Charles Péguy – An Excerpt From Notre Jeunesse (1910)

[Charles Péguy (1873 – 1914) was a French socialist, (and later on) Catholic, and Dreyfusard. More. ]

[Translated by Alexander Dru in Temporal and Eternal (1958).]

[…] And I not only claim that the mystical Dreyfusists remained Dreyfusists and mystics. I contend that they are the greater number, and remained the greater number. Even in the crude sense, and not just as quality, as virtue, but quantitatively; it is they who counted and they who count.

Mysticism may be the laughing stock of politics, but all the same, it is the mystic who nourishes politics.

For the politically-minded always recover their balance, and think they can save themselves, by saying that they at least are practical, and that we are not. That is precisely where they are mistaken. Where they mislead. We do not even grant them that. It is the mystic who is practical, and the politically-minded who are not. It is we who are practical, who do something, and it is they who are not, who do nothing. It is we who accumulate and they who squander. It is we who build, lay foundations, and it is they who demolish. It is we who nourish, and they who are the parasites. It is we who make things and men, peoples and races. It is they who wreak ruin.

The little which they are, they are by virtue of us. Their very misery, vanity, emptiness, infirmity, frivolity, vileness, the nothing which they are, is only theirs by virtue of us.

That is why there can be no question of their inspecting us (as though they were inspectors). There is no question of their examining and inspecting us, reviewing and judging us. Of asking us for an account; of their asking us: that really would be a bit much. The only right they have is the right to keep quiet. And of trying to be forgotten. Let us hope they will make good use of it.

What I maintain is that the whole mystical body of Dreyfusism remained intact. Who cares whether the politicians betrayed the mystique? It is their office to do so.

“Then” you will say, “neither the General Staff nor the various Committees, nor the Leagues, belonged to the mystique.” Of course not. You surely did not expect them to. What does the League of the Rights of Man, and even of the Citizen, matter, what does it stand for by comparison with a conscience, a mystique? What does a policy, or a hundred policies matter by comparison with a mystique? Mystiques are always the creditors of policies.

You will add that the victim himself did not belong to the mystique. To his own mystique. That has become clear. We would have died for Dreyfus. Dreyfus did not die for Dreyfus. It is quite a good rule that the victim should not belong to the mystique of his own affair.

There you have the triumph of human weakness, die crown of our vanity, the supreme proof; the great masterpiece and demonstration of our infirmity.

It had to be so, in order that the masterpiece of our misery should be complete, in order that the bitterness should be drunk to the dregs, and ingratitude crowned.

So that it should be complete. In order that the disillusionment should be complete.

There is no doubt whatsoever, as far as we are concerned, the Dreyfusist mystique was not only a particular instance of the Christian mystique, but an outstanding example, an acceleration, a crisis, a temporal crisis, a sort of transition, which I should describe as necessary. Why deny it, now that we are twelve or fifteen years distant from our youth, and that we at last see clear in our hearts? Our Dreyfusism was a religion; I use the word in the most exact and literal sense, a religious impulse, a religious crisis, and I should even advise anyone who wanted to consider, study and know a religious movement in modem times, to take that unique example, so clearly defined, so full of character. I would add that for us, that religious movement was essentially Christian, Christian in origin, growing from a Christian stem, deriving from an ancient source. To that we can now bear witness. The Justice and the Truth which we have loved so much, to which we gave everything, our youth, to which we gave ourselves completely during the whole of our youth, were not an abstract, conceptual Justice and Truth, they were not a dead justice and a dead truth, the justice and truth found in books and libraries, a notional, intellectual justice and truth, the justice and truth of the intellectual party; they were organic, Christian, in no sense modem, they were eternal and not temporal only, they were Justice and Truth, a living Justice and a living Truth. And of all the feelings which impelled us, in fear and trembling, into that unique crisis, we can now admit that of all the passions that drove us into that seething, boiling tumult, into that furnace there was at the heart of them one virtue, and that virtue was charity. And I do not want to reopen an old quarrel, an argument that has become historical, historic; nevertheless, among our enemies, our enemies of those days, I can see a great deal of intelligence, a great deal of lucidity and even much shrewdness and sharpness, but what strikes me most is certainly a certain lack of charity. I do not want to anticipate what belongs properly speaking to confessions. But it is undeniable that in all our socialism there was infinitely more Christianity than in the whole of the Madeleine together with Saint-Pierre de Chaillot and Saint-Philippe du Roule and Saint-Honoré-d’Eylau. It was essentially a religion of temporal poverty. It was essentially a religion of temporal poverty. It is therefore the religion which will never be acclaimed in any way in modern times. The very last to be celebrated with a holiday. We were marked by it, indelibly marked, and received its imprint so deeply that we shall be marked by it for the rest of our temporal lives, and for the other too. Our socialism was never a parliamentary socialism, nor the socialism of a rich parish. Our Christianity will never be a parliamentary Christianity, nor the Christianity of a rich parish. We received, from that time on, a vocation marked by poverty, by want even, deep, inward and at the same time so historical, so full of emergencies and contingencies, that we have never been able to escape from it, and that I begin to believe that no one ever will be able to extricate us from it.

It is a sort of vocation.

A destination.

What may have deceived people is that all the political forces of the Church were against Dreyfusism. But the political forces of the Church have always been against its mystique. Particularly against the Christian mystique. That is the supreme illustration of the general rule laid down above.

One might even say that the Dreyfus Affair was a perfect example of a religious movement, of the beginning or origin of a religion, a rare case and perhaps a unique one.