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Charles Péguy: Past, present, and future

13703Today, we have a guest post from Matthew Maguire, Associate Professor of History and Catholic Studies at DePaul University and author of Carnal Spirit: The Revolutions of Charles Péguy, new from Penn Press. In Carnal Spirit, Maguire expertly delineates the historical origins of the philosophy of Charles Péguy (1873-1914), a French thinker whose unique writings explored what he thought most honestly, and urgently, needed to be said about politics, history, philosophy, literature, art, and religion. In this post, Maguire examines the ways in which Péguy anticipated the divisions that continue to trouble us.

Few dispute that we live amidst deep and often bitter political and cultural divisions. They intensify at considerable speed, producing a clash of starkly divergent and often incompatible ways of life, and with them, different ways of thinking about and embodying being human.

From one side of this divide, one finds anger and dismay in the face of resurgent bands of reactionaries, nativists, and racists who crave the opportunity to deprive late modern societies of hard-won forms of pluralism and tolerance. Among these reactionaries, indiscriminate nostalgia finds in every move toward openness a source of perpetually renewed grievances and resentment, careening easily toward vindictive glee at the humiliation of others, a penchant for the ugly ministrations of demagogues and other charlatans, and the flagrant, sometimes deadly scapegoating of vulnerable persons and groups.

To another side, it appears that we are led by smug technocrats of questionable competence tending toward a fastidiously self-satisfied bourgeois ethic, blithely presiding over an expansive and intrusive oligarchy retailed to its subjects as “freedom” and “autonomy.” For many advocates of this technocracy, professional success and wealth serve as a kind of temporal and purely individual salvation, while they neglect, mock, and sell diverse and longstanding common goods. Those who depend upon those goods see their protracted, sometimes fatal suffering met with studied indifference.

How should one think about and live an age like the one in which we live, in which so many seem to understand the failings of their opponents, without a corresponding effort to reckon honestly with their own?

There is no better source for understanding our own fractured moment than Charles Péguy (1873-1914). Living in France at the turn of the last century, Péguy was a philosopher, a poet, and journalist in a nation as intensely divided as nations in the West today, in which issues about identity, freedom, solidarity, and truth often took simultaneous cultural, political, and intellectual forms.

Péguy understood that in his own time, an emerging oligarchical, technocratic, intensely secular order had taken hold of the thoughts and dreams of many educated persons. Scholars, politicians, independent intellectuals, and diverse figures in business and administration were among its most committed advocates. He also saw that their reactionary opponents did not offer a living alternative to this new order, but at best produced its mechanical, rote negation, tending toward sour rejections of one’s contemporaries and violent prejudice rather than a truly open and creative response to problems that they could not begin to solve.

Péguy developed a unique alternative to the stark and sterile antagonisms of his time. Raised by a widow in a working-class household, he was eventually admitted to the elite École Normale Supérieure in Paris. He soon committed himself to socialist activism and the defense of Alfred Dreyfus—a French Jewish army officer falsely accused of treason, an especially egregious instance of a broader tendency toward anti-Semitic scapegoating at the turn of the last century. Amid that activism, he began to wonder whether his fellow socialists understood that an entirely immanent, this-worldly materialism did not give sufficient reason or energy to undertake the work of achieving universal justice.

Péguy soon embarked upon a singular way of thinking, prompted by different possibilities around him, not least nascent philosophies of science. He concluded that the assumptions about science so beguiling to many of his religiously and “metaphysically” skeptical contemporaries were not accurate accounts of what science was, or how scientific work was done. He began to think in particular with the philosophy of Henri Bergson, whose arguments about freedom, creativity, memory, and time transcended the cramped accounts of “progress” and “reaction” around him.

Péguy began to ask fundamental questions with lucid, incisive energy. What is freedom? What is the relationship between origins and creative originality? What is the proper relation between an ethical consciousness of universal humanity and the unique lives of particular persons and peoples? How might one think about both the differences and continuities between Judaism and Christianity? How should one understand the roles of memory and novelty in culture, politics, and faith? What would a world without shared if distinct intuitions of transcendence— variously Platonic, or Jewish, or Christian, or Buddhist, or Kantian— look like, and what consequences would it have for our thinking and for our lives? What does it mean to be modern?

Some of Péguy’s writing addressed to these questions bears a superficial resemblance to the kinds of “whither liberalism” or “whither secularism” arguments available from contemporary intellectuals, from Samuel Moyn to Charles Taylor to Patrick Deneen. Yet Péguy adds something to our own conversations that is not available anywhere else.

First, he understands that the relationship between thinking, convictions—even opinions—and our embodied lives is indispensable. It is not simply a question of “politics following culture,” or “culture following politics,” but rather a unity of lived convictions in an embodied life that affirms and works through the “carnal” (to use one of Péguy’s favorite words). To have convictions and opinions that fail to give direction and form to one’s embodied life are to leave them without force in the world. He also understood that it is the pronounced tendency of late modern capitalism to valorize consumption, comfort, and “security” (both financial and psychological) in order to conceal or do away with the inevitable risks of embodied conviction.

Second, Péguy understood that a new, false language of abstractions and euphemistic generalities had come to be seen as “serious,” or “appropriate.” For Péguy, precise, patient attention to language could open new and altogether intriguing paths for thinking and action. For example, in Péguy’s own time and since, there have been those who have yearned intensely for transformative revolutions (political, technological, cultural), and those who have feared and dreaded those revolutions. But for Péguy, progressives and reactionaries alike fail to attend patiently to the organic possibilities of the original word. In French, “revolution” properly refers to radical transformation, to an act of revolving around an orienting center that repeats a cyclical action in linear time, a return to an origin, as well as the process of regeneration that allows a forest or field to regain its vitality. A truly invigorating future revolution will not simply “choose” among these possibilities, but creatively integrate them into a revolution that is at once new, surprisingly continuous with diverse pasts, energizing, liberating, and faithful.

Finally, Péguy understood that late modern persons had undergone a thoroughgoing impoverishment in their experience of time, in which multi-dimensional and expansive temporal dimensions (variously cyclical, non-continuous, and eternal), were supplanted by a linear, cumulative, supersessive, purely immanent, public, and historical time. In such a narrowed and constrictive experience of time, the only alternatives are to locate oneself upon a spectrum from “progressive” to “reactionary,” submitting our thinking and actions to immediate political ends (cultural or otherwise). For Péguy, to restore human experience to its original temporal plenitude would allow us to move beyond the ready-made oppositions and forms of injustice into which modern societies tend to descend.

To encounter Péguy is not simply to find an impressively prescient narrator of the various intellectual, cultural, and political fault lines around us, nor even to understand more precisely their historical origins, as important as those origins are. It is to find openings toward transcending the habits of thinking that produce and intensify the very divisions these habits tirelessly promise and fail to overcome⁠. Above all, it is to go beyond the stale imaginings of prefabricated ideologies, progressive or reactionary, and to open the way toward free, diverse, and human futures.