The philosopher Alain in English
A selection of propos translated in English
This is an introduction to Alain’s propos, 35 of which are translated here, most of them for the first time in English.
What is a propos ? The French word is both plain and ambiguous: a suggestion, a comment, a proposition, remarks, notes? Perhaps ‘proposal’ comes closest as a translation. With Alain we can be more specific. It’s a short column, drafted on two pages of letter paper, and, at the beginning, published in a local newspaper. From 1906 he wrote them daily and only ceased with the outbreak of war in 1914; he began again in 1921 and continued to 1936, to make a total of around five thousand. At first they were mainly political commentary, but Alain’s philosophy and very wide interests soon entered in. The brevity of the form brought out a vivid, pithy and forceful style, free of jargon, that soon attracted readers and would lead to republication as several books. They are short essays with the freshness of improvisation. As Alain put it, he found that he had a taste for firing arrows at passers-by to get them to look up from their path in life – provocations in short. And, as he wrote later, by not thinking that philosophy was too good for journalism, he invented a genre of journalism – to which I would add: he also invented a genre of philosophy.
The images of Christmas are astonishing and even, when looked at closely, subversive. The child in a crib, between the ox and the ass, with the adoring kings from the orient, this doesn’t mean that the powers are worth a single grain of respect. There is lèse-majesty in this old
The old myth of Christmas, through its images, tells us something great. More often than we suppose, every day perhaps, a son of the Spirit comes into the world between an ox and an ass. His mother, a simple soul, and his father, a little uncouth, adore the tiny king
I know of a number of good minds who are attempting to define Democracy. I have often worked at it myself, without arriving at anything but trite remarks which, worse, didn’t hold up against severe criticism. For example, someone who defined democracy as equality of rights and responsibilities would define
A child kills himself – that’s something painful and almost unbearable to imagine. Let’s try to think about it clearly and find some order within this disorder. Life is good above everything; it is good in itself; reasoning adds nothing. One isn’t happy through travel, wealth, success, pleasure. One is
I remember a Christmas in the artillery. It was the first Christmas of the war; no question yet of oranges, cigars, nor bottles of wine. Still, we had money and links to headquarters through liaison officers who came to make observations from our gun emplacements, from which we had the
Resistance and obedience, these are the citizens’ two virtues. Through obedience they confirm order; through resistance they confirm liberty. And it’s quite clear that order and liberty are inseparable, for the play of forces, that is, the unceasing internal war, contains no liberty; it’s an animal life, vulnerable to chance.
Christmas night is an invitation to overcome something, because this festival is certainly not a festival of resignation. All the lights on the evergreen tree defy the night that now reigns over the earth; and the child in the crib represents our renewed hope. Fate is vanquished – and fate
Christmas is spring for the mind; it is all promise. In June our joys will burn brightly; the middle of the year will soon tilt to the other side. Beginnings are always more beautiful. Anyone who measures these long shadows now will know they will lengthen no further. At the
Some things we have to accept without understanding; in this sense, no one lives without religion. The universe is a fact; reason has to bow down before it and resign itself to falling asleep before completing its count of the stars. A child is annoyed by a piece of wood
I teach obedience. A difficult reader will say that’s what I’m paid for. This is true. But if our Great Men hear me on obedience, they’ll conclude that they’ve made a bad investment of their money; they are an insatiable breed; don’t they also want, along with obedience, respect and
I think of Shakespeare in his theatre company as a carpenter in his workshop, looking through his stock of wood for a suitable piece, a man who makes tables, wardrobes and chests according to public taste, and even to order, who freely decorates all these things, following his own genius,
A sociologist said to me: It’s tempting to explain all social organisation by the need for food and for clothing oneself, economics dominating and explaining all the rest; except that the need to organise comes before the need for food. We know of happy tribes who don’t need clothes and
[‘Mean as a red mule’ – old French expression. (translator’s note)] Doubt is the salt of the mind; without the prick of doubt, all knowledge soon goes bad. I mean also the knowledge that is the best established and considered most reasonable. To doubt when you notice you’ve made a
If a traffic policeman wanted to be fair, he would question everyone, letting doctors and midwives go first; this would, in fact, be the height of disorder, and everyone would be unhappy. So the policeman doesn’t care to know who is in a hurry nor their reasons; he simply breaks
The old comparison, drawn from a boat and its pilot, continues to instruct citizens on their duties and their rights. First comes the sensible remark that a captain is not chosen on account of his birth but on account of his knowledge. Through this we are liberated from one kind
Our distant ancestors were no more stupid than we are. Like us, they had all their experiences to hand; like us, they were within experience; their slightest movements changed the total experience, as ours do; even their thoughts were within the large melting-pot, just like ours. This is why they
Plato has said some marvellous things on self-government, showing that this interior government should be aristocratic, that is to say, ruled by what is better over what is worse. By the better he means what in each of us knows and understands; while the people, within us, are our angers,
Yesterday evening the Great Bear stretched out along the edge of the horizon. Cassiopeia lifted her lanterns in a zigzag on the far side of the North Star. Vega, the blue star, was shining at the summit of the sky. Towards the west, Arcturus descended; between the two the Crown
There is a dining hall smell, which is the same in all dining halls. Whether it is monks eating there, or trainee priests, or schoolchildren, both boys and girls, a dining hall always has its dining hall smell. It can’t be described. Greasy water? Mouldy bread? I don’t know. If
In the Committee of the League for the Rights of the Dog, there arose a great debate on human rights. « We must ask ourselves, » said the poodle, « whether the state of domestication in which we have seen man living for so many centuries is due to a real insufficiency of
Dawn light bears no resemblance to evening light. Sometimes they have the same colours, but it’s doubtful whether a painter can show, by light alone, the difference between earliest morning and latest evening; it’s because he halts the sun. In reality, dawn grows lighter from moment to moment, which is
‘The laws are necessary relations which derive from the nature of things’. An immense formula, which I can’t get around, but bump up against as something solid, the moment that I launch into desiring laws that please me. The master, whoever he is, is quite attentive to the multitude, and
Articles on Alain
– PETHERAM, Michel
- Alain philosopher provocateur, an introduction to Alain
- Alain on religion
- A bibliography of Alain in English
- Why isn’t Alain better known in Anglophone countries?
– FORAY, Philippe – Alain [on education]
– LETERRE, Thierry – A philosophy « written for everyone » : From Alain to Simone Weil, [external link]
Most of the French versions of this selection of propos are taken from the two collected volumes of propos, published by Gallimard in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.
All English translations copyright Michel Petheram, unless otherwise specified.