Chateaubriand's memoirs, XLII, 15

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XLII- Chapter 15
Saint-Simonians – Phalansterians – Fouriérists – Owenites – Socialists – Communists – Unionists - Egalitarians



Weary of individual property, would you make government the sole proprietor, distributing to the possession-less community an amount tailored to the merits of each individual? Who will judge those merits? Who will have the power and authority to have those judgements carried out? Who will administer and value that bank of living assets?

Do you look to labour associations? What will the weak, the sick, and the unintelligent bring to the community burdened by their ineptitude?

Another option: you might create, while replacing wages, various kinds of anonymous society or partnership between manufacturers and workers, between intellect and matter, to which the former would bring capital and ideas, the others their industry and labour; one could share out the profits arising. That is fine, complete perfection achieved among men; fine indeed so long as there is no dispute, no avarice, no envy: but if a single association makes demands, the whole thing collapses; lawsuits and division commence. That method while more credible in theory is also quite impossible in practice.

Do you seek, from a combined approach, the building of a city where each man possesses a roof, a hearth, clothes, and sufficient food? When you come to endow each citizen, qualities and faults will upset your division or render it unjust: this man needs considerably more food than that; that man cannot do as much as this man; careful and hard-working individuals will become wealthy, spendthrifts, idlers, and the sick will fall back into misery; for you cannot give all men the same temperament: natural inequality will re-appear despite all your efforts.

And do not imagine that we will leave ourselves entangled in the legal precautions and complexities which the organisation of the family, matrimonial rights, guardianships, the prior claims of heirs and successors etc. demand. Marriage is a notoriously absurd oppression: we will abolish all that. If the son kills the father, it is not the son, as is easily proven, who commits parricide: it is the father who by living murders the son. Let us not trouble our heads therefore with the labyrinths of an edifice which we are razing to the ground; it is pointless to keep our grand-fathers’ useless trifles.

That notwithstanding, there are among the modern sectarians those who, glimpsing the impossibility of their doctrines, mix words of morality and religion with them, to make them palatable; they think that while awaiting better, they might attract us first of all to more mediocre American ideals; they shut their eyes and clearly choose to forget that the Americans are proprietors and ardent proprietors, which alters the issue somewhat.

Others, yet more obliging, who admit that civilisation has a kind of elegance, would be content to transform us into constitutional Chinese, almost atheist, free and enlightened old creatures, sitting for centuries in our yellow robes among our flower beds, spending our days in as comfortable a state as everyone else, in peace, in the midst of our achieved progress, and only packing ourselves on board train, like a consignment, in order to travel from Canton to the Great Wall to discuss a marsh to be drained, or a canal to be dug, with some other industrialist of the Celestial Empire. On either supposition, American or Chinese, I would be happy to depart before such felicity was mine.

One solution remains: it may be that as the result of a complete debasement of human character, the nations will settle for what they have: they will lose the love of independence, replacing it with love of money, while kings lose their love of power, exchanging it for love of the Civil List. From that would derive a compromise between monarchs and subjects delighted to scramble willy-nilly into an illegitimate political order; at their ease, they would display their infirmities before each other, like the lepers of old, or as in those mud-holes into which the sick of today plunge to soothe themselves; they would paddle through a single mire like peaceable reptiles.

Yet it would be wrong to wish, given the current state of our society, to replace the pleasures of intellectual life with joys of a physical nature. The latter, we know, occupied the time of ancient aristocratic peoples; masters of the world they possessed palaces, crowds of slaves; whole regions of Africa were in their possession. But beneath what porticoes will you pass your meagre hours of leisure? In what vast ornate baths will you enclose the perfumes, flowers, flute-players and courtesans of Ionia? It is no Heliogabulus who requests it. Where will you find the wealth indispensable for such delightful matters? The soul is thrifty; but the body a spendthrift.

Now, a few serious comments on absolute equality: that equality would not only lead to servitude of the body, but also slavery of the soul; it would have no lesser effect than to destroy the moral and physical inequalities of individuals. Our will, in state control, under total surveillance, would see our faculties fall into disuse. Our nature, for example, partakes of the infinite; forbid our minds, or even our passions, from thinking of boundless good, and you reduce man’s life to that of a snail, you metamorphose him into a machine. For, make no mistake: without the possibility of reaching the ultimate, without the idea of eternal life, the void is everywhere; without individual property no one is free; whoever has no property cannot be independent; he becomes a proletarian or a wage-earner, whether he lives in the current era of private property, or in a state of communal ownership. Common ownership would resemble society in one of those monasteries at whose gate the bursar distributed bread. Hereditary and inviolable property is our private defence; property is nothing other than liberty. Absolute equality which presupposes total submission to that equality would emulate the harshest slavery; it would make of the individual human being a somnolent beast, subject to constraining action, and obliged to walk the same path forever.

While I reasoned thus, Monsieur de Lamennais was attacking the same systems, from behind the bars of his gaol, with his powerful logic which enlightens with a poetic splendour. A passage from his pamphlet entitled On the Past and Future of the People completes my argument. Listen then, as he speaks:

‘Of those who propose this aim of rigorous and absolute equality, the more rational ones conclude that to establish and maintain it requires force, despotism, tyranny, in one form or another.

The partisans of absolute equality are forced first of all to attack natural inequalities, in order to lessen or if possible eliminate them. Unable to do anything with the primary state of the organism and its development, their work begins at the moment when the child leaves its mother’s breast. The State then seizes it: the State becomes the absolute master of the spiritual and organic being. Mind and conscience, both depend on the State, both are subject to it. There is an end, from then on, to family, paternity, marriage. A male, a female, children manipulated by the State, of whom it makes what it will, morally, physically, a servitude universal and so profound that nothing escapes it, that it penetrates to the very soul itself.

As regards what concerns material things, equality cannot be established in a way the least bit permanent through simple division. If it acted alone on the earth, one can conceive the world shared out into as many portions as there are individuals; but the number of individuals perpetually varies, therefore the initial division must be perpetually changed. All private property being abolished, only the State has rights of possession. That mode of possession, if voluntary, is that of the monk constrained by his vows to poverty as to obedience; if it is not voluntary, it is that of the slave, where nothing alleviates the harshness of his conditions. All the bonds of humanity, empathetic relationships, mutual devotion, exchange of service, the free gift of self, all which constitutes the charm of life and its grandeur, all, all is gone, gone without hope of return.

The means proposed so far, to resolve the issue of the future of the race, constitute the negation of all the indispensable conditions of existence, destroying, either directly, or implicitly, duty, rights, and the family, and if they could be applied to society would produce, instead of liberty in which all real progress is represented, merely a servitude to which history, however far back one goes, offers nothing comparable.’

There is nothing to add to that logic.

I do not visit prisoners, like Tartuffe, to distribute alms among them, but to enrich my mind among men more worthy than myself. Though their opinions may differ from mine, I fear nothing: a convinced Christian, all the fine geniuses on earth could not weaken my faith; I pity them, and my charity protects me from seduction. If I sin through excess, they sin by default; I understand what they understand, while they do not understand what I understand. In the same prison where once I visited the noble and unfortunate Carrel, I now visit the Abbé de Lamennais. The July Revolution has relegated to the darkness of gaol the remaining men of any superiority, whose merit it cannot judge, and whose brilliance it cannot tolerate. In the highest room, under a low roof you can touch with your hand, we fools, believers in freedom, Félicité de Lamennais and François de Chateaubriand, speak of serious matters. He has debated keenly with himself, his ideas are cast in a religious mould; the form remains Christian, though at root he is far from dogma: his words retain the heavenly tone.

Faithfully professing heresy, the author of L’Essai sur l’indifference speaks my language using ideas that are no longer my ideas. If, after having embraced popular evangelical teaching, he had remained attached to the priesthood, he would have retained the authority that divergence destroys. The priests, the new members of the clergy (and the most distinguished among those churchmen) would have flocked to him; the bishops would be engaged in his cause if he had adhered to Gallic liberty, while venerating St Peter’s successor and defending unity.

In France, youth would have surrounded the missionary in whom they found the ideas they love and the development to which they aspire; in Europe, cautious dissidents would have been no obstacle; great Catholic nations, Poland, Ireland, Spain, would have blessed the enthusiastic preacher. Even Rome would have ended by seeing that the new evangelist would renew the domination of the Church, and furnish the oppressed Pontiff with the means of resisting the influence of absolute monarchs. What a life-force! Intellect, religion, freedom represented by a priest!

God did not wish it so; light was suddenly lacking to him who was the light; the shepherd, stealing away, has abandoned his flock in the night. To my compatriot, whose public career has been interrupted, there still remain both his private superiority and the pre-eminence of his natural gifts. In the natural order of things he should survive me; I leave it till my deathbed to carry on our great debate, at those gates one does not re-pass. I would love to see his genius grant me the absolution that his hand once had the right to bring to my brow. We were cradled at birth by the same waves; may my ardent faith and sincere admiration allow me to hope that I will meet my friend again, reconciled, on the same bank of eternity.