In the May 1892 issue of Le Banquet, a young Marcel Proust wrote a spirited condemnation, excerpted here, of the secularizing French Left. In terms that are eerily resonant with our own time, Proust underlines the necessity of the Church as a bulwark of popular virtue and a shield for the body politic against malign political forces.
Is not a non-religious education in fact forcefully atheist? Not to take sides over God, over the soul, when this is the whole of an education—is that not a way, and the worst, of taking a side? “One is content not to speak of these things,” one says. This is materialism itself. The substitution of state irreligion for the state religion then is no surprise. One could be astonished only that the denial of religion displays the same parade of fanaticism, of intolerance, and of persecution that religion itself displays. The radicals who really hold public power, whether by the followers who matter in the government, or by the fear that they inspire among the more moderate, persecute religion in all its forms.
But one might say to them: What if materialism were true (of which the agreement through the centuries of great idealist philosophies is a sufficient denial) and, without believing his fiction, a man were to imagine today a theory of a humane life? And what if this theory were so rich in beneficial illusions that men at once submitted to it and stopped trying to live by violence, so that they might merit eternal salvation by their good and noble works? Ought not the state rely on that ingenious and persuasive poet for the care of curing miseries that before all involve a moral solution, such as socialism?
Ah well! That theory of life and of the good exists; it has long been accepted, and justly so; it is true. … France has grown in learning, grown in courage, in unselfishness, in delicate honor. It is to the spirits thus elevated above themselves by Christianity that France owes her purest masterpieces, whether in deed or thought.
Yet today, while French missionaries civilize the Orient, the boldest philosopher of our time could scandalize the materialist corner-shop grocer by his rigorous piety. That religious discipline to which he takes himself, and which hindered neither Descartes nor Pascal, would be an obstacle, it seems, for the free spirit of certain municipal councilors. And it is from this discipline that, at a blow, France has been “delivered.” Wretched deliverance! When one is delivered from a duty, one is less free; one is shackled to one’s own evil impulses.
Anon the person of the emperor recently demonstrated to the Prince of Bismarck the fatal consequences of the Kulturkampf. May the progress of socialism shake the government, to warn it that it has another thing to fear today besides the too-great power of the Church; to warn it that, if it is impossible to set aside a philosophy as empty as that of M. Homais [the foolish anticlerical pharmacist of Madame Bovary], practical facts will bear out its stupid conclusions; and to warn it that this philosophy, like that of all imbeciles, is a doctrine of destruction and death.
Translated from the French by Jude Russo.