In Western society we are so immersed in and surrounded by the philosophy of modernism, that many are hardly aware of it. Modernism may present itself in various forms. Most recently, some aspects of it seem to have appeared among clergy in the Vatican. It is, therefore, relevant to revisit Charles Peguy’s hard-hitting critique of this philosophy. His reflection about the temporal and eternal and the Judeo-Christian view of history are the context within which he considers modernism.
The de-Christianization of Europe profoundly troubled the French poet and essayist, Charles Peguy (1873-1914). In contrast to the “unchristianity” of the pagan era, or the “incompleteness of Christianity” where it had not reached other peoples of the world, there was now a culture which had been thoroughly Christian yet had lost what it had gained, which Peguy considered shocking, an appalling disaster, even criminal.
How did it happen that this most Christian people, this profoundly, intimately interiorly Christian people, Christian in soul and at heart and to the very marrow of its bones, should have been turned into . . . this modern people, so profoundly intimately, interiorly unchristian, de-Christianized in heart and soul and marrow. So unchristian in blood.
Perhaps in our time we have gotten so used to this de-Christianized society that we no longer feel the tragedy of this loss as Peguy did at the end of the 19th century. It is invigorating to read Peguy’s essay, “Clio,” which tackles the question of Christianity vis a vis the modern world and unabashedly asserts the Christian view of human history. The essay is mostly a monologue by Clio, a personification of history, who beckons us to consider what history is, what history is really about. Peguy wants us to see history in its depth, not in a superficial version. It is God who writes history. It is His story. The great heresy, Peguy declares, is to believe the world exists pointlessly—“a blank world.” This removes “the sap and the marrow” that is its interior reality, the “yeast and salt that is its source of fermentation.” It is the Judeo-Christian drama, beginning in Genesis, that is the deepest meaning of history. The importance of history is that it is a stage for the Incarnation. God desires to salvage man and his history in this act of infinite dimension. Man’s history is “the mechanics of the functioning of eternity.” Earth bears fruit for heaven. This is the plan, the key, a great mystery. Temporal life is inserted into the body of God Himself through the operation of Incarnation and Redemption. The eternal permeates the temporal.
A great theme for Peguy is this relation of the temporal and the eternal. In his day, some of the clergy had disdained the temporal life of man to focus only on eternal life, which Peguy fiercely criticized. This imbalance, he felt, was responsible for the “shrinking, withering of the trunk of the spiritual city temporally founded, eternally promised.” Peguy seemed to be thinking primarily of the higher clergy. According to Alexander Dru’s biographical study, Peguy was failing to consider the lower clergy’s involvement with the daily lives of the people. However, the critique did draw attention to the dualism of spiritual vs material life that has continued to be a problem. “The Christian operation was one which moved toward the world and not an operation that turned away from it.” Most dangerous, Peguy felt, was thinking of the spiritual without the material because it seduces the most noble minds and ends up in vague spiritualities, idealisms, religiosity, vague mysticism. The opposite movement, the denial of the eternal aspect, is the temptation of materialist or naturalist philosophy. Peguy insisted there is an intimate and continual penetration of the body of flesh with a spiritual infusion. It is the truly Christian that engages temporal life with eternal life, “dovetailed the one into the other.” “That incredible interlocking is the very heart and foundation of Christianity, its mechanism, its technique and its institution.” Peguy points to Jesus’ three-year public ministry as a “powerful, an infinite movement toward the world.” Christ’s purpose was the foundation of a city in the world . . . a mystical city working for the world and for eternity—toward God’s eternal city, and it is for this Christ sacrificed his life. The Christian is “profoundly human . . . for he alone reckons humanity at the price of God . . . He has entered the very heart of humanity.” This is what is real. It is St. Augustine’s City of God infiltrating the City of Man.
The modernist philosophy introduced a new problem: a world after Jesus but without Jesus. This was an intellectual system opposed to religion and declared a heresy by Pope Pius X in Pascendi Dominici Gregis, as well as by Pius XI and Leo XIII. Modernist philosophy asserts we cannot come to know God by human reason and that religion is not objective truth but simply an emotion. It set up a radical opposition between science which measures only material phenomena and religion perceived as only sentiment. It has been succeeded by “post-modernism” which is an extreme form of modernism that is relativistic, subjective, and nihilistic, skeptical about reason. Both modernism and post-modernism continue to influence contemporary culture.
Peguy stressed modernism’s renunciation of the whole system of sin and sanctity, both “essential parts of the Christian system.” Christianity is a house within which dwell both the sinner and the saint, he says, commenting that when crime was a sin threatening perdition, there was always the possibility of the grace of repentance and therefore of hope. Modernism, on the other hand, he describes as frivolous because it “claims to begin everything over again . . . the vanity of the pretense that everything can be remade, marriage in particular.” The modern world wants to “reverse the irreversible.” This comment strikes one as particularly relevant to the secular culture of today which tries to undo conception with abortion, marriage with easy divorce, and sexual reality with gender fluidity. It is the modernist philosophy taken to its logical implications. One’s mark as a Christian, in contrast, is indelible: “the register once opened is never closed, not in all eternity.”
Modernists stress the importance of progress, so today they often call themselves the Progressives. The influence of evolution led not only to the idea of social progress, but also to the proposition that the Church’s teaching needed to evolve as well and be updated according to contemporary culture. But is progressivism an aspect of the Christian religion? The idea that spiritual progress is like material progress is problematic. Peguy comments: “Let the world progress as it wills. . . . But we are, once and for all, no more clever than St. John Chrysostom.” He compares those who want to improve Christianity to someone wanting to improve the North Pole. These are fixed points from which one determines one’s direction, geographic or spiritual. While Christian doctrine can develop into a fuller understanding of God’s revelation, as Cardinal Newman pointed out, it does not change according to man’s ideas or the spirit of the age. “Christianity is essentially an equilibrium, firm, fixed at the center . . . It is a matter of holding, of sticking to the fixed point.”
Modernism considers culture to be like science which is constantly correcting itself; what might be proposed at one time may be overturned by further scientific or cultural development later. Its roots in materialism prevent it from recognizing eternal realities. Influenced by nominalist philosophy which rejected universals, it does not accept the constants of human nature or the natural order. All is particular, and individualistic. It is about change that is moving forward and progressing. The agnosticism of the modernist philosophy, which does not see sin as part of the human condition, ignores also the order of grace, which is the religious and cultural heritage of the Christian. Peguy criticizes the modernist over-emphasis on the calculating intellect and the quantifying of value, as well as its ideology that measures progress by material wealth and technological change.
French professor Pierre Manent said Peguy was “one of the most penetrating critics of the historical and sociological points of view which dominate modern consciousness.,” and that he continues to be “of capital importance because of his insights into the hubris of modernity.” The loss of a relationship with God deprived culture of the nourishment of a grace-filled spirit. It was what this means for the salvation of each person that moved Peguy to describe in detail the self-complacency, arrogance, and apostasy of so many in modern society. All of men’s professional certifications in topography, archeology, sociology, philology, psychology, genealogy, etc., that are so admired, will be of no help when a man arises from his grave to face the final test. Reasons of state, flights of eloquence, arguments of lawyers will not be able to plead for us in the final debate. The tables of probability, the scales of the pharmacist, the graphs of the scientists will not be able to measure our offenses before God, how mortal our sins are. The human progress and reliance on science and technology that moderns think is so important will be of no avail. In their pride, devotees of modernism promise not only happiness in this life, but salvation from the ills of life. But their abstractions do not reflect the actual risk and adventure of human life, which Peguy describes as suspended between two ports: the eternal abyss of despair from rejection of God, and the eternal Paradise in the presence of God. At the center of this drama is the Cross, which Christ bears before us. Only complete abandonment in face of this is the appropriate task and our hope, Peguy asserts.
It will be another who will free us and wipe away the dust and the blood that flows from our neck . . . Another, a God, who will open the two bronze doors. . . . We have fallen into the nets of Peter because Jesus has extended them to us. And we have kept from having hearts of stone because Jesus has kept us from it.
There are only two things that will save us, Peguy says: the graces of prayer and of suffering. These are what Jesus has given us. “Some will say, ‘the earth is ours.’ Lord, we have nothing but our lowly miseries and the bending of our stiff knees. . . . But no one will wipe from our book of pain the trace of a Pater Nostra nor of an Ave . . . the trace of the struggle that was reserved for us.”
Peguy reflected a lot about freedom and its meaning, its relation to truth and the inheritance of the tradition of Christianity. He proclaims that Christianity is lived “on the razor edge of freedom.” The risk must be preserved. Man is presented with a choice to be made in absolute freedom. Peguy makes a provocative point that if Christianity was about bringing forth iron-clad proofs, it would override man’s freedom. God desires that a choice be made out of freely given love.
If you were spared any of man’s miseries, the gamble would be a sham, there would be nothing at stake. But don’t worry, my friend, the stake is there alright. . . . After as before [Jesus], there have been terrible misfortunes, plagues . . . dreadful wars, hatreds, impurities, man has hated and massacred man. . . . Christianity is not made for those who want proofs. But for the opposite. For those who want to be proved. . . . All that was wanted was the secret proof which by a singular mystery, by an evident contradiction, seizes men one by one . . . as though by a miracle.
The only proof that Peguy grants, although as “almost too much” is the perpetuity of the Church through 20 centuries. However, he says this “proof” is balanced by a contingent of scandals in proportion. He considers that it is “for the sake of preserving that little bit of freedom that we have the triumphant scandal of the modern world.”
Another aspect of freedom that Peguy explores is its relationship to tradition. Many have considered tradition and freedom to be in conflict. Peguy, looking deeper, realized there is no conflict between tradition and freedom since both are oriented to truth and justice. Tradition is what parents want to pass on to their children and their children’s children; the truths and practices that help one to live well, in peace with God and nature, treating others with respect and justice. Tradition is what binds communities together and gives life and joy to a city. It is given and received as a gift. Christian traditions are not forced but freely lived as a response of love of God, family, and community. Peguy felt dismayed that those who focused only on the outside, the institutional Church, failed to see the freedom within its life and its faith. “Liberty consists in believing, a system of courage and of life, the condition of grace–the courage to believe that freedom was not the road to disorder and revolution but the seed of tradition and the root of unity:” When freedom focuses on the truth of reality, it speaks to the complete man, enlarging his vision, and not dividing man. It is sin which enslaves man and divides him, whereas the grace of Christ allows the Christian, to “share in the glorious freedom of the children of God,” as St. Paul said. Jesus belongs to the same world of human experience, the realities of death, misery, risk, and sickness, and gives them their “true and proper destination,” in contrast to pagan religion, which could not respond to the desires of the pagan soul.
Peguy considered that one of the most important problems was modernism’s lack of “everything that was culture, that was city,” which produced a sterility that withered the political city and the Christian city. The “modern world is without faith or soul,” he concluded. “From a pagan soul one can make a Christian soul but not from a lack of soul.” He thought the modern city was a failure in the sense that it lacked “civitas” or the bond of identity and loyalty of citizens, as in the polis of ancient Rome or Greece. Aristotle understood the polis as the center of civilized society. Civility presupposes strong ties among citizens and between citizens and institutions. Aristotle also insisted that virtue is necessary for civil society to prosper and grow. Man is a social animal, Aristotle famously declared, and community is essential to the good life. The civic virtues make community life possible. At the heart of this vision is a particular understanding of human nature. The human being is part of nature but also part of the divine plan. His life’s purpose includes raising material reality to a higher level, reflecting the divine spark within him. It is part of human nature to create culture, to seek truth and beauty, and to strive for excellence. As a social and rational being, man finds happiness in achievement that is shared with others. Peguy felt that the “enormous belly” of material civilization was devouring the spirit. The politicians would say, “What does it matter. . . . we have excellent administrators.” But Peguy countered that the politicians are mistaken because the people are the strength or weakness of a regime. Peguy pointed out that it was not logic but men that build nations. And men are inspired by an imagination and faith that comes from a unity of tradition and freedom. Peguy understood this spiritual order as the source of the fecundity of culture. The modern world, however, has excluded a sense of the sacred operating in history. Modernists’ naïve idea of progress allowed faith only in scientific naturalism.
Progressivism today continues this insistence, but where is the progress when alarming numbers of people are depressed and committing suicide? The feminist movement proclaims it is helping women by allowing them to kill their offspring and make themselves sexually available with contraceptives, as well as free to pursue stimulating careers outside the home. Yet polls show that women are more unhappy than they were in earlier decades, even though great progress has been made in women’s rights and “empowerment.” Young people are often bored and socially awkward, resorting to drug addiction in large numbers. According to surveys, the loneliest people are 18-30 years old. Our society is more prosperous than it has ever been, but too many people are hurting psychologically. What is wrong? When the transcendent moral order based on God’s divine law is dismissed, there are “bad, real-world consequences for man and society,” as Attorney General William Barr declared recently. As Attorney General Barr reminded us so clearly, moral laws are based in natural law, and are “God’s instruction manual for the best running of man and human society.” We have all seen how cultural, intellectual, and political leaders are flagrantly promoting sexual immorality and ignoring family dysfunction and disintegration. Government programs and secular slogans are not the answer but only add confusion. Perhaps we all need to clarify where we have allowed the modernist attitudes to cloud our view. People need hope, but material comfort and promises are not enough for the human heart.
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Peguy, Charles. “Clio I.” In Temporal and Eternal, pp. 85-165. Indianapolis: Liberty Press, Inc., 2001.
Peguy, Charles. Eve. FB Editions, 2015.
 “Clio I,” p. 96.
 Ibid., p. 93: Note, quotes from “Clio I” will have page number alone.
 Ibid., p. 93.
 Ibid., p. 91.
 Ibid., p. 99.
 Ibid., p. 101.
 Ibid., p. 114.
 Ibid., p. 115.
 Ibid., p. 120.
 Ibid., pp. 141-142.
 Ibid., p. 140.
 Ibid., pp. 122-123.
 Quoted in “Peguy” by Roger Kimball in The New Criterion, Nov, 2001.
 from Peguy’s narrative poem, Eve.
 Peguy, “Clio I,” p. 157.
 Ibid., 158-160.
 Ibid., p. 161.
 Notre Dame speech Oct. 11, 2019.
The featured image is a portrait of Charles Peguy and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.