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OUR SOCIAL DUTY
LET us start fairly with the great truth: for those who possess there is only one certain duty, which is to strip themselves of what they have, so as to bring themselves into the condition of the mass that possesses nothing. It is understood, in every clear-thinking conscience, that no more imperative duty exists; but, at the same time, it is admitted that this duty, for lack of courage, is impossible of accomplishment. For the rest, in the heroic history of the duties, even at the most ardent periods, even at the beginning of Christianity and in the majority of the religious orders that made a special cult of poverty, this is perhaps the only duty that has never been completely fulfilled. It behoves us, therefore, when considering our subsidiary duties, to remember that the essential one has been knowingly evaded. Let this truth govern us. Let us not forget that we are speaking in its shadow and that our boldest, our utmost steps will never lead us to the point at which we ought to have been from the first.
Since it appears that we have here to do with an absolute impossibility before which it were idle to make any further display of astonishment, let us accept human nature as we find it. Let us, therefore, seek on other roads than the one direct road -- seeing that we have not the strength to travel by it -- that which, in the absence of this strength, is able to nourish our conscience. There are thus, not to speak of the great question, two or three others which well-disposed hearts are constantly setting to themselves. What are we to do in the actual state of our society? Must we side, a priori, systematically, with those who are disorganising it, or join the camp of those who are struggling to maintain its economy? Is it wiser not to bind one's choice, to defend by turns that which seems reasonable and opportune in either party? It is certain that a sincere conscience can find, here or there, the wherewithal to satisfy its activity or to lull its reproaches. That is why, in the presence of this choice which to-day becomes incumbent upon every upright intelligence, it is not unprofitable to weigh the pro and the contra more simply than after our usual fashion and rather in the manner of the unbiased denizen of some neighbouring planet.
Let us not resume all the traditional objections, but only those which can be seriously defended. We are first confronted with the oldest of them, which maintains that inequality is inevitable, being in accordance with the laws of nature. This is true; but the human race appears not improbably created to raise itself above certain of the laws of nature. Its very existence would be imperilled if it abandoned its intention to surmount a number of these laws. It is in accordance with its particular nature to obey other laws than those of its animal nature and the rest. Moreover, this objection has long been classed among those whose principle is untenable and would lead to the massacre of the weak, the sick, the old and so forth.
We are next told that it is right, in order to hasten the triumph of justice, that the best among us should not prematurely strip themselves of their arms, the most efficacious of which are exactly wealth and leisure. Here the necessity of the great sacrifice is fairly well recognised, and only the question of its opportuneness remains. We agree, provided that it be well understood that this wealth and leisure serve solely to hasten the steps of justice.
Another conservative argument worthy of attention declares that, man's first duty being to avoid violence and bloodshed, it is indispensable that the social evolution should not be too rapid, that it should ripen slowly, that it is important to temper it while the mass is being enlightened and borne gradually and -- without serious upheavals towards a liberty and a fulness of possessions which, at this moment, would unchain only its worst instincts. This again is true; nevertheless, it would be interesting to calculate, since we can reach the best only through the bad, whether the evils of a sudden, radical and bloody revolution outweigh those which are perpetuated in the slower evolution. It were well to ask ourselves whether there be not an advantage in acting with all speed; whether, when all is told, the suffering of those who now wait for justice be not more serious than that which the privileged class of today would have to undergo for the space of some weeks or months. We are too ready to forget that the headsmen of misery are less noisy, less theatrical, but infinitely more numerous, cruel and active than those of the most terrible revolutions.
We come at length to the last and perhaps the most disturbing argument: humanity, we are told, has for more than a century been passing through the most fruitful and victorious, probably the climacteric years of its destiny. It seems, if we consider its past, to be in the decisive phase of its evolution. One would think, from certain indications, that it is nigh upon attaining its apogee. It is traversing a period of inspiration wherewith none other is historically to be compared. A trifle, a last effort, a flash of light which shall connect or emphasise the discoveries, the intuitions scattered or held in suspense alone separates it, perhaps, from the great mysteries. It has lately touched upon problems whose solution, at the cost of the hereditary enemy, that is of the great unknown phenomenon of the universe, would probably render useless all the sacrifices which justice demands of men. Is it not dangerous to stop this flight, to disturb this precious, precarious and supreme minute? Admitting even that what is gained can no longer be lost, as in the earlier upheavals, it is nevertheless to be feared lest the vast disorganisation required by equity should put an abrupt end to this happy period; and it is not sure but that its reappearance might be long delayed, the laws which preside over the inspiration of the genius of the race being as capricious, as unstable as those which preside over the inspiration of the genius of the individual.
This is, as I have said, perhaps the most disquieting argument. But there is no doubt that it attaches too great an importance to a somewhat uncertain danger. Moreover, prodigious compensations would attend this brief interruption of the victory of humanity. Can we foresee what will happen when the human race as a whole will be taking part in the intellectual labour which is the labour proper to our species? To-day, hardly one brain in ten thousand exists in conditions entirely favourable to its activity. There is, at this moment, a monstrous waste of spiritual force. Idleness at the top depresses as many mental energies as excess of manual labour annihilates below. It is incontestable that, when it shall be given to all men to apply themselves to the task at present reserved for a few favourites of chance, humanity will increase a thousand-fold its prospects of attaining the great mysterious aim.
Here, I think, we have the best of the pro and the contra, the most reasonable reasons that can be invoked by those who are in no hurry to end the matter. In the midst of these reasons stands the huge monolith of injustice. There is no need to let it defend itself. It oppresses consciences, limits intelligences. Wherefore there can be no question of not destroying it; all that is asked of those who would overthrow it is a few years of patience, so that, when its surroundings have been cleared, its fall may entail fewer disasters. Are we to grant these years? And which among these arguments in favour of haste or of waiting would be the object of the most straightforward choice?
Do the pleas for a few years of respite appear to you sufficient? They are precarious enough; but, even so, it would not be fair to condemn them without considering the problem from a higher standpoint than that of pure reason. This point must always be sought as soon as we have to do with questions that go beyond human experience. It might easily be maintained, for instance, that the choice would not be the same for all. The race, which probably has an infinite consciousness of its destinies which no individual can grasp, would have very wisely apportioned among men the parts that suit them in the lofty drama of its evolution. For reasons which we do not always understand, it is doubtless necessary that the race should progress slowly: that is why the enormous mass of its body attaches it to the past and the present; and very upright intelligences may be comprised within this mass, even as it is possible for greatly inferior minds to escape from it. Whether there be satisfaction or unselfish discontent on the side of the darkness or of the light matters little; it is often a question of predestination and the distribution of characters rather than of enquiry. However this may be, for us, whose reason already judges the weakness of the arguments of the past, it would be a fresh motive for impatience. Let us admit, in addition, its very plausible force. The fact, therefore, that to-day does not satisfy us is enough to make it our duty, our organic duty, so to speak, to destroy all that supports it, in order to make ready for the arrival of to-morrow. Even if we were to perceive very clearly the dangers and drawbacks of too prompt an evolution, it is requisite, in order that we should loyally fulfil the function assigned to us by the genius of the race, that we should take no notice of any patience, any circumspection. In the social atmosphere, we represent the oxygen: if we behave in it like the inert azote, we betray the mission which nature has entrusted to us; and this, in the scale of the crimes that remain to us, is the gravest and most unpardonable of treasons. It is not ours to preoccupy our minds with the often grievous consequences of our haste: this is not written in our part, and to take account of it would be to add to that part discordant words which are not in the authentic text dictated by nature. Humanity has appointed us to gather that which stands on the horizon. It has given us instructions which it does not behove us to discuss. It distributes its forces as it thinks right. At every cross-way on the road that leads to the future, it has placed, against each of us, ten thousand men to guard the past; let us therefore have no fear lest the fairest towers of former days be insufficiently defended. We are only too naturally inclined to temporise, to shed tears over inevitable ruins: this is the greatest of our trespasses. The least that the most timid among us can do -and already they are very near committing treachery -- is not to add to the immense deadweight which nature drags along. But let the others follow blindly the inmost impulse of the power that urges them on. Even if their reason were to approve none of the extreme measures in which they take part, let them act and hope beyond their reason; for in all things, because of the call of the earth, we must aim higher than the object which we aspire to attain.
Let us not fear lest we be drawn too far; and let no reflection, however just, break or temper our ardour. Our future excesses are essential to the equilibrium of life. There are men enough about us whose exclusive duty, whose most precise mission it is to extinguish the fires which we kindle. Let us go always to the most extreme limits of our thoughts, our hopes and our justice. Let us not persuade ourselves that these efforts are incumbent only upon the best of us: this is not true and the humblest among us that foresee the coming of a dawn which they do not understand must await it at the very summit of themselves. Their presence on these intermediary tops will fill with living substance the dangerous intervals between the first heights and the last and will maintain the indispensable communications between the vanguard and the mass.
Let us think sometimes of the great invisible ship that carries our human destinies upon eternity. Like the vessels of our confined oceans, she has her sails and her ballast. The fear that she may pitch or roll on leaving the roadstead is no reason for increasing the weight of the ballast by stowing the fair, white sails in the depths of the hold. They were not woven to moulder side by side with cobble-stones in the dark. Ballast exists everywhere: all the pebbles of the harbour, all the sand on the beach will serve for it. But sails are rare and precious things: their place is not in the murk of the well, but amid the light of the tall masts, where they will collect the winds of space.
Let us not say to ourselves that the best truth always lies in moderation, in the decent average. This would perhaps be so if the majority of men did not think, did not hope upon a much lower plane than is needful. That is why it behoves the others to think and hope upon a higher plane than seems reasonable. The average, the decent moderation of to-day will be the least human of things to-morrow. At the time of the Spanish Inquisition, the opinion of good sense and of the just medium was certainly that people ought not to burn too large a number of heretics; extreme and unreasonable opinion obviously demanded that they should burn none at all. It is the same to-day with the question of marriage, of love, of religion, of criminal justice and so on. Has not mankind yet lived long enough to realise that it is always the extreme idea, that is the highest idea, the idea at the summit of thought, that is right? At the present moment, the most reasonable opinion on the subject of our social question invites us to do all that we can gradually to diminish inevitable inequalities and distribute happiness more equitably. Extreme opinion demands instantly integral division, the suppression of property, obligatory labour and the rest. We do not yet know how these demands will be realised; but it is already quite certain that very simple circumstances will one day make them appear as natural as the suppression of the right of primogeniture or of the privileges of the nobility. It is important, in these questions of the duration of a species and not of a people or an individual, that we should not limit ourselves to the experience of history. Anything that it confirms or denies moves in an insignificant circle. The truth, in this case, lies much less in our reason, which is always turned towards the past, than in our imagination, which sees farther than the future.
Let us reason, then, strive to soar above experience. This is easy for young people; but it is salutary that ripe age and old age should learn to raise themselves to the luminous ignorance of youth. We should guard beforehand, as the years pass, against the dangers which our confidence in the race must run because of the great number of malignant men whom we have encountered in it. Let us continue, in spite of all, to act, to love and to hope as though we had to do with an ideal humanity. This ideal is only a vaster reality than that which we behold. The failings of individuals no more impair the general purity and innocence than the waves on the surface, according to the aeronauts, when seen from a certain height, trouble the profound limpidity of the sea.
Let us listen only to the experience that urges us on; it is always higher than that which throws or keeps us back. Let us reject all the counsels of the past that do not turn us towards the future. This is what was admirably understood, perhaps for the first time in history, by certain men of the French Revolution; and that is why this revolution is the one that did the greatest and the most lasting things. Here this experience teaches us that, contrary to all that occurs in the affairs of daily life, it is above all important to destroy. In every social progress, the great and the only difficult work is the destruction of the past. We need not be anxious about what we shall place in the stead of the ruins. The force of things and of life will undertake the rebuilding. It is but too eager to reconstruct; and we should not be doing well to aid it in its precipitate task. Let us, therefore, not hesitate to employ our destructive powers even to excess: nine-tenths of the violence of our blows is lost amid the inertness of the mass, even as the stroke of the heaviest hammer is dispersed in a large stone and becomes, so to speak, imperceptible to a child that holds the stone in its hand.
And let us not fear lest we should go too fast. If, at certain hours, we seem to be rushing at a headlong and dangerous pace, this is to counterbalance unjustifiable delays and to make up for time lost during centuries of inactivity. The evolution of our world continues during these periods of inertia; and it is probably necessary that humanity should have reached a certain determined point of its ascent at the moment of a certain sidereal phenomenon, of a certain obscure crisis of the planet, or even of the birth of a certain man. It is the instinct of the race that decides these matters, it is its destiny that speaks; and, if this instinct or this destiny be wrong, it is not for us to interfere; for there is nothing above it or above ourselves to correct its error.
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