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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Present Duty
By Paul Desjardins (1859–1940)
THERE are many of us who at times have forgotten our personal troubles, however great they were, by picturing to ourselves the moral distress of souls around us, and by meditating on the possible remedy for this universal ill. Some remain serene before this spectacle; they resign themselves to fatal evil and inextricable doubt; they look with cold blood on that which is. Others, like the one who speaks here, are more affirmative because they are more impassioned, more wounded, knowing neither how to forget nor how to be patient, nor yet how to despair peaceably; they are less troubled by that which is, than by that which ought to be; they have even turned towards that which ought to be, as towards the salvation for which their whole heart is calling. It is their weakness not to know how to interest themselves for any length of time in what does not in some way assume the aspect of a duty that concerns them. They do not contest, in fact, that it is a weakness not to be able to look with a disinterested eye on disease, corporal or spiritual; a weakness to feel the necessity of having something to do at the bedside of the dying, even if that something be in vain,—to employ the anguish of one’s heart in preparing, even up to the supreme moment, remedies in the shadow of the chamber.  1
  We are in a state of war. It would be almost cowardly to be silent about our intimate beliefs, for they are contradicted and attacked. We must not content ourselves with a pacification or truce which will permit us with facile weakness to open all the pores of our intelligence to ideas contrary to our conviction. It is necessary on the contrary to gird ourselves, to intrench ourselves. There is to-day, between us and many of our contemporaries, an irreconcilable disagreement that must be faced, a great combat in which parts must be taken. As far as I can see this is what it is. In a word, are subjection to animal instinct, egoism, falsehood, absolutely evil, or are they merely “inelegances”?—that is to say, things deprecated just at present, but which, well ornamented and perfumed with grace, might not again attract us, satisfy us, furnish us a type of life equivalent after all to the life of the sages and saints; for nothing shows us with certainty that the latter is any better than the former. Are justice and love a sure good, a sure law, and the harbor of safety? Or are they possible illusions, probable vanities? Have we a destiny, an ideal, or are we agitating ourselves without cause and without purpose for the amusement of some malicious demiurge, or simply for the absurd caprice of great Pan? This is the question that divides consciences. A great subject of dispute; surely greater than that of the divinity of Jesus Christ, for example, than that even of the existence of a personal God, or of any other purely speculative question you please; and above all, one more urgent: for there are counter-blows in it, which frighten me in my every-day existence,—me, a man kept to the business of living from the hour I awake to the light until the hour I go to sleep; and according to the answer I may give myself on this point, is the spirit in which I dig in my little garden.  2
  Personally I have taken sides, after reflection; after experience also, I do profess with conviction that humanity has a destiny and that we live for something. What is to be understood exactly by this word humanity? In short, I know not, only that this, of which I know nothing, does not exist yet, but it is on the road to existence, on the road to make itself known; and that it concerns me who am here. What must be understood by this word destiny? I do not know much more; I have only, so far, dreams about it, dreams born of some profound but incommunicable love, which an equal love only could understand; my conscience is not pure enough to conceive a stronger conviction; I only affirm that this destiny of humanity, if it were known, would be such that all men, ignorant or simple, could participate in it. It is already something to know that, in short, I see at least by lightning-flashes, from which side the future will shine; and I walk towards it, and live thus, climbing up in a steep dark forest towards a point where a light is divined, a light that cannot deceive me, but which the obtruding branches of a complicated and apparent life hide from me. That which will bring me nearer it is not arguing about the probable nature of the light, but walking; I mean, fortifying in myself and others a will for the Good….  3
  We have on one side undecided and lukewarm allies, on the other adversaries; and we are forced necessarily to combat. This necessity will become clearer each day;… it is the “antagonism of negatives and positives—of those who tend to destroy and those who tend to reconstruct.”… There is no question here, be it understood, of knowing whether we are deceiving ourselves in choosing such or such a particular duty; that I would concede without trouble, having always estimated that our moral judgments, like our acts, have need of ceaseless revision and amelioration, according to an endless progression. There is a question of much more; of knowing in an absolute manner whether there be a duty for us or not…. Good is in fact that which ought to be. Like Christ, who according to St. Paul is not a Yes and a No, but a Yes, duty is a Yes; to slip into it the shadow of a possibility of a No is to destroy it….  4
  The men of to-day are thus negatives or positives, as they range themselves under one opinion or the other. And they must range themselves under one of the two. They cannot escape. The question which divides us, to know whether we live in vain, imposes itself upon every one who opens his lips or moves his finger, upon every conscious being who breathes. That So-and-so never speaks of it, never thinks of it, may be; but their lives answer for them and testify loudly enough. I confess that at first sight the negatives seem for the moment the more numerous. They include many groups, which I shall not enumerate here. I range with them the charming uncertain ones, like M. Renan and his melodious disciples, the sombre and nihilistic Buddhists; all those to whom the law of the completion of man through the good is indeed foolish and chimerical, since their lives imply the negation of it: I mean to say the immense multitude of those who live in any kind of way, good easy people, refined possibly, from caprice, coquetry or laziness, but in complete moral anæsthesia.  5
  Now we come to the positives. They include first of all, true Christians, and all true Jews, attached to the profound spirit of their religion; then the philosophers and poets who affirm or sing the moral ideal, the new disciples of Plato, the Stoics, the Kantians, famous or unknown, to whom life alone, outside of all speculation, is a solid affirmation of the possibility and sufficiency of the good. That the actions of these men and women, on the way to creating themselves free beings, human beings, have the same value as doctrine, cannot be denied. They labor and suffer here and there, each one in his own cell; each one making his own goodness consist in the realization of what he believes to be the absolute good; making themselves faithful servants of something; existing outside of themselves; the city, religion, charity, justice, truth even, or beauty, conceived as modes of adoration…. All these compose, it seems to me, one and the same Church, having the philosophers and poets of duty for doctors of divinity, the heroes of duty for congregation. These may be called by the general name of “Positives.”  6
  Let our eyes be opened: everything that surrounds us is vitiated; many of the children playing on the promenades are sickly, their little faces are often enough marked with livid blotches, their bones are often enough twisted, sad symptoms of the degradation of parents. At every street corner are distributed libertine productions by traders in the depravity of the weak. If any one wishes to recognize the furnace of vice burning within us, let him observe merely the looks cast upon an honest woman as she passes, by respectable men, old men. What savage expressions intercepted under the feverish light of the electric lamps! What tension, what spasms of covetousness! What hallucinations of pleasure and of gold! Tragic matter here, but low tragedies à la Balzac, not those acted under an open sky by heroes. A few pistol-shots from time to time, a few poisonings, some drownings: that is all that transpires of the interior evil. The rest passes away in suppressed tears, brooding hatreds, in accepted shame. In such confusion the consciences of the best, of the most disinterested ones, lose the cleanness of their stamp. “You are smiling there at an obscenity,” said I to a friend; he protested; then reflecting, agreed with me, quite astonished that he had not perceived it. Honest men are troubled by all this circumjacent corruption. And rightly so, for at the bottom they are parts of it; they are distinguished from it only by more cleanliness, education, elegance, but not by principle.  7
  In fact, from top to bottom, all this society lives on sensation; that is the common trait through it all, and it is graded according to the quality of its sensations…. Fundamentally there is only sensation, with here and there unequally subtle nerves. There are no terms less reconcilable one to another than research of sensation and moral obligation. There is nothing more opposed. Therefore he who expects all from his sensations depends absolutely on externals, upon the fortuitous things of life, in all their incoherence; he is no longer a self-centre, he feels himself no longer responsible, his personality is dissolved, evaporated; it does not react, and ambient nature already absorbs him, like some dead thing….  8
  And this is where we are. I recognize then the evil; I see it in its extent. Nevertheless, to paint this lamentable picture once more is not to show our moral ideas. Our moral idea is what we believe touching the life which shall be best; it is not exactly our life.  9
  Ever since the antique Medea of Ovid uttered that cry, many others, one after another, have groaned over the fact that, seeing the best and approving it, they yet follow the worst—alas!
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  Such a sorrow is to-day profound and universal; there where vice abounds, sorrow superabounds. It is no longer that melancholy born of the insufficiency of external reality, once for all recognized, that felt by Obermann and proud romanticists; but a humble, narrow, ragged rancor, mixed with disdain, with disgust, born of our insufficiency to ourselves, perceived thoroughly. Never, I believe, have we been more generally sad than in these times. And it is that which saves us; I find here our greatness. He alone is lost who feels himself at ease and healthful in evil; consciences without anxiety are the only hopeless ones. Let us hope then, for it cannot be denied that we feel we are very ill. It is apparent that we are in labor with something which shall be our cure. The symptoms of this painful labor are not lacking. The works which are appearing now, pre-eminent in form, but obscure and hesitating in principles, bear signs of the stress in which they were conceived; soon they will seem merely specious. In the poetry, romance, painting, music, of to-day, how many exquisite works are born, not of energy guided by love, but only of a dream of energy, a dream of love, on the shores of inconsolable exile! The truth is, we no longer know what to become; when any one of the antique misfortunes strikes us,—death, abandonment, ruin,—we no longer bear it as our fathers did. We no longer know the dignified, peaceful mournings of old; but under an unexpected stroke, the torment, the complicated rending in the heart, show that it has been secretly undermined. We feel indeed divided within ourselves, and we need to be unified; but the inward unification is possible only for the absolutely debauched or the absolutely good man; there is no via media; half-virtue rends us….  11
  Our spiritual life being in truth miracle and mystery, I do not know how to explain what each one knows so well; I do not know how there is developed within us that sublime state known and described under different names by Socrates, Plato, Plotinus, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, St. Paul, St. Augustine, Tauler, the author of the ‘Imitation,’ Shelley, Emerson, Tolstoy: but I know that such a state, which we all know by experience, merits alone the name of positive morality…. Well then, history shows that what is true of each one of us personally, is true of society.  12

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