THE CONVENT FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF PRINCIPLES
Men unite themselves and dwell in communities. By virtue of what right?
By virtue of the right of association.
They shut themselves up at home. By virtue of what right?
By virtue of the right which every man has to open or shut his door.
They do not come forth. By virtue of what right? By virtue of
the right to go and come, which implies the right to remain at home.
There, at home, what do they do?
They speak in low tones; they drop their eyes; they toil.
They renounce the world, towns, sensualities, pleasures, vanities,
pride, interests. They are clothed in coarse woollen or coarse linen.
Not one of them possesses in his own right anything whatever.
On entering there, each one who was rich makes himself poor.
What he has, he gives to all. He who was what is called noble,
a gentleman and a lord, is the equal of him who was a peasant.
The cell is identical for all. All undergo the same tonsure,
wear the same frock, eat the same black bread, sleep on the same straw,
die on the same ashes. The same sack on their backs, the same rope
around their loins. If the decision has been to go barefoot,
all go barefoot. There may be a prince among them; that prince
is the same shadow as the rest. No titles. Even family names
have disappeared. They bear only first names. All are bowed
beneath the equality of baptismal names. They have dissolved the
carnal family, and constituted in their community a spiritual family.
They have no other relatives than all men. They succor the poor,
they care for the sick. They elect those whom they obey. They call
each other "my brother."
You stop me and exclaim, "But that is the ideal convent!"
It is sufficient that it may be the possible convent, that I
should take notice of it.
Thence it results that, in the preceding book, I have spoken
of a convent with respectful accents. The Middle Ages cast aside,
Asia cast aside, the historical and political question held
in reserve, from the purely philosophical point of view, outside the
requirements of militant policy, on condition that the monastery
shall be absolutely a voluntary matter and shall contain only
consenting parties, I shall always consider a cloistered community
with a certain attentive, and, in some respects, a deferential gravity.
Wherever there is a community, there is a commune; where there
is a commune, there is right. The monastery is the product of
the formula: Equality, Fraternity. Oh! how grand is liberty!
And what a splendid transfiguration! Liberty suffices to transform
the monastery into a republic.
Let us continue.
But these men, or these women who are behind these four walls.
They dress themselves in coarse woollen, they are equals, they call
each other brothers, that is well; but they do something else?
They gaze on the darkness, they kneel, and they clasp their hands.
What does this signify?
To pray to God,--what is the meaning of these words?
Is there an infinite beyond us? Is that infinite there, inherent,
permanent; necessarily substantial, since it is infinite; and because,
if it lacked matter it would be bounded; necessarily intelligent,
since it is infinite, and because, if it lacked intelligence, it would
end there? Does this infinite awaken in us the idea of essence,
while we can attribute to ourselves only the idea of existence?
In other terms, is it not the absolute, of which we are only the relative?
At the same time that there is an infinite without us, is there
not an infinite within us? Are not these two infinites (what an
alarming plural!) superposed, the one upon the other? Is not this
second infinite, so to speak, subjacent to the first? Is it not
the latter's mirror, reflection, echo, an abyss which is concentric
with another abyss? Is this second infinity intelligent also?
Does it think? Does it love? Does it will? If these two infinities
are intelligent, each of them has a will principle, and there is an
_I_ in the upper infinity as there is an _I_ in the lower infinity.
The _I_ below is the soul; the _I_ on high is God.
To place the infinity here below in contact, by the medium of thought,
with the infinity on high, is called praying.
Let us take nothing from the human mind; to suppress is bad.
We must reform and transform. Certain faculties in man are directed
towards the Unknown; thought, revery, prayer. The Unknown is
an ocean. What is conscience? It is the compass of the Unknown.
Thought, revery, prayer,--these are great and mysterious radiations.
Let us respect them. Whither go these majestic irradiations
of the soul? Into the shadow; that is to say, to the light.
The grandeur of democracy is to disown nothing and to deny nothing
of humanity. Close to the right of the man, beside it, at the least,
there exists the right of the soul.
To crush fanaticism and to venerate the infinite, such is the law.
Let us not confine ourselves to prostrating ourselves before the tree
of creation, and to the contemplation of its branches full of stars.
We have a duty to labor over the human soul, to defend the mystery
against the miracle, to adore the incomprehensible and reject
the absurd, to admit, as an inexplicable fact, only what is necessary,
to purify belief, to remove superstitions from above religion;
to clear God of caterpillars.