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.
Péguy came by his independence honestly. A self-made man, he rose from strapped working-class origins in the industrial city of Orléans to the pinnacle of French intellectual life in Paris. Having lost his father less than a year after his birth, he learned the virtues of hard work from a mother and grandmother who eked out a living by mending chairs for up to sixteen hours a day. Impressed by Péguy’s brillance, the head of the local lycée gave him a place usually reserved for children of the upper classes. The gifted scholar ascended through a succession of elite schools to the hottest of France’s intellectual incubators, the École Normale Supérieure, where he began to read and mingle with some of the most distinguished thinkers of the day, including Émile Durkheim, Georges Sorel, Julien Benda, Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, and Henri Bergson.
Beyond his formal education, Péguy was shaped by Catholicism, the ideals of the Third Republic, and a strong sense of working-class solidarity. But he would respond to each of these formative sources in his own highly individual ways: by repudiating the clericalism and reactionary strains within Catholicism (to the point of breaking with the church for a time); by insisting on justice for all citizens of the republic, not just for those deemed true (i.e., ethnically or religiously pure) citizens; and by arriving at an undogmatic variety of socialism celebrating the mystical bonds of solidarity over a merely technocratic Marxist program of enforced equality.
Like so many intellectuals, journalists, and activists of belle époque France, Péguy was also formed by his involvement in the Dreyfus affair. This infamous travesty of justice set off a pitched culture war between those who opposed and those who supported the conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army who had been falsely accused of spying for the enemy during the Franco-Prussian War. It was the Dreyfus case that inspired Péguy, in 1898, to open a small socialist bookstore in the Latin Quarter. He intended it to serve as a forum for open discussion and debate at time when anti-Dreyfusards, mostly anti-Semitic nationalists and reactionary Catholics, were taking to the streets to oppose Dreyfus’s exoneration, despite compelling new evidence proving his innocence.
While Péguy was a convinced Dreyfusard, he quickly discovered that his reasons for supporting the innocent officer were often as different from those of his fellow partisans as they were from the arguments of the anti-Dreyfusards. Notably, he supported Dreyfus not from any abstract or universalist commitment to justice that inspired such Dreyfusards as Émile Zola, whose famous open letter, “J’Accuse,” mobilized so many of the captain’s defenders, but out of a strongly particularistic attachment to French republican traditions.
Péguy thus revealed himself as a rare sort of liberal, one who believed that liberal principles had to be grounded in the soil of local, native traditions. Wary of cosmopolitanism, he held that a “true internationalism” should build, in Maguire’s words, “upon nationalism and the history that sustains it, rather than an internationalism that rejects local and national attachments.” To Péguy, the latter was part and parcel of the abstracting, monetizing embourgeoisement of the modern world, which, as a socialist, he opposed. And it brought into focus his increasingly strong misgivings about the simplistic political and even metaphysical certitudes of the progressive “intellectual party,” certitudes built upon the relentless demystification of the world through an objectifying scientific reductionism and the quantification of everything. The diminution of human freedom and value that such uninflected progressivism led to was epitomized by the claim made by its adherents that empirical science superseded the need for metaphysics—a claim seemingly blind to its own metaphysical assumptions.
To carry on his nuanced struggle against the two opposing coalitions, Péguy effectively abandoned his graduate studies at the École Normale and, in early 1900, launched his fortnightly journal, resolving to be independent of special interests (including the Socialist Party, which withdrew its offer of support when he said he would not submit to its supervision) and even to abjure advertising. His was to be a “Journal Vrai,” its biweekly schedule signaling the editor’s intent, Maguire writes, “to mediate between the quotidian and immediate and the temporally expansive firmament of philosophy, theology, and history.” An issue might present an array of voices or consist of a single essay on an important thinker or a long excerpt from a novel or philosophical work (including, once, without the author’s permission, one by Péguy’s favorite contemporary philosopher, Henri Bergson). Although its appearance was erratic, the journal had an influence far exceeding its circulation of some 1,400 subscribers. It was read by the best minds of France, many of whom also contributed to it. Struggling to make ends meet while producing his own work—essays, drama, and poetry—Péguy kept the Cahiers going until the brink of World War I, when he enlisted in the army; he was shortly thereafter killed while leading a charge against German lines.
Maguire is a formidable scholar of ideas, but his book falls somewhat short in its exploration of Péguy’s actual engagements with preeminent contemporaries. He alludes to Péguy’s relationship with fellow Dreyfusard Julien Benda (author of The Betrayal of the Intellectuals), but he sheds little light on the striking contrasts between the two thinkers. Benda was an inflexible (one might say even unreasonable) rationalist who blamed the Dreyfus affair ultimately on the infection of French culture by strains of German philosophy and romanticism. Benda believed that fuzzy mysticism and Counter-Enlightenment irrationalism—epitomized in Bergson’s vitalist philosophy—threatened to cloud the clear, rigorous, Cartesian categories of French intellectual culture, which in turn were indispensable to the ideals of the Third Republic.
Much as he liked Benda, Péguy found his extreme rationalism arid and unsustaining, particularly when it came to fostering solidarity among the citizens of a nation. Péguy’s conviction that all politics begins in mystique—that is, in the very mysteriousness of shared transcendent beliefs and myths—made him a shrewd and prophetic critic of the conditions of social separation and anomie that have repeatedly provoked ultranationalist populism in modern democracies, usually to disastrous effect.
One might similarly fault Maguire’s rather scant handling of Péguy’s differences with the reactionary Catholics. While his dealings with Charles Maurras could be cordial—Maurras even reviewed some of his work favorably—Péguy was deeply bothered by the way Maurras and others of the Catholic right instrumentalized religion to advance their antiliberal program. The craven clericalism of the right also repelled Péguy, finally driving him to abandon churchgoing altogether, though he remained supportive of Catholic charitable work and, in his heart, deeply committed to the beliefs of his faith.
Such shortcomings aside, Maguire provides a lucid, even invaluable critical assessment of the intellectual currents of the crucial transitional period running roughly from the last two decades of the nineteenth century through at least the first two of the twentieth. The ideas informing the two dominant ideological coalitions that Péguy resisted did not die at the end of World War I. Indeed, they would re-emerge even more ferociously in Weimar Germany, with the National Socialist Party amalgamating some of worst tendencies of both coalitions in its attempt to achieve an ethnically purified Reich as its version of the end of history. We know too well how that ended. The most recent end of history—the one following the conclusion of the Cold War—proclaimed the triumph of liberal democracy and free markets. While far more benign than its predecessor, it, too, is foundering on its own contradictions and hubris.
Instead of such immanentist ends of history, Péguy hoped for an era of “competence,” one that would incorporate a healthy regard for liberal ideals and empirical science (including a skepticism about the limits of the latter) with real tolerance for a variety of deep metaphysical commitments, including ones admitting of the transcendent and the mystical. Such “metaphysical federalism,” Maguire writes, “would limit the excesses of a constrictive metaphysical hegemony in contemporary culture.” Péguy believed that advocates of metaphysical hegemony on both the left and the right were foes of the liberal arts that were indispensable to republican democracy. Joined invisibly in their shared immanentism, these hegemonists embodied the deep intolerance of late modernity—and therefore were to be exposed and resisted for what they so dangerously espoused. Call it one of the great tragedies of modernity that the warnings of this clear and prophetic voice were lost not just to his time but to the century that has since unfolded.