Chateaubriand's memoirs, XLII, 14

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XLII- Chapter 14
The Future – The difficulty of comprehending itl




For the old Europe, then, there is no return. Does the young Europe offer more hope? The world now, the world without consecrated authority, seems lodged between two impossibilities: the impossible past, and an impossible future. And do not believe, as some imagine, that if things are in evil straights at present, good will be reborn from evil; human nature troubled at its source cannot make such easy progress. For example, the excesses of freedom lead to tyranny; but the excesses of tyranny lead only to greater tyranny; the latter by degrading us renders us incapable of liberty: Tiberius did not return Rome to a republic; he left Caligula as his successor.

To evade explanation, people are content to say that time may be concealing in its breast a political constitution we have not yet seen. Could the whole of antiquity, the greatest geniuses of antiquity, comprehend a society without slaves? And we see it still in existence. They claim that in the civilisation yet to be born the species will become greater; I myself once advanced that statement; yet is it not to be feared that the individual is diminishing? We may toil together in future like bees preoccupied with our honey. In the material world men associate to work, a multitude arrives more swiftly and by multiple paths at what it seeks; masses of individuals can raise Pyramids; studying in their own speciality, those individuals will meet together in scientific discovery; they will explore all the corners of the physical creation. But is there anything equivalent in the moral world? A thousand minds might well coalesce, but they will never compose the masterpiece which issued from Homer’s brain.

It has been said that a city whose members shared an equal division of possessions and education would present a nobler spectacle to the Divinity than the cities of our forefathers. Present folly seeks the unity of nations and not the creation of a single man from the entire species, so be it; but in acquiring general capabilities, will not a whole set of private sentiments perish? Farewell the tenderness of the fireside; farewell delight in family; among all the beings white, yellow or black, claimed as your compatriots, you will be unable to throw yourself on a brother’s breast. Was there nothing in that life of other days, nothing in that narrow space you gazed at from your ivy-framed window? Beyond your horizon you suspected unknown countries of which the bird of passage, the only voyager you saw in autumn, barely told you. It was happiness to think that the hills enclosing you would not vanish before your eyes; that they would surround your loves and friendships; that the sighing of night around your sanctuary would be the only sound to accompany your sleep; that the solitude of your soul would never be troubled, that you would always find your thoughts there, waiting for you, to take up again their familiar conversation. You knew where you were born; you knew where your grave would be; penetrating the forests you could say:

‘Fair trees that once saw my beginning,
Soon you will witness my end.’

Man has no need to travel to become greater; he bears immensity within. The accents escaping from your breast are immeasurable and find an echo in thousands of other souls: those who lack the melody within themselves will demand it of the universe in vain. Sit on the trunk of a fallen tree in the depths of the woods; if in profound forgetfulness of yourself, in immobility, in silence, you fail to find the infinite, it is useless to wander the shores of the Ganges seeking it.

What would a universal society without individual lands look like, which would be neither French, English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Tartar, Turkish, Persian, Indian, Chinese, or American, or rather would be all of those societies at once? What would be the effect on morality, the sciences, the arts, poetry? How would the passions felt by different peoples in different climes be simultaneously expressed? How would that confusion of needs and images, the product of different lands where the sun lit a common youth, maturity, and old age be grasped by language? And which language would it be? Will a universal idiom result from the fusion of societies, where some dialect serves for daily transactions, while each nation continues to speak its own language, or perhaps the various languages will be understood by all? What common government, what single set of laws would embrace that society? How would one find space on an earth enlarged by the power of ubiquity, yet shrunk to the smaller proportions of a globe everywhere explored? It would only remain to demand of science some means of transferring to another planet.