Pierre Leroux's Doctrine of Humanity

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Louis Pierre Leroux . "Pierre Leroux's Doctrine of Humanity." The Fortnightly Review. XI, III (New Series; Whole No. LXIII) (March 1, 1872), 324-331.


The celebrated author of the Book of Humanity, Pierre Leroux, died in the month of April last, at the age of seventy-four. Among contemporary writers, he is one of those of whom modern France is most proud. Patriarch of socialism, author of important works, founder of that famous journal, the Globe of 1830, chief editor of various periodicals and of a new encyclopedia, chief of a greet socialist school under Louis Philippe, member of the National Assembly in 1848, he took an active part in the various transformations of policy and idea which have agitated our time. Thus he could say without presumption, speaking of himself—

They fought despotism; I was there.

They overthrew royalty; I was there.
They set their faces towards the ideal of progress; I was there.
They republicanised men's spirits; I was there.

They constituted socialism; I was there.

It is principally as philosopher and socialist thinker that a high authority and an important place are accorded to Pierre Leroux. Few men have meditated and discussed to the same extent all the great problems that stir the silent depths of our age. He elaborated a political, religious, and social doctrine; this doctrine has been glorified by artists, and artists of renown—Beranger, George Sand.

In all the questions that he handled he introduced original views. In a work entitled De l'Egalité, he considered this grave question of human equality with a power of idea that makes this work fundamental, through the consequences that flow from it, in the politics and organisation of men. In another book, La Refutation de l'Eclectisme de M. Cousin, he composed a history of philosophy, in which he demonstrates the unity of the human mind. In this book, too he has furnished a definition of man that has become celebrated in the study of psychology. Pierre Leroux meditated for long on human perfectibility and continuous progress, and we ought to do him the justice of admitting that his work on this great modem principle is the first where the doctrine of progress was estimated and propounded at its just worth. .All those who had awakened to human perfectibility, from Pascal to Condorcet and St. Simon, rather considered it as a foot than as a doctrine. Pierre Leroux raised the doctrine of continuous progress to the height of a philosophy and a religion; for with him these terms are identical. I will mention also his book on the question of population, in which he refutes Malthus, by showing that man reproduces his subsistence by the law that he called the circulus. Finally, I will recall his [325] celebrated plan of a constitution presented to the National Assembly in 1848. Since Sieyes, no one had ventured to propose a new constitution for establishing a republic in France in a durable manner. The worth of this achievement has always been admitted.

But one of his greatest titles with, posterity is his famous Book of Humanity, in which the philosophic and religious part of his doctrine is expounded. This book is viewed as monumental, for the loftiness and importance of the ideas that it contains. What is man, what his destination, and, consequently, what is his right, what his duty, and what his law? Is man bound to other men, his fellows, fortuitously or by some necessary mode? These are some of the questions discussed in this book, which extended the reputation of its author far beyond France. A series of ideas are there specially formulated, which have been designated by the name of doctrine of humanity. Here is the principle of human solidarity and of renascence in humanity. This doctrine, nevertheless, is inseparably connected with the ensemble of his works, with his doctrine of perfectibility. He is concerned with the greatest questions by which the human mind can be moved. Solidarity is the law which explains the source of the evil which reigns in human society, and is the remedy for it. Have not all philosophers in turn sought the source or, rather, the sources of the evil? Have not the greatest minds pondered history with anxiety, with torment even, seeking some general law of the past, so that they and others might perceive a vision of order, and there might be no further room for that trouble of which Herder thus speaks:—

"How many have I known who, over the vast ocean of human history, sought in vain that deity whom, in the illimitable sphere of the physical universe, they perceive with their vision, and recognised with an everfresh emotion in each blade of grass and in each grain of sand! In the temple of terrestrial creation there rose from every side a hymn to the glory of eternal power and eternal wisdom. On the contrary, on the theatre of human action there was only an everlasting conflict of blind passions, disordered forces, destructive arts, good designs fading away. History resembles that web suspended in a palace-corner, of which the inextricable threads continually preserve the traces of recent carnage, after the insect who wove them bas bidden itself away from sight. Yet, if there is a deity in nature, there is this deity, too, in history. For man is a part of creation; and even in the midst of his passions and down to his last extravagances he does not fail to follow laws as glorious and as fixed as those which preside over the revolutions of the celestial bodies."

According to Pierre Leroux, one of these unknown laws and the cause of this evil is human solidarity. "We seek," he says, "the source of the evil that reigns over the earth; the evil that reigns over the earth, I mean the evil that reigns in human society, comes from the fact of the essence of human nature having been violated, because the principle of the unity of the human race in all space and throughout all time, and of the mutual solidarity of all [326] men, has not yet been rightly understood or truthfully applied." It is this principle which he thus explains philosophically:—

"The life of man, and of each man, is, by the will of the Creator, attached to an incessant communication with his fellows and with the universe; what he calls his life docs not belong to him absolutely, and is not in him simply; it is in him and without him; it resides in part and in an undivided fashion in his fellows and in the world round about him."

Solidarity is the law that forcibly unites men among one another, by making them reciprocally necessary, and which consequently brings it about that the human race cannot suffer or progress in its members without all its members suffering or progressing equally. One might give a tangible idea of this consequence of solidarity, by saying that it is a mysterious and unbroken chain which reaches to each of us and unites us in tae labyrinths of its innumerable circles. We might also, borrowing from science a term of comparison, say that it is like the electric wire, whose line is traversed as it passes by each one of us by all that is in man, and that comes forth from man, good and evil, falsehood and truth. We have ever to return to this formula; the life of man is an incessant communion, in which he is united with humanity and with nature. Pierre Leroux demonstrates this principle with the aid of philosophy. One of the consequences of solidarity is the impossibility of abandoning the unity of the human race; as men are united among themselves, they can only think of themselves normally in this unity. Solidarity leads him to formulate the idea of humanity, which rises by a hundred cubits above the political, religious, social divisions, which have broken humanity into fragments, and marks those divisions as the sources of evil. In truth, if the right and interest of man is to communicate with all men throughout time and throughout space, and to communicate with the whole of nature according to the normal laws which the Creator has given us for the purposes of this twofold communication, there remains the inalienable right of man; this communication could not be restrained or limited, for to limit it would be to destroy it. To limit man in an absolute fashion to a fixed communication with his fellows and with nature, without possible extension, is to build a prison round him. By what right would you confine man to a single nook of the sphere under his feet, and the sphere over his head?

The consequence of this dispersion of humanity in fragments is explained by history. Evil manifests itself there under the three essential forms that place us in communion of relationship with our fellows, namely, the family, the country, property. For these three things, in themselves so excellent and necessary, may by their excess become mischievous, by absorbing the man and dividing the race. Man has been hitherto slave of all three things at once, and, according to the epoch, he has been successively enslaved in a predominant [327] manner, either to the family, as in the castes of India; or to the state, as among the Greeks and Romans; or to property, as in medieval feudalism, and in that Capitalism of our own days, which is only feudalism in another shape. The right of man and his interest being free communion with the human race and with all the universe, whatever divides the human race, whatever folds off men into flocks mutually hostile or indifferent, deserves to be held accursed, whether the means of this folding-off be styled family, or constitution, or civil law. The name of Caste, consecrated to one of these kinds of imprisonment and isolation, may be very legitimately applied to the others. Politicians have destroyed oriental castes, which for centuries have fallen into decay; but their eyes are blind to other castes neither less real nor less disastrous to the human race.

Thus, if the reasonings of Pierre Leroux are well grounded, it follows that all the evils and all the immoralities of the human race spring from the fact of this law of unity and universal communion having been ignored or violated in the ideas that have been formed of the family, the country, property. Hence privation, suffering, slavery, and the rest.

But let us thank God, here is an evil which from the oppressed ascends to the oppressors. If evil had only been evil for the oppressed, it would have been eternal. But from the very principle of life, from the principle that unites man to man, there flows a consequence that will destroy evil by itself; this is, that you cannot do ill without suffering ill in your own person. The Bible has an admirable expression for this solidarity of the master with his slave, of the manslayer with his victim. The Eternal says to Cain, "Where is Abel thy brother?" and Cain answered, "I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?" And God said, "Thou shalt be accursed even by the earth which has opened its mouth to receive from thy hand the blood of thy brother; when thou tillest the earth, it shall no longer bring forth fruit for thee." Cain might say that he was not his brother's keeper; but they were together to make the universe fruitful, and the murder of brother by brother makes the earth barren even for the slayer.

Thus Pierre Leroux demonstrates the first principle of morality and politics. We are all one and one in all, as St. Paul explains it. Thou shalt love thy neighbour, because in truth he is thyself; because the heavenly benefits are communicated to them by the channel of unity, as all evils come to them by disunion; because there is no individual salvation, but salvation will come to all through the harmony that will establish itself in the bosom of humanity when it shall have developed the creative power existing in the alliance of all who have one and the same end to attain.

Humanity, divided of old into a multitude of separate streams, appears to Pierre Leroux as a single whole. According to him, this [328] conception is a light that sheds brightness high and far. For not only is solidarity of men existent; it is eternal. According to Pierre Leroux, it has been a great error to seek a paradise and a pit out of nature and out of life. If you take away from this present life the character of infinity that it has in itself, you implant in ii nothingness; you sow the seeds of death in its bosom. What life had of the perishable was no more than change or transformation, and you make of this transformation death. For where now is the sequel of this life? The good have always called in their prayers for the end of the world; the bad have cried with the atheist king of the last century, "Let the end of the world come after me; what matter!" This is the issue of the charity and faith of the one, of the incredulity and indifference of the others. We come thus to the egotism of the superstitious devotee, who dreams of working out his salvation below, and by another path to the egotism of the atheist, who dreams of procuring alone his own happiness.

Our faith, says Pierre Leroux, is that God, the invisible, the eternal, the infinite, manifests himself more and more in the successions of creation, and that adding creation to creation with the aim of raising the creatures higher and higher, it follows that creatures of increasing perfection issue forth from out of his bosom. It is thus that on our globe humanity has come after animality. Man, says Goethe, is a first discourse between Nature and God. If then God, after having caused the emanation of the world and each creature, were to abandon them and not to lead them from life to life, up to a term at which they should attain veritable bliss, there would be injustice. The Apostle indeed says, "Shall the vessel ask of the potter, why hast thou made me so?" There is an inner voice instructing us that God cannot work ill, nor create only to inflict suffering. Now this is surely what would come to pass if he abandoned his creatures after a life of imperfection and misery. Men ask, where we shall pass the morrow of our to-day? What perishes at each instant, or rather what changes, what is transformed, are the manifestations of your being, the relations of your being with others. The majority of men confound life with the manifestation of life—its present manifestation, which they would fain make eternal. Death coming to put an end to the actual manifestations of their life, under the form of which they are actually conscious, is what they abhor. Did not Descartes dream of an immortality to be conquered for our bodies by the science of medicine? But it is not thus that we are immortal, because life in its essence depends neither on time nor space, and only falls under their empire in its manifestations.

But what are we in essence? We are not merely a being, a force, a potentiality; each of us has a determinate nature, each of us is humanity. But what is humanity P People ordinarily interpret this phrase by light and confused ideas. They call humanity the [329] totality of men who have appeared or who will appear on the earth. Or else they conceive by humanity a kind of collective creature, issuing from the play and reciprocal influence of all men upon one another. We surely need a deeper and profounder idea. Humanity is each man in his infinite existence. What exists in God is the ideal type of humanity progressively realised by the particular creature man. In this way; each man carries in him the ideal type of humanity in his infinite potentiality, which he only develops in contact with his kind; hence humanity is the individual, the particular beings who are humanity in germ, or in the potential state.

Pierre Leroux shows that the human mind forms such a unity, that if we isolate the intelligence of any man that ever lived and that was endowed with more genius than the others, in a moment these great intelligences are stripped of worth and meaning. They derive their worth from their union with the human spirit. Just as they had been prepared and led on, so in their turn they prepared and led on those who followed them. Hence their worth. Take them from this ensemble, their value instantly fades away. The relative truths that they knew become fallacies; they are only truths on condition that, being taken up and transformed, they yet further perfect themselves. They are only superior truths by comparison with those which had been perceived before. What would remain, then, either to the philosopher, or to the artist, or to the workman, if humanity, that in every way has given him birth, has furnished him with the substance of his character, of his intelligence, of his power, were to withdraw her gifts? In truth, to be, for such a spirit, is to be man; to be man is to be so in a certain time and in a certain land, so that with the supposition of his existence there recurs the effective intervention of humanity. Our sentiments, and all the ideas that these sentiments suggest to us, realising themselves in the course of ages, form humanity; just as reciprocally it is humanity that, existing without us and within us, causes the sentiments and ideas which are oar life. Humanity exists in us like love, hatred, and all our passions. Humanity is, then, an ideal being, composed or real beings, themselves humanity in germ; and, reciprocally, man is a real being, in which exists in a potential state the ideal being. Man had been philosophically defined as a social animal; he had been defined by others as a soul served by organs. "Man," says Pierre Leroux, "is neither an animal nor a soul; man is an animal transformed by reason."

The whole subject of the future life, then, appears for Pierre Leroux to be reducible to these terms: future life is in germ in the present life. Now in the present life man is united to humanity, ad with humanity to external nature. Then in the future life, continuation of the present life, man will still be united to humanity. [330]

To these ideas objections are immediately opposed, such as the following:—A child is about to be born. Why should you refuse to the Creator the power of reproducing in this child a man? Is this kind of resurrection impossible for him who has the gift of life in his hands? Again, to this continuation of the individual being in the collective being, humanity, is opposed the absence of recollection. Pierre Leroux shows that, according to Plato and Descartes, the being who lives before you, and that you imagine to have been born yesterday only to die to-morrow, is an eternal being who has already lived, and who has had antecedent existence, as he will have a subsequent existence. It is the principle of Reminiscence of Plato and of Innate Idea of Descartes. What then matters it that the various beings coming again into life should have no formal recollection of their previous existence? Each of their existences is a link in the chain; but they do not repeat one another, they are not the useless reproduction of a single manifestation.

Innateness, and the various conditions brought by the beings that come into life to-day, evidently replace the lost recollection of their past existence. This recollection is grafted, so to speak, more profoundly on their existence; it is transformed in faculties, in power of living, in potentiality, in predispositions of all kinds. Why, then, relatively to ourselves and our own future should we lament our loss of formal memory of our existence, after passing through the crucible of death? 'Tis only names and empty images that we lose, provided that the memory we retain of our life is an actual form, is found to be replaced by intuition and new conditions of existence, that must represent exactly the actual worth of our life, because they will have been weighed in the balance of him who is justice and science even, him who has made the world-that is, who makes it continually—with weight and measure, cum pondere, numero, et mensura.

Is there not feebleness, egotism, and impiety in this attachment of men to their own mere manifestations, and to the fragile memory that they preserve of them during even this life? Is it not a kind of avarice, like the avarice that prevents the miser from living, through his insensate passion for his hoard? This treasure is not himself, yet he ends by burying his existence in it. Thus the majority of men would fain bury their existence in the mere form of their existence, and they call that not forgetting, and they would like to continue to be beset from life to life by all the details of the present existence. When we speak, is it needful that we should remember our first stammering, and all the faults of utterance with which we began. Such persistence in our first manifestations, so far from augmenting our being, would crush and atrophy it. It will be the dotings of the old man following us to destroy the chance of eternal youth.

There probably happens in the phenomenon of death something like what happens every day in sleep, which the poet, the philosopher, [331] and the common man have so often compared to death. In sleep our ideas, our sensations, our sentiments of the evening before, seem to become incarnate in us, become ourselves by a phenomenon analogous to that of the digestion and assimilation of our bodily food. It is thus that sleep regenerates us, and that we emerge from it the stronger, with a certain oblivion. In death, which is a mightier oblivion, it seems that our life becomes digested and elaborated. Then comes the awakening, or new birth. We have been; we no longer recall the forms of this being, and nevertheless we are in our potentiality the exact sequel of what we were; still the same being but grown larger.

Pierre Leroux has provided an immense basis for his Doctrine of Humanity out of the ideas of all the great philosophers and the teaching of all creeds. He makes tradition his starting-point, and is able to say without ostentation:—

"We teach nothing new, or at any rate nothing that is not conformable to the tradition of humanity rightly understood. I say that at the bottom of all the religious traditions of mankind, in all times and among all peoples, you will find with the sentiment of immortality, the sentiment of immortality in the bosom of Humanity. I say that the heavens and the hells apart from nature and life are only a heresy in the human tradition. I say finally that the universally held idea of the ancients was that man was born again in Humanity, and that it was only secondarily that they embraced either an intermediate metempsychosis, or the passage into heavens, hells, and the like."

He makes not less victorious appeal to Moses and to the Gospels to attest the same conviction, which he held to have been taught by all great religions as well as by all great philosophers, from Pythagoras and Plato to Leibnitz and Lessing. Such is the Doctrine of Humanity that Beranger and George Sand have sung.

Louis Pierre Leroux.

  • Louis Pierre Leroux, “Pierre Leroux’s Doctrine of Humanity,” The Fortnightly Review 11, no. 3 (March 1, 1872): 324-331.