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 collapsed under the weight of the world and themselves. The naive rain-makers experimented with the vast sky, the earth and their own prayers all together; it was all too much for their judgement or for any man’s. So when the rain failed to arrive as they desired, they simply concluded that they hadn’t said their prayers properly, or that some profane action or thought had spoiled one of them; they had to start again. Undivided experience must have supported the most foolish errors.
Our own makers of storms act no differently and think no more clearly. Because, in conducting experiments with the whole political planet as well as themselves, they pretend to observe, to see ahead, to predict; but experience will always verify their naive conceptions; it will always be true that treating people as the enemy will turn them into the enemy; war is predicted and prepared simultaneously. There are reasons for everything. If war comes, people will say that it was right to prepare for it; if peace follows, they will say that it’s by preparing for war that peace is preserved.
Where then are those who seek the truth as it should be sought? And how do they seek it? I see them prepared, first, through physics or chemistry, by the study of the simplest and most varied problems, of mathematics, mechanics, astronomy. This is where they acquire that powerful prejudice called reason; this is where they apply the method of isolating facts as much as possible and of studying only one thing at a time. They are then often reproached for missing the great Whole; but they are very well aware of this; they’re taking care precisely to forget it; they seal the retort or the calorimeter; they seal the laboratory; they reject the ambiguous lessons which the universe throws at us at every moment.
They’re not wrong. Observe the others, accidental spiritualists, that is, those who keep coming back to the problem of the Whole and themselves within it; they believe everything. Because evidence whose meaning escapes us is raining down everywhere. To carry the world, like Atlas, strengthens the shoulders, but good sense gains nothing. To carry is not to understand. On the contrary, you can only understand something well if you’re not carrying it. In short, we must begin at the beginning; and nature throws into our eyes and into our hands precisely what is most obscure and difficult. We should understand this ruse of reason and this immense detour, which instructs us through what is simplest, most abstract and involves us least. To understand things properly we must want to understand little. And the passage from the abstract to the concrete is made through the distant objects of astronomers, which fortunately also interest our passions. Without that encounter, or if we imagined, for example, that the sky was always cloudy, I would agree with Comte that I do not see how we could have merged from a childish fetishism. It’s right to say that experience is our sole teacher; but experience has to be overcome and governed.
May 16, 1922
English translation copyright © Michel Petheram