Jean-Marie Guyau 1895
Source: Pages Choisies des Grands Écrivains. Paris, A. Colin, 1895;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2009.
I – The very sacrifice of life can be, in certain cases, an expansion of life, become intense enough for us to prefer a moment of sublime exaltation to years of the day to day. There are moments where it is possible to say both, I live, and I have lived. If certain physical and moral agonies last for years, and if we can so to speak be dead to ourselves for an entire existence, the opposite is also true, and we can concentrate a whole life in a moment of love and sacrifice.
Give someone the choice between reliving the monotonous duration of his whole life or reliving the small number of perfectly happy hours he remembers: few people would hesitate. Extend this to the present and the future: there are moments when the intensity is so great that, placed on a balance with the entire possible series of years, they outweigh them. We spend three days climbing a high summit in the Alps; we find that these three days of fatigue are worth the same as the short moment spent on the white peak, in the tranquility of the heavens. There are also instants of life when it seems we are on a peak and are gliding; compared to these instants the rest is a matter of indifference.
Life, even from the positive point of view that we take here, doesn’t appear to have the incommensurable value it at first seemed to have. Without being irrational, we can, at times, sacrifice all of existence for one of these moments, just as we can prefer one verse to an entire poem.
II – The more conscious a human being becomes, the more conscious he will be of the necessity, of the rationality inherent in the function he accomplishes in human society, the more he will see and understand himself in his role as a social being. A irreproachable functionary is always ready to risk his life for the function that is his, be it the simple function of game warden, customs agent, road mender, railway worker or telegraph agent. He who would not, like them, brave death at a given moment, would feel himself inferior to his employees. We can judge ourselves and our ideal by posing this question: For what idea, for what person would I be ready to risk my life? He who cannot answer such a question has a vulgar and empty heart. He is incapable of feeling or doing anything grand in life, since he is unable to go beyond his individuality. He is impotent and sterile, dragging along his selfish ego like the tortoise its shell. On the contrary, he who has present in his spirit the idea of death for his ideal seeks to maintain this ideal at the height of this possible sacrifice. He draws from this supreme risk a constant tension and an indefatigable energy of the will. The only means of being great in life is having the consciousness that you will not retreat before death. And this courage before death is in germ in every intelligent and loving determination, it is in germ in the very sentiment of the universal that science and philosophy give us. It begins to show itself in the spontaneous élans of the heart, in the inspirations of the moral being that resemble those of the poet, which art and morality so often seek to give birth to in us.
III – A characteristic example of the impulse and spontaneous sentiment is provided us by the poor workers of a lime oven in the Pyrenees. One of them, having gone down into the mind to check on I don’t know what problem, fell asphyxiated. Another hurries to his rescue and falls. A woman who had witnessed the accident called for assistance, and other workers come running. For the third time a man goes down into the incandescent oven and succumbs. A fourth and a fifth leap and succumb. Only one was left. He advanced and was about to leap when a woman who happened to be there grabbed onto his clothes and, half-mad with terror, held him back. A short while later, the court officers having gone to the place for an inquest, they interrogated the survivor on his spontaneous devotion, and a magistrate undertook with gravity to show him the irrationality of his conduct. He gave this admirable response: “My friends were dying: I had to go to them.”
When certain alternatives are posed the moral being has the sentiment of being caught in the gears: he is tied by, he is captive of “duty.” He cannot free himself and can only wait for the movement of the great social or natural mechanism that must smash it. He abandons himself, regretting perhaps having been the chosen victim. The need for sacrifice, in many cases, is a matter of your number being drawn: yet it is drawn, you place it on your brow – not without a certain pride – and you go.