The Unity of Europe


THERE is a story — I don’t vouch for its truth — that at the time of the jubilee for Victor Hugo a reception was given at the Élysée Palace, to which representatives of all nations came to pay homage. The great poet stood in the ballroom in the solemn pose of a statue, his elbow resting on a mantel, while one by one the representatives came out from the crowd and paid him their homage, an usher announcing them in stentorian tones: ‘Monsieur the representative of England!’ Victor Hugo, his voice quivering with emotion, eves lifted to the ceiling, replied: ‘England! Ah, Shakespeare!’ The usher went on: ‘Monsieur the representative of Spain! ‘ And Victor Hugo: ‘Spain! Ah, Cervantes!’ The usher: ‘Monsieur the representative of Germany!’ Victor Hugo: ‘Germany! Ah, Goethe!’

But next in line was a pothellied little bumpkin of a man whom the usher announced as ‘Monsieur the representative of Mesopotamia!’ Victor Hugo, who until then had remained imperturbable and sure of himself, seemed to hesitate. His eyes circled in a wide, anxious glance as if he were searching the entire cosmos for something that eluded him, but in a moment he seemed to have found it and to feel himself once more master of the situation. And indeed in the same moving tones, with no whit less conviction, he replied to the homage of the dumpy representative: ‘Mesopotamia! Ah, mankind!’

I have told this anecdote by way of declaring, without Victor Hugo’s solemnity, that I have never written for Mesopotamia, nor addressed myself to mankind. This habit of speaking to mankind at large, the most sublime and at the same time the most contemptible form of demagogy, was adopted around 1750 by certain wayward intellectuals, ignorant of their own limitations. Though by profession men of speech, of ‘logos,’ they used it with neither care nor respect and without realizing that the word is a sacrament demanding the most delicate administration.

I am persuaded that speech, like almost everything that man does, is far more illusory than is commonly supposed. We define language as the means of revealing our thoughts. But any definition, — this one included, — if not indeed misleading, is ironic; it implies tacit reservations, and if not so interpreted may be exceedingly harmful. It is not so much that language serves also to hide our thoughts, to lie; lying would be impossible if original and normal speech were not sincere. Like counterfeit coin, which is carried in circulation by real money, lying is in the last analysis nothing but the humble parasite of truth.

It is because the word has been abused that it has fallen into disrepute. As with so many other things, the abuse has consisted in using the instrument rashly, without awareness of its limitations. For almost two centuries it has been the general belief that to talk meant to talk urbi et orbi, that is, to everyone and no one. As for me, I despise this kind of communication and suffer in not knowing concretely to whom I speak.

This thesis, granting to the word so small a radius of action, might seem contradicted by the very fact that my own books have found readers in almost every language in Europe. I believe, however, that this is rather symptomatic of something else, something very serious — that is, the frightful homogeneity of situation towards which the entire Western world is sinking. During the last ten years, this sameness has increased to an agonizing extent. I say agonizing because, actually, what is felt as painful in any one country becomes infinitely depressing when its victim discovers that there is hardly a place left in the continent where exactly the same thing is not happening. Formerly it was possible to clear the stuffy atmosphere of one country by opening its windows on to another, but this expedient no longer holds, since the air in the next country is as stifling as in our own. Hence a feeling of asphyxiation. Job, who was a terrible pincesans-rire, asked his friends, travelers and merchants who had been around in the world: Unde sapientia venit? and Quis est locus intelligentiae? — ‘ Do you know of any place in the world where there is intelligence?’

However, in this progressive assimilation of conditions we must distinguish two different elements, of opposing value.

This swarm of Western peoples that set out on its flight through history from the ruins of the ancient world has always been characterized by a dual form of life. It so happened that, while each one was in the process of forming its own particular genius, among them or above them all there was being created a common fund of ideas, manners, and enthusiasms. There is, moreover, a crowning paradox in this destiny that was increasing at the same time their homogeneity and their differences, for in this case the two were not alien. On the contrary, every new unifying principle served to fertilize their diversity. The idea of Christianity engendered the national churches; the memory of the Roman imperium inspired the various forms of the state; the renaissance of letters in the fifteenth century let loose divergent literatures; science and the unitarian concept of man as ‘pure reason’ created the different intellectual styles which were to lend their mould even to the farthest abstractions of mathematics. And as a culminating point, even the extravagant eighteenthcentury idea of prescribing an identical constitution for all peoples resulted in the romantic awakening of the differential consciousness of the nationalities, and thus served to push each towards its particular vocation.

The point is that for these so-called European peoples to live has always meant — of course, since the eleventh century, or since Otto III — to move and act in a common space or environment. That is, for each one to live was ‘to live with’ the rest. This ‘living with,’ or coexistence, might assume either a peaceful or a warlike form. I want to suggest that for a long time the peoples of Europe have actually made up a society, a collectivity, taking these words in the same sense as when applied to the nations separately. This society has all the attributes of any: there are European manners, European customs, European public opinion, European law, and European public power. But all these social phenomena appear in a form appropriate to the stage of evolution reached by European society as a whole, which is obviously less advanced than that of its component parts, the nations.

I therefore suggest that the reader spare the malice of a smile when I predict — somewhat boldly, in view of present appearances — a possible, a probable unification of the states of Europe. I do not deny that the United States of Europe is one of the poorest fantasies that have ever existed and I take no responsibility for what others have handed out under these verbal signs. But I do maintain that it is highly improbable that a society, a collectivity as ripe as that now formed by the peoples of Europe, should not move toward the creation of a state apparatus for the exercise of the European public power which already exists. It is not, then, a weakness for fantasy or a leaning towards ‘idealism,’ which I despise and have fought all my life, that has brought me to this conclusion. It is historic realism that has made it clear to me that the unity of Europe as society is not an ‘ideal’ but a very ancient daily fact, and, having seen this fact, one cannot but confront the probability of a general European state.

The shape of this supernational state will, of course, be very different from those to which we are accustomed, just as the national state differed from the city-state of ancient times. All that I attempt in these pages is to free the mind of the reader so that it may keep faith with the subtle conception of society and state proposed by the European tradition.

It must be realized once and for all that for centuries — and consciously during the last four — the peoples of Europe have lived under a public power so purely dynamic that it can be characterized only by names drawn from mechanical science: ‘European balance,’ or ‘balance of power.’

This is the real government of Europe, ruling in its flight through history the swarm of peoples, industrious and belligerent as bees, that rose out of the ruins of the ancient world. The unity of Europe is not a fantasy, but reality itself; what is fantastic is the belief in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain as substantive and independent units. It is understandable, however, that everyone should not clearly perceive the reality of Europe, for Europe is not a ‘thing,’ but a balance. Already in the eighteenth century the historian Robertson called the balance of Europe ‘the great secret of modern politics.’ It is indeed a great and paradoxical secret! For the balance of power depends at bottom on the existence of a plurality. If the plurality is lost, the dynamic unity fades away. Europe may well be called a swarm: many bees and a single flight.

This unitary character of the magnificent European plurality is what I should call the good kind of homogeneity, fruitful and desirable, the quality that inspired Montesquieu’s remark that ‘Europe is only a nation made up of several’ and moved Balzac, more romantically, to speak of ‘the great continental family whose efforts reach toward I know not what mystery of civilization.’


This abundance of European modes, surging constantly out of their deeprooted unity and returning again to preserve it, is the greatest treasure of the West. The dull-witted can never grasp a concept so acrobatic, in which one jumps endlessly back and forth between the affirmation of plurality and the recognition of unity. They are sluggish spirits, born to live beneath the perpetual tyrannies of the Orient.

Today this treasure threatens to be devoured by a form of homogeneity that has triumphed over the entire continent. Everywhere there has arisen the massman that is the protagonist of my book, The Revolt of the Masses, a type of man built hurriedly, mounted on a few poor abstractions, who is therefore identical from one end of Europe to the other. To him is due the look of stifling monotony that life has begun to assume throughout the continent. He is a man emptied of his own history, with no inward past, and thus given over to any so-called ‘ international ‘ discipline. He is less a man than the shell of one, made of plain idola fori: he has no insides, no inalienable privacy of his own, no irrevocable ‘I.’ Consequently, he is always ready to play at being anything.

He has only appetites; he believes that he has only rights and no obligations; he is a man without the imperative of nobility — sine nobilitate — the snob.1

This universal snobbism, so apparent, for example, in the worker of the present time, has blinded men to the fact that, if indeed all the given structure of continental life is to be transcended, the change must be brought about without a serious loss of its inner plurality. The snob, having been emptied of his own destiny, and since it does not occur to him that he is alive for some specific and unexchangeable purpose, cannot understand that life offers particular callings and vocations. He is therefore hostile to liberalism, with the hostility of a deaf man for words. Liberty has always been understood in Europe as the freedom to be our real selves. It is not surprising that a man should want to be rid of it who knows that he has no real mission to fulfill.

With curious facility everyone has banded together to fight and denounce the old school of liberalism. It is a suspicious phenomenon, for as a rule people do not agree so easily except in matters that are somewhat underhand or foolish. I do not maintain, of course, that the idea of the old liberalism is wholly reasonable, — how could it be, since it is both old and an ' ism’ ? — but I do consider it a theory of society far clearer and more profound than is imagined by its collectivist, underminers, who in the first place know very little about it. It embraces, too, a highly acute intuition of the real stuff of Europe’s past.

For example, when Guizot contrasts European civilization with all others with the observation that in Europe no principle, idea, group, or class has ever triumphed in an absolute form and that to this is due its progressive character and constant growth, we cannot but take heed. He knows what he is talking about; the expression of his thought is negative and therefore inadequate, but the words are charged with insight. As one knows the diver by the smell of the ocean still clinging to him, so do we recognize in Guizot a man who has plunged into the depths of European history. Indeed, it seems incredible that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a time of rhetoric and confusion, there should have been written such a book as The History of European Civilization. Even a man of today can learn from it how liberty and plurality are reciprocal and between them constitute the permanent heart of Europe.

But Guizot, like the Doctrinaires in general, was never well received. I want to have the courage to assert that this group of Doctrinaires, laughed at by everyone, butt of the most slanderous jokes, were in my opinion the most valuable political element on the continent in the nineteenth century. They alone had a clear perception of what had to be done in Europe after the Great Revolution, and moreover in their personal lives they stood for something dignified and removed, in the midst of the growing coarseness and frivolity of that century. At a time when all the norms by which society checks the individual were broken and no longer in force, the only dignity possible was what one extracted from the depths of one’s own being. This necessarily implied a certain exaggeration, even if only in defense against the orgiastic abandon of one’s surroundings. Guizot, like Buster Keaton, was the man who never laughs.2 He never let himself go. He was the outcome of several generations of protestants of Nimes, people who always watched their step, never able to drift in their social environment, never losing self-control. It had become an instinct with them to interpret existence as resistance, digging one’s heels into the ground in order to stand against the current. In a time like ours, all ‘currents’ and abandon, it is good to put oneself in contact with men who refuse to be carried away. The Doctrinaires are an unusual case of intellectual responsibility — that is, of the quality most lacking to European intellectuals since 1750, and this lack is in turn one of the deepest causes of the disorder of the present.

The Doctrinaires despised the ‘rights of man’ as metaphysical absolutes, abstractions and unrealities, and considered man’s real rights to be those that are actually here, having appeared and consolidated themselves, such as ‘liberties,’ lawfulness, magistracy,‘capacities.’ If they were alive today they would recognize the right of the strike (nonpolitical) and of collective bargaining. All this would seem obvious to an Englishman, but we of the continent, who perhaps since the time of Alcuin have been about fifty years behind the English, have not yet reached that stage.

The collectivists of today suffer from an ignorance of the old school of liberalism when they assume offhand, as an indisputable fact, that it was individualistic. On all these subjects, as I have said, the ideas of the time are hopelessly muddled. In recent years the Russians have been in the habit of calling Russia ‘the Collective.’ Would it not be interesting to find out what ideas or images this word conjures up in the somewhat hazy brain of the Russian? I should like to ask the reader to consider, not in order to accept them, but only to discuss them before passing judgment, the following theses: —

(1) Individualist liberalism is of the flora of the eighteenth century; it inspired, in part, the legislation of the French Revolution, but it died with that event.

(2) The characteristic creation of the nineteenth century was precisely collectivism. It was the first idea invented by that century, almost at birth, and it grew throughout its hundred years to the point of flooding the entire horizon.

But there is something of even greater importance to be considered. When, proceeding through the century, we reach the great theorists of liberalism — John Stuart Mill and Spencer — we are surprised to find that their supposed defense of the individual is based not on the question whether liberty is of profit or advantage to the individual, but, on the contrary, whether it is of profit or advantage to society. The aggressivelooking title that Spencer chose for his book — Man versus the State — has caused a good deal of willful misunderstanding among those who go no farther in a book than the title. Actually, as used in this title, the terms ‘man’ and ‘state’ mean simply two organs of the same subject — society — and the matter of discussion is whether certain social needs are best served by one organ or the other. That is all. Spencer’s famous‘individualism’ is continually at odds with the collectivist atmosphere of his sociology. Fundamentally both he and John Stuart Mill treat the individual with the same socializing cruelty that termites display towards certain of their fellow beings, fattening them in order later to suck out their substance. For both, the collective was the real basis, the platform for the ingenious dance of their ideas.

The ‘old liberals’ therefore took no special precautions against collectivism, breathing it in with the very air around them. But when one has seen not only the good but also the terror and frightfulness of this social phenomenon, the plain fact of collectivity per se, one can only adhere to an entirely new kind of liberalism, less naïve, more skillful in its encounters, a liberalism that will soon be coming into its own and that even now can be distinguished on the horizon.

It would have been unnatural, nevertheless, for men so farsighted not to have glimpsed now and then the anguish that their time was holding in store for ours. General opinion to the contrary, predictions of the future have been normal enough in history.3 In the work of Macaulay, Tocqueville, Comte, we find our own time outlined in advance.

Of great interest to us in Mill is his anxiety over the pernicious kind of homogeneity that he saw growing throughout the West. It was this that moved him to seek refuge in a great thought expressed by Humboldt in his youth, that if mankind is to be enriched, to consolidate and perfect itself, there must exist a ‘variety of situations.’ Within each nation and in the aggregate of nations there must be a diversity of circumstances, so that when one possibility fails others remain open. It is sheer madness to stake all Europe on one card, on a single type of man, on one identical ‘situation.’ Europe’s secret talent up to the present day has been to avoid this, and it is the consciousness of this secret that has shaped the speech — sometimes stammering, to be sure — of the perpetual liberalism of Europe. This consciousness includes a recognition of the plurality of Europe as a positive value in its own right, not evil but good. I have gone to some length to clarify this point so as to avoid any misunderstanding of the idea of a European supernation.

The course on which we are now embarked, with its progressive lessening of the ‘variety of situations,’ leads us directly back to the Lower Empire, also a period of masses and of frightful homogeneity. As early as in the time of the Antonines there had become apparent a strange phenomenon that has been less stressed and analyzed than it deserves: men had become stupid. The process had its roots farther back. The Stoic Posidonius, Cicero’s teacher, is supposed with some reason to have been the last of the ancients capable of facing facts with an open and active mind, willing to submit them to investigation. After him heads fell into disuse, and except among the Alexandrians they did nothing but repeat, stereotype.

But this form of life that spread throughout the Empire, both homogeneous and stupid, — and one by virtue of the other, — has left its most terrible symptom and record where one would least expect it and where, as far as I know, no one has looked for it: in the language. Language, which fails us in our common needs of expression, reveals and even trumpets forth against our will the inmost condition of the society by which it is spoken. The language in use among the non-Hellenized part of the Roman people was the so-called ‘vulgar Latin,’ matrix of our Romance languages. We know little of this vulgar Latin and our idea of it comes largely from reconstruction, but we know enough, and more than enough, to be appalled by two of its characteristics. One is its incredible simplicity of grammar in comparison with classical Latin. The exquisite Indo-European complexity that had been preserved in the language of the upper classes was replaced by plebeian speech, of easy structure, but at the same time, and for that very reason, ponderously mechanical, uncouth: a stammering, periphrastic speech, struggling and roundabout like that of a child. It is a puerile language that allows for neither the fine edge of reason nor the shimmer of lyricism, a sad and groping language, soulless, without warmth or light. The words resemble old copper coins, filthy and chipped, as if weary of rolling through all the hovels of the Mediterranean. What lives emptied of themselves, desolate, condemned to an eternal day-to-day, one glimpses behind this dry linguistic apparatus!

The other terrifying characteristic of vulgar Latin is precisely its homogeneity. Linguists, who next to aviators are perhaps the least fainthearted of men, seem unperturbed by the fact that the same language should have been spoken in countries as unlike as Carthage and Gaul, Tingis and Dalmatia, Hispania and Rumania. But I who am somewhat timid, and tremble to see weeds troubled by the wind, cannot help shuddering before this fact. It seems to me simply atrocious.

To be sure, I try to picture the ‘inside’ of what seems, viewed from without, plain homogeneity; I try to discover the living reality of which this fact is the immobile stamp. Obviously there were variations, —Africanisms, Hispanicisms, Gallicisms, — but this is only another way of saying that the trunk of the language was common and identical, in spite of the distances, the rarity of interchange, the difficulty of communication, and the absence of any literature that would have tended to fix its forms. And how could these various people have become equivalent, the Celt and the Belgian, the inhabitant of Hippo and that of Lutetia, the Mauretanian and the Dacian, if not by virtue of a general flattening that had reduced existence to its common denominator and nullified their lives? Vulgar Latin lies like a ghastly petrification in our archives, testifying that history once struggled for its life beneath the homogeneous empire of vulgarity, because of the disappearance of a fruitful ‘variety of situations.’


I am no politician. The matter under discussion here is previous to politics and springs from its subsoil. My work is the obscure, subterranean task of a miner. The job of the so-called intellectual is in a certain sense opposed to that of the politician, the former aiming, often in vain, to clarify things a little, whereas the politician usually adds to the confusion. Aligning oneself with the left, as with the right, is only one of the numberless ways open to men of being an imbecile: both are forms of moral hemiplegia. Furthermore, the persistence of these terms helps not a little to falsify the already false ‘reality’ of the present, for the circle of political experiences to which they correspond is closed, as witnessed by the fact that today we are offered a prospect of tyranny from the left while the right promises revolution.

There is no question but that one must deal with the problems of the time. It is what I have been doing all my life; I have always, so to speak, been in the breach. But they are now saying — it is a ‘current’ — that everyone, even at the cost of mental clarity, should be involved in politics sensu stricto. It is said, of course, by those who have nothing else to do, and they even go so far as to corroborate it by quoting Pascal’s imperative of stupidity; but I have long since learned, as a measure of elementary hygiene, to be on guard when anyone quotes Pascal.

Total politicalism, the absorption of everything and of the entire man by politics, is one and the same phenomenon as the revolt of the masses. The mass in revolt has lost all capacity for knowledge or devotion. It can contain nothing but politics, a raving, frenetic, exorbitant politics that claims to replace all knowledge, religion, wisdom — everything, in short, really qualified to occupy the centre of the human mind. Politics drains men of solitude and intimacy, and preaching total politicalism is therefore one of the techniques of socialization.

When someone asks us where we stand politically, or anticipating, with the usual impertinence of the time, ascribes us to one party or another, instead of answering we should cross-examine the inquirer. What does he think of man and nature and history? What is his understanding of society, the individual, collectivity, the state, custom, law? Politics hurries to put out the light so that all these cats will be gray.

It is when one has really understood the make-up of this human type dominant today, whom I have called the mass-man, that the more fruitful and dramatic questions arise: Can this type of man be reformed? I mean the serious faults that he harbors, so serious that if they are not plucked out they must cause the annihilation of the West — can these be corrected? For, as the reader will see, we are dealing with a man hermetically sealed, not open to any higher appeal.

The other decisive question, on which in my opinion all possibility of health depends, is this: Can the masses, even if they want to, be awakened to the personal life? This formidable subject is still too untouched to be developed here; the terms in which it must be posed hardly exist as yet in the public consciousness. Nor has there been any approach to a study of the distinct margin of individuality that each period bequeaths to human existence, a study that would be of vital importance. For it is pure mental inertia to assume, according to the theory of ‘ progressism,’ — and its advocate, Herbert Spencer, who was a good engineer but no historian, — that the frame allowed to man for the functioning of his personality grows with the progress of history. No: history is full of recoils in this sphere, and it may well be that the structure of modern life is a supreme impediment to man’s living as an individual.

When I consider the great cities with their immense agglomerations of human beings coming and going in the streets, gathering for celebrations or political demonstrations, there is one thought that takes hold of me almost to the point of obsession: how would a man of twenty today go about planning a life that would have a form peculiar to himself and that would therefore have to be realized by his own efforts and his own independent initiative? As he tries to unfold this picture in his mind, will he not become aware that, if not impossible, it is at least highly improbable, because there is no room for him to move according to the dictates of his own will? He will soon notice that his plan bumps against that of his neighbor, that his neighbor’s life is pressing against his. With the ease of adaptation proper to his age, he will be driven by discouragement to give up not only all action but any personal desires as well, and will look for the opposite solution: he will imagine a standard life, made up of desiderata common to all, and he will realize that the only way of achieving it is to ask for it or demand it collectively with others. Hence mass action.

It is horrible, but I think I have not exaggerated the situation in which almost all Europeans are beginning to find themselves. Imagine a cell so overcrowded with prisoners that no one can move an arm or leg without jostling the bodies of the others. In such a situation, movements have to be carried out in common and even the respiratory muscles must work to an ordered rhythm. This is what Europe would be turned into, an anthill. But not even this cruel picture is a solution. The human anthill is impossible, because it is through what is known as individualism that the world and every man in the world have been enriched, and it is this enrichment that has so fabulously multiplied the human plant. Were the remains of this ‘individualism’ to vanish, the gigantic famine of the Lower Empire would reappear in Europe and the anthill would succumb as at the breath of an angry and vengeful god. There would be left far fewer men, but men who would be a little more worthy of the name.

Before the fierce pathos of this question, which is already in sight whether we will or no, the theme of ‘social justice,’ for all its respectability, pales and shrinks until it resembles the false, rhetorical sigh of romanticism. But the question also brings into orientation ways of achieving whatever is possible and just in this ‘social justice,’ ways that seem not to pass through a wretched socialization but to lead directly to a generous ‘solidarism.’ The word is weak because it has not yet been filled out with a strong system of social and historical ideas, and so smells only of vague philanthropies.


The first condition for improving the present situation, and the only thing that will enable us to attack the evil at the deep levels from which it springs, is an awareness of its enormous difficulty. We must realize that it is very hard to save a civilization when its hour has come to fall beneath the power of demagogues. For the demagogue has been the great strangler of civilization. Both Greek and Roman civilizations fell at the hands of this loathsome creature who brought from Macaulay the remark that ‘in every century the vilest examples of human nature have been among demagogues.’ But a man is not a demagogue simply because he stands up and shouts at the crowd. There are times when this can be a hallowed office. The real demagogy of the demagogue is in his mind and is rooted in his irresponsibility towards the ideas that he handles — ideas not of his own creation, but which he has only taken over from their true creators. Demagogy is a form of intellectual degeneration, which as a sweeping phenomenon of European history first appeared in France around 1750. Why then? Why in France? This is one of the vital points in the destiny of the West, and especially in the destiny of France.

The fact is that from then on it was the general belief in France — and this belief spread through almost the entire continent — that the only method of solving great human problems was the method of revolution, meaning by this what Leibnitz called ‘general revolution’: the will to change everything at a single blow and in all spheres of life. It is thanks to this that that marvel, France, has arrived in such a bad state at the difficult conjuncture of the present. For that country has, or thinks it has, a revolutionary tradition, and if it is bad enough to be revolutionary, how much worse is it to be so, paradoxically, by tradition! It is true that France has had one Great Revolution and several that were grim or ridiculous, but if we stick to the bare truth of the records we see that the main result of those revolutions was that for a century — with the exception of a few days or weeks — the political forms of France, more than those of any other country, were to a greater or less extent authoritarian and counter-revolutionary. It is particularly clear that the great moral bog of French history, the twenty years of the Second Empire, was above all due to the buffooneries of the revolutionists of 1848, many of whom were admitted by Raspail himself to have been his former clients.

In revolutions the abstract tries to rebel against the concrete; failure is therefore of the very substance of revolutions. Human affairs, unlike problems of astronomy or chemistry, are not abstract. They are historical, and therefore in the highest degree concrete. The only method of thinking about them with some chance of hitting the mark is ‘historic reason.’ Looking back over the political life of France in the last hundred and fifty years, one is struck by the fact that her geometricians, physicists, and doctors have almost always been wrong in their political judgments, whereas the historians have seldom missed.

In my exile in France, wandering alone through the streets of Paris, I came to realize that I really know no one in that great city but the statues. Among these at least I found old friends who had stimulated or had been the lasting masters of my inner life, and, having no one else to talk to, I discussed with them the great problems of mankind. Perhaps some day I will publish these ‘Conversations with Statues’ that so sweetened a painful and sterile stage of my life.

In one I reasoned with the Marquis de Condorcet, on the Quai Conti, on the dangerous concept of progress. With the little bust of Comte, in his apartment in the Rue Monsieur-le-Prince, I spoke of ‘spiritual power,’ wielded so inadequately by literary mandarins and by a university out of joint with the real life of nations. I also had the honor of carrying a message from this bust to the large one in the Place de la Sorbonne, the bust of the false Comte, the official one, the Comte de Littré. But of course my greatest interest was in listening once again to the man to whom Europe owes the most, our great master Descartes.

Our three centuries of experience with ‘rationalism’ force us to take new stock of the glory and limitations of that prodigious Cartesian ‘reason.’ It is a system of thought purely mathematical, physical, biological. Its extraordinary triumphs over nature, beyond anything that had been dreamed, only underline further its failure in the realm of strictly human affairs and demand that it be integrated in the more deep-rooted system of ‘historic reason.’

The latter shows us the futility of all general revolution, of all attempts — such as that of the Confusionists of ‘89 — to bring about a sudden change of society and begin history anew. It opposes to the method of revolution the only method worthy of the long experience that lies behind the European of today. Revolutions, so incontinent in their hypocritically generous haste to proclaim the rights of man, have always violated, trampled on, and broken man’s most fundamental right, so fundamental that it may stand as the definition of his being: the right to continuity. The only radical difference between human history and ‘natural history’ is that the former can never begin again. Koehler and others have shown that the chimpanzee and the orangutan are distinguished from man not by what is known strictly speaking as intelligence, but because they have far less memory. Every morning the poor beasts have to face almost total oblivion of what they lived through the day before, and their intellect has to work with a minimum fund of experience. Similarly, the tiger of today is identical with that of six thousand years ago, each one having to begin his life as a tiger from the beginning as if none had ever existed before him.

But man, thanks to his power of memory, accumulates his past; he possesses and can make use of it. Man is never the first man, but begins his life on a certain level of accumulated past. That is his single treasure, his mark and privilege. And the important part of this treasure is not what seems to us correct and worth preserving, but the memory of mistakes, allowing us not to repeat the same ones forever. Man’s real treasure is the treasure of his mistakes, piled up stone by stone through thousands of years. It is because of this that Nietzsche defined man as the being ‘with the longest memory.’ Breaking the continuity with the past, wanting to begin again, is a lowering of man and a plagiarism of the orangutan. It was a Frenchman, Dupont-White, who around 1860 had the courage to exclaim: ‘Continuity is one of the rights of man; it is a homage to everything that distinguishes him from the beast.’

When at the coronation of King George VI the English people gave unusual solemnity to the rite of coronation, they affirmed, in face of the turmoil on the continent, the permanent standards that govern their life. As always, they have given us a lesson. For the history of Europe presents the picture of a bustling throng of peoples, full of genius but without serenity, never mature, always adolescent, with behind them, in the background, England — the nurse of Europe. It is said that for a long time the British monarchy has been a merely symbolic institution. This is quite true, but the phrase leaves its finest aspect out of account. Actually the monarchy fulfills no material, tangible function in the British Empire; it is not its rôle to govern, nor to administer justice, nor to command the army; but this does not make it an empty and useless institution. The British monarchy fulfills a highly determined and effective function: that of symbolizing.

England is the country that has always reached the future first, leading the others in almost every sphere of life. We might omit the ‘almost.’ And now this same people, not without a little of the pure impertinence of the dandy, forces us to witness an age-old ceremonial and to see in action — for they have never ceased to be actual — the oldest and most magical tools in its history, the crown and sceptre, which with us rule nothing but the luck in a pack of cards. With such gestures the English persist in proving to us that their past, precisely because it is past, because they themselves experienced it, still exists for them. From a future which we have not yet reached they show us a past in full force. This is not simply a figure of speech, but literally true, since it applies where the words ‘ in force’ have the most immediate meaning— that is, in law. In England there is ‘no barrier between the past and the present. Practical law can be traced back through history with no discontinuity to times immemorial. Juridically speaking, there is no such thing as “ancient English law.”In England, therefore, all law is modern, no matter what its age.’ 4

The English circulate through their whole history; they are the true masters, the actual possessors of their centuries. And this is what it means to be a people of men: to be able to continue one’s yesterday today without thereby ceasing to live for tomorrow; to live in the real present, since the present is only the presence of past and future, the place where the past and the future actually exist.

Through the symbolic rites of coronation, England has once more opposed to the revolutionary method the method of continuity, the only one that can avoid, in the course of human affairs, that pathological element that makes history a notorious, constant struggle between paralytics and epileptics.

  1. The lists of the students at Cambridge indicated beside a person’s name his profession and rank. Beside the names of commoners there appeared the abbreviation ‘s.nob.’: sine nobilitate; whence the word ‘snob.’ — AUTHOR
  2. He tells Mme, de Casparin with some satisfaction that Pope Gregory XVI, speaking to the French ambassador, had said in reference to himself, Guizot: ‘He is a great statesman. They say he never laughs.’ — AUTHOR
  3. An easy and useful job that someone ought to undertake would be to collect the predictions of the near future that have been made in every period of history. I have gathered enough to be amazed by the fact that there have always been a few men who were able to foresee the future. — AUTHOR
  4. Levy-Ullmana, Le Système Juridique de l’Angleterre, vol. I, pp. 38-39. — AUTHOR