Beyond the study of character and the dishing of high gossip, one of the nobler aims of biography is the exploration of the representative person—the individual whose life and work illuminate the mentality and underlying culture of a particular time and place in history. That ambition figures prominently in this admirable intellectual biography of Charles Péguy, a thinker who today is little known beyond specialist circles concerned with fin-de-siècle French politics and culture.
Matthew Maguire, an associate professor of history and Catholic studies at DePaul University, makes a very large claim for Péguy (1873–1914): namely, that this fiercely independent man of letters and founder of the influential fortnightly journal Cahiers de la quinzaine stood brilliantly athwart the defining cultural antinomies of his time by challenging the two main ways of being modern, the progressive and the reactionary. While the progressive front identified itself with “inexorable becoming” and the reactionary bloc sought to resurrect the past, Péguy believed that both tendencies succumbed to similar varieties of “immanentism.” That is, each tried in its own way to bring about the final or perfected order—the end of history—in this world and this time.
To be sure, enlightened progressives were committed to science, positivism, and liberal democratic values—all of which the reactionaries rejected in favor of hierarchy and a highly traditionalist, and exclusively Catholic nationalism. It would seem to be a clear-cut struggle between the modernists and the antimodernists, but not as as Péguy saw it. He found the progressive faith in a scientifically driven and ever-improving future no more immanentizing, and no more modernist in its deepest aspirations, than the reactionaries’ vision. “These wrathful particularists,” Maguire explains, “often intimate a loyalty to older notions of transcendence—including religious faith and its avowal of abiding truths—but they conceive of that which transcends time only as an arrested immanence. They often present an amalgamated past as a unity…which now must be reinserted mechanically into the present, without creativity or surprise.” More ironically, some of the faux antimodernists (including the right-wing Action Française founder Charles Maurras, an admirer of the positivist Auguste Comte) also believed that “‘science’ would “confirm their particularism and prejudices.” Péguy’s critical stance toward both broad coalitions made him neither a modernist nor an antimodernist, Maguire argues, but something quite distinctive and instructive: an amodernist.