The Simple Duty
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
WHEN we speak to children on a subject which seems importunate to them they will show you above on the roofs a pigeon which is feeding its young, or down in the street some driver who is abusing his horse. Sometimes also they mischievously ask you one of those great questions which put the minds of the parents to torture, and all that is to draw the attention from the painful subject. I fear we are but big children in face of duty, and that when that is in question we, too, seek subterfuges to distract our minds.
The first subterfuge is to demand of oneself if there is one general duty, or if that word does not cover one of the numerous illusions of our ancestors. For, in point of fact, duty presupposes liberty, and the question of liberty leads us even into the regions of metaphysics. How can we speak of duty as long as the grave problem of free will is not resolved? Theoretically there is nothing there to which we can object. And, if life were a theory, if we were here to elaborate the complete system of the universe, it would be absurd to occupy ourselves with duty before having demonstrated liberty, fixing its conditions and limits.
But life is not a theory. On this point of practical morals, as on all others, life has distanced the theory, and there is no reason to believe that it will ever cede it the precedence. This liberty, relative I admit, like all that we know besides, this duty whose existence we question, is not any the less the base of all the judgments we bring on us and our fellow-beings. We treat each other as responsible to a certain degree for our actions and gestures.
The maddest theorist, as soon as he gets outside of his theory, feels no scruples in approving or disapproving the acts of others, to work against his enemies, to appeal to the generosity and the justice of those whom he would dissuade from an unworthy action. They can no more rid themselves of the feeling of moral obligation than that of time and space, and that we must resign ourselves to press onward before we know how to define that space which we cross and the time which measures our movements ; we must also submit to the moral obligation before having touched its deep roots. The moral law dominates man whether he respects it or transgresses it. Look at everyday life. Each one is ready to throw the stone at him who does not accomplish a a self-evident duty, even if he must allege that has not yet reached the philosophic certainty. Each one will tell him, and be a thousand times right in telling him: "Sir, one is a man above all things. Pay in your manhood first ; then do your duty as citizen, as father, as son, and return to the course of your meditations after."
At the same time let us be understood. We do not wish to hinder any one from his philosophical investigations, of the scrupulous search for the moral foundations. No thought which leads man toward those grave studies can be useless or indifferent. We only defy the thinker to be able to wait until he has found these foundations to do an act of humanity, honesty or dishonesty, courage or cowardice. And, above all, we desire to formulate an answer, good enough to oppose all the malignant persons who have never been philosophers, to offer to ourselves when we wish to invoke our doubtful state of philosophy, to justify our practical failures. By just that is one a man; before all theories, positive or negative, on duty, one has for a firm rule to conduct himself like a man. There is no issue from there.
But they will know the resources of the human heart little if they count on the effect of a similar answer. It may even be without answer, but in spite of that it can-not hinder other questions from arising. The number of our pretexts to lead us from our duty is as great as the sands of the sea, or the stars in heaven.
Therefore we retrench the obscure duty, the difficult duty, and the contradictory duty. Those are surely words which evoke painful souvenirs. To be a dutiful man and doubt his road, to feel along in the dark, to see himself delivered to contrary solicitations of different duties, or again to find himself facing a gigantic duty, a crushing one which surpasses our forces, what is harder? And these things happen. We would not deny nor contest that there is a tragic element in certain events and heartrendings in certain lives. Still, it is rare that duty has to throw light across such a conflict of circumstances. It must spring forth from the mind like the lightning from the clouds. Such formidable shocks are exceptional. So much the better if we bear up well when they do come, but if no one thinks it surprising that the oaks are uprooted by the tempest, or a traveller should stumble in the night on an unknown road, or that a soldier should be conquered when he is taken between two fires, no one should condemn without appeal those who have been beaten in these almost superhuman struggles. To succumb under the number and the obstacles has never been a disgrace.
Therefore I shall offer my arms to those who in-trench themselves behind the impregnable rampart of obscure, complex and contradictory duty. For today it is not that which occupies my mind. It is the simple duty, I might almost say the easy duty, that I wish to speak of to them.
We have each year three or four high holidays, and many ordinary days. Like them there are a few very great and very obscure combats to fight. But by the side of this there are the multitude of simple and evident duties. Now, while that in the great encounters our attitude is generally sufficient, it is precisely in the small occasions that we are seen to weaken. Without fearing that I shall be drawn by a paradoxical form from my thought I shall then declare: the essential is to fulfil the simple duty, to consecrate oneself to elementary justice. In general those who lose their souls, lose them not because they fail to do difficult duties and do not accomplish impossibilities, but because they neglect their simple duty.
Let us illustrate this truth by examples. He who 'tries to enter among the lower and humble ones of society will not be long in discovering great physical and moral miseries. The nearer he reaches that life the more wounds he discovers,and at last the world of miserable ones seems to him like a vast, black creation be-fore which the individual with his poor means of solace appears reduced to impotence. It is true that he feels anxious to hasten, but at the same time he thinks "What is the use?" Evidently the case is most agonizing. Some decide the question by doing nothing from despair. They remain therefore sterile, yet not from the lack of pity nor of good intentions. They are wrong. Often a man has not the means to do good by wholesale, but that is no reason why he should not at retail. So many people fail to do anything because, according to them, there is too much to do. They need to be recalled to the simple duty. This duty is this, in the case now occupying our attention : that every one, ac-cording to his resources, his leisure and his capacities, should form friendships among these disinherited ones. There are people who by the exercise of a little willpower manage to introduce themselves into the circles of the ministers, or to wriggle into the society of the chiefs of the State. Why, then, could not all form acquaintance with the poor people and become friendly with those toilers who are in need of necessaries? Once know a few families, with their histories, their antecedents and their difficulties, you could be of great utility in doing simply what you could, and in practicing fraternity under the form of moral and material assistance. You would have, it is true, attacked but one little corner, but you would have done your best and perhaps drawn some one other to do his best also. In acting this way, instead of only stating that there exists much misery in the world, sullen hatred, disunion, vice, you would have introduced a little good into it. And however small the number of good wills like yours be-comes, the good will grow and evil will diminish. But, even if you are left alone to do what you have done, you have witness that you have done the only reasonable thing, the simple and childlike duty which was given you. Now, in doing that you have discovered one of the secrets of right living.
Human ambition dreams of vast projects, but it is rarely given us to do great things, and even the most rapid and certain successes are always the outcome of patient preparation. Faithfulness in small things is the base of everything grand that is accomplished. We forget that too often. Still, if there is a truth necessary to know, it is that, above all in the dangerous and painful moments of existence. One can save himself in case of shipwreck on a broken beam, an oar, or a piece of plank. On the tumultuous ocean of life, when everything seems to he broken to atoms, remember that one only of those poor atoms may become our plank of safety. The demoralization consists in despising these pieces.
You have been ruined, or have a great grief, or perhaps you have just seen destroyed before your eyes the fruit of long labor. It is impossible to reconstruct your fortune, to resuscitate your dead, or save your lost labor. And before the irreparable your arms fall. Then you neglect to care for your person, to keep your house, or to watch over your children. That is pardonable, and how well we understand it! But that is very dangerous ! To let yourself go transforms the evil into a worse one. You who believe that you have nothing more to lose, you will for that lose that which yet remains to you. Gather the fragments of your goods; have for what remains a scrupulous care. And soon that little will console you. Accomplished effort comes to our aid, as neglected effort turns against us. If there remains but one branch to which you can cling, cling to that branch, and if you are left alone to defend a cause which seems lost do not throw down your arms to join the fugitives. On the morrow after the deluge a few isolated persons repeople the earth. The future sometimes seems to rest on one head alone, as it hap-pens that a life hangs but on a thread. Inspire your-self with history and nature ; each will teach you in their laborious evolutions that calamities like prosperity can come from the least causes, that it is not wise to neglect details, and above all one must know how to wait and to recommence.
In speaking of the simple duty I cannot refrain from thinking of military life, and of the examples that it offers to the combatants of that great struggle which is life. He who, once his army is beaten, abstains from brushing his garments, polishing his gun, and observing his discipline understands but imperfectly his duty as a soldier.
"To what use ?" you may say. To what use? Are there not many ways of being beaten? Would it be a matter of indifference to acid discouragement, disorder, a general breaking up to the misery of defeat? No. We must never forget that the least act of energy in these terrible moments is like a light in the darkness. It is a sign of life and hope. Each one understands at once that all is not lost.
During the disastrous retreat of 1813-1814, in the middle of winter, while it must have been almost impossible to maintain any sort of appearance, I do not know what general it was presented himself one morning to Napoleon I, in fine condition and freshly shaved. Seeing him thus, in the midst of the general breaking up, as carefully dressed as if on review, the emperor said :
"General, you are a brave man !"
The simple duty is the nearest one. A very common weakness hinders many people from finding that which is nearest to them interesting. They see but by their meanest side. The distant, on the contrary, attracts and enchants them. Thus is uselessly spent a fabulous sum of good will. They are impassioned for humanity, for the public good, for distant miseries, walking across life with eyes fixed on the marvellous objects which captivate us far below at the confines of the horizon, while they walk on the passers' feet or elbow them without noticing them.
It is a singular infirmity which hinders you from seeing those who are there beside you. Many have read much, made long voyages, but they do not know their co-citizens, great or small. They live, thanks to the competition of a quantity of beings whose destiny is indifferent to them. Neither those who teach them, instruct them, govern them, nor those who serve them, furnish them, feed them, have ever won their attention. That there is any ingratitude or improvidence in not knowing one's work people, one's domestics, the few beings in fact who have indispensable social relations with us, never enters their minds. Others go still farther. For some women their husbands are unknown, and this is reciprocal. There are parents who do not know their own children. Their development, their thoughts, the dangers they may run, the hopes they may nourish are for them a closed book. Many children do not know their parents and have never suspected their pains, their struggles, nor penetrated their intentions. And, I do not speak of the disunited families, those sad homes where all relations are falsified, but of honest families composed of good people. These persons only are greatly absorbed. Each one has his interest elsewhere which takes all his time. The distant duty, strongly attractive, I do not deny, claims them entirely and they are unconscious of the nearer duty. I fear that they lose their pains. The base of operation of each is the field of his immediate duty. Neglect that base and all the distant things you under-take will be jeopardized. Belong, therefore, first to your own country, your own city, your own house, your church, your workshop, and if it can be, leave there to go elsewhere. That is the simple and natural step to take. A man must furnish himself at great cost with very bad reasons to have come to follow the in-verse walk. In. any case, the result of so strange a con-fusion of duties is that many are mingled with a quantity of things save those that one has the right to expect of them. Each occupies himself with other things than those which belong. to him, and, absent from his post, he does not know his trade. It would be, though, so very simple if every one attended to his own business only.
Another form of simple duty. When an injury has been caused who should repair it? The one who caused it. That is just, but it is only a theory. And the consequence of that theory would be that we must allow the evil to exist until the malefactors have been found and made to repair the injury. But if we do not find them? Or, if they cannot or will not repair the injury?
It rains on your head through a broken tile, or the wind penetrates your dwelling through a broken pane. Will you wait to seek the roofer and the glazier until you have had the breaker of the tile or window arrested? You would find that absurd, would you not? It is, however, a very ordinary practice. Children indignantly cry, "I did not throw that object down, and I shall not pick it up." And the greater part of men reason in the same way. That is logical. But that is not the sort of logic that turns the world.
That which we should know, to the contrary, and which life repeats daily, is that the damage caused by some is repaired by others. Some destroy, others build; some soil, others clean; some stir up strife, others appease it;—so some cause tears to flow and others con-sole ; some live in iniquity, while others die for justice. And it is in the accomplishment of this dolorous law that safety lies. It is logic also, but of that logic of fact which causes that of theories to grow pale. The conclusion is not a doubtful one. A man of simple heart draws his conclusion thus : Given the evil, the great thing is to repair it and to begin at once. So much the better if the malefactors will contribute to this reparation, but experience counsels us not to count too much upon their cooperation.
But, however simple duty is, one must still have the strength to accomplish it. This strength, in what does it consist, and where is it to be found? One could never weary of talking about it. Duty for a man is an enemy and an importunate one so long as it appears only as an outward solicitation. When it enters the door man flies out the window, and when it closes the windows man will escape by the roof. The better it is seen coming the easier it is to avoid it. It is like the gendarme, who represents public force and official justice, which an adroit scamp always manages to avoid. Alas! if the gendarme does seize the fugitive, all he can do is to take him to the station and not always by the easiest road. That a man may accomplish his duty he must fall into the hands of another force than the one which says: "Do this, do that ; avoid this, avoid that; otherwise look out for yourself."
This interior force is love. When a man hates his trade or occupation, or does it carelessly, all the powers of earth are unable to make him work with good will.
But he who loves his business goes right on alone. Not only is it impossible to restrain him, but it would be impossible to turn him from it. It is that way with all. The great thing is to have felt that which is the holiest and most immortally beautiful in our obscure destiny ; it is to have learned by a series of experiences to love this life for its pains and its hope, to, love mankind for their miseries and their nobility, and to belong to humanity by heart, intelligence and compassion. Then an unknown force takes possession of us, as the wind takes possession of the sails of a ship, and wafts us toward pity and justice. And, ceding to the irresistible force of the breeze, we say : "I can do no differently, it is stronger than I."
In explaining himself thus man of all ages and of all centers designates a power that is higher than man, but which can live in the hearts of men. And all that is really noble and uplifted appears like a manifestation of this mystery which is beyond our power to understand. Great sentiments, like great thoughts, like great acts, are things of inspiration. When the tree grows green and gives its fruit it is because it draws from the soil its vital forces and receives from the sun light and warmth. If a man, in his humble sphere, amid inevitable faults and ignorance, consecrates himself sincerely to his task, it is that he is in contact with the eternal source of kindness. This central force manifests itself under a thousand diverse forms. Sometimes it is untamable energy, sometimes caressing tenderness, sometimes the spirit militant which attacks and destroys evil, sometimes maternal solicitude which gathers by the side of a road where is often lost some life crushed and forgotten, sometimes the humble patience of long searches. But all that it touches bears its signature, and the men who are animated by it feel that it is by it that we are and that we live. To serve it is their happiness and their recompense. It suffices them to be His instruments and they care nothing more for the dazzling exterior of their function in life, knowing well that nothing is great, nothing is small, but that our actions and our life are worth nothing only for the spirit that penetrates them.