by Michel Petheram
« To think is to say no. Note that the sign for yes is that of a person falling asleep; while to wake up is to shake the head and say no. »
« Intellectual freedom or Wisdom – it’s doubt. »
« A struggle against seductions and appearances – in the end that’s the definition of all philosophy. »
I’d like to go on quoting and at greater length from a writer of some of the most energetic and vivid philosophical prose of the twentieth century. But since he is virtually and undeservedly unknown in Anglophone countries, because little translated into English, he needs some introduction.
There is in France a tradition of intellectuals in public life and argument. Jean-Paul Sartre, who popularised existentialism in Europe in the 1940s, is probably the best-known example for English readers; others include Raymond Aron, Claude Levi-Strauss and Michel Foucault. In fact, the term ‘intellectual’ was forged during the Dreyfus affair of the 1890s. One of the earliest was the philosopher, Emile Chartier who wrote under the penname of Alain. He was a very influential figure, especially between the world wars, a profound philosopher, and an incisive writer. It was one of his ambitions « to change philosophy into literature and philosophy into literature. » Here I will attempt to summarise a writer who hated summaries.
Chartier was born in 1868 in Mortagne-au-Perche, an ancient market town deep in the Normandy countryside. His exceptional intelligence earned him a place in the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieur in Paris in 1889, which was a considerable feat for someone from such a background; he graduated in 1892 with an agrégation in philosophy, the competitive and important professional qualification for teachers. He began the career that most philosophy graduates of his generation would follow, which was to teach philosophy in the upper forms of secondary schools. Sartre would begin his career in the same way some forty years later. Chartier taught in different towns in Normandy, including Rouen, a fine old town, which was the historic capital of Normandy, before obtaining one of the prized posts at a top lycée in Paris in 1903, where he would live until his death in 1951. He started publishing articles in philosophical journals and a book on Spinoza in 1901.
But the important event of these years, for the future, was that he started writing a column for a radical daily newspaper, La Depêche de Rouen, which is also when he adopted the pseudonym of Alain. At first this was weekly; from 1906 it was daily – a rhythm he would maintain until the outbreak of the First World War. He called these columns ‘propos’, a deceptively simple word. In the singular, it means ‘subject’ or ‘topic’, in the plural (spelt the same way) ‘remarks’ or ‘words’; but it also has a suggestion of ‘proposals’ and an implication of ‘appropriate’ from the phrase ‘à propos’. They made his reputation as a writer, especially when collected into published volumes. They are short, pithy and vivid, with none of the rhetoric that French prose can slip into. The starting point was often a precise fact or event. They provided clear-eyed observations on public life, often polemical, and covered a wide range of subjects: politics especially, also literature, philosophy, education, nature, economics, art, and religion. They were good-humoured and also provocative; like Plato, he said, he wrote to make his readers think for themselves: ‘what matters is that the idea should be formed not given’. His propos function as a daily response to Socrates’ challenge, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. When the war forced a pause, he’d written nearly three and a half thousand; the last was written on a train to the front line.
In England, the war came as a surprise to many. Not in France. Desire for revenge for the defeat to Prussia and the loss of Alsace and Lorraine in 1870 had been a theme of French politics for many years, and Alain had long been writing against the rise of militarism and the prospect of war. In 1914 Alain was forty six. Although a pacifist, he chose to enlist at the earliest opportunity and was on his way to the front by the end of August. Right from the start he knew what the war meant: ‘massacre of the best’. As a citizen of the Republic he felt he had to take on the responsibilities of a citizen; he also believed that this war had been foisted upon the young, which would include his students and ex-students, and wanted to be with them rather than, as he put it, nursing his anger and frustration amongst the rhetoric and lies in civilian life: « I escaped to the army, preferring to be a slave in body rather than in mind. » He served in the artillery as an ordinary soldier, until a leg injury released him from service in 1917. He saw three years of fighting including the charnel house of Verdun, had a couple of near misses, but says himself that he was only on the edge of the circles of hell; it was the infantry that descended there.
After the war Alain returned to his teaching in Paris and continued as a successful and charismatic teacher until his retirement in 1933. Many ex-pupils have testified to the impact of his teaching; one early pupil was André Maurois, now perhaps forgotten, but he was the first author to be published in Penguin, for his biography of Shelley, Ariel, in 1935. At Alain’s death Maurois would call him ‘our Montaigne’. Many others went on to significant careers as authors or in public life.
Alain returned to writing his propos in 1921, no longer for newspaper publication but in a magazine specifically created by ex-pupils to publish them; he would produce over eighteen hundred in the next fifteen years. Collections were published regularly by Gallimard, the leading French publisher. One of these, Propos sur le bonheur has been continuously in print ever since (and has been translated into English). The individual propos became longer, more reflective, and often a means to test ideas that would go into the substantial works he was now writing. Two of these were begun during the war: Quatre-vingt et un chapitres sur l’esprit et les passions, and Système des beaux-arts. The war itself had only confirmed his pacifism, as it did for so many of his generation throughout Europe; his major condemnation of it came in 1921 with Mars, ou la guerre jugée (badly translated into English in 1930 as Mars, or the truth about war). All through the thirties he was a prominent pacifist, and engaged in anti-fascist campaigns.
He is one of the least doctrinaire of philosophers; he is a member of no school, creates no system, and is best placed in a tradition of French thinkers like Montaigne and Pascal. His philosophical heroes were Plato, the Stoics, Descartes, Kant, Comte and Hegel – an eclectic group. In all his writing he engages with the world and human activities; in reading him we are, as it were, at the circumference of a deep and challenging mind, and are drawn to penetrate to the centre as regular themes emerge. An important one is that to think is to judge. « I’ve not thought about anything as much as about freedom of judgement ». He liked the play on words in French of ‘penser, c’est peser’ – to think is to weigh. This can be expanded through a definition he gave of ‘mind’ (esprit): « which is at bottom the power of doubt, which is to raise oneself above all mechanisms, order, virtues, duties, dogmas, to judge them, subordinate them, and replace them by freedom, which only owes anything to itself ». Always he stresses this freedom of the mind to make its judgements. « Freedom is not an exterior good. It has to be won in oneself and for oneself. » (Another point on translation: the French word esprit contains a sense of ‘spirit’, but without the strong religious connotation this word has in English).
This insistence of the freedom of the mind is linked to the freedom of the individual and can be seen as a precursor to Sartre’s existentialism. It’s also a rejection of any form of determinism: « Faith: the will to believe, without evidence and against the evidence, that human beings can make their own destiny. » This also is a role for his propos: the mind needs to be kept awake and alert.
« So I have to save my soul through self-control, judgement, doubt, resolution, through courage, temperance, justice, against fear, threats, prestige, against custom and authority. »
As well as specifically philosophical works, he published books on music, Balzac, Stendhal, Dickens, the poems of Paul Valéry, a moving memoir of the war, Souvenirs de guerre, and a masterpiece of philosophical autobiography, Histoire de mes pensées (1936).
Many of Alain’s works are still in print in France, including four volumes in the Bibliothèque de la Pleiade. As mentioned earlier, there has been very little translation of Alain into English, just three books. Mars, or the truth about war, 1930, is best forgotten because of the poor quality of its translation. Propos sur le bonheur has been translated as Alain on happiness, 1973, republished 1989. Then there is his late work, Les Dieux, first published in 1934, translated as The Gods 1974, republished 1988.
The best biography is by Thierry Leterre, Alain, le premier intellectuel.
Copyright © Michel Petheram.
Texte par Michel Petheram, seul détenteur des droits.