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.


I teach obedience. A difficult reader will say that’s what I’m paid for. This is true. But if our Great Men hear me on obedience, they’ll conclude that they’ve made a bad investment of their money; they are an insatiable breed; don’t they also want, along with obedience, respect and even love?  Well, difficult reader, let’s draw up our accounts, between them and me, between you and me.

All power is absolute. War makes these things clear. An action can only succeed if those involved agree; and, even with the best will in the world, they will only agree through the prompt execution of orders, without any of these subordinates enjoying judgment or discussion. What does this say except that faced with refusal or hesitation, the leader should force obedience?  This quickly leads to the ultimate threat and a moment later, the supreme punishment, without which the threat would be ridiculous. I admire the people who, while easily accepting war as a possibility, still invoke humanity and justice here, as if one had the leisure to be human and just when the enemy is pressing. One must know what one wants.

There is no peace, for there’s more than one enemy. This is why all power is military. Fire or water. The road is barred. You ask why; but the guard doesn’t know why. So, invoking your rights as a citizen, you want to pass through. The guard prevents this militarily; he calls up reinforcements; if you are difficult, you are knocked about a little; if you produce arms, the guard acts first and kills you. When power has not resolved to enforce obedience, there is no more power. If the citizen doesn’t understand or approves of this powerful mechanism well before fearing it, there’s no more order; there’s war at every street corner, the spectator is beaten up and justice dies.

Fine. And this is what truth there is in Fascism; this is what many feel vividly. But one has to understand; one has to restrict; to limit, to control, to watch, to judge these terrifying powers. For there is no man who, able to do anything he wants and without control, does not sacrifice justice to his passions; and in good faith; for a peaceful man believes in himself. This is why this obedience of the civilised would be frightening, if they did not also swear to themselves to resist power, continuously and obstinately. But how?

What remains to them, since they are obedient?  Opinion remains. The mind never owes obedience. A proof in geometry just needs to be shown; if you take someone’s word for it, you’re a fool; you betray your own mind. This interior judgement, the last refuge, a sufficient refuge, one must guard; it must never be given up. A sufficient refuge? What makes me think so is that what remains of slavery comes clearly from citizens also throwing their judgement at the leader’s feet. They admire; that’s their happiness; and yet they know that this costs them. For myself, I can’t understand that a citizen, a foot soldier, which is what I call the good citizen, the friend of order, the subordinate faithful to the death, allows himself to give something more, that is, to applaud, to approve, to love the pitiless leader. But rather I’d want the citizens to remain inflexible for their part, inflexible in their mind, armed with distrust, and always remaining in doubt about the leader’s projects and reasons. This comes down to doing without the happiness of being part of a united front, in order to avoid greater evils. For example, not to believe, through an abuse of obedience, that a war is or was inevitable; not to believe that the taxes are exactly calculated, nor the expenditure, and so on. To exercise, therefore, a clear-eyed control, resolved, heartless, on the actions and even more on the speeches of the leader. To communicate to one’s representative the same spirit of resistance and criticism, so that power knows itself to be judged. For, if respect and friendship slip in, justice and liberty are lost, and security itself is lost. Think of the Dreyfus affair, which very relevantly reappears in a good light. I know very well that you, a good citizen, who didn’t see these things, won’t believe them. It’s that one should understand that such enormous abuses, and calmly admitted, are the inevitable fruit of uncontrolled power. There’s no reason for a man who rises to the top to gain the virtues that will keep him from believing in himself too much; in this rise there are plenty of reasons for him to lose these virtues, even if he had them. These bitter, but useful reflections, give an idea of the radical spirit, very well named, but still poorly understood by those souls who don’t know how to obey without adoring. Are you satisfied, difficult reader?  Perhaps not. I don’t ask if power is satisfied. It’s never satisfied; it wants everything.

PI  12/7/30

English translation copyright © Michel Petheram

To read the French version on this website. 


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