Philosophe Alain

Le site de référence sur le philosophe français Emile Chartier, dit Alain (1868-1951), par l’Association des Amis d’Alain, fondée par ses proches après sa mort.

Le site de référence sur le philosophe français Emile Chartier, dit Alain (1868-1951), par l’Association des Amis d’Alain, fondée par ses proches après sa mort.

A Christmas carol

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 myth; and I admire how popular thinking has held firm for so many centuries. Through irresistible songs, and their inimitable sound, all human beings, and not only those who live to obey and work, now celebrate a wretched destiny, elevated by thought, but ended by the executioner. All the force of the Caesars, past, present, and to come, is here publicly dishonoured. A bad moment for their administrators, if they start to think; but they do without that; it’s their privilege to be stupid.

Suppose the administrator does think. He’d like to extricate himself by explaining that it is the true God who is represented between the ox and the ass. But, taking everything to the letter, we must still ask why God took the form of one who was poor, weak, and crucified. In whatever way we understand this, it always means that we do not join the procession of kings of war and of law and order. Whether we believe blindly or not,  it doesn’t make much difference. For, once we have sworn not to remain stupid before the great legendary frescos, we do finally have to ask ourselves what they mean. Religion is judgement, and judgement of values. Among the higher values, I notice work, helping each other, forgiveness, the spirit of peace. Force comes a long way behind, and even has no value at all. What does it prove to the world, in the order of values, if you are three against two? On that point there’s no quarrel. The alleged quarrels of religion are clever means for masking the agreement of religion.


Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682): adoration of the Mages, 1660, The Toledo Museum of Art


There is even an agreement of irreligion, which comes down to honouring force. Intrigue, self enrichment, government, success, is always force. And we get drunk on force. Intelligence can even be taken as the force of forces, and the supreme means for ruling. And so a source of inequality and injustice; what should be instructive is used for deception. I think more quickly so I strike more quickly. Plato, describing the tyrannical man, is quite right to say that in his case thought is imprisoned and fabricates opinions to suit power. In this situation, the more the mind is mind, the more the mind is humiliated. The worst impiety is the one which brandishes intelligence like a weapon. On the contrary, if we think as we ought, we should give this weapon to others. The mind seeks its equal and desires an equal. The mind’s one hope is to make its fellow human beings as powerful as itself. It’s what’s called teaching.  Honour to the power that refuses force. Noel! Noel!

Force governs. This formula is a kind of axiom. Even if we refuse to take this iron law as obvious, we still always feel it. Law and order presupposes the certain effect of forces, and this takes us a long way. We have to have powers, and this complicated life, this assemblage of human beings, these interactions, and even peace itself, they all require obedience, and even prompt obedience.  So it happens that leaders are quickly thanked and celebrated.  The processions of force, led by the drums which imitate and reinforce the sound of feet, grip our hearts, and inspire a sort of animal veneration in us. This is another festival, this festival of force. I feel my own force, reinforced by all these allies I see around me, by this regimented movement in which I take part. Here I am, a foot soldier, and it’s nothing new that the battalion acclaims itself in its leader. So everything is mixed together, and religion supports this idolatry; since the power of force glories in these virtues of patience, temperance and resignation on which it raises itself. And a man in the ranks, who feels himself to be something better than his rank, naturally honours the leader of these virtues which support the fearsome order. From all this, we can’t help but being fooled a little, and always too much. Take part in a procession, of any kind, and you will feel a human power within you, the one which says secretly: « It doesn’t matter if they hate me, so long as they fear me. » Against which this universal thought is enough, and this irresistible song: Noel! Noel!



Translation copyright Michel Petheram

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