Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXV, 10

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XXV, 9 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXV, 11

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXV, chapter 10
On the Morality of Material Interests and that of Duty

‘The Government has invented a new morality, that of interests; that of duty has been abandoned to imbeciles. Now, this morality of interests, on which they wish to found our administration, has corrupted the nation more in the space of three years than the Revolution did in a quarter of a century.

What destroys morality among nations, and with morality those nations themselves, is not violence, but seduction; and by seduction I mean that which all false doctrine contains of the flattering and the specious. Men often mistake error for truth, because every faculty of feeling or intellect has its false representation: calmness resembles virtue, rationalisation reason, emptiness depth, and so on.

The eighteenth century was a destructive century; we were all seduced. We distorted politics; we distracted ourselves with culpable novelties while searching for social reality in a corruption of morals. The Revolution arrived to awaken us: dragging the Frenchman from his bed, it hurled him into his grave. However, the Reign of Terror is perhaps, of all the stages of the Revolution, that which was least dangerous to morality, because no conscience was constrained: the crime was in its freedom. Orgies drenched in blood, scandals which no longer had the power to shock; all was there. The nation’s women set to their tasks around the murderous mechanism as if it were their fireside: the scaffolds constituted public morality, and death the basis of government. Nothing was clearer than each man’s position: no one spoke of specialists, or affirmation, or a system of interests. All this gibberish produced by petty minds and bad consciences was unknown. They said to a man: ‘You are a royalist, noble, and wealthy: die’: and he died. Antonelli wrote that there were no charges made out against such prisoners, they were condemned as aristocrats: a monstrous indulgence which nevertheless left the moral order untouched; since it is not killing the innocent as innocents which destroys society, it is killing them as though they were guilty.

As a consequence, those terrible times were times of great devotion. Women marched heroically then, to torment; fathers gave themselves up to protect their sons, sons to protect their fathers; unexpected help was given in prison, and the priest, being sought, consoled the victim beside an executioner who did not acknowledge him.

Morality under the Directory had to combat the corruption of manners rather than that of doctrine; there was excess. One was flung into pleasure as one had been crammed into prison; one compelled the present to produce an advance on future joy, for fear of seeing the past reborn. Not yet having had time to create a place to live, everyone lived in the street, on the promenades, in the public rooms. Familiar with scaffolds, and already half beyond the world, one found it scarcely worth while going home. It was not merely a question of arts, dances, fashions; one changed clothes and jewellery as easily as one was stripped of life.

Under Bonaparte the seduction began again, but it was a seduction which brought with it its own remedy: Bonaparte seduced us with the power of glory, and everything great carries a legislative principle within itself. He thought it useful to allow the doctrine of all nations to be taught, the morality of all ages, the religion of all eternity.

I would not be astonished to hear the reply: To found society on a duty is to erect it on a fiction; to root it in self-interest is to establish it on a reality. Now, it is precisely duty that is a fact, and self-interest that is a fiction. Duty which has its source in the Divinity descends to the family, where it establishes a real relationship between father and children; from there, passing into society and separating into two branches, it regulates the relations between king and subject; it establishes in the moral order the chain of service and protection, benefit and gratitude.

There is then no more positive fact than duty, since it gives human society the sole durable existence it can possess.

Self-interest on the contrary is a fiction when it is taken as it is today, in the rigorous and physical sense, since it is no longer in the evening what it was in the morning, since it changes its nature at every instant, since founded on wealth it is possessed of variability.

According to the morality of self-interest, every citizen is in a state of hostility regarding the law and the government, because in society it is always the majority who suffer. No one fights for abstract ideas of order, peace or country; or if they do fight for them, it is because they attach the idea of sacrifice to them: then the morality of self-interest is left behind to return to that of duty: so true is it that society cannot be found to exist outside that sacred boundary!

He who does his duty attracts esteem; he who yields to self-interest is esteemed little. It is a fine thing for the age to extract a principle of government from a source of contempt! Raise politicians to think only of what affects them, and you will see how they will run the State; in that way you will only obtain corrupt greedy ministers, like those mutilated slaves who governed the later Roman Empire who sold everything, remembering that they had been sold themselves.

Note this: self-interest only has power while it still prospers; if times grow hard, it is enfeebled. Duty, on the contrary, is never as energetic as when there is a cost involved in fulfilling it. When times are good, it becomes slack. I like a principle of government which thrives on misfortune: that to a great extent resembles virtue.

What is more absurd that to tell people: Don’t show devotion! Don’t betray enthusiasm! Don’t think of anything but your own interests! It is as though you said to them: Don’t come to our aid, abandon us, if that is in your interest! With that profound approach to politics, when the hour for sacrifice arrives everyone locks their doors, rushes to the window, and watches the monarchy go by.’

Such was my article on the morality of self-interest and the morality of duty.

On the 3rd of December 1819, I mounted the rostrum of the Chamber of Peers once more: I spoke against the false Frenchmen who would give us as a symbol of peace our surveillance by the European powers. ‘Do we have need of guardians? Are we still to be the victim of circumstances? Ought we then to receive, via diplomatic notes, certificates of good conduct? And have we merely changed a garrison of Cossacks for a garrison of ambassadors?’

From that time on I spoke of foreigners as I have since spoken of them during the war in Spain; I dreamt of our freedom at a time when even the liberals opposed me. Men of opposing opinions make a great noise, merely to arrive at silence! Let a few years pass, and the actors leave the scene and the spectators are no longer there to criticise or applaud.