When the house is on fire, everyone leaves what he is doing to fight the flames. In the same way, when great social cataclysms are unleashed, we ought to suspend all other business and go into action. How can we save ourselves and those who belong to us? "For the first time in the history of the world a civilization which has arrived at the beginning of its decline can discern the causes of its decay. Perhaps it will know how to use this knowledge and avoid, thanks to the marvelous forces of science, the destiny common to all the great peoples of the past. We ought to set out immediately on a new path."1 Before we can set out on this new path we must begin by transforming ourselves. It is impossible for us to free ourselves immediately from the errors of the past, and from the institutions which carry the indelible imprint of these errors for we are already weakened and deformed by habits contracted from our infancy. We are neither intelligent nor energetic enough to break the mold into which modern society has poured us. But we are, up to a point, masters of our actions. By an effort of will, everyone can change his habits of life and thought. It is only after such an inner renewal that we shall become capable of reforming our institutions. Revolutions do not begin in the tumult of the market place but in the inmost heart of a few men. Communism ripened slowly in the solitary meditations of Karl Marx and Engels. Thought only becomes creative if it overflows from the soul; inspiration needs the silence of the interior life. Modern man has declined because he has lacked this inspiration. To rebuild our civilization we must first rebuild ourselves according to the pattern laid down by life.
It is impossible to rationalize one's behavior without a proper technique. To acquire this technique is just as laborious as to acquire physical or mental culture.
We do not hesitate to devote several years to learning mathematics, history, experimental sciences or philosophy.
1 Man the Unknown.
Equally we spend a great deal of time in learning the techniques of gymnastics, swimming, football, skiing or golf. Young people willingly accept university examinations or the tests necessary to obtain a driving license or a flying certificate. But they have not yet realized that the technique of conducting one's life is more difficult than any of these.
To learn how to be strong, intelligent and balanced; how to resist fatigue; how to avoid making oneself detestable to others, is no less essential than eating, sleeping, studying at school or working in office, farm or factory. The fight against egoism, for example, demands more skill than the fight against typhus or cholera. It is just as difficult to accustom oneself to a moderate use of wine, alcohol and tobacco as to pursue the study of higher mathematics.
The most effective way to live reasonably is every morning to make a plan of one's day and every night to examine the results obtained. Just as we know in advance what time our work begins and ends, what people we shall see, what we shall eat and drink and how much money we shall make, so we should also foresee certain other things. We should plan ahead what help we can give to others, how we can discourage the spite and malice in our midst; how we can fight our own selfishness and churlishness; what physical exercise we shall take and how we can curb our tendency to overindulgence.
Moral dirtiness is as repulsive as physical dirtiness. Before beginning a new day, each one of us should wash morally as well as physically.
Laying down a schedule is not enough; we must also observe how far we have carried out our program and how we have disobeyed the rules we have set ourselves. Some people make a point of doing physical exercises when they get up and before going to bed. It is no less important to devote some minutes every day to the progress of our moral, intellectual and psychological activities. This method has a powerful effect on the development of consciousness.
By meditating every day on the direction to be freely given to all one's actions and by forcing oneself to follow strictly the lines of conduct thus traced, one simultaneously strengthens the intelligence and the will. We begin to develop, in the depths of our soul, a secret domain where we come face to face with our naked self. Our success in carrying out the rules of behavior depends on the intensity of this interior life.
Just as the tradesman keeps his account books and the scientist his experimental notebook, so every single individual ought to register every day the good and evil for which he has been responsible. Above all he should record the amount of joy or sorrow, anxiety or peace, hate or love which he has given his family and his neighbors. It is by the patient application of these techniques that the transformation of our bodies and souls will gradually become a reality.
This transformation will never be complete. It is impossible for a grown-up person to efface all the traces of a faulty psychological, moral or intellectual formation. Moreover, bad habits cannot be entirely uprooted. The only people who are able to behave perfectly reasonably are those who have been accustomed from childhood to obey the laws of life. This is why our first preoccupation must be to transform education, to train our children far better than we have been trained ourselves.
In the first years of life this task falls exclusively on the parents. They cannot carry it out unless they themselves are initiated, and if they have not learned the techniques of the organic and mental formation of children, techniques which vary according to age, sex and environment. It is the mother who has most need of this knowledge. This is why all young girls should be obliged to spend a certain time in the practical schools I have already suggested. To be effective education should begin far earlier than is generally the case; actually in the first few weeks after birth. Limited at first to physiological training, it should extend after the end of the first year to mental formation. Time has not the same value for a child as for its parents. A day is incomparably longer at one year old than at thirty for it contains possibly six times as many physiological and mental events. This immensely rich period of infancy should not be left uncultivated. It is probably during the first six years that it is most crucial to carry out the rules of reasonable behavior. The mother plays a role of capital importance in the future of her child and hence in that of our civilization. In spite of this, democratic education gives young girls no sort of preparation for their true function in society. After the fifth or sixth year, teachers and professors share with the parents the responsibility of training the young. Hitherto they have been unsuccessful because they separate the intellectual from the physiological and the moral. One may be permitted to state that the enormous intellectual effort demanded from children during the last thirty or forty years has served no good purpose. The moral and physiological decline of youth is painfully apparent. In no other civilized country is there such a small percentage of great scientists, philanthropists and athletes relative to its population as we find in France. From the moment it goes to school, at the same time as it learns the alphabet, a child should be trained to obey the basic laws of social life. Bad maimers, dirtiness, jealousy, deceitfulness and tale-telling are much more serious faults than ignorance of grammar or of geography. It is no less important to apply the rules of rational behavior than to apply those of arithmetic. The moment has come to break the old molds. The school can only contribute to the rescue of our civilization by enlarging its framework. It must abandon its purely intellectual point of view. It will be a great day when examinations stop classifying children and young people simply and solely according to their memory.
In France, the certificate of studies, the baccalaureat and the other public examinations take not the least account of the real worth of the candidate, for this worth is quite as much moral and psychological as intellectual. In future, diplomas ought to be awarded not merely for intellectual knowledge but also for the moral and psychological results of rational conduct.
The majority of people still do not understand the significance of the events which are disrupting the face of the earth. Often they put their hopes in the return of those conditions of life which were the real cause of their ills. They continue to live in the same delusions and in the same psychological and mental flabbiness as before. Such persistent blindness shows bow far they are from realizing the urgent need to change their way of behaving.
This makes it extremely difficult for isolated individuals to live more rationally. The only resource for the nonconformists is to band together. Often two or three people can create a center from which new ideas will gradually spread. We know the immense success of the Communist cells. The conquest of a whole factory can be made by four or five men. Extremely small groups are capable of extremely powerful action. Today we ought to assemble together all those who want to rebuild themselves and to rebuild society.
Two kinds of association are possible, associations of individuals and associations of families. Associations of families would have the great advantage of furnishing children with a suitable educational background, a background which school does not succeed in giving them. Any association -political, religious, professional or sporting - can, if its members realize the necessity, become a center of human reconstruction.
What needs to be done in all civilized countries is to encourage the emergence of small cells of reasonable conduct. Little by little these cells would increase and unite with one another like the grafts of healthy skin on the surface of a great wound. It demands such enormous effort to keep strictly to the laws of life in modern society that it would be easier to make it in common. The people who are capable of doing so do not know one another. They are still separated from each other by the vast mass of the inert. The moment has come for the living to separate themselves from the dead and to act. Only those who burn with the passion for adventure are fitted to build the new City.