Saturday 1 September 2007

Propos impertinents (2007)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVII No. 2


The French philosopher known as Alain (born Emile-Auguste Chartier in 1868, died 1951) lived in Mortagne in Normandy, a small market town in which  a statue and small museum are a testimony to his continued standing in French intellectual life. During his life, he wrote many brief pieces attacking the establishment of his day ­ clerics, academics, politicians - and Brenda Almond has selected and translated four of these for The Philosopher, drawn from his Propos impertinents, written between 1921 and 1936.

Propos #1
8 December, 1922

Bucephalus - Find The Pin 

When a small child cries and refuses to be comforted, the child's nurse often makes ingenious assumptions about the young person's character, his likes and dislikes; she even summons up heredity to help, and claims she can already recognise the father in the son. These attempts at psychology continue until the nurse discovers what has really caused it all: a pin.

When the famous horse Bucephalus was presented to the young Alexander, there wasn't a horseman who could keep his seat on the wonderful creature. An ordinary person would have said: 'That's a wicked horse.' But Alexander looked for the pin, and he soon found it; he noticed that Bucephalus was terrified of his own shadow; and because his fear made his shadow jump too, this just kept the situation going. But Alexander pointed Bucephalus' nose towards the sun, and by keeping him going in that direction, he managed to calm him and tire him out. So Aristotle's pupil already knew that we can't control our feelings as long as we don't know their really causes.

Plenty of men have overcome their fear, and for good reasons; but someone who is afraid doesn't listen to reasons; he is listening to his own heartbeat and the pounding of his blood. The pedant reasons from danger to fear; the emotionally-charged individual reasons from fear to a danger. Both of them want to be reasonable, but both of them are making a mistake. The pedant, however, is doubly mistaken: he doesn't know the real cause and he doesn't understand the other person's mistake. A person who is afraid invents some danger in order to explain his real well-founded fear. Now the least little surprise can frighten someone when there isn't any danger at all, for example, a gun fired close to you when you aren't expecting it, or even just somebody's sudden unexpected appearance. [Napoleon's genera] Masséna took fright at a statue on a poorly-lit staircase and took to his heels and fled.

A man's impatience and bad temper are sometimes due to the fact that he's been standing up too long; don't reason with him about his temper, but offer him a seat. Talleyrand, in saying that manners are everything, was saying rather more than he realised. In his concern not to cause other people trouble, he was looking for a pin and he ended up by finding it. All diplomats today have a pin placed to prick them through their clothes ­ it's the source of Europe's complexities; and everyone knows that when you get one child crying, it makes the others cry too; what's worse, they're crying because of the crying! Nurses, following their professional instinct, lay the child on its stomach; immediately there's a change of behaviour and a new regime; here's a way of persuading that doesn't aim too high.

The evils of 1914 happened, I believe, because important people were taken by surprise; and this made them afraid. When a man is afraid, anger is not far behind; irritation follows fright. It's not very nice for a man to be brusquely called away from his leisure and his rest; he often changes and changes a lot. Like a man whose been rudely awoken, he is too wide awake. But never say that men are wicked; don't ever say that's their nature. Look for the pin. 

*Alain, Propos sur le bonheur, Folio Essais no. 21. Edition Gallimard, 1928. pp. 11-13

Propos #54

11 April 1906

The Wisdom of the Voters  

When I said I was a radical, a serious-looking man said to me: 'What does 'radical' mean? It's just a word, a label, nothing more. I understand what it is for someone to be a monarchist or a socialist, but thereís no such thing as radicalism.'

I replied: 'To my mind, radicalism is something that is quite precise, and it's easy to define. Essentially, it's a political doctrine; it's only secondarily that it's an economic theory, and that's where you could attack it; for as far as property, work, taxes, in a word, the real business of the legislator, are concerned, it's opportunistic. But the political doctrine is perfectly solid. You could call it pure democracy.

Human beings, although they are unequal in practice, are equal in law ? that's the principle involved. The law and the authorities must constantly battle against inequality, which natureís laws ensure is constantly reborn, and in a thousand different forms.

Always, and whatever happens, there is one sure way to remedy this: that is to keep on improving universal suffrage, i.e. government of the people by themselves.

An educated populace, which deliberates and debates; a people enlightened and informed by experts and by their representatives, but not governed by them ? no, governed by itself - that's the ideal. And it's worth working to that end because we're still a long way away from it. All the powerful forces in society, the aristocracy, religion, wealth, authority, almost always get together and work to deceive the voter, to deceive the person they have elected, and to resist by cunning the will of the majority.

The radical takes on himself a double task; first to find out to the best of his ability, and on every issue, what the majority wants; then to keep an eye on the authorities and call them to account.

If you now ask the radical where this system is taking us, youíre asking too much of him. The republic will be whatever the majority want. Every other kind of justice is tyranny.

Alain, Propos impertinents, (1906-1914), Mille et une nuits, Departement de la Librarie Artheme Fayard, septembre 2002. pp. 13-15.

Propos #2063 
11 November, 1911

Too Long!

All those parliamentary speeches, all those reports people distribute, all the articles you read, all those works you pay so much for, they're all too long. Where does this dreadful word-mongering come from? Where did our brightest schoolkids learn to say in three pages what could be said in one? I dont know.

Our classical authors don't ramble on. Pascal, Moliere, La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyere, Voltaire, Rousseau, say a lot in a few words. Even our tragic poets make a perfectly natural attempt to compress their thought into a single line; all good poems, all the ones you remember and quote, are remarkable for what you might call their density; they pack a lot of meaning into a small space. Even Hugo, who is sometimes long-winded enough to be boring, is, in his best passages, more succinct than anyone. In short, the model that grips and impresses the student is always something that is tightly presented and rich in meaning. How is it that all, or nearly all, of those who have worked the most along those lines finally come round to developing, extending, expanding, repeating, and drawing things out? For every speech is too long, every article is too long, every book is too long.

Scholarly custom, no doubt. You dont usually train pupils to present a point that has been made in two lines in one line, as one should. On the contrary, you tell them to expand it; because their work has to have a certain length. A teacher who awarded the prize for an essay of four lines would be laughed at. So the original statements are forgotten. They are added to rather than slimmed down; three sentences are generated out of one; words are deployed like an army, to occupy as much ground as possible. It's just the opposite you should be aiming at.

You have to take account, too, of the laziness of the reader, who skims through, and expects to understand the whole thing if he understands one sentence in ten picked up at the gallop. On the other hand, the two failings are complementary; the verbose author creates a lazy reader. Similarly, the one who is succinct wakes the readers attention. When we had a radical opposition, it created a rhetoric of attack which could destroy a government minister in three sentences. But once in power these radicals are more long-winded and heavy-handed.

The reason is, perhaps, that you have to be long-winded if you want to trick and numb your opponent; the defence strategy is always to draw things out rather than launching the shortest possible attack. The first of these methods produces results; the other just intimidates. Now all our radical thinkers are preparing themselves for public office; so they have to be weighty and serious to the point of boredom. Let's not forget either the prejudices of historians, who want to go back to the year dot; this useless history is a dead weight on all speeches and all reports. You can't propose raising taxes on cotton or on salted meat by a couple of centimes without giving the history of taxes, or indeed of tax in all countries. This pedantry of the diplomat and the historian has to be killed with ridicule.
*Alain, Propos impertinents (1906-1914), Mille et une nuits, Departement de la Librairie Artheme Fayard, September 2002. p. 61. 

Propos #2795

15 November, 1913

Two Worlds

A workman had some pretty strong things to say about teaching methods: The kids are in class; they're being told what a storm is, and what lightning is. Just then, there's a flash of light and the sound of thunder; but they quickly shut the windows and draw the curtains. Everyone laughs. And everyone also senses the symbolic force of this story. All that talking about things inside four walls, when outside you have the things themselves, that would provide us with such good lessons!

But you need to see both sides of the question. On the one hand, you have to know how to profit from vivid and striking real-life experiences that open the door into the child's mind; it is sometimes necessary for the lesson to follow the experience. For example, a lesson on compassion will be better absorbed and take root more deeply if it follows image of misery that makes you cry. Or a lesson on prudence, following a terrible accident; or on sobriety about an unpleasant drunkard. For it is quite rare for a child's attention, as shifting as a bird, to stop for a moment on anything. Grasp the opportunity; use the thunder.

Our teachers all stopped at this point. But its only the first moment, the purely instinctive moment of attention. Undoubtedly it is the key characteristic of man on this planet not to pay attention to the thunder, and instead to look at things that the ear doesn't hear and the eye doesn't see, such as the law of gravity, the movement of the stars, the relationship of volt and ampere, or the indirect measurement of the arc of the meridian, using triangles.

Because, in fact, practical experience rains down on the whole world; everyone gets equally wet, yet not equally well informed. The real task of the human being is to go back over these things, not just considering those that sparkle or burn. And that's what the cat or the dog cant do; they only live by imagination. There's a moment when a young pupil doing arithmetic tries hard to work things out for himself, and despises rote learning, which is so good at giving the answer without the reasons. You have to help him pass from the animal to the human condition, by getting him to see, for example, the rigour of thought for its own sake. In short, the child has to come to despise trite stories, showy experiences, the cinema, eventually all the games of imagination.

It is necessary to move on from imagination to understanding; that's where a problem comes in useful; and it's the second moment. And, finally, the child has to appreciate the leap he's made and to separate as if into two worlds, the playground and the classroom. He's pretty happy with that; he isn't so keen on childhood; he would like to escape it. The child will despise you, teacher, if you let him please himself.

*Alain, Propos impertinents (1906-1914), Mille et une nuits, Departement de la Librairie Artheme Fayard, September 2002. p. 61.

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