In France at the end of the 19th century, modernity became the battleground for a collision of dogmatic worldviews. On one side were arch-conservative Catholics and disheveled aristocrats holding on to a disappearing order. On the other were anti-clerical progressives who believed that Marxism was the solution to all of life’s most puzzling complexities. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is: In many ways, the polarized politics of latter-day America recall the ideological conflicts that permeated Fin de Siècle France. In both cases, two radically opposed camps emerged to galvanize and profit from popular fears — and everyone had to pick a side.
Everyone apart from Charles Péguy, that is. In a masterful biography published last year, DePaul University professor Matthew W. Maguire uncovers the heterodox legacy of the French poet, an influential intellectual whose work has long been neglected by Anglophone scholarship.
In a short life of 41 years, Péguy rose from the precarious working class of the industrial province of Orléans to the pinnacle of Parisian intellectual life. Right from the start, contradictory influences shaped his childhood. Raised by a single mother after the unexpected death of his father, Péguy grew up surrounded by misery, struggle, and vanishing hopes. His upbringing cemented his unstinting belief in working-class solidarity. But his education was also marked by the influence of the patriotic — if not borderline-nationalist — ideals of the Third Republic, as well as by the mystical appeal of Catholicism.
In a way, Péguy preserved and cherished each of these influences: He would maintain an obsessive concern for the dispossessed, an ardent passion for France, and an unyielding faith in God all his life. But his intensity of belief did not prevent him for recognizing and pointing out the flaws in that which he loved. Péguy deplored the Catholic Church’s reactionary excesses and the Third Republic’s racialist conception of citizenship, and his unorthodox view of socialism rejected Marx’s enforced equality and anti-religious undertones. To him, solidarity — and politics itself — began with the “mystical,” that is, the set of myths and shared transcendent beliefs that underpin the construction of communities. Resolutely anti-cosmopolitan, he did not believe in the transnational alliance of workers that would become central to the Soviet project. For him, to reject the centrality of local attachments was to abstract away the suffering of people close-by; only cold-hearted bourgeois were rootless enough to live in multiple cities at once, to oscillate between cultures and languages, to detach themselves from the warmth of traditions and communities. The very small and the transcendent were the scales that mattered. Real change would not come through centralized Jacobin putsches, but through local micro-revolutions.
Péguy abhorred all attempts to demystify life’s mysteries. He rejected the scientism of his era, and laughed at the claim — seemingly blind to its own metaphysical assumptions — that empirical science would ever supersede the need for metaphysics. He thought that Adam Smith and Karl Marx had equally simplistic views of history, views that sacrificed transcendence on the altar of materialism. Yet he did not believe that the Bible had all the answers, either — or, at least, he did not believe that any human being could ever access all the answers. In fact, he fervently opposed what he saw as a conservative attempt to weaponize scripture. In a way, he thought, both sides emptied metaphysics of their significance; the Left reduced religion to “the opium of the masses,” and the Right relegated faith to a mere political tool. Like Dostoevsky, Péguy thought that in the absence of God, men would devolve into beasts; unlike Dostoevsky, he also believed that if God were too present in human affairs, the same degeneration would ensue.
Opposing the radicalisms of his time, Péguy hoped for an era of “competence” that would combine the benefits of progress and science with a deep appreciation of metaphysics, faith, tradition, and national identity. He saw these elements as a set of counterbalancing forces that would limit the hegemony of individual dogmas. Paradoxically, he even admitted that myopic conservatives and narrow-minded progressives were both indispensable to maintaining the vitality of democratic discourse — even if he exhorted everyone to refuse binary options, resist all kinds of intolerance, and abandon pre-fabricated ideologies.
Péguy preferred hesitation to certitude, paradoxes to all-encompassing solutions, contradictions to grand narratives. Unfortunately, his prophetic voice was little-heard in his time, and remains so in our own. Back then, he represented a refreshing attempt to transcend the unidimensional worldviews of his fellow Frenchmen. More than a century later, he represents a lost sense of independence, a rare ability to think for oneself, and the bravery to live in the no-man’s land between the ever-deepening trenches of the culture wars. We could all learn from his example.