Jean Grenier 1925

On Georges Palante

Source: La Bretagne Touristique, 1925;
Translated: by Mitch Abidor for;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2006.

Jean Grenier was an important philosopher and teacher, his most celebrated student being Albert Camus, with whom he maintained a lengthy correspondence.

Last August 5 we learned with pain and surprise of the death of M. Georges Palante, professor of philosophy at the lycée of St. Brieuc, a death about which the newspapers related the circumstances, falsely attributing it to Schopenhauer’s influence. The latter always advised against quitting life: doesn’t brutally breaking with it show that one expected something from it, that we afforded it a value it doesn’t have? Doesn’t it mean risking being caught in the trap of a possible reincarnation? Only an optimistic philosophy, like that of the Stoics, could advise leaving a banquet whose charms we have exhausted.

Two days later, August 7, several colleagues of Palante’s, inhabitants of the area – where he was loved – and a few friends (too few, for it was impossible to tell them of it) followed his coffin on the sun-drenched road which goes from Grandville to Hillion. At the cemetery the Inspector of the Academy pronounced a simple and true speech, from which we permit ourselves to detach the following passage:

“Born November 20, 1862 in the Pas de Calais, having earned a degree in letters in 1883 M. Palante began his teaching career in 1885 as professor at the lycée in Aurillac. The following year he was called to a lycée in Chateauroux. He became an agrégé in philosophy in 1888 and in 1890 came to St Brieuc (for a first period of three years). He then wandered from Valenciennes to La Rochelle, then to Niort. He finally returned in January 1898 to the lycée of St Brieuc where he was to pass the final 27 years of his career, up till the doorway of his retirement that he never crossed over; until his death.

“Before that brutal, terrible death, after 40 years of the highest teaching that secondary culture can dispense, one must speak again of the value of the teacher. His professional dossier speaks for itself. I read: ‘April 1905: M. Palante is one of the most distinguished of professors; his spirit is clear, his thought original and of a perfect assuredness. His word forces the attention of the least gifted students.’ And up till the final day the same note can be found in the writing of the administrators, in the mouths of the Inspectors General, who listen with the same interest, recognize in him the same authority. 40 classes of graduates, two generations will say that M. Palante was a noble professor, who causes one to think, who forms the spirit.

He had a rare merit. Life’s joys were not showered on him. Even more, the clarity and vigor of the intelligence had to be conquered over the suffering of the body. Starting in 1905 the state of his health sometimes stopped him, materially prevented him from going to his classes. The situation got worse: then it was the surgical operations which the heavy and difficult way of walking we knew in him bore witness. Finally, there was the need for rest, for retirement. He resolved to do this, but the consciousness of his obligations made his hesitate again. Illness laid him low; immobilized him; he pursued his task...”

The obligations of his profession did not prevent him from producing an oeuvre that resounded and that will remain with us. He began with a translation of Ziegler’s book: “The Social Question is a Moral Question,” and by a “Summary of Sociology.” His personal oeuvre includes but a few volumes: “Combat for the Individual” (1904, “The Antinomies between the Individual and Society” (19130 “Pessimism and Individualism,’ (1914). He collaborated on “La Plume,’ “La Revue Socialiste,” “La Revue des Idées,’ “La Revue Philosophique,” and finally “Le Mercure de France,” where he was the longtime writer of the philosophical chronicle.

Throughout his oeuvre he expressed his detachment from society and his contempt for purely social values. His best book is perhaps “The Combat for the Individual,” where he so cruelly analyzes the esprit de corps, the administrative spirit, the small-town spirit, class spirit, the democratic spirit, etc, everything which, according to him, suppressed and degraded the originality of strong individuals. It’s not that he was either a revolutionary or an anarchist: he didn’t believe in progress and even less in a beneficent revolution. Nor did he believe in equality or any democratic or socialist theories. We could even say that he took no interest in politics, and did nothing stray there for a moment. Following Nietzsche and Striner, he limited himself to overturning, those prejudices that allow the group to live at the expense of the individual. This was his fundamental idea.

“State servitudes,""he wrote, “are only a weak part of the chains that weigh on the individual. The state is only an aspect of society. Social tyranny – I mean those of morals, opinions, clan spirit, group spirit, class spirit, etc, exercise a moral influence over the individual more oppressive and debilitating than state constraint properly speaking.” From this flowed a social pessimism that was translated not by a will to change (the revolutionary spirit) but by a sentiment of protest that is the sprit of revolt. In this Palante approaches Stirner (and this is doubtless why Italian anarchists have translated two of his books). But he distances himself from Striner through greater intellectual concerns and a Goethean resignation. And he could have taken as his own words those of Rémy de Gourmont: “My pride is always beyond my revolt.” Individualism thus understood gives rise to a flowering of sentiments as delicate as those of friendship and honor.

His books can be re-read with joy. Written in a French lively and direct, like that of Diderot, they recall, despite the abundance of quotations that encumbers them and which reflect the wealth of their sources, the style of the greatest of our moralists. It was especially when he had to attack or defend himself that he showed all his means: he always naturally possessed the spirit of a pamphleteer.

Georges Palante always loved St. Brieuc. After his first stay he wanted only to return there, and once there never wanted to leave. He traveled much. Before the war he visited England, Holland, and Germany several times. Every year he returned to Belgium, where his family originated. Three years ago he developed a curiosity concerning Italy, which enchanted him. But he held firm to Brittany: “It’s the most beautiful country I ever saw.” Obviously, the low sky, the gray weather and the perpetual autumn that make up the Breton climate went well with his temperament of a man of the north. Not very sociable, but not at all misanthropic, for his friends he had sentiments of an exquisite delicacy, but that delicacy quickly changed into touchiness, and his imagination, which was extraordinarily developed in him, made him see things and people other than they were. He died victim of a false idea forged of opinion, victim also of his idea of honor, for his individualism didn’t have freeing him from common obligations as its goal, but rather demanding of himself more than of others. Let us not judge him, for it is not our place to do so, but let us regret that the devotion of Mme Palante and his faithful friends were not sufficient to make him change his resolution.

All these reflections, we make them and so many others while seeing again the sad day of his funeral, the tiny beach of Grandville. In that isolated land is an unknown shore that he alone lived on. And isn’t this the exact image of him! We see him again, going off with his dogs to hunt hares and birds of the sea in the midst of this perfect solitude. He loved to sit at the mouth of the Gouessant, where the river that flows at the foot of the mountains planted with gorse fight against the rising tide. It’s in this landscape where savagery weds gentleness that Palante passed his best moments. It is there that our memory forever fixes him, on that deserted beach which faces on the deserted beach where Lequier [1] drowned himself.

1. Religious philosopher Jules Lequier, who walked into the waters near St Brieuc in order to prove God existed. He drowned.