Charles Péguy was a French novelist, dramatist, and idealist – who later in life became deeply fascinated by mysticism, the fight against fascism, the search for world peace, and the analysis of artistic genius.
“Love is rarer than genius itself and friendship is rarer than love.”
“Tyranny is always better organized than freedom.”
“We must always tell what we see. Above all, and this is more difficult, we must always see what we see!”
“Homer is new this morning, and perhaps nothing is as old as of today’s newspaper.”
“It is better to have a war for justice than peace in injustice.”
Why now? What to remember?
Charles Péguy wasn’t an absurdist, but his life, fiction and views, are notably remarkable and remain an inspirational to many to this day. Charles was the son of peasants. Later in life, he described his ancestors as, “stubborn men, blackened like vines, tenacious like grape tendrils.” His grandmother couldn’t read and his mother, a widow, earned a living by weaving chairs for the wealthy.
After sending Charles to the local public school, he became a standout student and was soon transferred to the Orleans Lyceum. Later, after receiving his bachelor’s degree, the Lyceum sent Charles (one of their best graduates) to Paris. He wanted to become a teacher, but failed to pass the required exams and so went on to serve in the army. Charles’ time spent in the barracks made a significant imprint on his life. The rhythm of the military march became the rhythm of his prose.
Following his year in the army, Charles continued to study with Henri Bergson, a French philosopher and author of Creative Evolution, awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1927. As well as studying with Romain Rolland, an art historian and mystic, and Jean Jaurès, a French Socialist Leader.
Charles Péguy was looking for something in particular from the socialist movement: a kind of mystical brotherhood. To help Jaures with his ideas, Charles promised to open a newspaper. Not being one to doubt his own abilities, even as a penniless student, he was able to collect 500,000 Francs.
Suddenly, the now socialist Charles, decided to leave his studies to move home and write a book about Joan of Arc. Why? Because this girl, “simple-minded in her bravery,” who held no respect for the authorities, who overcame obstacles and achieved success where great military leaders were defeated, was a symbol of courage that, to Charles, was necessary in any struggle, military or civil.
On his return, Charles felt passionately drawn to the Dreyfus affair and carried the new manuscript in his suitcase. What was the Dreyfus affair? Click here: (a scandal that rocked France in the early 20th century, the Dreyfus affair involved a Jewish artillery captain in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus, who was falsely convicted of passing military secrets to the Germans.) For Charles Péguy, this scandal represented an eternal dispute between mysticism and politics. He believed that mysticism focuses on the primary goal because it acts with love and faith. Whereas politics highlights money, deals, and consequences.
The Socialist Party declared: “It doesn’t matter if Dreyfus is guilty or not. There is no need to disturb a great nation because of one [single] person or case.” But Charles couldn’t agree with this statement.
What could he do to defend Dreyfus? He could write, implore his friends to write, and print those words. He rented a place in the Latin Quarter, founded a magazine, and rushed into the battle against Socialist Leaders just like Joan of Arc. After a four-year struggle, the Dreyfusars finally seized political positions, but the mystics who supported them were disappointed with the results of that victory.
Being Charles’ friend was not easy. Like Joan of Arc, he was an authoritarian and a demanding leader. As a master journalist, he turned the magazine into a masterpiece of typographical art, although it became known that he treated his staff and subscribers harshly. ”If you are not with me then you are against me,” Charles said. Many resisted this attitude, including Romain Rolland, who described Charles as full of “rudeness, ferocity, and intransigence.”
Charles Péguy had clashes with everybody: Catholics, anti-clerical subscribers, and socialists. His neo-mysticism was striking, and at times, shocking. Despite this, in 1908, Charles returned to Catholicism.
From 1905 to 1914, he also talked a lot about the coming war; he was preparing for it. Charles was not afraid of war; he was ready. When the time came, he said goodbye to his friends and reenlisted. He was killed by a bullet in the head on the eve of the Battle of the Marne (he was only 41 years old). Already wounded, he rose from the ground and shouted to the soldiers behind him: “Shoot! Shoot them, for God’s sake!”
Charles Péguy was a representative of the French people as a whole. With an industriousness characteristic of the stubborn worker, combined with a suspicion of politics and an uncomfortable concern for equality. As a writer, Charles worked as hard as his mother did as she weaved straw chairs. He weaved phrases with the same care that she knitted her rods. How many times did he observe how she, an energetic and kind woman, polished furniture with a woolen rag until it was glowing.
“Will I ever be able to write like this?” Charles wrote. “Where each phrase looks like my mother’s polished furniture and where not a speck of dust remained in the deep groove of the finest thread.”
Carnal Spirit: The Revolutions of Charles Peguy by Matthew W. Maguire
Charles Peguy: The Decline of an Idealist by Hans A. Schmitt
History of France by Andre Maurois