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.

Our first need

A sociologist said to me: It’s tempting to explain all social organisation by the need for food and for clothing oneself, economics dominating and explaining all the rest; except that the need to organise comes before the need for food. We know of happy tribes who don’t need clothes and gather their food by stretching out their hands; they have rules, priests, institutions, laws, and order; so I conclude that human beings are citizens by nature and that they like government for itself.

– I conclude, I said, something else, which is that economics is not the first need. Sleep is much more tyrannical than hunger. We can imagine a condition in which humans nourish themselves without difficulty; but nothing will release them from sleeping; however strong and brave they are, they will be without perceptions, and consequently without defence, for almost a third of their lives. So it is therefore probable that the first anxieties came from this need, which then organised sleeping and vigils; some mounted guard  while the others slept; that was a first sketch of the city, The city was military before being economic. Those savages that you mention had to defend themselves against their neighbours, against wild beasts, against snakes. I think that society is the daughter of fear, not of hunger. What’s more, I would say that the first effect of hunger must have been to disperse human beings rather than bring them together, all going to look for food in the least explored regions. Only, while desire separated them, fear brought them together. In the morning, they felt hungry and became anarchists. But in the evening they felt fatigue and fear, and they embraced the laws. So, since you like to unravel the social fabric in order to understand how it is made, don’t forget that this ‘military’ relationship is the support of all the others, the canvas, as it were, that carries the tapestry.


Sandro Boticelli (1445-1510): Vénus et Mars (détail), 1485,


– Fine, he said. So we can rank the needs in the following order; the need to be guarded and to sleep in peace, then the need to eat, and finally the need to possess, which is only the need to eat in imagination before feeling hungry?

– I don’t know, I replied, that you’ve drawn out all the social  virtues that fear includes. Sleep is the father of watchers at night and of armies; it’s the father of dreams as well; from that, another fear, the fear of the dead and of phantoms, from which religions have emerged. Soldiers kept off the wild beasts; priests kept off the returning ghosts. A barracks and a temple, these were the nuclei of the primitive city. It’s much later that machines and factories completed the task.

– And the need to procreate, where do you place that?

– I would rank it, I said, beside economics, among anti-social needs. For both arm human beings against human beings. But sleep is an even more powerful ruler. We praise the sun but we fear the night. That’s why the shepherd’s horn and the bells of his flocks speak so vividly to our hearts, when the day departs. The night reigns over towns.


English translation copyright © Michel Petheram

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