Ethics: Origin and Development — Chapter 13 : Development of Moral Teachings -- XIX Era (Concluded)

By Peter Kropotkin (1924)

Entry 169


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Revolt Library Anarchism Ethics: Origin and Development Chapter 13

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(1842 - 1921)

Russian Father of Anarcho-Communism

: As anarchism's most important philosophers he was in great demand as a writer and contributed to the journals edited by Benjamin Tucker (Liberty), Albert Parsons (Alarm) and Johann Most (Freiheit). Tucker praised Kropotkin's publication as "the most scholarly anarchist journal in existence." (From: Spartacus Educational Bio.)
• "As to parliamentary rule, and representative government altogether... It is becoming evident that it is merely stupid to elect a few men, and to entrust them with the task of making laws on all possible subjects, of which subject most of them are utterly ignorant." (From: "Process Under Socialism," by Peter Kropotkin, 188....)
• "...outside of anarchism there is no such thing as revolution." (From: "Revolutionary Government," by Peter Kropotkin, 18....)
• "ANARCHISM, the name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government - harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being." (From: "Anarchism," by Peter Kropotkin, from the Encyclop....)

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Chapter 13

 Photo by Liam Eldret, CC BY License

Photo by Liam Eldret,
CC BY License

Among the numerous attempts made by philosophers and thinkers of the second half of the nineteenth century to build ethics on a purely scientific basis, we must examine most carefully the work of the gifted French thinker, J.M. Guyau (1854 -1888), who, unfortunately, died very young. Guyau aimed to free morality from all mystical, supernatural, divine revelations, from all external coercion or duty, and on the other hand, he desired to eliminate from the realm of morality the considerations of personal, material interests or the striving for happiness, upon which the utilitarians based morality.

Guyau's moral teaching was so carefully conceived, and expounded in so perfect a form, that it is a simple matter to convey its essence in a few words. In his very early youth Guyau wrote a substantial work on the moral doctrines of Epicurus.1Five years after the publication of this book, Guyau published his second highly valuable book, "La Morale anglaise contemporaine." 2

In this work Guyau expounded and subjected to critical examination the moral teaching of Bentham, the Mills (father and son), Darwin, Spencer, and Bain. And finally, in 1884, he published his remarkable work, "Esquisse d'une morale sans obligation ni sanction,"3 which astonished scholars by its novel and just conclusions and by its artistic beauty of exposition. This book went through eight editions in France and was translated into all the languages of Europe.

Guyau places at the basis of his ethics the conception of life in the broadest sense of the word. Life manifests itself in growth, in multiplication, in spreading. Ethics, according to Guyau, should be a teaching about the means through which Nature's special aim is attained, -the growth and the development of life. The moral element in man needs, therefore, no coercion, no compulsory obligation, no sanction from above; it develops in us by virtue of the very need of man to live a full, intensive, productive life. Man is not content with ordinary, commonplace existence; he seeks the opportunity to extend its limits, to accelerate its tempo, to fill it with varied impressions and emotional experiences. And as long as he feels in himself the ability to attain this end he will not wait for any coercion or command from without. "Duty," says Guyau, is "the consciousness of a certain inward power, by nature superior to all other powers. To feel inwardly the greatest that one is capable  of doing is really the first consciousness of what it is one's duty to do." 4

We feel, especially at a certain age, that we have more powers than we need for our personal life, and we willingly give these powers to the service of others. From this consciousness of the superabundance of vital force, which strives to manifest itself in action, results that which we usually call self-sacrifice. We feel that we possess more energy than is necessary for our daily life, and we give this energy to others. We embark upon a distant voyage, we undertake an educational enterprise, or we give our courage, our initiative, our persistence and endurance to some common undertaking.

The same applies to our sympathizing with the sorrows of others. We are conscious, as Guyau puts it, that there are more thoughts in our mind, and that there is in our heart more sympathy, or even more love, more joy and more tears, than is required for our self-preservation; and so we give them to others without concerning ourselves as to the consequences. Our nature demands this-just as a plant has to blossom, even though blossoming be followed by death.

Man possesses a "moral fecundity." "The individual life should diffuse itself for others, and, if necessary, should yield itself up....This expansion is the very condition of true life." (Conclusion, p. 209.) "Life has two aspects," says Guyau: "According to the one, it is nutrition and assimilation; according to the other, production and fecundity. The more it takes in, the more it needs to giveout; that is its law."

"Expenditure is one of the conditions of life. It is expiration following inspiration." Life surging over the brim is true life. "There is a certain generosity which is inseparable from existence, and without which we die, we shrivel up internally. We must put forth blossoms; morality, disinterestedness, is the flower of human life." (I, ii, 86-87.)

Guyau also points out the attractiveness of struggle and risk. And indeed, it suffices to recollect thousands of cases where man faces struggle and runs hazards, at times even serious ones, in all periods of life, even in gray-haired age, for the very fascination of the struggle and the risk. The youth Mzyri is not the only one to say, in recalling a few hours of life in freedom and struggle:

'Yes, gaffer, I have lived; and had my life
     Not counted those three wondrous days,-
     'Twere sadder in a thousand ways
     Than all your feeble eld betrays."5

All the great discoveries and explorations of the globe and of nature in general, all the daring attempts to penetrate into the mysteries of life and of the universe, or to utilize in a new form the forces of nature, whether through distant seavoyages in the sixteenth century, or now through aerial navigation-all the attempts to rebuild society on the new bases, made at the risk of life, all the new departures in the realm of art,-they all originated in this very thirst for struggle and risk which at times took possession of separate individuals, and at times of social groups, or even of entire nations. This has been the motive power of human progress.

And finally, adds Guyau, there is also a metaphysical risk, when a new   hypothesis is advanced in the realm of scientific or social investigation or thought, as well as in the realm of personal or social action.

This is what supports the moral structure and the moral progress of society; the heroic act, "not only in battle or in struggle," but also in the flights of daring thought, and in the reconstruction of personal as well as of social life.

As regards the sanction of the moral conceptions and tendencies that Spring up in us,-in other words, that which imparts to them an obligatory character,-it is well known that men had all along sought such confirmation and sanction in religion, in commands received from without and supported by the fear of punishment or by the promise of reward in the life to come. Guyau, of course, saw no need of this, and he devoted, accordingly, a number of chapters in his book to explaining the origin of the conception of obligation in the moral rules. These chapters are so excellent in themselves and so artistic in expression that they should be read in the original. Here are their fundamental thoughts:

First of all, Guyau pointed out that there is within us an inner approval of moral acts and a condemnation of our anti-social acts. It has been developing from the remotest past by virtue of social life. Moral approval and disapproval were naturallyprompted in man by instinctive justice. And finally, the feeling Of love and fraternity inherent in man, also acted in the same direction.6

In general, there are two kinds of tendencies in man: those of one kind are still unconscious tendencies, instincts, and habits, which give rise to thoughts that are not quite clear, and on the other hand, there are fully conscious thoughts and conscious propensities of will. Morality stands on the border line between the two; it has always to make a choice between them. Unfortunately, the thinkers who wrote on morality failed to notice how largely the conscious in us depends upon the unconscious. (I, i, 79.)

However, the study of customs in human societies shows to what an extent man's actions are influenced by the unconscious. And in studying this influence we notice that the instinct of self-preservation is by no means sufficient to account for all the strivings of man, as is postulated by the utilitarians. Side by side with the instinct of self-preservation there exists in us another instinct:-the striving toward a more intensive, and varied life, toward widening its limits beyond the realm of self-preservation. Life is not limited to nutrition, it demands mental fecundity and spiritual activity rich in impressions, feelings, and manifestations of will.

Of course, such manifestations of will,-as some of Guyau's critics justly remarked,-may act, and frequently do act, against the interests of society. But the fact is that the anti-social tendencies (to which Mandeville and Nietzsche ascribed such great importance) are far from being sufficient to account for all human strivings that go beyond the limits of mere self-preservation, because side by side with the anti-social tendencies there exists also a striving for sociality, for life harmonizing with the life of society as a whole, and the latter tendencies are no less strong than the former. Man strives for good neighborly relations and for justice.

It is to be regretted that Guyau did not develop more thoroughly these last two thoughts in his fundamental work; later he dwelt on these ideas somewhat more in detail in his essay, "Education et heredite." 7

Guyau understood that morality could not be built on egoism alone, as was the opinion of Epicurus, and later of the English utilitarians. lie saw that inner harmony alone, and "unity of being" (l'unité de l'être) will not suffice: he saw that morality includes also the instinct of sociality.8 Only, he did not assign to this instinct its due importance, unlike Bacon, and Darwin, who even asserted that in man and in many animals this instinct is stronger  and acts more permanently than the instinct of self-preservation. Guyau also failed to appreciate the decisive role played in cases of moral indecision by the ever-expanding conception of justice, i. e., of equity among human beings.9

Guyau explains the consciousness of the obligatory  nature of morality, which we unquestionably experience within ourselves, in the following manner:

"It is sufficient to consider the normal directions of psychic life; there will always be found a kind of inner pressure exercised by the activity itself in these directions." Thus "moral obligation, which has its root in the very function of life happens to come in principle before thinking consciousness, and springs from the obscure and un-conscious depths of our being." (I, iii, 97.)

The sense of duty, he continues, is not invincible; it can be suppressed. But, as Darwin showed, it remains within us, it continues to live, and it reminds us of its existence whenever we have acted contrary to the sense of duty; we feel inner dissatisfaction and there arises in us a consciousness of moral aims. Guyau cites here a few excellent examples of this power, and he quotes the words of Spencer, who foresaw the time when the altruistic instinct would develop in man to such an extent that we will obey it without any visible strug-gle, (I may remark that many are already living in this manner), and the day will come when men will dispute among themselves for the opportunity to perform an act of self-sacrifice. "Self-sacrifice," wrote Guyau, "takes its place among the general laws of life. . . . Intrepidity or self-sacrifice is not a mere negation of self and of per-sonal life; it is this life itself raised to sublimity." (II, i, 125.)

In the vast majority of cases, self-sacrifice takes the form not of complete sacrifice, not the form of sacrificing life, but merely the form of danger, or of the renunciation of certain advantages. In struggle and in danger man hopes for victory. And the anticipa-tion of this victory gives him the sensation of joy and fullness in life. Even many animals are fond of play connected with danger: thus, for example, certain species of monkeys like to play with croc-odiles. And in men the desire to combat against odds is very common-man has at times a need to feel himself great, to be conscious of the might and the freedom of his will. He acquires this consciousness through struggle-struggle against himself and his passions, or against external obstacles. We are dealing here with physiological needs, and quite commonly the feelings that prompt us to deeds of peril grow in intensity in proportion as the danger grows.

But the moral sense urges men not only toward the risk; it guides their actions even when they are threatened by inevitable death. And on this point history teaches mankind-at least those who are ready to benefit by its lessons, that "self-sacrifice is one of the most precious and most powerful forces in history. To make humanity,-this great indolent body,-progress one step, there has always been needed a shock which has crushed individuals." (II, i, 127.)

Here Guyau wrote many delightful pages in order to show how natural self-sacrifice is, even in cases where man faces inescapable death, and entertains, moreover, no hope of reward in the after life. It is necessary, however, to add to these pages that the same situation prevails among all the social animals. Self-sacrifice for the good of the family or of the group is a common fact in the animal world; and man, as a social creature, does not, of course, constitute an exception.

Then Guyau pointed out another property of human nature, which at times takes, in morality, the place of the sense of prescribed duty. This is the desire of intellectual risk, i.e., the faculty of building a daring hypothesis-as was demonstrated by Plato,-and of deriving one's morality from this hypothesis. All the prominent social reformers were guided by one or the other conception of the possible better life of mankind, and although unable to prove mathe-matically the desirability and the possibility of rebuilding society in some particular direction, the reformer, who is in this respect closely akin to the artist, devoted all his life, all his abilities, all his energy to working for this reconstruction. In such cases, wrote Guyau, "hypothesis produces practically the same effect as faith,-- even gives rise to a subsequent faith, which, however, is not affirmative and dogmatic like the other"... Kant began a revolution in moral philosophy when he desired to make the will "autonomous," instead of making it bow before a law exterior to itself; but he stopped half way. He believed that the individual liberty of the moral agent could be reconciled with the universality of the law.... The true "autonomy" most produce individual originality, and not universal uniformity.... The greater the number of different doctrines which offer themselves to the choice of humanity, the greater will be the value of the future and find agreement (II, ii, 139-140), As to the "unattainability" of ideas, Guyau answered this question in poetically inspired lines:- "The further the ideal is removed from reality, the more desirable it seems. And as the desire itself is the supreme force, the remotest ideal has command over the maximum of force." (II, if, 145.)

But bold thinking that does not stop halfway, leads to equally energetic action. "Religions all say, 'I hope because I believe, and because I believe in an external revelation.' We must say: 'I believe because I hope, and I hope because I feel in myself a wholly internal energy, which will have to be taken into account in the problem.' . . . It is action alone which gives us confidence in our-selves, in others, and in the world. Abstract meditation, solitary thought, in the end weaken the vital forces." (II, ii, 148.)

This is, according to Guyau, what was to take the place of sanction, which the defenders of Christian morality sought in religion and in the promise of the happier life after death. First of all, we find within ourselves the approval of the moral act, because our moral feeling, the feeling of fraternity, has been developing in man from the remotest times through social life and through observation of nature. Then man finds similar approval in the semi-conscious inclinations, habits, and instincts, which, though still not clear, are deeply ingrained in the nature of man as a social being. The whole human race has been brought up nder these influences for thou-sands and thousands of years, and if there are at times periods in the life of mankind when all these best qualities seem to be forgotten, after a certain time humanity begins again to strive for them. And when we seek the origin of these feelings, we find that they are implanted in man even deeper than his consciousness.

Then, in order to explain the power of the moral element in man, Guyau analyzed to what an extent the ability for self-sacrifice is developed in him, and showed how largely a desire for risk  and struggle  is inherent in human beings, not only in the minds of leaders, but also in the concerns of everyday life. These passages constitute some of the best pages in his essay.

Generally speaking, it is safe to say that in his treatise on the bases of morality without obligation and without the sanction of religion, Guyau expressed the modern interpretation of morality and of its problems in the form it was taking in the minds of edu-cated men towards the beginning of the twentieth century.

It is clear from what has been said that Guyau did not intend to unfold all the bases of morality, but merely aimed to prove that morality, for its realization and development, has no need of the conception of obligation, or, in general, of any confirmation from without.

The very fact that man seeks to bring intensity into his life, i. e., to make it varied-if only he feels within himself the power to live such a life,-this very fact becomes in the interpretation of Guyau a mighty appeal to live just such a life. On the other hand man is urged along the same path by the desire and the joy of risk and of concrete struggle, and also by the joy of risk in thinking, (metaphysical risk, as Guyau called it). In other words, man is urged in the same direction by the pleasure which he feels as he advances toward the hypothetical in his thoughts, his life, his action, i.e., toward that which is only conceived by us as possible.

This is what replaces in naturalistic morality the sense of obligation  accepted by the religious morality. As regards sanction in naturalistic morality, i. e., as regards its confirmation by something higher, something more general, we have the natural feeling of approval of moral actions, and an intuitional semi-consciousness, the moral approval, which originates in the conception of justice, still unconscious, but inherent in all of us. And finally, there is the further approval on the part of our inherent feelings of love  and fraternity.

This is the form which conceptions of morality took for Guyau. If they had their origin in Epicurus, they became considerably deepened, and instead of the Epicurean "wise calculation" we already have here a naturalistic morality, that has been developing in man by virtue of his social life. The existence of such a morality was understood by Bacon, Grotius, Spinoza, Goethe, Comte, Darwin, and partly by Spencer, but it is still persistently denied by those who prefer to talk about man as of a being who, though created "in God's image," is in reality an obedient slave of the Devil, and who can be induced to restrain his innate immorality only by threats of whip and prison in this life, and by threats of hell in the life to come.


1 La Morale d'E&pcirc;icure et ses rapports avec les doctrines contemporaines  (The Moral Teaching of Epicurus and its relation to the modern theories of morality). This work appeared in 1874 and was awarded the prize of the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences.

2 The first edition appeared in 1879.

3 A Sketch of Morality independent of Obligation or Sanction. Translated from the French by Gertrude Kaptcyn. Watts & Company, London, 1898.[All the references will be to this edition.] As was shown by Alfred Fouillée in his book, Nietzsche et I'immoralisme, Nietzsche drew freely on Guyau's essay, and he always had a copy on his table. On Guyau's philosophy see the work by Fouillée, Morale des idéesforces, and other writings by the author. [Especially, La Morale, I'Art et la Religion d'après Guyau. 1-Trans. Note.

4 A Sketch of Morality independent of Obligation or Sanction, Book 1, chapter iii, page 91. [Further references will be indicated briefly, as follows: (I, iii, 91).]

5 [Lermontov's poem, Mzyri.]-Trans. Note.

6 To what an extent these remarks of Guyau, which he unfortunately did not develop further, are correct, has been already shown in the second chapter of this book, where it is pointed out that these tendencies of man have ban the natural outcome of the social life of many animal species, and of early man, and also of the sociality that developed under such conditions, without which no animal species could survive in the straggle for existence against the stern forces of nature.

7 These additions were inserted in the seventh edition. J.-M. Guyau, Education and Heredity, translated by W. S. Greenstreet, London, 1891.

8 "Morality," wrote Guyau, "is nothing else than unity of being. lm-morality, on the contrary, is the dividing into two-an opposition of different faculties, which limit each other." (Book I, ch. iii, p. 93).

9 In a word, we think of the species, we think of the conditions under which life is possible to the species, we conceive the existence of a certain normal type of man adapted to these conditions, we even conceive of the life of the whole species as adapted to the world, and, in fact, the conditions under which that adaptation is maintained. (Education and Heredity, Chapter II, Division III, p, 77.)

From : Anarchy Archives

(1842 - 1921)

Russian Father of Anarcho-Communism

: As anarchism's most important philosophers he was in great demand as a writer and contributed to the journals edited by Benjamin Tucker (Liberty), Albert Parsons (Alarm) and Johann Most (Freiheit). Tucker praised Kropotkin's publication as "the most scholarly anarchist journal in existence." (From: Spartacus Educational Bio.)
• "...let us remember that if exasperation often drives men to revolt, it is always hope, the hope of victory, which makes revolutions." (From: "The Spirit of Revolution," by Peter Kropotkin, fi....)
• "The communes of the next revolution will proclaim and establish their independence by direct socialist revolutionary action, abolishing private property. When the revolutionary situation ripens, which may happen any day, and governments are swept away by the people, when the middle-class camp, which only exists by state protection, is thus thrown into disorder, the insurgent people will not wait until some new government decrees, in its marvelous wisdom, a few economic reforms." (From: "The Commune of Paris," by Peter Kropotkin, Freedo....)
• "...outside of anarchism there is no such thing as revolution." (From: "Revolutionary Government," by Peter Kropotkin, 18....)


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