Philosophie du Progrès

From The Libertarian Labyrinth
Jump to: navigation, search


First Letter




Usus et impigra simnl riperimentia mentit
Paulatim docuit pedelentim progredientes.
Lucretius, De naturâ rerum, ib. v


Sainte-Pélagie, 26 novembre 1851.


Before reporting to the public on my various publications, you wish, for greater exactness, to ask me how I envision the whole, how I understand the unity and the connections.

This desire on your part, sir, could not be more legitimate, and the question is as just as it is fair. There is no doctrine where there is no unity, and I would not merit an hour of investigation, as a thinker or as a revolutionary, it there was not something in the multitude of propositions, what are sometimes very disparate, which I have by turns sustained and denied, some thing which connects them and forms from them a body of doctrine. In times past, one asked a man, [16] wandering from from his home: What is your God? What is your religion?... It is the least that one could demand of a newcomer, to know what, in the last instance, is his principle.

I do not know how to thank you enough, sir, for that high impartiality, for that good faith in critique, which makes you seek before everything else, not the weakness of the writer, — it is only too apparent, — but his true thought, the exact value of his assertions. In all judicial operations it is necessary, before pronouncing the sentence, to listen to the defendant: the most just judgment is that which results from the testimony and confessions of the accused.

I am going, sir, to try to satisfy your demand, or, rather, I am going to give myself up, bound hands and feet, to your justice, by presenting to you here, not a defense, but a general confession. Take me then, if you can, by my testimony. I will not have the right to appeal your sentence.


That which dominates all my studies, its principle and end, its summit and base, in a word, its reason; that which gives the key to all my controversies, all my disquisitions, all my lapses; that which constitutes, finally, my originality as a thinker, if I may claim such, is that I affirm, resolutely and irrevocably, in all and everywhere, Progress, and that I deny, no less resolutely, the Absolute.

All that I have ever written, all that I have denied, affirmed, attacked, combated, I have written, I have denied or affirmed in the name of one single idea: Progress. My adversaries, on the contrary, and you will soon see if they are numerous, [17] are all partisans of the absolute, in omni génère, casu et numero, as Sganarelle said.

What then is Progress? - For nearly a century everyone has talked about it, without Progress, as a doctrine, having advanced a step. The word is mouthed: the theory is still at the point where Lessing left it.<ref>The idea of Progress is not new. It had not escaped the ancients. (See de l'Idée du Progrès, by Javery, 1 vol. in-8", Orléans, 1850.) Plato and the stoics, Aristote, Cicero, and a crowd of others, without counting the poets and mythologists, clearly understood it. Among the moderns, it was expressed by Pascal, and sung, as it were, by Bossuet, in his Discours sur l'histoire universelle, composed in the imitation of Daniel et de Florus. It was reproduced, with new force, by Lessing, served as motto to the sect of the Illuminati of Weisshaupt, and made, in the epoch of the French Revolution, the originality of Condorcet. But it is above all in our century that it has been posed with brilliance. All the socialistic schools have invoked it as the principle of their critique, and up to a certain point have made it a part of their systems. One knows the historical division of Saint-Simon: Theocracy, Feudalism or governmentalism, Industry; — that of August Comte, Religion, Metaphysics or philosophy, and Positivism; that of Fourier, Édenism, Savagery, Patriarchy, Barbary, Civilization, Garanteeism, Harmony. Progress has served Pierre Leroux to rejuvenate the dogma of metempsychosis, and, an even stranger thing, Bûchez believes he has found there the last word of catholicism. It would be useless to enumerate, not just all the writers, but all the theories, all the sects and schools which are prevailed over by the idea of Progress. Democracy in its turn has taken hold of it, without suspecting that such an acquisition was as incompatible with its official doctrines as with theology itself. We have not forgotten the Revue du Progrès, that Louis Blanc composed until around 1840. Very recently, another democratic writer, Eugène Pelletan, has taken it for the subject of a publication which lacks, it is said, neither philosophy nor interest. Under the name of Liberté absolue, it is still Progress that is affirmed by the editor in chief of la Presse, M. de Girardin. Finally, there are none even among our most bitter conservatives who do not claim Progress: in their language, Progress, opposed to the Revolution, indicates a movement so slow, that it is the equivalent of stasis.

Despite all these studies, it can be said that Progress remains within philosophy in the state of a simple phenomenon: as a principle, it has not entered into the speculation. It is yet neither a truth nor a mere error. As long as it had been conceived as the very being of beings, one had hardly seen there anything but an accident of creation, or a march of society towards a culminating and definitive state, that each had tried to predict or describe, according to his individual aspirations, in the fashion of the legislators and utopists in all eras.</ref> [18]

What is the Absolute, or, to better designate it, Absolutism? — Everyone repudiates it, nobody wants it anymore; and yet I can say that everyone is Christian, protestant, Jew or atheist, monarchist or democrat, communist or Malthusian: everyone, blaspheming against Progress, is allied to the Absolute.

If then I could once put my finger on the opposition that I put between these two ideas, to explain what I mean by Progress and what I consider Absolute, I would have given the principle, secret and key to all my polemics; you would possess the logical link of all of my ideas; and you could, with that notion alone, become for you with regard to me an infallible criterion, not only estimate the ensemble of my publications, but forecast and signal in advance the propositions that sooner or later I must affirm or deny, the doctrines of which I will have to make myself the defender or adversary; you would be able, I say, to evaluate and judge all my theses by what I have said and by what I do not know. You would know me, intus et in cute, such as I am, such as I have been all my life, and such as I would find myself in a thousand years, if I could live a thousand years: the man whose [19] thought always advances, whose program will never be finished. And at whatever moment in my career you would come to know me, whatever conclusion you could come to regarding me, you would have always, either to absolve me in the name of Progress, or to condemn me in the name of the Absolute.

Progress, in the purest sense of the word, which is the least empirical, is the movement of the idea, processus; innate, spontaneous and essential movement, uncontrollable and indestructible, which is to the mind what gravity is to matter (I suppose with the vulgar that mind and matter, abstractions made of movement, are something), and which manifests itself principally in the march of societies, in history.

From which it follows that, the essence of mind being movement, truth, which is to say reality, as much in nature as in civilization, is essentially historical, subject to progressions, conversions, evolutions and metamorphoses. There is nothing fixed and eternel but the very laws of movement, the study of which forms the object of logic and mathematics.

The vulgar, the majority of the savants as well as the ignorant, understand Progress in an entirely utilitarian and material sense. The accumulation of discoveries, multiplication of machines, increase in general well-being, all by the greatest extension of education and improvement of methods; in a word, augmentation of material and moral wealth, the participation of an always greater number of men in the pleasures of fortune and of the mind: such is for them, more or less, Progress. Certainly, Progress is this as well, and the progressive philosophy would be short-sighted and bear little fruit, if in its speculations it began by putting aside the physical, moral and intellectual improvement of the most numerous [20] and poorest class, as Saint-Simon's formulas said. But all of that only gives us a restricted expression of Progress, an image, a symbol, (how shall I say it?) a product: philosophically, such a notion of Progress is without value.

Progress, once more, is the affirmation of universal movement, consequently the negation every immutable form and formula, of every doctrine of eternity, permanence, impeccability, etc., applied to any being whatever; of every permanent order, without excluding even that of the universe; of every subject or object, empirical or transcendental, which does not change.

The Absolute, or absolutism, is, on the contrary, the affirmation of all that Progress denies, the negation of all that it affirms. It is the study, in nature, society, religion, politics, morals, etc., of the eternal, the immutable, the perfect, the definitive, the unconvertible, the undivided; it is, to use a phrase made famous in our parliamentary debates, in all and everywhere, the status quo. <ref>Why is despotic government also called absolute? It is not only because the prince or despot puts his will above the will of the nation nation, his good pleasure in the place of the law. Personality and arbitrariness in power are only a consequence of absolutism. Government is called absolute, first because it is in its nature to concentrate, either in a single man, or in a committee or an assembly, a multiplicity of attributions, the essence of which is to be separated or seriated, according to a logical deduction; in the second place, because once that concentration is carried out, all movement or Progress becomes impossible in the State, and thus in the nation. Are the kings not called the representatives of God?... It is because they affect, like the reputed absolute being, universality, eternity and immutability. — The people, on the contrary, all division and movement, are the incarnation of Progress. This is why democracy is averse to authority: it returns to it only by delegation, middle term between liberty and absolutism.</ref>

Descartes, reasoning unconsciously according to the prejudices of the old metaphysics, and seeking an unshakable foundation for philosophy, an aliquid inconcussum, as it was said, imagines that he has found it in the self [moi], and poses this principe: I think, therefore I am; Cogito, ergo sum. Descartes did not realize that his base, supposedly immobile, was mobility itself. Cogito, I think, these words express movement; and the conclusion, according to the original sense of the verb to be, sum, *****, ou ***, (haïah), is still only movement. He should have said: Moveor, ergo fio, I move, therefore I become!

From that double and contradictory definition of progress and the absolute, is first deduced, as a corollary, a proposition quite strange to our minds, shaped for so long by absolutism: it is that the truth in all things, the real, the positive, the practicable, is what changes, or at least is susceptible to progression, conciliation, transformation; while the false, the fictive, the impossible, the abstract, is everything that presents itself as fixed, entire, complete, unalterable, unfailing, not susceptible to modification, conversion, augmentation or diminution, resistent as a consequence to all superior combination, to all synthesis.

As the notion of Progress is provided to us immediately and before all experience, not what one calls a criterion, but, as Bossuet says, a favorable prejudice, by means of which it is possible to distinguish, in practice, that which it may be useful to undertake and pursue, from that which may become dangerous and deadly, and important thing for the government of the State and of commerce. [22]

Indeed, among so many projects of amelioration and reform which are produced daily in society, it is unquestionable that some are found useful and desirable, while others are not. Now, before experience has decided, how can one recognize, à priori, the better from the worse, the practical thing from the false speculation? How do you choose, for example, between property and communism, federalism and centralization, direct government by the people and dictatorship, universal suffrage and divine right?... Questions all the more difficult since there is no lack of examples of legislators and of societies which have taken for a rule one or the other of these principles, and since all the contraries find their justification equally in history.

For me, the response is simple. All ideas are false, that is to say contradictory and irrationnal, if one takes them in an exclusive and absolute sense, or if one allows oneself to be carried away by that sense; all are true, susceptible to realization and use, if one takes them together with others, or in evolution.

Thus, whether you take for the dominant law of the Republic, either property, like the Romans, or communism, like Lycurgus, or centralization, like Richelieu, or universal suffrage, like Rousseau, whatever principle you choose, since in your thought it takes precedence over all the others, your system is erroneous. There is a fatal tendency to absorption, to purification, exclusion, stasis, leading to ruin. There is not a revolution in humanity which could not be easily explained by this.

On the contrary, if you admit in principle that every realization, in society and in nature, results from the combination of opposed elements and their movement, [23] your course is plotted: every proposition which aims, either to advance an overdue idea, or to procure a more intimate combination, a superior agreement, is advantageous for you, and is true. It is in-progress.

For example, moral philosophy and the experience of societies has not pronounced in a definitive manner on the question of whether or not, in a perfected legislation, divorce is allowed. One never fails to cite in this connection the example of the Romans, the Greeks, and the Orientals, the sentiment of the Greek Church and the Reformed Church, the authority of Moses and of Jesus Christ himself. Before that mass of testimonies, one asks what the opinion of France, and of other countries ruled by catholic discipline, matters. — I admit, for myself, that I am not much moved by that argumentation, which it would be as easy to make serve in the defense of polygamy, indeed even of promiscuity. The ancient socialists, and several among the moderns, did not abstain from this. I do not ask my self what has been in past centuries, and what is still in most nations, the state of woman, in order to deduce by comparison what it would be suitable to bring about among us; I seek that which is on its way to becoming. Is the tendency to dissolution or to indissolubility? That is the question for me. Now, it appears obvious to me, independent of considerations of domestic interests, morals, dignity, justice, even happiness, that one can assert here that Latin monogamy, sustained and ennobled by Catholicism, shows a triumphant tendency to indissolubility; it appears to me, I say, that the Greek church has remained stationary on this point, that the Protestant church has been retrograde, and that the French code, with its exceptions for nullity, is still the most advanced expression of Progress. [24] Let us add that the question of divorce, resolved in the affirmative, would imply a similar retrogradation of the whole political and social order, since at the end of the question of divorce there is another question of inequality, as one has seen from the Saint-Simonian theory. It is this that I call a favorable prejudice; since, for me, to ask if we will introduce divorce into our laws, is to ask implicitly if we will return to feudalism by capitalism, if government will be despotic or liberal, in short, if we will be progressive or reactionary.

Such is then, in my opinion, the rule of our conduct and our judgments: it is that there are degrees to existence, to truth and to the good, and that the best is nothing other than the march of being, the agreement between the largest number of terms, while nothingness is adequate to pure unity and stasis; it is that every idea, every doctrine that secretly aspires to prepotency and immutability, which aims to eternalize itself, which flatters itself to give the last formula of liberty and reason, which consequently conceals, in the folds of its dialectic, exclusion and intolerance; which claims to be true in itself, unalloyed, absolute, eternal, in the manner of a religion, and without consideration for any other; that idea, which denies the movement of mind and the classification things, is untruthful and fatal, and more, it is incapable of constituting itself. This is why the Christian church, founded on an allegedly divine and immutable order, has never been able to establish itself in the strictness of its principle; why the monarchic charters, always leaving too much latitude to innovation and liberty, as always insufficient; why, on the contrary, the Constitution of 1848, in spite of the drawbacks with which it abounds, is still the best and [25] truest of all the political constitutions. While the others obstinately posit themselves in the Absolute, only the Constitution of 1848 has proclaimed its own revision, its perpetual reformability.<ref>Absolute government is thus, à priori, impossible. Also, the crime of the despots is much less in the perpetration of their idea than in their will to commit it: it is that powerless will which makes the liberticide.</ref>

With this understood, and the notion of Progress or universal movement introduced into the understanding, admitted into the republic of ideas, facing its antagonist the Absolute, everything changes in appearance for the philosopher. The world of mind, like that of nature, seems turned on its head: logic and metaphysics, religion, politics, economics, jurisprudence, morals, and art all appear with a new physiognomy, revolutionized from top to bottom. What the mind had believed true until that time becomes false; that which it had rejected as false become true. The influence of the new notion making itself felt by all, and more each day, there soon results a confusion which seems inextricable to superficial observers, and like the symptom of a general folly. In the interregnum which separates the new regime of Progress from the old regime of the Absolute, and during the period while intelligences pass from one to the other, consciousness hesitates and stumbles between its traditions and its aspirations; and as few people know how to distinguish the double passion that they obey, to separate what they affirm or deny in accordance with they belief in the Absolute from that which they deny or affirm in accordance with their support for Progress, there results for society, from that effervescence of all the fundamental notions, a pell-mell of opinions and interest, a battle of parties, where [26] civilization would soon be spoiled, if light did not manage to make itself seen in that void.

Such is the situation that France finds itself it, not only since the revolution of February, but since that of 1789; a situation for which I blame, up to a certain point, the philosophers, the publicists, all those who, having a mission to instruct the people and form opinion, have not seen, or have not wanted to see, that the idea Progress being from now on universally accepted, having acquired rights from the bourgeoisie, not only in the schools, but even in the temples, raised finally to the category of reason, the old representations of things, natural as well as social, are corrupted, and that it is necessary to reconstruct anew, by means of that new lamp of the understanding, science and the laws.

Dimsit lucem à tenebris! Separation of positive ideas, constructed on the notion of Progress, from the more or less utopian theories that suggest the Absolute: such is, sir, the general thought which guides me. There is my principle, my idea itself, that which makes the base and the link of all my judgments. It will be easy for me to show how, in all my controversies, I have thought to obey it: you will say if I have been faithful.


Thus I maintain, and it is one of my most unshakable convictions, that with the notion of Progress all our old aristotelian logic, all that school dialectic is valueless, and that it must rid ourselves of it most quickly, or else talk nonsense all our lives. what one takes for reasoning today, a melange of absolutist and progressive ideas,