Source: Socialist Thought. A documentary History, edited by Albert Fried and Ronald Sanders, Aldine Publishing Company, Chicago, 1964;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.
July 8, 1787. The system of the Reformer of the whole world, and the reflections of your correspondent concerning the reformation of the Code, have provoked me today into further reflections, through which I will undertake to examine what these different projects of reform have in common, and what they have not.
Both seem to be tenderly disposed toward the common good. But, dream for dream, paradox for paradox, I hardly know to which of the two thinkers I would accord preference. Meanwhile, the aim of one of them covers far more ground than that of the other. The Apostle of the Universal Code seems to desire that men of all classes, in every country, be accorded the same rights in the order of succession to property; and that would be very good. But the general Reformer would like to obtain for all individuals, without distinction, an absolutely equal portion of all the goods and advantages that can be enjoyed in this mean world; and that, it seems to me, would be even better.
The inconsistency of our Customs is astonishing. But it seems to me that when one goes back to the epoch in which they were formed, one can no longer be surprised about anything that he sees. The men of those times, ignorant and barbaric, could have created only things in conformity with their character. Exalted by the enthusiasm over their conquests, they found themselves driven, as if by a natural outcome of that inhuman inclination from which the incredible feudal system had newly gathered its strength, to establish practices that would serve to satisfy their ridiculous vanity.
A lucky brigand would be only half-satisfied when he had succeeded in assuring himself a rich property. His gluttonous pride would suffer when, looking into the future, he envisaged this property being parcelled out among all his descendants, and saw that it could not thus suffice for very long to provide for its possessor the foolish importance that blind fortune ordinarily imparts, especially in the eyes of men guided by prejudices like those with which men were generally smitten in the era about which I am speaking.
To ward off this possible draw back, a new indignity was conceived. It was necessary to smother the voice of kinship for the sake of ostentation, and so almost the very means of subsistence were taken away from the younger sons in order to load up the eldest with superfluities, and give him a pretended illustriousness by passing on to him usurped goods and a name that had once been odious.
This is the origin of the so-called “nobility,” and of all these revolting distinctions in every segment of society.
Whoever was less ferocious, less deceitful, or more unfortunate in combat, was placed at the service of others and made the object of their contempt.
This, furthermore, was the source of those bizarre codes that served as confirmatory titles for the usurpers, made it legitimate for them to pillage, and rendered irrevocable the confiscation of the goods of the families that were defeated.
Moreover, things were arranged in such a way as to prevent these defeated families from ever rising again from this debasement, and to keep them, rather, in such a state that they could never be regarded by the victorious class as constituting anything but a most inferior class of humanity.
To satisfy both the pride and the great acquisitiveness of this supposed nobility, it was set down that they need recognize as their principal heir only the oldest male among their children, and that the younger children, and even those daughters that were older than the principal heir, would be considered only halves, quarters, or even very often only fifths, of a child. Those who had, in the assemblies convoked for the purpose of drawing up the codes, greater influence and authority because of their wealth, saw to it that the articles were formulated in accordance with their desires. This is the reason for the inconsistency and inconsequentiality of these productions that men sometimes cite as works of prudence and of the utmost fairness, and that really present only the most unequivocal proof of the passions that always guided them.
What, then, would a new code amount to if it contained no other change than that of putting an end to the prohibition in one province of that which is legitimate in some other? A very small palliative for a very great evil. It would Dot put a stop to these children being born poor and deprived, while those of my neighbor start gorging themselves from the moment that their eyes first see the light of day. It would not prevent this neighbor, bloated with his immense fortune, from looking down upon me with sovereign contempt for no other reason than that I am an unfortunate, crushed under the weight of indigence. It would not prevent the feudal heir of this high and mighty man from becoming a very fat lord of the manor, while his younger brother remains but a rather skinny fellow by comparison, or from forcing his sister, whose tender heart is a long way from disgusted at the prospect of tying the hymenal knot, to ensconce herself in a gloomy cloister, so that he can fatten himself still more. It would not prevent, etc., etc., and still a great deal more, etc.
But how I like the general Reformer! It is really too bad that he leaves unexplained the means he has in mind for bringing about his reforms. I hope that he can soon have his subscription filled, so that he can explain this matter to us. His plan covers all points, and I do not see, all things considered, that any punishable crime would remain in existence, once his arrangements had been brought about, except that of failing to participate in some way in the common effort for the good of all humanity. For all this to be achieved, kings would have to renounce their crown, and all titled persons would have to give up their dignities, posts and positions in society. But that would not suffice. For a major revolution to be wrought, there would have to be great changes. What is the meaning, after all, of all these dignified titles? Are they anything more than vain and chimerical expressions, invented by pride and confirmed by baseness? Must there be any distinctions at all between men? Why accord any greater dignity to him who carries a sword than to him who forges it? Did Nature, who gave predominance to our species, command that it submit to other laws than those drawn up for all the other species of animate beings? Did it desire that one individual be less well-fed, less well-clothed and less well-housed than another? Is it likely that this is the way things were done in the earliest ages of life on earth? Our most advanced knowledge of what were the natural customs of our brothers, the American Indians, before we discovered their peaceful country and began treating them so poorly, certainly would disprove any assertion to that effect.
The first man, says the author of Emile, who, after enclosing a plot of land, saw fit to say: “This is mine,” was the initial author of all the evils that afflicted humanity. Jean-Jacques said elsewhere that these evils opened the way for all the knowledge that we have acquired since that time. But he maintains that all we have acquired only renders us less happy than we were in the earliest state of nature; he seems, therefore, to want us to return to it, in order to obtain the highest well-being that can possibly be enjoyed.
It seems to me that our Reformer does better than the citizen of Geneva, whom I have sometimes heard called a dreamer. In truth, he dreamed well, but our man dreams better. Like the citizen of Geneva, he maintains that, since men are absolutely equal, they must not have any private possessions, but must enjoy everything in common, so that no one can, by the mere fact of birth, be either more or less rich, or be considered less worthy, than any of those around him. But far from sending us back into the woods, as M. Rousseau does, in order to live thus, to sate ourselves under an oak, refresh ourselves at the nearest stream, and then repose serenely under the same oak where we first found our food, instead of all this, our Reformer has us eat four good meals a day, dresses us most elegantly, and also provides those of us who are fathers of families with charming houses worth a thousand louis each.
This is a fine reconciliation between the worthy aspects of social life and those of the natural and primitive life.
Well, so be it, as far as I am concerned; I have decided to be one of the first emigrants to this new republic. I would not have any difficulty in adjusting myself to the new way of life, just so long as I can be happy and satisfied, without any fears concerning the well-being of my children or of myself. If, once settled there, I should pursue my interest in writing, I would be greatly pleased to find myself no longer looked down upon by those who, because they are in professions that are considered here in France to be more distinguished, believe themselves authorized to pay attention to me only when they wish to appear to announce their protection; and, for my part, it will not bother me in the slightest to treat as an equal the artisan who cuts my hair, or who manufactures my shoes. This must come to be so in fact. Are not artisans of this sort useful and necessary? If their taste or natural inclinations have led them to professions of this sort rather than to studying law, must they be viewed by society as individuals who are less interesting than those whose faculties or inclinations have led them to the magistrature? Not everyone can be a magistrate, and perhaps the person who has come to be one has suffered less than has some unfortunate laborer, to whom Nature was unkind, in learning the simplest occupation. Is it this poor man’s fault that he did not receive more fortunate propensities at birth? Must he enjoy fewer advantages, just for this, than would have been his lot if he had been capable of presiding over the government of the Republic? He has only learned to knit? All right, then! He will make stockings for the farmers, for the cooks, for the winegrowers, for the fabric-makers, for the shoemakers, for the wig-makers, for the masons, for the men of law, etc.; and these men will in return procure for him bread, good food, wine, clothing, shoes, head-dress, lodging, and the general preservation of all his rights. There will be the same reciprocity through all the levels of society; and I hope that, in this way, everyone will be perfectly satisfied.
Several years ago, someone wrote against the excesses of luxury that were beginning to be apparent. He complained that the various ranks of society we were becoming confused; that it was no longer distinguish, by the style of dress, a great lord from an ordinary person, and he proposed, in order to put a stop to this supposed abuse, that a distinctive emblem be established that would become part of the dress and would be expressive and even explicative of each social rank, so that, for example, the nobleman would wear a representation of a sword, the grocer one of a loaf of bread, the salad-oil merchant a keg of anchovies, the poulterer a goose, the blacksmith an anvil, the tailor a pair of scissors, etc.
I hope that when our new republic is established, people will not bother themselves with such questions, since all useful functions in society (and there will certainly no longer be any but useful functions) will be equally honorable.