chemists, dedicate themselves to this formula as if to the last word of science, and attach their ship to it like the anchor of safety for liberty.

The human conscience, following these respectable visionaries, thus constituting itself as transcendental, and Humanity arriving at the knowledge of its duty only through a divine revelation, whether internal or external, mediate or immediate, asks itself when and how this revelation is accomplished, by what sign it may be recognized, who may testify to it, and who is the custodian of its authority. According to some, this authority is the Church, instituted by the personified logos; according to others, it resides in the masses, in which inspiration is unwavering. Once there, there is no more difficulty: the Church crowns kings, the multitude delegates its powers or bleats its will; and the world goes on by itself, pulled by an invisible string.

The conclusion is known. More than two centuries after Bacon, when the physical sciences give us steam, the railways, the electric telegraph, and so many inventions—so new, so beautiful, so useful, so magnificent—European society feels its conscience fail, France loses its freedom with its manner, and e wonder with Mr. Babinet: How did this philosophy that animated the eighteenth century and produced the Revolution die? Quomodo cecidit potens qui sahum faciebat populum Israël?

Who will deliver us from metaphysical entities, innate ideas, and the logos, from the immortality of the soul and the Supreme Being? Who shall rid us of adoration and authority? For the fact is visible in all regards, this is the source of our sorrow, and our decadence has no other cause. The method, the morality of ideas, if I may put it that way, exists; physics, all the natural and positive sciences, show us its fruits. But now that it is a question of ourselves, we no longer know how to philosophize, and return to our vomit. When we consider what is above us, the in-itself of our soul, of our reason, of our consciousness, we no longer perceive what is in us—I mean the phenomenality of our selves, the only aspect of this self that we are permitted to know. Instead of gradually elevating ourselves to Justice by observation, we plunge more and more, headlong, into the absolute. The confusion of ideas leading in turn to the subversion of morals, we are punished for the hallucinations of our brains by the degradation of our hearts. Can we not finally eject from moral philosophy all these hypotheses on the afterlife, celestial essences, and the grand master of destinies, and then, having made this elimination, occupy ourselves with what we see?


LVIII. — System of public reason, or social system.

How often have I not heard expressed this compliment, which the jealous critic would hasten to withdraw, for the honor of the century, if they understood its significance: You are an admirable destroyer, but you build nothing. You throw people out into the street, but you do not offer them the least bit of shelter. What will you put in the place of religion? What will you put in the place of government? What will you put in the place of property? What will you put in the place of that individual reason, the sufficiency of which you are reduced to denying in the service of your cause [or case]?

Nothing, my good man, for I intend to suppress none of the things of which I have made such a resolute critique. I flatter myself that I do only two things: that is, first, to teach you put each thing in its place, after having purged it of the absolute and balanced it with other things; then, to show you that the things that you know, and that you have such fear of losing, are not the only ones that exist, and that there are considerably more of which you still must take account. Of this order is the collective reason.

We demand the true system, the natural, rational, legitimate system of society, since none of those that have been attempted withstand the secret action that disrupts them. This has been the constant preoccupation of the socialist philosophers, from the mythological Minos to the director of the Icarians. As we have no positive idea of justice, of the economic order, of the social dynamic or of the conditions of philosophical certainty,” we produce a monstrous idea of the social being: we have compared it to a great organism, created according to a hierarchical formula, which, prior to Justice, established its proper law and the very condition of its existence; it was like an animal of a mysterious species, but which, in the manner of all the known animals, must have a head, a heart, nerves, teeth, feet, etc. From this chimerical organism, which all have striven to discover, we then deduced Justice, that is to say that we made morality emerge from physiology or, as they say today, right from duty, so that Justice always found its placed apart from conscience, freedom is subject to fatalism, and humanity falls.

I have refuted in advance all these imaginations, by exposing the facts and principles that exclude them forever.

With respect to the substantiality and organization of the social being, I have shown the first in that surplus of effective (actual) power that is proper to the group, which exceeds the sum of the individual forces that comprise it; I gave the law of the second, showing that it reduces itself to a sequence of weighing and balancing forces, services and products, which makes the social system a general equation, a balance. As an organism, society, the moral being par excellence, differs essentially so much from living beings, in which the subordination of organs is the law of existence. That is why society loathes any idea of hierarchy, and why it has spoken the formula: All men are equal in dignity by nature and must become equivalent in conditions by means of labor and Justice.

Now, as the organization of a being is, so shall its reason be: this is why, while the individual’s reason feigns the form of a genesis, as we see in all the theogonies, gnoses, political constitutions and syllogistics, the collective reason, like algebra, is reduced, through the elimination of the absolute, to a series of solutions and equations, which amounts to saying that, for society, there truly is no system.

Indeed, it is not a system, in the sense that usually attaches to this word, but an order in which all relations are relations of equality, where there exists neither primacy nor obedience, neither a center of gravity nor of direction, where the only law is that everyone submits to Justice, to balance.

Does mathematics constitute a system? It does not occur to anyone to say so. If, in a treatise of mathematics, some trace of systematization is detected, it is due to the author; it does not come from the science itself. It is the same in the social reason.

Two men meet, [mutually] acknowledge their dignity, note the additional benefit that will result for both from the organization [consultation, arrangement] of their industry, and consequently guarantee one another equality, which amounts to saying “economy.” There is the whole social system: an equation [condition of equality] and, consequently, a collective power [might].

Two families, two cities, two provinces contract on an equal footing: there are always just these two things, an equation and a collective power. It would entail a contradiction, a violation of Justice, if there was anything else.

This is the reason why every institution, every decree that does not arise exclusively from Justice and equality, soon succumbs to the attacks of critique, to the incursions of free examination. For just as in nature every existence can be rejected in the name of dignity and liberty, so in society every establishment can be refused in the name of Justice; it is only Justice that cannot be refused in the name of anything. Justice is irremovable, unalterable, eternal; all the rest is transitory.

And that is how the religions, the political constitutions, the utopias of every sort imagined for the conciliation of individual interest and collective interest, but all having the ambition to begin from a place higher than Justice, to do more or do better than Justice, to make Justice serve them instead of serving it themselves, have been found, in the end, to be entirely contrary to Justice, and have, in the name of Justice, been eliminated. they are creations of individual absolutism, disguised behind the mask of Divinity.

And it will be the same as long as absolutist thought remains dominant in the government of societies. It is not the combination of force and fraud, of superstition and Machiavellianism, of aristocracy and poverty, that can definitively defeat Justice. And if that Justice is armed with critique, if you give it as an attendant the daily, universal discussion of institutions and ideas, of judgments and acts, the conspiracy could not hold for an instant. In the bright light of controversy, the monsters to which skepticism and tyranny give birth will be forced to flee and his their ridiculous faces underground.

So the individual, absolutist reason is one thing, proceeding through geneses and syllogisms, constantly tending, through the subordination of persons, functions and characters, to systematize society; and the collective reason is another, accomplishing everywhere the elimination of the absolute, invariably proceeding through equations, and energetically denying, with regard to the society it represents, every system. Incompatibility of forms, antagonism of tendencies: what more could we want in order to maintain the distinction between these two natures?


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2320 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.