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.


‘The laws are necessary relations which derive from the nature of things’.  An immense formula, which I can’t get around, but bump up against as something solid, the moment that I launch into desiring laws that please me. The master, whoever he is, is quite attentive to the multitude, and takes care to please, from which I perceive that he is flexible in what depends upon his will. But something appears behind him, in whose name he commands, and which holds him close; it’s the interlocking of causes and consequences, in which he is caught as much as I am. Money spent is money spent; no one can undo that. This is what is expressed by the stony face of debt. Production is a fact; the harvest is a fact; daily turnover is a fact; in the same way as rain, hail and wind are facts. And, as a certain wind overturns a certain tree as inevitably as the earth turns, so too the multitude of events, past and irrevocable, war, borrowings, reparation and the rest, exercises an inhuman pressure on all of us, with no more concern than an automobile out of control that will send a man flying like a stone if he doesn’t get out of the way. Now, when my master warns me to get out of the way, he’s not a master in that, but rather a herald and slave of necessity. In the same way taxes, the law of military service and the rest advance. And the master can well say ‘I like this no more than you do’. In short one lives as one can, not as one wants.

Fine. That put me in my place. In this hollow, then, where I shelter from all these rains, I have the leisure to think. I think, that is, I weigh up. I doubt. That goes a long way. The first remark I want to make is that human beings easily go wrong, and are often obstinate in what they like, without knowing whether what they like is possible. This wise remark is good for me and for everyone. It could well be that the master gives orders according to what he likes and not what he must. ‘I like this no more than you do’. That is, a ruler likes to have money in his coffers; I’m not so glad to pay. The general staff like to have three men to polish one shoe; I’m not so glad to polish boots. In short, in what a master proposes and promptly imposes upon me as necessary, there is certainly a part, large or small, which is not necessary but which is simply to his liking. How will I know this in this society, woven tight as a piece of felt, where no one sees further than their hand?  “What do we know of the will of god”, said a character in Claudel’s The Hostage, when our only way of knowing it is to  contradict it?” A weighty word, and perhaps imprudent but I’m not deaf. And I say: “how to know what is really necessary, except by an obstinate resistance?”

Especially as another idea appears when I think of the blind laws that make the wind on the sea and the waves. I give way, and I must; but I often arrive where I want to, like a boat that tacks; it gives way to necessity; but in the end it advances against the wind. And I don’t see why we are lectured to obey the first challenge of political necessity, when human beings have navigated against the wind, through their own ingenuity, for centuries.  On this political sea, it would be quite cowardly and well below the human to give way to the first tide and let oneself be first driven like flotsam where the current takes me and not where I want to go. Even better if I form a team with others going where I’m going. Be bold then and hold your course.

And I perceive in this short meditation on politics, that I’ve been carried a lot further than I expected. For humans have learnt not to worship the wave; they simply take it into account and, without scruples, make it serve their ends as well as they can. Necessity is inhuman; it’s mad to hate it; it’s no less mad to love it. And so, if in political matters also, I discover necessity, which is my true and only master, then I am relieved of respect. I want to move about cautiously in this great and terrible machine; but I’m not going to adore it. It’s an enemy like any other. My sole aim here is to overcome it while obeying, as I do with wind and wave. And that’s my citizen’s charter. Yes, I owe something to the human; but to necessity nothing.


English translation copyright © Michel Petheram


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