2. Reformers and transformers of the milieu social.
Those who, from the height of a blissful optimism, proclaim that Society is perfect are rare. As a result reformers, improvers and transformers of Society are legion. It is so far from the case that individuals are contents with their condition, that everyone complains about their lot in life, even those best provided for. Without seeking the degree of sincerity that these lamentations contain, the fact is patent and the sorrow is proclaimed as “universal.”
It is a commonplace to write that contemporary civilization has failed. That the previous civilizations did not succeed any better, no one will deny. They have all run aground on this: they have never been able to insure for the human beings that they gather under their aegis a sum of happiness sufficient that life–the individual life and the collective life–should be found good and pleasant to live. It is true that the civilizations which have followed one another have not always set themselves this goal, or that they have only proposed it in a very imperfect manner, and it is obvious that they have often excluded from participation in that happiness, such as they imagine it, a considerable share of sub-humans: outcasts of all categories, slaves, serfs and others. However, more or less completely, with more or less exceptions, the great civilizations which have shone on the planet had in view, in a general fashion, the happiness of the people for or among with they flourished.
I claim that they have failed, and failed miserably. I readily concede that the conductors who directed them in the most glorious, remarkable, and prosperous epochs of their history, have contributed all the effort of which they were capable. I nonetheless maintain that the “civilized” life, the “social” life, formerly and today, is a load, a burden, even a constant sorrow for the majority of the living—and this to such an extent that one wonders if life "in society" and woe are not synonymous terms. No doubt there are exceptions, but they are so few, and they are the prerogative of such a limited number of privileged persons, that they do little more than confirm the thesis of universal suffering.
It would be tedious to enumerate all the classes and sub-classes in the catalog of reformers and transformers of the social environment. A thick volume would not be sufficient and it is not the aim of our book. Three large divisions will suffice to cover them all. The most ancient are the religious reformers.
For sophisticated minds, their theories present no more than a retrospective interest. Their fantasies were valuable in the time–not always very remote–when individuals, even the most gifted, fearful in the face of poorly explained phenomena or of accidental incidents of existence, sought a recourse, a support, a response to their questions in an extra-human intervention. For it is an extra-human, extra-natural, intervention, will of the divinity or revelation of his will that the religious reformers always return to. The member of Society, or rather the creature, is a plaything in the hands of the creator; the great drama of the historical evolution of human groupings, the inequality of births or aptitudes, the control of the powerful and arrogant over the rest of humanity, all of that arises from the good will of the divinity – it is the tangible expression of its work. “Let the divine will be done!”—that is the last word of the most spiritual souls, the most frantically religious, even when that so-called will implies annihilation of the individual personality, passive acceptance of all that which suppress the growth and blossoming of the individual life.
But there is another point of view that must be studied in order to consider the religious problem in its full extent and to understand well the “state of the religious soul.” The deeply, sincerely religious being is devoured by an unquenchable, insatiable need for atonement. Even when irreproachable from the moral and social point of view, it feels an almost irresistible desire to renounce its faculties of reflection in order to find a bitter, nagging joy in a keen feeling of regret and remorse for not finding itself in conformity to a certain ideal of value or moral level, whether it has drawn that ideal itself, or if it has been recommended to it by dogma or shown by the priest. The sincerely religious being places in an absolute of purity and sanctity that it calls God the sum of all the spiritual values that it is capable of conceiving or imagining. It always feels that it is powerless and miserable in relation to that spiritual absolute, with regard to which it is conscious of being morally responsible.
It establishes such a difference between the being preyed on by sensual passions that it is and the extra-natural phantom that is has created, that it constantly feels itself in a more or less heightened state of disobedience. What indeed is “sin,” if not having yielded to the pull of the passions, having preferred tangible enjoyments and the stimulations they bring, to the denials and annihilations of “the flesh,” or to the observation of certain rites and ceremonies? The fundamentally religious being is a tormented soul, who goes through life always asking itself how it will go about atoning for its shortcomings, redeeming its sin. It goes without saying that the sacrifice of a heifer or a goat, or even of a mournful turtle dove, symbolic as it is, will not satisfy the delicacy of conscience of an eminently spiritual being. Blood alone, life, redeems sin. To atone, the man in a religious state of mind will sacrifice himself, consecrate himself, renounce himself. He will give his life: of his flesh and his blood, he will mortify his flesh by imposing silence on the boiling of his blood, even to the point of inflicting bodily suffering on himself. He will consecrate himself to the service of the divinity, he will impose all sorts of privations on himself, he will abstain—despite the desire that devours him—from tasting the joys of existence, anxious until the hour of death with a poignant doubt, not knowing if he has accomplished enough, or in the right way, to calm the anger of God, of that jealous Absolute who demands of his faithful, his creatures, a complete submission and devotion.