NOTE TO CHAPTER 25
Mankind is perfectible. It is progressing toward a better and better standard of living; its wealth is on the increase and is being more equitably distributed; its ideas are becoming sounder and more widely disseminated; its errors are disappearing, and with them the unjust acts that they serve to support; its learning shines ever brighter; its morality is improving; by way of reason or experience it is learning, in conformity with the law of responsibility, to secure greater rewards and to suffer fewer penalties; consequently, there is less and less evil and more and more good within society. These are propositions that cannot be doubted when we consider the nature of man and of his intellect, his distinctive characteristic, which was breathed into him along with the breath of life, and by virtue of which the revelation of Moses could declare that man was created in the image of God.
For man, as we know only too well, is not perfect. If he were perfect, he would not be a pale reflection of God; he would be God. He is, therefore, imperfect, subject to error and pain; and were he, in addition, static, by what right could he claim the ineffable privilege of bearing the image of the Perfect Being?
Furthermore, if intellect, which is the faculty of comparing, of judging, of correcting errors, of learning, does not constitute a kind of individual perfectibility, what then is it?
And if, in a society of beings capable of transmitting to others what they have learned, the uniting of each individual's capacity for perfection with that of all others does not insure collective perfectibility, then we must abandon all faith in philosophy and in moral and political science.
What makes for man's perfectibility is his intellect, or the capacity that is given him to pass from error, the source of evil, to truth, the source of the good.
What causes man to abandon, in his mind, error for truth, and later, in his conduct, evil for good, is knowledge and experience; it is the discovery he makes that there are in phenomena and in acts effects that he had not before dreamed of.
But, for him to gain this knowledge, it must be to his advantage to do so. For him to profit from this experience, it must be to his interest to profit from it. Therefore, in the last analysis, we must look to the law of responsibility to find the means to achieve human perfectibility.
And since responsibility cannot be conceived of without free will; since acts, if not voluntary, could not furnish valid instruction or experience; since beings whose improvement or deterioration would be entirely due to outside causes without any act of will, reflection, or choice on their part, as happens in the case of inert matter, could not be called perfectible in the moral sense of the word; we must conclude that freedom is the very essence of man's progress. To tamper with man's freedom is not only to injure him, to degrade him; it is to change his nature, to render him, in so far as such oppression is exercised, incapable of improvement; it is to strip him of his resemblance to the Creator, to stifle within him the noble breath of life with which he was endowed at his creation.
But because we proclaim to the world that our most unshakably held article of faith is our belief in man's perfectibility, in his inevitable progress in all areas of his life, which are so marvelously linked that the faster his progress in one of them, the faster it is in all the others, does this mean that we are utopians, or even that we are optimists, believing that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, and that we expect that one of these fine mornings the millennium will arrive?
Alas! When we look at the real world about us and see great masses of suffering, groaning humanity, wallowing in shame and degradation, in vice and crime; when we seek to gauge the moral effect exerted on society by the classes that should point out to the backward masses the road to the New Jerusalem; when we ask ourselves what use the rich make of their wealth, the poets of the divine spark of genius that Nature has kindled in them, the philosophers of the fruit of their long vigils, the journalists of the sacred mission entrusted to them, the dignitaries and ministers of state, the representatives of the people, and the kings, of the power that fate has placed in their hands; when we witness revolutions like the one that has lately shaken Europe, with every faction apparently seeking what must, in the long run, be most disastrous to itself and mankind; when we see greed assuming all possible forms and permeating all ranks, the constant sacrificing of others to one's own advantage and of the future to the present, and self-interest, the great and necessary motive force of humanity, manifesting itself only in its most materialistic and improvident forms; when we see the working classes, robbed of their well-being and self-respect by parasitical public functionaries, turning, in revolutionary paroxysms, not against the parasites who drain their substance, but against those who have earned the wealth they possess, that is, against the very element in society able to assure their emancipation and guarantee their rights and powers; when such sights meet our eyes in every country toward which we look, we become fearful of ourselves, and we tremble for our faith, which seems to us but a flickering light about to be extinguished, leaving us in the horrible night of pessimism.
But no, there is no reason to despair. Whatever may be the impression made upon us by events too close to us, mankind does move forward. We are victims of an illusion because we measure the life of the human race by our own; and because for us a few years are a long time, it seems to us that they are a long time for mankind as well. Nevertheless, even by this measure it seems to me that there are many respects in which the progress of society is discernible. I need hardly point out certain striking material achievements, such as the sanitation of our cities, our means of transportation and communication, etc. As regards politics, has not the French nation acquired some experience? Would anyone dare assert that, if all the difficulties through which France has recently gone had presented themselves half a century ago or earlier, she would have overcome them with equal skill, prudence, and wisdom and at so little sacrifice to her citizens? I am writing these lines in a country that has been wracked with revolutions. Every five years there was an insurrection in Florence, and each time half of the citizens plundered and massacred the other half. If we only had a little more imagination—not the imagination that creates, invents, and conjectures, but the imagination that re-creates the past—we should be more just toward our own age and our contemporaries. But what remains true, and true in a way that no one understands better than the economist, is that man's progress, particularly at its dawn, is exceedingly slow, slow enough to be the despair of anyone who loves his fellow man.
Men whose genius has won them that sacred trust which is the voice of the press ought, it seems to me, to be very slow in pronouncing upon society, in the midst of its ferment, any of those disheartening sentences that imply for mankind nothing but a choice between two forms of degradation.
We have seen several examples of this in connection with such subjects as population, rent, machinery, the breaking up of inherited estates, etc.
Here is another taken from M. de Chateaubriand who, by the way, merely gives expression to a very prevalent attitude: "The corruption of manners goes hand in hand with civilization. If the latter offers the means of liberty, the former is an inexhaustible source of slavery."
It cannot be doubted that civilization offers the means of liberty. It is no less indubitable that corruption is the source of slavery. But what is doubtful, more than doubtful—and personally I emphatically deny it—is that civilization and corruption go hand in hand. If this were the case, inevitably the means of liberty would counterbalance the sources of slavery, and stagnation would be the fate of the human race.
Furthermore, I do not think that a sadder, more discouraging, more hopeless thought, or one more conducive to despair, irreligion, impiety, and blasphemy, can enter the human heart than this: Every human creature, willingly or unwillingly, wittingly or unwittingly, moves in the direction of civilization, and .... civilization is corruption!
Then, too, if all civilization is corruption, in what do its advantages consist? For to aver that civilization has no material, intellectual, or moral advantage is an impossibility; such a thing would no longer be civilization. According to Chateaubriand, civilization means material progress, an increase in population, in wealth, in the standard of living, intellectual development, scientific knowledge; and all this progress implies and necessitates a corresponding decline in moral values.
All this would be enough to drive men to mass suicide; but no, I repeat, material and intellectual progress has not been designed and devised by man. God Himself decreed it in giving us ever increasing wants and perfectible faculties. We all move in this direction without willing it, without knowing it, Chateaubriand and those like him, if any, even more than the rest of us. And this progress is to drive us more and more deeply into immorality and slavery by virtue of its attendant corruption!
At first I thought that Chateaubriand had merely tossed off a phrase, as poets often do, without weighing it carefully. With writers of this class, form takes precedence over content. Provided the antithesis be neatly balanced, what does it matter if the thought be false and abominable? As long as the metaphor is effective, as long as it has an air of inspiration and profundity, as long as it wrings applause from the public, as long as it gives the author an oracular turn of expression, what does he care for accuracy and truth?
I thought, then, that Chateaubriand, giving way to a momentary burst of misanthropy, had allowed himself to indulge in a cliché, a commonplace to be heard on every street corner. "Civilization and corruption go hand in hand" has been repeated since the time of Heraclitus, but it is not, for all that, any the less false.
However, after a lapse of many years, the same great writer has repeated the same thought in what is apparently intended as a didactic form, which proves that this was one of his settled convictions. It is well to refute it, not because it comes from Chateaubriand, but because it is widespread.
Material conditions improve, intellectual progress is made, and the nations, instead of benefiting, lose ground. This is how the decline of society and the rise of the individual are to be explained. If the moral sense developed in the same ratio as the intellect, there would be a counterbalance, and mankind would flourish without danger. But the exact opposite happens. Our perception of good and evil becomes dim in proportion as our intellect is enlightened; our conscience becomes narrower in proportion as our knowledge grows.**89 *137
Notes for this chapter
Mémoires d'outre-tombe, Vol. XI.
NOTE TO CHAPTER 25
[This relatively long digression on Chateaubriand is to be explained by the fact that his Mémoires d'outre-tombe (1848-50), anticipated by public and critics as a world-shaking literary event, had just appeared as Bastiat was preparing these notes.—Translator.]
End of Notes
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