Chateaubriand's memoirs, XLII, 12

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XLII- Chapter 12
Inequality of wealth – Dangers in the nature of intellectual and material growth



When will society disappear? What accidents will suspend its movements? In Rome, the reign of man replaced the reign of law: the Romans passed from republic to empire; our revolution is fulfilling itself in a contrary direction: we are ready to pass from monarchy to republic, or not to specify the exact form, to democracy; it will not be achieved without problems.

To mention only one point in a thousand, will property, for example, remain distributed as it is? The monarchy born at Rheims was able to perpetuate that system of property by tempering its harshness with a diffusion of moral law, just as it changed humaneness into charity. Can a political situation exist in which some individuals have an income of millions, while others die of hunger, when religion is no longer there with its other-worldly hopes to justify the sacrifice? There are children whom their mothers nurture at flaccid breasts for lack of a mouthful of bread with which to feed their dying offspring; there are families whose members are reduced to huddling together at night for want of blankets to warm them. This man sees his countless furrows bear a harvest; that one will never own more than the six feet of earth his native country allots to his grave. Now, how many ears of corn can six feet of earth yield?

As education reaches down to the lower classes, they will discover the secret cancer that gnaws away at the irreligious social order. The excessive disproportion of wealth and living conditions was accepted while it was implicit; but as soon as that disproportion was generally perceived, the old order received its death-blow. Recreate the aristocratic fictions if you can; try to convince the poor, when they have been taught to read and no longer believe, once they are as well-educated as you, try to persuade them then that they must submit to every kind of privation, while their neighbours possess a thousand time their needs: as a last recourse you will have to kill them.

When steam-power has been perfected, when, united with railways and the telegraph, it has abolished distance, it will not be merely goods that travel but ideas too, re-equipped with wings. When the fiscal and trade barriers between various States have been removed, as they have already been removed between the provinces of individual States; when different countries in daily contact seek the unity of all nations, how will you revive former modes of separation?

On the other hand, Society is no less threatened by developments of a material nature than it is by the spread of knowledge. Imagine labour condemned to idleness by the multiplicity and variety of new machines; conceive the idea of matter, as a single universal servant, replacing the paid servants of house and farm: what will you do with the unemployed human race? What will you do with the passions fallen idle along with intellect? A vigorous body is maintained by physical exercise; if work ceases, strength fails; we will become like those Asiatic peoples, prey to the first invader, unable to defend themselves against the hand that bore a sword. Thus freedom is only preserved by effort, because effort produces strength: remove the curse pronounced against the sons of Adam: ‘In sudore vultus tui, vesceris pane: in the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread’ and they will die in slavery. The divine curse therefore enters into the mystery of our fate; man is less the slave of his sweat than of his thought: that is why, after studying society as a whole, after passing through various degrees of civilisation, after imagining new forms of progress, one finds oneself at the start once more, in the presence of Scriptural truths.