François-René de Chateaubriand, Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson ca. 1809
François-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand (4 September 1768 – 4 July 1848) is best known as the father of French literary Romanticism. A captain in the army, Chateaubriand left France after the violence of the revolutionary regime became apparent and travelled to America. On hearing of the arrest of the king he returned to France and served in the Prince de Condé's army, being seriously wounded and left for dead at the siege of Thionville in 1793 before escaping to a life of exile and abject poverty in Britain, during which time he was reconciled to the Catholic faith he had rejected as a younger man.
Chateaubriand returned to France in 1800 after an amnesty for exiles was declared and the publication of his "Le génie du Christianisme", an apologia for the Christian faith, in 1802, led Napoleon to enlist the vicomte in his attempts at rapprochement with the Catholic Church. Chateaubriand was made Plenipotentiary Minister of the First Consul to the Vatican but was soon dismissed for arguing with his superior (his quarrelsome nature would lead to dismissal from nearly all the other positions which he was to hold under both Bonaparte and the monarchy). The 1804 execution of Louis Antoine, Duke of Enghien on trumped up charges caused Chateaubriand to break totally with the Napoleonic regime, his publication of criticism of the emperor led Bonaparte to threaten to have Chateaubriand sabered on the steps of the Tulieries Palace.
Made a minister after the Restoration, Chateaubriand pursued a hugely successful and influential literary career. He defended first conservatism then liberalism, was dismissed or resigned from various political offices and after 1830 took no further part in politics. Chateaubriand would spend the remainder of his life writing, most notably the autobiographical masterwork Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe ( literally "Memoirs from Beyond the Grave") , in which he foresaw the future triumph of Democracy over Louis Philippe's monarchy and the bourgeoisie, and espoused the cause of the elder branch of the Bourbons once more. Menczer† writes that "He ended his long career with this melancholy love for a cause he believed to be lost, dying at the age of eighty on July 4th, 1848. Mental decay preceding his physical end, during the last year of his life he was hardly conscious of the new Revolution and of the fighting at the barricades in June 1848."
In these excerpts from the epilogue to Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe, Chateaubriand, in a classic reactionary conservative critique, attacks the notion of ascensional, linear human progress and attempts at the worldly realisation of absolute human equality.
During the eight centuries of our monarchy, France was the centre of the intelligence, the continuity and the peace of Europe; no sooner had that monarchy been lost than Europe tended in the direction of democracy. The human race, for good or for ill, is now its own master; princes once had the keeping of it; having attained their majority, the nations now claim that they have no further need of tutelage. From the time of David down to modern days, kings have always been called; now the vocation of the peoples begins. Apart from the short-lived and minor exceptions of the Greek, the Carthaginian and the Roman republics, with their slaves, the monarchical form of government was normal throughout the entire world.
Modern society in its entirety has forsaken the monarchy since the flag of the kings of France no longer flies. In order to hasten the degradation of royal power, God has in various countries delivered up the sceptre to usurper kings, to young girls who are either still in the nursery, or are just of marriageable age; it is lions such as these, without any jaws, lionesses without any claws and baby girls suckling at the breasts, or giving their hand in marriage, whom the men born of this believing age must follow. The wildest principles are proclaimed under the very noses of monarchs who imagine that they are safeguarding themselves behind the triple hedge of a doubtful protection. Democracy is overtaking them; stage by stage, they are retreating from the ground floor of their palaces to the topmost part, so that finally they will cast themselves upon the waters from the attic windows. Furthermore, consider a phenomenal contradiction: material conditions are improving and education is spreading, yet instead of this being a boon to the nations their stature is diminishing—from whence comes this contradiction?
The explanation lies in this: that we have deteriorated in the moral order. Crimes have always been committed, but they were not committed in cold blood, as they are today, because we have lost all feeling for religion. They no longer fill us with revulsion today, they seem only to be a consequence of the march of time; if they were judged differently in former times, it was because, as they dare to assert, our knowledge of human nature was not advanced enough. Nowadays crimes are analysed; they are passed through a crucible in order that we may discover any useful lesson accruing from them, as chemistry discovers constituents in garbage. Corruption of the mind, far more destructive than corruption of the senses, is accepted as a necessary result; it is not only to be found now in a few perverted individuals; it has become universal.
Men of this type would feel humiliated if it were proved to them that they had a soul and that after this life they will discover the existence of another one; they would think themselves devoid of all steadfastness, strength and intelligence if they did not rise above the pusillanimity of our fathers; they accept nothingness, or if you prefer it, doubt, as an unpleasant fact perhaps, but nevertheless as an incontestable truth. How admirable is our fatuous pride!
The decay of society then and the increasing importance of the individual can be accounted for in this manner. If the moral sense developed logically from the increase in intelligence, we should have a counterweight and humanity would increase in stature without any danger, but the exact opposite happens; our apprehension of good and evil grows dim as our intelligence becomes more enlightened; our conscience contracts as our ideas broaden. Yes, society will certainly perish; liberty, which might have saved the world, will not work, because it has cut itself off from religion; order, which could have ensured continuity, cannot be firmly established because the present anarchy of ideas prevents it. The purple, which once denoted power, will henceforth serve only to cradle disaster; no man will be saved unless he was born, like Christ, on straw.
When the monarchs were disinterred at St. Denis, as the revolutionary tocsin rang out; when, dragged from their crumbling tombs, they were awaiting plebeian burial, rag merchants came upon this scene of the last judgement of the centuries; holding high their lanterns, they gazed into the eternal night; they rummaged amongst the remains which had escaped the original pillage. The kings were no longer there, but royalty was still there; they tore it out of the entrails of time and cast it on the rubbish heap.
So much for ancient Europe : it will never live again. Does the young Europe offer us any higher hopes ? The world of today, lacking any consecrated authority, seems faced with two impossibilities: it is impossible to return to the past or to go forward into the future. Do not run away with the idea, as some people do, that if we are in a bad pass today, good will be reborn out of evil; human nature, when it is out of order at its very source, does not function so smoothly. The excesses of liberty, for example, lead to despotism, but the excesses of tyranny lead only to tyranny; tyranny, by degrading us, makes us incapable of independence; Tiberius did not have the effect of making Rome return to the republican form of government, he merely left Caligula behind to succeed him. Not desiring to find the true explanation of our present situation, men are content to say that a political constitution which we cannot as yet discern may possibly be hidden in the bosom of time. Did the whole of antiquity, including the most splendid of its geniuses, understand that a society could exist without slaves? Yet we know that it can. People say—I have said it myself—that mankind will increase in stature in this new civilisation which is to come: yet is it not to be feared that the individual man will decrease in stature ? We can well be busy bees, engaged in making our own honey together. In the material world, men group themselves together for the purpose of work, because many people working together find what they want quicker and by devious means; individuals working in the mass can build pyramids; these individuals, studying each in his own way, can make scientific discoveries and explore all the corners of the physical creation.
But do things work out in this wise in the moral order? A thousand brains can collaborate in vain: they can never compose the masterpiece which comes out of the head of a Homer.
It has been said that a city, all the inhabitants of which have an equal share of wealth and education, will be a more pleasing sight in the eyes of Divinity than was the city of our fathers.
The folly of the age is to achieve the unity of the peoples, while turning the whole species into a single unit—granted; but while we are acquiring these general faculties, is not a whole chain of private feelings in danger of perishing? Farewell to the sweetness of home ; farewell to the delights of family life; amongst all these white men, yellow men and black men, reputedly your brothers, you will not find one whom you can embrace as a brother. Was there nothing then in your former life, nothing in that restricted piece of space which you could see from your ivy-mantled window? Beyond your immediate horizon, you conjectured the existence of unknown countries from the presence of the birds of passage, the only travellers that you saw in the autumn days. Happiness lay in knowing that the surrounding hills would always be there; that they
Beautiful trees that saw my birth,
Soon you will see me die.
Man has no need to travel to become more powerful; he carries immensity within him. The impulses of your heart cannot be measured, they find an echo in thousands of other hearts; he who has nothing of this harmony in his innermost being will implore the universe to give it to him in vain. Sit on a fallen tree-trunk deep in the woods: if in these moments of complete self-forgetfulness, in your immobility and silence, you do not find the infinite, it is of no avail to wander along the banks of the Ganges.
What sort of a universal society would it be which possessed no individual country, which would be neither French nor English, nor German, nor Spanish, nor Portuguese, nor Italian, nor Russian, nor Tartar, nor Turkish, nor Persian, nor Indian, nor Chinese, nor American, or rather, what would all these societies be like if they were rolled into one? What would the effect be on the way of life, on the sciences, the arts and the poetry of a universal society? What expression could be given to passions felt at the same time by different peoples under different climates? How would this medley of needs and images which the sun produces in divers lands, and which light up the youth, the maturity and the old age of men, enter into the language? And what language would it be? Will a universal idiom be born out of the fusion of societies, or will there be a business dialect for everyday purposes, whilst each nation retains its own language, or, on the other hand, will all the divers languages be understood by all? Under what sort of rule and under what sort of universal law would this society live? How should we find a place on an earth which has been extended by the power of ubiquity and shrunk by the small proportions of a globe which is everywhere dishonoured? It only remains to ask science to show us how we can go and live on another planet.
Let us suppose that you have had enough of private property and that you propose to turn the government into a universal landlord, who is to distribute to the destitute community that share which each individual deserves. Who is to be the judge of individual merits? Who will have the strength and the authority to carry out your decrees? Who is to be responsible for and assess the capital value of this human property? What is to be the contribution of the weak, the sick and the stupid in a community burdened by their unfitness? There is another suggestion: instead of working for a salary, men could form limited companies, or limited partnerships between manufacturers and workers, between intelligence and matter, whereby some would contribute ideas and others their industry and their work; profits would be shared in common.
It is an excellent thing thus to acknowledge complete perfection in mankind: excellent, if quarrels, avarice or envy are unknown : but once an associate registers a grievance, the whole edifice crumbles; dissension and lawsuits will henceforth be the order of the day. This method, which is slightly more plausible than the others in theory, is as impossible in practice.
Would you prefer to follow a moderate line and build a city in which each man has a roof, fuel, clothing and adequate food? You will no sooner have presented each citizen with these things, than individual qualities and defects will either upset your system of distribution, or will make it unjust: one man needs much more food than the other; this man cannot work as hard as that one can; men who are frugal and work hard will become rich, those who are extravagant or idle will relapse into poverty; for you cannot bestow the same temperament on all: an innate inequality is bound to reappear in spite of all your efforts.
Do not be under any illusion that we are going to allow ourselves to be caught up in all the legal processes which have been invented for the protection of the family, for inherited rights, the guardianship of children, claims to property, etc.; marriage is notoriously an absurd oppression: we shall abolish all that. If a son kills his father, it is not the son, as we can very well prove, who is guilty of patricide, it is the father, who, by the very act of living, sacrifices the son's chances. Do not let us trouble our heads then with the labyrinths of an organisation which we intend to raze to the ground; it is a waste of time to linger over the obsolete nonsense of our grandfathers.
Notwithstanding this, some of our sectarian modernists, having an inkling of the impracticability of their doctrines, introduce certain phrases concerning morality and religion, in an attempt to make them more palatable; they imagine that all they can realise at the moment is to bring us into line with the American ideal of mediocrity, ignoring in their blindness the fact that the Americans are not only landowners, but very enthusiastic ones, which makes all the difference.
Others, who are of a kindlier disposition still, and who are not hostile to the polish which a civilisation can confer on men, would be satisfied if they could transform us into constitutional Chinamen, atheist to all practical purposes, enlightened and free old gentlemen, sitting for centuries amongst our flowerbeds in our yellow robes, whiling away our days in a wellbeing which has spread to the masses, having invented all things and discovered all things, peacefully vegetating amidst all the progress which has been accomplished, carried in the train like a parcel merely to go from Canton to the Great Wall to discuss with another business man of the Celestial Empire a piece of marshland which has to be drained, or a canal which is to be cut. In either hypothesis, American or Chinese, I should be thankful to have departed this world before such felicity befell me.
There is one final suggestion: it could happen that, as a result of the total deterioration of the human character, the peoples of the world would be content to make do with what they have got : love of gold would take the place of a love of their independence, while kings would barter their love of power for love of the civil list. A compromise would thus be reached between monarchs and their subjects, who would be delighted to fawn upon them without let or hindrance in a bastard political order; all men would display their infirmities in front of each other, as they used to do in the old lazar houses, or as sick people do today, when they take mudbaths as a cure for their ailments; mankind would flounder in unmitigated mud after the fashion of a peaceable reptile. It is, nevertheless, a mere waste of time at the present stage of our development to desire to replace intellectual pleasures by the delights of physical nature. These latter, as we can well imagine, filled the lives of the aristocratic peoples of antiquity; masters of the world, they possessed palaces and vast numbers of slaves ; their estates comprised whole regions of Africa. But under which porticoes can you wander now, in your rare moments of leisure? In which huge and ornate baths can you find nowadays the perfumes and flowers, the flute-players and courtesans of Ionia? You cannot be Heliogabulus for the asking. Where would you lay hands on the necessary treasure for these material delights? The spirit is frugal, but the body is extravagant.
And now, to be more serious, a few words on the question of absolute equality: such an equality would mean a return not only to bodily slavery, but to spiritual slavery; for it would mean nothing less than the destruction of the moral and physical inequality of the individual. Our wills, controlled and supervised by all, would witness the atrophy of our faculties. The infinite, for example, is part of our very nature; if you forbid our intelligence, or even our passions, to dream of unbounded prosperity, you reduce a man to the level of a snail and you metamorphose him into a machine. For make no mistake, if we cannot hope to penetrate the ultimate, if we do not believe in eternal life, there is annihilation everywhere; no man is free if he does not possess any property of his own ; a man who has no property cannot be independent, he becomes a member of the proletariat or he works for a wage, whether he live within our present system of private property, or in a future one of communal property. Property held in common would mean that our society would be like one of those monasteries which used to distribute bread to the needy at the gates.
Property which we hold inviolate from our fathers is our means of personal defence; property really means the same thing as liberty. Absolute equality, which presupposes complete submission to this equality, would make us revert to the most wretched servitude; it would make of individual man a beast of burden, submitting to his bonds and obliged to walk endlessly along the same path.
Young men hurl themselves into the fray, animated by generous courage; with their eyes on the ground, they climb towards the heights which they can dimly see and which they struggle to attain: nothing is more admirable; but they will waste their lives in these attempts and when they have reached the allotted span and piled error upon error, they will impose on succeeding generations by bestowing the burden of their disillusionment upon them, which they in turn will carry to neighbouring graves; and so on. The times of the desert have returned; Christianity starts afresh in the sterility of the Thebaid, amidst a formidable idolatry, the idolatry of man for himself.
From the epilogue to Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe, 1841, published in English in Catholic Political Thought 1789-1848 ed. Bela Menczer, 1953