On the Absolute (1851)

P.-J. Proudhon, Carnets, Vol. 4 (Carnet no. 9, 112-115): 287-290

[112] July 26 [1851]. — On the Absolute. —

All the religions, all the old metaphysics, are based on the notion of the absolute, on the concepts of Substance-Cause, indivisibly united.

Now, that conception is nothing other than a datum or hypothesis of the understanding, according to the first experience. It is soon contradicted by a more attentive observation of phenomena and their laws. Enlightened by the sequence and series of natural and human facts, the mind soon abandons this inexact, chimerical point of view, full of obscurities and contradictions, and substitutes for it the facts of laws and Progress.

That leads it to a complete renewal of natural and social philosophy.

Ontologically, instead of thinking of substances, [or] a single substance, and then seeking its transmutations, etc., it only thinks of groups, at all degrees of Being. For it, a germ [in a seed] is a group and, at the same time, a center or focus [foyer], capable of evolution. — In this system, fall the hypotheses of Spinoza and Malebranche.

The most elementary group is a polarity [between the] self and non-self, [which is] irreducible. That polarity is the very principle of life, since it establishes the movement of the idea and of the elements. Destroy that polarity through thought, and there is no more movement, no more life and no more existence. Then substance, if it could still be conceived, would be nothing more than the caput mortuum of Being, the cadaver of nature; and what is more, it cannot lead to the absolute, [it cannot] give itself.

That argument is decisive against the theory of the absolute and, consequently, against all pantheism.

[113] What would a non-living absolute be? Ashes. Now, if life is opposition, if it is the play of two contrary forces, inseparable and irreducible, as in electricity, if it necessarily results from the conflict of two terms, it is clear that the Absolute, which must encompass Life and Reason, at the same time as Substance, is at least not an indivisible, identical absolute, the One, eternal and indistinct, [but] is a group.

In this regard as well, everywhere that you create group, life and movement, you have yourself created the absolute from scratch, which is, in the sense of the pantheists, the negation of the absolute, the ruin of their system.

So, [say that] some men are gathered. Create among them a sovereign authority that you then divide into two powers: immediately, political movement would appear, and if one did not take care, the struggle could perhaps lead to an absorption. Sic 1814-1838 and 1848. — Under the emperor, no life.

So, again, [say that] some men work, divide their functions, exchange their products and place themselves in competition: immediately, an industrial movement is established that will lead to the progressive absorption of Humanity in the central capitalism. Labor subordinated in France, etc., and Anglo-America on the way to devouring the globe. An equilibrium is necessary.

The absolute thus refuted, destroyed, what remains of the theological notion? – Nothing, absolutely nothing.

Either God is the absolute itself, in which case we have just demonstrated the contradiction.

Or there is no absolute. In this case what can God be? The absolute is the summit of being. Whatever is not the summit is a degree: it is no longer God. [114]

Is God a group, a Trinity, Decade, etc., like a crystal, a plant, a man or a society? In this case, he must appear to the senses, manifesting himself somewhere, speaking acting, showing himself, etc. Where is he?

But, what! If God is a group, that fact alone establishes that he is only a particular being in the immense series of beings. He is not God.

So what we must substitute for the notion of God is that of the social and humanitary group,  […], just as to the metaphysical notion of substance-causes we have substituted that of law; to the notion of the absolute, that of the group; to the notion of Eternity, that of progress.

Death, in man, animals, etc. is the rupture of the group and the cessation of conflict: social revolutions make this phenomenon perfectly intelligible to us.

In 1814, a political movement, a governmental life was created: it endured until 1830, when it was shattered for a moment by the lack of equilibrium. The group was dissolved; and after a few days, repaired. The political movement was preserved until 1848, when it perished all at once, to give place to a more profound, more intimate movement, the economic movement.

Now that movement, which has existed for several centuries in England, lacking equilibrium, without opposition, has only lead to the status quo, to death. Labor is subordinated; the social forces are in anarchy. There is no group. The English people have hardly anything but a negative liberty, seasoned with all the condiments of selfishness.

Thus, the Being is the group.

Life is movement, the result of an opposition in the group.

Death is the dissolution of the group.

Substance, conceived to separately from life, is the caput mortuum of being.

The absolute, or indistinction, is equivalent of nothingness. [115]

Every dissolution of the group, return[s] the elements that constituted it, under [the influence of] other attractions, other links, ipso facto, to other groups; in which an opposition suffices to determine a spontaneous movement, [a] life.

It is thus that life and movement are indestructible in the universe, although every group must break up, every life be extinguished, every existence returned to its elements, the suns like the woodworms and toadstools, Man and humanity.

Perpetuity consists of this: and it is thus that death commences for all beings, reconciling [themselves] with the indestructibility of the universe.

The notion of an end of the world, which brings time to a close and returns all of creation into the bosom of the creator, is neither more nor less than that of the absolute itself: it is its corollary.

Death, arriving regularly, is a good for man, like life. It is made desirable by the weariness of existence and the difficulty of being. When man no longer has the strength to eat, to go, to reason, to love, or even to desire, when universal ennui overwhelms him, when he seeks sleep, why should he dread death? It is only to the young, to those living well, the vigorous, that it is bitter.

To [know] pleasure is to feel life. But by exalting this feeling, we exhaust its principle, and pleasure turns to sadness; rest is required from the action of the senses, from work and enjoyment. Well-being is equilibrium in the faculties, in labor, pleasure, love, etc., etc.

Well-being for the individual is inseparable from the well-being of the species: it finds its principle, its guarantee and it sanction there.

The necessity for man to balance his functions, on pain of suicide, brings him back to modesty and mediocrity, makes labor precious to him, tempers his ambition, and, at the same time, excites and develops his benevolent passions. It requires so little to be happy, and the love of one’s fellows adds so much to one’s happiness that the spiteful are more than criminal; they are mad. –

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