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.


Snow is falling. As far as one can see there appears to be only monotonous change, but if one looks more carefully, endless variety; no two flakes have the same form, no two flakes follow the same route. Sometimes a breath of air can be guessed from a movement of the white curtain; look more attentively and these sinuous snowfalls will tell you that the air is continually twisting, swirling, full of eddies. Through shock or fusion or perhaps through freezing, at the contact of these interlaced streams of warm and cold air, fragile existences are born, grow and die in a moment; but not one of them is anything in itself, all exist through their neighbours and fall apart through their neighbours; it s a realm of meetings; chaos and disorder. The mind is as if dazed; yes, the mind that takes its nourishment, too much nourishment, from stable appearances, appearances which resemble it. Uniforms, functions, temples, discussions, everything begins the same. The mind adores this ordered world. It soothes me to know in advance what the sub-prefect will say, what the priest, the minister, the rabbi will say. I know the seasons in advance, and even eclipses, which follow our idea of the world. I calculate and the world obeys. This world is the mirror of my reason. I suppose order and deep designs in everything, and the subordination of parts to some well formed whole. Not like this snow.

Meanwhile it’s falling. It unfurls naked existence. Pangloss doesn’t understand this; he recreates the old refrain. “A clothing for the houses and the earth. What a fine quilt! The hollow of each leaf receives as much as it can, as in a basket. True, this branch has broken under the weight; but it’s only an individual disorder; the law is good.” Weak reverie. The law is neither good nor bad. What has happened is something like this. The high sun has warmed our temperate earth; at this contact the warmer and lighter air has risen and rarefied; a colder air from the north has rolled into the gap; it has mixed with the warm air by intertwining and folding; on these contoured surfaces the water that existed as vapour in the warm air changes into pieces of liquid lace, frozen immediately, which hook on to others and fall according to weight and volume, without any right to existence, without considerations of any kind. Nothing has any value here; everything is equal. Depending on the environment, this liquid particle condenses or evaporates, falls or rises. Confronted by this spectacle the understanding awakes, tears up the laws of appearances and discovers the law.


Atelier de Nicolas de Largillière: portrait de Voltaire, détail (musée Carnavalet).


Voltaire was living according to the laws of appearance when, in the middle of the eighteenth century, and through the friction of existence without design, the city of Lisbon was brought down, all of a sudden, like a castle of dominos, and ten thousand human creatures were crushed indiscriminately, the best and the worst according to the same law of pressure and resistance, as varied in its effects as this whirling snow. Pangloss was born. Candide is the poem of chance existence, a bitter and enduring poem. Voltaire’s Henriad was already dead, an insipid poem written according to his idea of the world. The Iliad on the contrary has lived and will live through its portrayal of external necessity. “The generations of men are like the leaves of the trees.” “The Trojans arose like a storm of straw and dust at the meeting of two winds.”  These comparisons are serious. Voltaire left behind him what was no more than an entertainment, and gave to the wind a dust of honest men, thieves and kings: Candide.

A great thing. Voltaire could not carry through the idea, but at least he formed it. Voltaire was ordinarily only reason; he followed and adored Newton and his majestic laws, which are in truth only summaries. He didn’t know enough to reduce the whole universe of things to the friction, shocks and exchanges of one part, small as you like, with its neighbours, according to Descartes’ virile wisdom. And he understood a lot less that this blind necessity was commanding human beings to exert their will. At least for a moment he rejected reasons of State, masked as universal reason, which kill ten thousand men for the good of the whole. That day put him in a bad mood, and out of that mood he created understanding. A mixed work, a work of a human being.


English translation copyright © Michel Petheram

To read the French original version


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