Baron d’Holbach 1776

Essay on the art of crawling, for the use of courtiers

Source: Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique addressée a un souverain d’Allemagne pendant une partie des années 1775-1776, et pendant les années 1782 a 1790 inclusivement. Tome V. Paris, F. Buuisson, libraire, 1813;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor 2006;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2006.

The courtier is, without contradiction, the most curious product of the human race. He’s an amphibian animal in which all contrasts are commonly assembled. A Danish philosopher compares the courtier to the statue composed of different materials that Nebuchadnezzar saw in a dream. He says: “The head of a courtier is of glass, his hair of gold, his hands of resin, his body of plaster, his heart is half steel half mud, his feet are of straw, and his blood of water and quicksilver.”

It must be admitted that so strange an animal is difficult to define. Not only can he not be known by others, he can barely know himself. Nevertheless, it appears that, all things considered, he can be categroized in the class of men, with this difference: ordinary men have only one soul, while the courtier seems to have several. In fact, a courtier is sometimes insolent and sometimes groveling; sometimes sordidly avaricious and sometimes insatiably avid; sometimes extremely prodigal, sometimes audacious; sometimes of a shameful cowardice, sometimes of the most impertinent arrogance and sometimes of the most careful politesse. In a word, he is a Proteus, or rather a god from India, who is represented with seven faces.

Whatever the case, it is for these rare beings that nations seem to exist. Providence has destined them for their least pleasures: the sovereign himself is only their business agent When he does his duty he has no other task than that of fulfilling their needs and their fantasies, only too happy to work for these necessary men who the state cannot do without. It is in their interest that a monarch imposes taxes, makes war or peace, imagines a thousand ingenious inventions to torment and gouge the people. In exchange for this, the grateful courtiers pay the monarch with gratitude, assiduity, flattery, and meanness; and the talent of trading thanks for these important merchandise is that which is perhaps most useful to the court.

Philosophers, who are commonly ill-humored, in truth look upon the métier of courtier as low, as infamous, as that of a poisoner. The ungrateful people don’t feel the entire extent of the gratitude they owe to these generous ones who, in order to maintain their sovereign in a good mood, devote themselves to boredom, sacrifice themselves to his caprices, continually sacrifice to him their honor, their probity, their amour propre, their shame and their remorse. Don’t those imbeciles know the cost of these sacrifices? Don’t they think what it must cost to be a good courtier? Whatever force of spirit one might have, however armored the conscience by the habit of holding virtue in contempt and crushing probity under foot, ordinary men always find it difficult to stifle in their hearts the cry of reason. There is only the courtier who manages to reduce that importunate voice to silence. He alone is capable of so noble an effort.

If we examine things from this point of view, we can see that of all the arts, that of crawling is the most difficult. This sublime art is perhaps the most marvelous conquest of the human spirit. Nature placed in the hearts of all men an amour propre, a pride that is, of all dispositions, the most difficult to vanquish. The soul revolts against everything that tends to depress it; it vigorously reacts whenever it’s wounded in that sensitive spot. And if at a young age we haven’t developed the habit of fighting, repressing or crushing this powerful spring, it becomes impossible to master it. This is what the courtier works at during his childhood, a study much more useful that all those that are so emphatically vaunted, and, in those who have acquired the faculty of subjugating nature, announces a strength with which few being find themselves gifted. It is through these heroic efforts, these combats, these victories that a skillful courtier distinguishes himself and reaches the point of insensitivity that leads him to credit, honors, and those grandeurs that are the object of the envy of his peers and that of public admiration.

Let them exalt after this the sacrifices religion imposes on those who want to gain heaven. Let them talk of the strength of soul of those haughty philosophers who claim to hold in contempt all that men esteem. Believers and sages could not defeat amour propre; pride seems to be compatible with devotion and philosophy. It is only reserved to the courtier to triumph over himself and to carry off a complete victory over the sentiments of his heart. A perfect courtier is without contradiction the most amazing of all men. Don’t talk to us about the abnegation of the pious; true abnegation is that of a courtier for his master: see how he obliterates himself in his presence. He becomes a pure machine, or rather he is nothing: he awaits his being from him; he seeks to find in his traits those he should have himself. He is like wax ready to receive all the impressions made on it.

There are a few mortals who have a narrow spirit, a lack of suppleness in the spine, a lack of flexibility in the neck: this unfortunate organization prevents them from perfecting themselves in the art of crawling and renders them incapable of advancing at court. Serpents and reptiles reach the heights of mountains and rocks, while the most fiery of steeds can never climb there. The court is not made for these haughty, inflexible personages who don’t know how to give themselves over to the caprices, to surrender to the fantasies or even, when need be, to approve or favor those crimes grandeur deems necessary for the well being of the state.

A good courtier should never have an opinion; he should only have that of his master or minister, and his sagacity should always make sure he knows this, which presupposes a consummate experience and profound knowledge of the human heart. A good courtier should never be in the right: it isn’t permitted him to have more wit than his master or the distributor of his graces. He must know that the sovereign and the men in place can never be wrong.

The properly raised courtier must have a stomach strong enough to digest all the affronts he receives from his master. From his youngest age he must learn to command his physiognomy for fear that it betray the movements, the secrets of his heart, or that it reveal an involuntary spite that an insult might cause. In order to live at court one must have complete control over the muscles of one’s face in order to experience disgust without flinching. A pouter, a man of moods or susceptibility cannot succeed.

In fact, all those who hold power commonly don’t accept that we feel the stings that they have the goodness to inflict or that we take it into our heads to complain. Before his master the courtier must imitate the young Spartan who was whipped for having stolen a fox. Though during the operation the animal, hidden in his coat, gnawed away at his belly, the pain didn’t draw from him the least cry. What art, what self-control aren’t supposed by that profound dissimulation that forms the main character of the true courtier. Under the cover of friendship he knows how to lull his enemies, show an open, affectionate face to those he most detests, embrace with tenderness the enemy he’d like to suffocate. Finally, the most impudent lies mustn’t produce any alteration in his face.

The great art of the courtier, the essential object of his study, is to make himself aware of the passions and vices of his master in order to be able to seize him at his weak point. He is then assured of having the key to his heart. Does he love women? He must procure them. Is he pious? He must become so or become hypocritically so. Is he suspicious? He must implant suspicions about all those who surround him. Is he lazy? He must never speak to him of affairs. In a word, he must serve him in keeping with his style, and especially must continually flatter him. If he’s a fool one risks nothing in flattering him, even if he is far from deserving it. But if by chance he has intelligence or good sense – which one must rarely fear – then a bit of care must be taken.

The courtier must learn to be affable, affectionate, and polite towards all those who can help or harm him. He can only be haughty towards those he has no need of. He must know by heart the price of all those he meets; he must deeply bow to the femme de chambre of a lady in favor, familiarly chat with the Suisse or the butler of a minister, caress the dog of the premier commis. Finally, it is not allowed to him to be distracted for a single minute; the life of the courtier is a continual study.

Like Harlequin, the true courtier must be everyone’s friend while not having the weakness of attaching himself to anyone. Obliged to triumph over friendship and sincerity, it is only to the man in place that his attachment is owed, and that attachment must cease as soon as power does. It is indispensable to immediately detest whoever has displeased the master or the favorite of the moment.

Judge from all this if the life of a perfect courtier is anything but a long train of painful labors. Is it possible for nations to correctly pay a body of men so devoted to the service of a prince? The entire treasury barely suffices to pay heroes who sacrifice themselves completely to public happiness. Is it not just that men who damn themselves for the good of their fellow citizens with such good grace be at least well paid in this world?

What respect, what veneration should we not have for these privileged beings – whose rank, whose birth naturally render so proud – when we see the generous sacrifice they ceaselessly make of their pride, their hauteur, their amour propre. Do they not every day push this sublime abandonment of themselves to the point of filling the same functions for the prince that the least of valets fills with his own master? There is nothing low in all they do for him. What am I saying? They take glory from the lowest jobs attached to his sacred person. Night and day they aspire to the joy of being useful to him. They keep him in sight, make ministers indulgent of his pleasures, take upon themselves his foolishness or hasten to applaud it. In a word, a good courtier is so absorbed in the idea of his duty that he often takes pride in doing things an honest lackey would never do. The spirit of the gospels is humility. The Son of Man told us that he who exalts himself shall be humiliated. The opposite is no less certain, and people of the court follow the precept to the letter. Do not then be more surprised then if providence rewards them without measure for their flexibility, and if their abjection procures for them the honors, wealth, and respect of well-governed nations.