Latent in the seeds of all social movements, Charles Péguy asserted, are invariably good intentions: altruism, the common good, solidarity, or perhaps the search for truth. Why, then, must they all end in politics?
One of the most influential public intellectuals of the French belle époque, Charles Péguy, had every reason to be weary of politics. As an impassioned young man, he sought to defend the traditional moral roots of the Third Republic’s working class. Yet as time wore on, he watched these values slip away before a rising tide of Marxist ideology.
Then, he defended justice and due process in the highly politicized Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish military officer was accused of spying for the Germans. In doing so, he set himself against the prejudiced rhetoric of both the Catholic Church and the French nationalists. Péguy defended Alfred Dreyfus as a way of standing up for the rights of France’s Jewish community, the Third Republic’s commitment to justice, and a truth beyond factionalism. Unfortunately, his fellow “dreyfusards” were not defenders of truth, but a league of activists seeking retribution by exploding traditional French―and Catholic―society and culture. The widespread resentment for the Church’s involvement in public life that they sowed after Dreyfus was exonerated drove Péguy to defend, and ultimately convert to, Catholicism.
Amid all these failed social movements and ideological disappointments, Péguy the poet and essayist never surrendered to apathy or despair in his (regrettably Anglo-obscure) works. In this regard, one might say that his greatest masterpiece was his own death: killed in action on the front lines of France’s 1914 “Miracle of the Marne” counterattack that halted the advance of the German Army.
In his vibrant personal essay Notre Jeunesse, Péguy proposed a maxim intended to explain the pattern of degradation in the political movements he had witnessed over his lifetime. Tout commence en mystique, he observed, et finit en politique. Everything begins in mystique and ends in politics; this is one possible translation. It is also possible to translate mystique as “mysticism” or “mystery.” The word is meant to convey that something transcendent emerges out of ordinary, everyday lives when they undertake actions of historical import. Something supernatural arises from the depths of the human spirit when human beings come together and act on their ideas.
We may recognize this mystique in the American founding, in World War II’s Allied powers, in the ecumenical councils, yes, even in the French and Bolshevik Revolutions. It is the mystique of a schoolboy founding a secret club with his friends, or of a young couple starting a family. It is the mystique of Germany’s “Lost Generation” whose disillusionment fanned the flames of World War II, and of America’s hippie generation whose values have framed modern discourse. Latent in the seeds of all social movements, Péguy asserted, are invariably good intentions: altruism, the common good, solidarity, or perhaps the search for truth. Why, then, must they all end in politics?
The beginnings of an answer can be found in man’s first social movement: the tower of Babel story from Genesis 11. The tribe of man, not yet factionalized into tribes or kingdoms, came together “to name themselves, lest they be scattered abroad over the earth.” Their quest for unity and significance was a noble one, but man is a fallen creature, and there are always tares growing amid his wheat. In this case, the builders of Babel had no unity, but only a false and temporary concord, the foundation of which was the sin of pride. As Péguy wrote in Le mystère de l’enfant prodigue, “I would rather that the other remain other, not that he artificially be made the same. Confusion was already present in Babel, as God said, because man tried to get clever.” History has certainly shown that attempts at unity often gloss over human nature and human difference. Perhaps Babel is emblematic of all well-intentioned social movements: regardless of their lofty goals, the mortar of their bricks is invariably human fallenness, and thus they will ultimately fall.
Is this what it means to end in politics? Péguy uses politique as pejorative, a derogatory description of man’s incommensurability with man. More exactly, though, he intends by politique an absolute nullification by man of the original mystique, which touched (as Babel attempted) that which is beyond man: a divine unity.
Sounding Péguy’s vocabulary at such a depth requires the translation of mystique as “mysticism,” although one must be careful not to run aground on that word’s more exotic connotations. As the late historian David Knowles, O.S.B., drily remarked in What is Mysticism?, “Everyone in our day who proposes to speak or write of mysticism must begin by deploring both the ambiguity of the word itself and the difficulty of defining it in any of its meanings.” Péguy, however, thrives on this ambiguity, finding it necessary in order to locate within the full range of human social movements a primordial state of transcendence.
The Christian sense of mysticism, a spiritual path to unity with God, is not sufficient to encompass what Péguy is talking about. There is nothing particularly Christian, for example, in the wildfire of Hegelian thought spreading across nineteenth-century Europe, yet for Péguy this rise must still be mystical. The rout of Hegel’s left and right flanks in World War II and the Cold War, which occurred long after Péguy’s death, he would not take to be a Christian moment either, but a triumph of liberal democracy. Nevertheless, Christian truth bore witness to inexorable human nature through the inevitable collapse of fascism and communism.
These are clearly not Christian movements, but for Péguy they are still mystical in that they are human movements. Their mysticism arises from the supernatural ingredient of their true humanity; that is, from whatever is left over in humanity after the fact of its fallenness. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s words, “Though now long estranged/Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.” The image of God in mankind is fallen, but the likeness remains in the form of his uniquely human capacities.
Those acts which only man and no animal can perform, the deeds which liken him to God, are appropriately termed supernatural or mystical. The telos or fulfillment of these powers is what drives him to behave like a god: to create art and literature, establish governments, invent technologies, celebrate the liturgy, and all human activities that are called civilization. It drove Nimrod, the mighty hunter, to build the first cities, from which rose the unfinished tower of Babel. The bare fact of human exceptionalism is all that is necessary for every human movement to be a mystical moment. This is why true humanism is central to the Christian gospel―after ancient history’s longue durée of man incommensurable with man comes the événementielle moment when Christ’s incarnation fully reveals man to himself.
The divinity of humanity is the gold; everything else is the dross. Babel could not be countenanced by the Most High because it was merely a re-enactment of the first sin. Adam and Eve wanted to become like God prematurely through the tree of knowledge, whereas Nimrod and his followers essentially wanted to do the same through a political movement. And thus when God confused man’s languages, He cursed politics as He had cursed the ground. Politics became the graveyard where ideals go to die. One need not be shot in the head by German infantry after a life spent fighting social degradation in France to understand this.
If Péguy’s political theory seems defeatist, we must admit that it is quite realistic. The story of every modern nation-state features a protagonist named Lofty Principles who then dies a martyr’s death in the courts or legislature. Do you favor constitutional governments? Constitutions are invariably torn apart by the reinterpretations of “progress.” Do you like equal rights and a diverse democracy? Watch competing special interests vote more equality to themselves at others’ expense. Are you patriotic? Wait until a leader you did not vote for starts a war you do not support―or fails to enter one you do.
Governments are not the only entities who finit en politique. Sadly, every unit of society, whether on the macro or the micro level, is vulnerable to degradation into politics. Ethnic groups of proud heritage are degraded by race-baiting and the media cult of victimization. Corporations begin as symbols of job creation, ingenuity, and an improved quality of life, but in the end only end up stacking more cash on the already unbalanced scales of the electorate. Universities arose as a focused project of free thought in the pursuit of one univocal truth; today, most have become trade schools focused on unscrupulous moneymaking, or worse, leftist indoctrination centers focused on censorship and radical activism. Marriage and family life, the most mystical association society can offer, too often ends in a “confusion of the languages” that destroys the lives of husbands, wives, and children.
Even the Church, who should best have learned the lessons of Babel, faces the constant threat of degradation from mystique to politique. Some Christians claim to be governed solely by the Bible, but these groups have as many adverse factions as individuals have interpretations. Others rely on their priest and hierarchy, but even among these united bodies of traditional Christians, cracks appear along national or ideological lines. In short, pettiness, greed, and an every-man-for-himself mentality beset man’s every attempt to build, create, invent, and organize. Charles Péguy was a defeatist in the early twentieth century. Now, a hundred years later, he has become a prophet.
Latent in the rind of Péguy’s pessimism, however, are the seeds of hope. His defeatist political theory (Tout, after all, allows no exceptions) comes along with a surplus of warnings, predictions, and explanations of the struggles human civilization must face. Our society has seen enough idealistic beginnings finit en politique. Valuable though his penetrating criticisms may be, the real merit of Péguy’s contribution is that it opens a path to redemption. All movements, even those which seem evil, commence en mystique. Like the classic movie villain, there is some good in them, and the goal of those who know right from wrong must be to dig up that good where it lies buried, encourage it, and foster it.
Entities like churches or governments will find it natural and straightforward to mine what was good from their origins, for these associations are rooted in a tradition that is basically good in both intention and substance. Movements within Christianity that have caused division and strife, such as the Protestant Reformation, also captured a spirit of sincere questioning and conscientiousness that sparked a level of spiritual and intellectual revival. Christians must today cast off an ecclesiology that has finit en politique and renew that which commence en mystique in the sixteenth century, replacing historical divisions with the unity Christ prayed for among His apostles.
Governments, of course, have no recourse to divine revelation or the promises of the Holy Spirit, yet there is still ample opportunity for rejuvenation via “mystical” origins. In America, great strides are made in public life every time a seemingly obvious freedom is protected through a rare originalist reading of the Constitution. Tandem with this founding document, as John Adams pointed out, is the assumption that Americans will remain a “religious and moral people.” Though America reaches more ahistorical and irreligious lows each passing year, there are many who in the public square who have not given up their dissent from the new secularist orthodoxy.
In China, to take another example, there is a Confucian mystique thousands of years old which may yet reverse a disturbing pattern of oppression in the People’s Republic. The “Confucian Revival” which is currently in its infancy hopes to bring a sacredness back to family and community life, a commendable return to the transcendent origins of eastern philosophy. The optimism Péguy spared for social movements consisted in just these sorts of homecomings, when man, like a prodigal son, returns to what is true and godly in his own beginnings, the moment when annuit coeptis Deus. Optimism is a word synonymous with hope, and as long as the great ideas and values of the past are not forgotten, some small hope will always remain for Church as well as state.
What about movements which are not basically good? What about cultural revolutions, religious wars, ethnic violence, or the media’s popularization of harmful ideologies? The twentieth century has witnessed Middle-Eastern fundamentalism and continental existentialism, moral relativism and three waves of feminism. Péguy makes room for these as well. Tout commence en mystique.
Before their bloody reign of terror, Bolsheviks were students and peasants organized against the oppression of laborers by Russian aristocrats. Before they jettisoned apostolic ecclesiology, the Protestants were courageous Catholics reacting against the immoral luxury and corruption of pre-Tridentine Catholicism. Before being co-opted by self-interested executives and a leftist agenda, the labor movement sought to protect the working class from the excesses of industrial capitalism. These worthy beginnings can be salvaged out of the wreckage by those who work within these movements.
Péguy emphasizes only one sentence from all of Notre Jeunesse in bold font: “The mystique must not be devoured by the politics to which it has given birth.” To prevent this, the movements themselves should not be abandoned, but transformed and redeemed. “Let royalists remain royalists,” writes Péguy, and in this day and age one might add, “let union organizers remain union organizers” or “let environmentalists remain environmentalists.”
The guardians of culture in the twenty-first century have a task set before them. The current battle-plan is one of ideological polarization; it places some words (e.g. social justice, diversity, progress) in a “liberal” camp and others (e.g. responsibility, morality, tradition) in a “conservative” camp and then declares the conversation moot, like some sort of presuppositional apologetics. This is clearly not working; few are likely to be persuaded by a language they have never spoken.
For movements that have clearly ended in politique, our task should be to root out the mystique that birthed each of these movements, and join the conversation on those terms. Some have already managed this to great effect: for example, when Pope Francis indissolubly linked the preservation of traditional marriage and family life to the preservation of the environment in his Laudato Si encyclical, or when Ralph Ellison promoted a type of identity politics in order to protect American blacks from exploitation by the Communist Party.
Hence there can be a sort of optimism, even in the face of human fallenness, the social entropy that eventually corrodes all of man’s best-intentioned works. Charles Péguy was not willing to surrender in the face of the greatest cultural upheaval Europe had ever experienced. He could not help being a realist in the face of so much politique, but perhaps it speaks to the anthropology of Christian humanism he embraced that he forever held out hope in mystique. Tucked deep inside every human person and every human action are the qualities that will always be our saving grace: the spark of the divine within us and our capacity for goodness, for reason, for love and holiness, which we are free to choose.
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Editor’s note: the featured image is a portrait of