The philosopher Alain in English

A selection of propos translated in English


This is an introduction to Alain’s propos.

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 king is bored

It is good to have a little difficulty in life and not follow an even path. I feel sorry for kings if all they have to do is express their desires; and the gods, if there are any left, must get a little depressed. It’s said that in the past

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There are marvellous joys in friendship. This is easily understood if we notice that joy is contagious. If my presence gives joy to a friend, the sight of this joy is enough to make me feel joy in turn; so the joy that each person gives is returned; at the

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The cult of the dead

The cult of the dead is a fine custom; and All Souls Day falls where it should, at the moment when the visible signs make it quite clear that the sun is abandoning  us. The dry flowers, the red and yellow leaves under our feet, the long nights, and the

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The dining hall smell

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

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On the jetty at Dieppe

On the jetty at Dieppe I saw a man fishing for seagulls. He let a long line float on the green water, its hook baited. His clear eyes followed the flight of the gulls. They swam in the air with slow movements of their wings; you could see their round

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Also in English

Michel Petheram

Michel Petheram

The French versions of this selection of texts are taken from the two collected volumes of propos, published by Gallimard in the Bibliothèque de la Pleïade. 

All English translations copyright Michel Petheram.