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Henri Poincaré, The Moral Union

(This allocution was delivered by Henri Poincaré at the inaugural meeting of the French League of Moral Education on June 26, 1912, three weeks before his death. This is the last time he has spoken in public.)

Today’s Assembly brings together men whose ideas are very different and who only bring together a common good will and an equal desire for good; I do not doubt, however, that they can not get along easily, because if they do not have the same opinion on the means, they agree on the goal to be reached, and that alone is important.

We read recently, we can still read on the walls of Paris posters that announce a contradictory conference on “the conflict of Morals”. Does this conflict exist, should it exist? No. Morality can be based on a host of reasons; there are some who are transcendent, they are perhaps the best and certainly the most noble, but they are the ones we are arguing about; there is at least one, perhaps a little more down to earth, on which we can not but agree.

The life of man, in fact, is a continual struggle; against him rise blind forces, no doubt, but formidable, which would quickly overthrow him, which would make him perish, would overwhelm him with a thousand miseries if he were not constantly upstanding to resist them.

If we sometimes enjoy relative rest, it is because our fathers have struggled a lot; let our energy and our vigilance relax for a moment, and we lose all the fruit of their struggles, all that they have gained for us. Humanity is therefore like an army at war; now, every army needs discipline, and it is not enough for it to submit to it on the day of combat; it must comply with it from the time of peace; without this, his loss is certain, there will be no bravery that can save her.

What I have just said applies just as well to the struggle that humanity must support for life: the discipline it must accept is called morality. The day she would forget it, she would be defeated in advance and plunged into an abyss of evil. That day, moreover, she would suffer a lapse, she would feel less beautiful and, so to speak, smaller. We should be afflicted not only because of the evils that would follow, but because it would be the obscuration of a beauty.

On all these points, we all think the same, we all know where to go; why do we divide when it comes to knowing where to go? If the reasoning could do anything, the agreement would be easy; mathematicians never argue over how to prove a theorem, but this is something else. To make morality with reasoning is to lose its pain: in such a matter, there is no reasoning to which one can not reply.

Explain to the soldier how many evils lead to defeat, and that it will even compromise his personal security: he can always answer that this security will be even better guaranteed if the others are fighting. If the soldier does not answer in this way it is because he is moved by some sort of force which silences all reasoning. What we need are forces like that. Now, the human soul is an inexhaustible reservoir of forces, a fertile source, a rich source of motive energy; that motive energy is the feelings, and the moralists must capture these forces, so to speak, and direct them in the right direction, just as the engineers tame the natural energies and bend them to the needs of the industry.

But – this is where diversity is born – to run the same machine, engineers can use steam or hydraulic power; in the same way, professors of morality may, at their pleasure, set in motion one or other of the psychological forces. Each of them will naturally choose the strength he feels in him; as for those whose force could come from outside, or that he would borrow it from the neighbor, he would handle them only awkwardly; it would be in his hands without life and without efficiency; he will give it up, and he will be right. It is because their weapons are different than their methods must be: why would they blame each other?

And yet, it is always the same morality that one teaches. Whether you are aiming at general utility, whether you call on pity or the feeling of human dignity, you will always end up with the same precepts, with those we cannot forget without the nations perishing, without at the same time sufferings multiply and man begins to fall.

Why, then, do all those men who, with different weapons fight the same enemy, remember so seldom that they are allies? Why do some people sometimes rejoice in the defeats of others? Do they forget that each of these defeats is a triumph of the eternal adversary, a diminution of the common heritage? Oh ! no, we need all our strength too much to have the right to neglect none; also, we do not repel anyone, we proscribe hatred only.

Certainly hatred is also a force, a very powerful force; but we cannot use it because it is shrinking, because it is like a spyglass in which we can only look at the big end; even from people to people hate is harmful, and it is not it who makes the true heroes. I do not know whether, beyond certain frontiers, it is thought advantageous to make patriotism with hatred; but this is contrary to the instincts of our race and its traditions. French armies have always fought for someone or something, not against someone; they have not fought less hard for that.

If, inside, the parties forget the great ideas that made their honor and their reason of being to remember only their hatred, if one says, “I am anti-this,” and the other responds: “I am anti-that,” immediately the horizon narrows, as if clouds had fallen and veiled the summits; the most vile means are employed, one does not retreat before slander or denunciation, and those who wonder about it become suspects. There are people who seem to have no intelligence but to lie, of heart only to hate. And souls that are not vulgar, as long as they shelter under the same flag, reserve for them treasures of indulgence and sometimes admiration. And in the face of so many opposite hatreds, one hesitates to wish the defeat of one, which would be the triumph of others.

That’s all hate can do, and that’s exactly what we do not want. Let’s get closer, get to know each other and, by that, to value ourselves, to pursue the common ideal. Let us not impose on all of us uniform means, that is unachievable, and besides, that is not to be desired: uniformity means death, because it is the door closed to all progress ; and then, all restraint is sterile and odious.

Men are different, there are some who are rebellious, that one word is enough to touch them and all the rest leave them indifferent; I cannot know if this decisive word is not the one you are going to say, and I would forbid you to pronounce it! … But then, you see the danger: these men, who will not have received the same education, are called to collide in life; under these repeated shocks, their souls will shake, change, perhaps they will change their faith; what will happen if the new ideas which they adopt are those which their old masters represented to them as the very negation of morality? Will this habit of mind be lost in a day? At the same time, their new friends will teach them not only to reject what they have worshiped, but to despise it: they will not preserve for the generous ideas that have rocked their souls that tender memory that survives faith. In this general ruin, their moral ideal is likely to be carried away; too old to undergo a new education, they will lose the fruits of the old!

This danger would be averted, or at least mitigated if we learned to speak with respect of all the sincere efforts that others make beside us; this respect would be easy if we knew each other better.

And this is precisely the purpose of the League of Moral Education. Today’s feast, the speeches you have just heard, sufficiently prove to you that it is possible to have an ardent faith and to do justice to the faith of others, and that in short, under different uniforms, we are, so to speak, only the various corps of the same army fighting side by side.

  1. […] (This allocution was delivered by Henri Poincaré at the inaugural meeting of the French League of Moral Education on June 26, 1912, three weeks before his death. This is the last time he has spoken in public.) Today’s Assembly brings … Read More […]

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