Chateaubriand's memoirs, XLII, 13

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XLII- Chapter 13
The demise of monarchy – The withering away of society and the progress of the individual



Europe possessed in France, during our eight centuries of monarchy, the core of its intellectual life, its permanence and its peace; deprived of that monarchy, Europe immediately inclined towards democracy. The human race has come of age, for good or evil; princes have played the role of guardians; the nations, reaching their majority, claim they have no need now of teachers. From King David’s time to ours, kings have been ‘called’ to the throne: now the people’s vocation begins. The brief and minor exceptions of the Greek, Carthaginian and Roman Republics, the latter with its slave class, did not prevent the monarchical system being the norm throughout the globe. The whole of modern society, now that the banner of the kings of France no longer exists, has deserted monarchy. God, to hasten the decline of royal power, has handed the sceptre to a valueless royalty in several countries, to little girls in their chemises or their white wedding robes: likewise toothless lions, lionesses without claws, infants betrothed or still at the breast, are destined to succeed mature men, in this era of unbelief.

The boldest principles are proclaimed in the face of monarchs who imagine themselves safe behind the triple barrier of an unreliable guard. Democracy is gaining on them; they mount from stair to stair, from the ground-floor to the attics of their palaces, to plunge from them via the sky-lights into the flood.

In the midst of all this, note a remarkable contradiction: our material state improves, intellectual progress accelerates, yet the nations instead of benefiting suffer: from what source does this contradiction arise?

It is because we have lost our moral sense. There have always been crimes; but they were never committed as cold-bloodedly as in our day, because of the loss of religious feeling. Now they no longer cause revulsion, they appear a consequence of progress; if they were judged differently in times past it was because, so people dare claim, knowledge of the human race was not as advanced; now people analyse them; they try them out in a crucible, in order to see what can be usefully got from them, as chemists extract compounds from ordure. Corruption of the spirit, destructive in quite a different manner to that of the senses, is accepted as a necessary outcome; it is no longer just a feature of perverse individuals, it has entered the public domain.

Such people would be humbled were one to prove that they possessed a soul, that beyond this life they would discover another; they would consider they lacked steadfastness, strength and genius if they could not rise above the faint-heartedness of our forefathers; they accept nothingness, or, if you prefer it, doubt, as a disagreeable reality, but a truth that cannot be denied. Admire our dazzling pride!

This is the explanation for the withering away of society and the increase in importance of the individual. If moral sense had developed with the development of understanding, it would provide a counterweight and humanity could develop without risk, but quite the contrary is happening: the perception of good and evil is being obscured as the mind becomes enlightened; conscience is shrinking as ideas expand. Yes, society will perish: freedom, which might save the world, will not advance, without leaning on religion; order, which might maintain a balance, cannot be solidly established, because the anarchy of ideas opposes it. The purple robe, which once evidenced power, will serve from now on only as a couch for misfortune: nothing can be saved that is not born, like Christ, among the straw. When the monarchs were disinterred at Saint-Denis, at that moment when the trumpet sounded the resurrection of nations; when, dragged from their shattered tombs, they awaited a plebeian grave, the rag and bone merchants achieved a last judgement over the centuries: they watched with their lanterns in the eternal night; they rummaged among the remnants that escaped the first pillage. The kings were no longer there, but royalty was: they snatched it from time’s entrails, and threw it in the rubbish basket.