A Principle of Unity and a Principle of Continuity

‘That which determines a man, that which makes him one man, one and not another, the man he is and not the man he is not, is a principle of unity and a principle of continuity. A principle of unity firstly in space, thanks to the body, and next in action and intention. When we walk, one foot does not go forward and the other backward, nor, when we look, if we are normal, does one eye look towards the north and the other towards the south. In each moment of our life we entertain some purpose, and to this purpose the synergy of our actions is directed. Notwithstanding the next moment we may change our purpose. And in a certain sense a man is so much the more a man the more unitary his action. Some there are who throughout their whole life follow but one single purpose, be it what it may.

Also a principle of continuity in time. Without entering upon a discussion—an unprofitable discussion—as to whether I am or am not he who I was twenty years ago, it appears to me to be indisputable that he who I am to-day derives, by a continuous series of states of consciousness, from him who was in my body twenty years ago. Memory is the basis of individual personality, just as tradition is the basis of the collective personality of a people. We live in memory and by memory, and our spiritual life is at bottom simply the effort of our memory to persist, to transform itself into hope, the effort of our past to transform itself into our future.

All this, I know well, is sheer platitude; but in going about in the world one meets men who seem to have no feeling of their own personality. One of my best friends with whom I have walked and talked every day for many years, whenever I spoke to him of this sense of one’s own personality, used to say: “But I have no sense of myself; I don’t know what that is.”‘

Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life, translated by J. E. Crawford Flitch.


‘In a way that is sometimes reminiscent of Gide, Montherlant has tried to frustrate all efforts to make a stereotype of his personality or his work. ‘What is important,’ he writes in the Carnets (1957), ‘is not to be different from other people, but to be different from oneself.’ He insists, in theory and practice alike, that diversity and wholeness are inseparable, that genuine unity must absorb contradictions, not evade them. This is a theme running right through his work from his first novel, Le Songe (1922), to his most recent writings. On the purely individual level this ideal of totalisme must give full play to the conflicting elements in any single personality. Montherlant speaks, in Les Olympiques (1924), of our constant duty ‘to model our being until it fills completely the space defined by its own potentialities; until we become exactly and perfectly what we are’. The fulfilment of this duty, as Montherlant conceives it, involves three stages. First, in intellectual terms, we recognize within ourselves the presence of many different, often mutually antagonistic, tendencies. Next, exercising the will, we refuse to sacrifice any single one of these tendencies. Finally, in terms of our daily practice, we resolve the conflict to the extent of alternating between tendencies and living a dialectic which accepts their differences while striving to conserve their unity. Such a Goethean ideal of behaviour (Montherlant calls it ‘syncrétisme et alternance’) requires a complex attitude of will, passion, detachment and lucidity — qualities possessed by Montherlant to a marked degree and which give to his work as a whole its very distinctive moral climate.

On a more general level, Montherlant accepts the wider consequences of his own doctrine. He may even appear to confuse totalisme with complete abnegation of judgement and responsibility when he says that ‘everyone is always right’. Without an awareness of the twin concepts of syncrétisme and alternance such a statement is likely to be misunderstood.’

John Cruickshank, ‘Montherlant: Disorder and Unity’, The London Magazine, April 1961.


‘Our notion of nature may be confused, and in need of clarification. But it does express the fact that existence is not only ever-renewed; that it has, at the same time, continuity and density; it is not only recreated but given. I am not only what I do, and my world is not simply what I will. I am something given to myself and the world existed before me. Such being my condition, my liberty itself is qualified by a number of factors some arising out of myself, the limitations of my individual being; others inherent in the world, the necessities that restrict and the values that direct my liberty. Indeed, my freedom lies in a field of well-nigh universal gravitation. To forget this is only to subtilize the facts into a kind of shadow, an idea without consistency, a dream-limit; something shapeless but felt as absolute. This can excite the individual to alternate somersaults of revolt and exaltation, by the sheer intensity of which he is captivated, while remaining indifferent to their contradictions (this is the universe of Malraux or of de Montherlant). There is a still graver consequence. A freedom that gushes forth as sheer reality, that is so closely involved with the crude assertion of existence that it is presented as a necessity Sartre calls it a condemnation is a blind force of nature, a naked power. Who will distinguish it from instinctive preference and from the will to power? How can it be mine, if I cannot refuse it? Where will this freedom take on a human countenance, if the face of man is formed only by his own decisions? Who will keep it within human bounds, if the only frontiers between the human and inhuman are those that it decrees? Or who will restrain this freedom from desiring, in some supreme exaltation, to experience its own dissolution? From this position we are in peril of drifting not only towards  the illusions of formalized liberty, but into the frenzies of ‘living intensely’ (Whoever feels himself ‘condemned’ to freedom, to an absurd and illimitable liberty, may find no distraction from his fate except in condemning others to it, like Caligula, by sheer terrorism.’

Emmanuel Mounier, Personalism, translated by Philip Mairet.


The Diversities and the Contradictions

‘A man should not rivet himself too fast to his own humours and temperament. Our chief talent is the power of suiting ourselves to different ways of life. To be tied and bound of necessity to one single way is not to live but to exist. The best minds are those that are most voracious and most supple. Here is an honourable testimony to the elder Cato: ‘His versatile genius was so equally adapted to everything that, whatever he happened to be doing, you would say he was born to do that thing alone.’ If it were in my power to mould myself as I would, there is no form, however good, in which I should wish to be so fixed that I could not depart from it.’

‘Life is an unequal, irregular, and multiform movement. Incessantly to follow one’s own track, to be so close a prisoner to one’s own inclinations that one cannot stray from them, or give them a twist,is to be no friend to oneself, still less to be one’s master; it is to be one’s slave.’

Michel de Montaigne, ‘On Three Kinds of Relationships’, Essays, translated by J. M. Cohen.

‘Montherlant points to Shakespeare as a supreme example of a man who renounces nothing, accepting all… “A healthy soul, with that basic simplicity which both distinguishes and makes possible great things, will always be flexible, copious and vigorous enough to reconcile in a higher and joyous unity, most of these so-called contradictions which give pause to the many spineless creatures we see around us.”…The virtues he sees in Shakespeare are essentially those he seeks for himself, when he prays: “Let me live all the lives, the diversities, and the contradictions in the world intensely…Do everything, in order to experience everything; experience everything, in order to understand everything; understand everything in order to express everything: how great will our reward be when we look at ourselves and see ourselves as the mirror of creation and think of God as made in the image of man.” – To be truly human is to “comprehend all the movements of men”.’

Jonathan R. Price, ‘Montherlant’s Exemplar’, Yale French Studies, 1964.


See also:




All that is Form, System, Category, Frame or Plan

‘Those who write under the spell of inspiration, for whom thought is an expression of their organic nervous disposition, do not concern themselves with unity and systems. Such concerns, contradictions and facile paradoxes indicate an impoverished and insipid personal life…People who know only a few spiritual states and never live on the edge do not have contradictions, because their limited resources cannot form oppositions…All that is form, system, category, frame or plan tends to make things absolute and springs from a lack of inner energy, from a sterile spiritual life.’

Emil Cioran, On the Heights of Despair, translated by Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston.

‘I distrust all systematizers, and avoid them. The will to a system shows a lack of honesty.’

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, translated by Anthony M. Ludovici.

No Other Charm than their Variety and Strangeness

‘As I was observing the way in which a painter in my employment goes about his work, I felt tempted to imitate him. He chooses the best spot, in the middle of each wall, as the place for a picture, which he elaborates with all his skill; and the empty space all round he fills with grotesques; which are fantastic paintings with no other charm than their variety and strangeness. And what are these things of mine, indeed, but grotesque and monstrous bodies, pierced together from sundry limbs, with no definite shape, and with no order, sequence, or proportion except by chance?’

Michel de Montaigne, ‘On Friendship’, Essays, translated by J. M. Cohen.

‘It is the sure mark of a shallow and ignorant person to be drawn to odd curiosities and delight in unusual explanations.’

‘One day, Count Suketomo took shelter from the rain under the eaves of the gate of Toji Temple, where cripples had gathered. Observing how strange and deformed they were with their warped and twisted limbs, some turned right back on themselves, it struck him that they were all quite unique and extraordinary, and should be more deeply appreciated. But as he continued to gaze at them his interest quickly waned, and he began to find them ugly and disgusting. There is actually nothing better than straightforward, unexceptional things, he decided. He had recently developed a pleasure in potted plants, and particularly enjoyed acquiring those that were twisted in unusual ways, but when he went home and saw them it struck him that this was no different from his interest in the cripples. They lost all charm for him, and he had every one dug up and thrown away. Precisely so.’

Yoshida Kenko, Essays in Idleness, translated by Meredith McKinney.


‘The boy, observing the lamentations of his mother, said to her, ‘why do you suffer thus?’ ‘Oh my son’, she responded, ‘I have reason to weep. Beyond the prison is our fellow man, and the shining of the sun. Here we are kept in utter darkness, and away from sunlight.’ ‘I am ignorant of all this’, said the boy, ‘because I was born in prison.”

Gesta Romanorum, Tale LXXXVI.

‘Imagine a number of men in chains, all condemned to death. Every day some are butchered in full view of the others. Those who remain see their own condition reflected in the treatment of their fellows. Hopeless, exchanging tormented looks, the survivors await their turn. That is an image of the human condition.’


The Test of Necessity

‘When, in such a quantity of words, some of the writings of the saints seem not only to differ from, but even to contradict, each other, one should not rashly pass judgement concerning those by whom the world itself is to be judged, as it is written: “The saints shall judge nations” (Wisdom 3: 7-8), and again “You also shall sit as judging” (cf. Matthew 19:28). Let us not presume to declare them liars or condemn them as mistaken – those people of whom the Lord said “He who hears you, hears me; and he who rejects you, rejects me” (Luke 10:16). Thus with our weakness in mind, let us believe that we lack felicity in understanding rather than that they lack felicity in writing –- those of whom the Truth Himself said: “For it is not you who are speaking, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks through you” (Matthew 10:20). So, since the Spirit through which these things were written and spoken and revealed to the writers is itself absent from us, why should it be surprising if we should also lack an understanding of these same things?’

Pierre Abelard, Prologue to Sic et Non.

‘The contradictions the mind comes up against – these are the only realities; they are the criterion of the real. There is no contradiction in what is imaginary. Contradiction is the test of necessity. Contradiction experienced to the very depth of the being tears us heart and soul; it is the cross.

The demonstrable correlation of opposites is an image of the transcendental correlation of contradictories.

Contradiction is the point of the pyramid.

Simultaneous existence of incompatible things in the soul’s bearing; balance which leans both ways at once: that is saintliness, the actual realization of the microcosm, the imitation of the order of the world. The simultaneous existence of opposite virtues in the soul – like pincers to catch hold of God.’

Simone Weil, An Anthology, translated by Sian Miles.

‘Is it not as clear as day that man’s condition is dual?…These fundamental facts, solidly established on the inviolable authority of religion, teach us that there are in faith two equally constant truths. One is that man in the state of his creation, or in the state of grace, is exalted above the whole of nature, made like unto God and sharing in his divinity. The other is that in the state of corruption and sin he has fallen from that first state and has become like the beasts. These two propositions are equally firm and certain.

All is one, all is diversity. How many natures lie in human nature!”

Blaise Pacal, Pensées, Series VII, translated by A. J. Krailsheimer.


‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes.’

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself.

The whole man is to move together... and that the general tendency of our indifferent actions ought to be agreeable to the dictates of reason, of religion, of good breeding; without this… a man is hopping instead of walking, he is not in his entire and proper motion.’

Richard Steele, The Spectator, March 7 1711.

Day and Night

‘True knowledge comes down to vigils in the darkness: the sum of our insomnias alone distinguishes us from the animals and from our kind. What rich or strange idea was ever the work of a sleeper? Is your sleep sound? Are your dreams sweet? You swell the anonymous crowd. Daylight is hostile to thoughts, the sun blocks them out; they flourish only in the middle of the night…Conclusion of nocturnal knowledge: every man who arrives at a reassuring conclusion about anything at all gives evidence of imbecility or false charity. Who ever found a single joyous truth which was valid?’

Emil Cioran, A Short History of Decay.

‘A hostility towards the sun was my only rebellion against the spirit of the age. I hankered after Novalis’s night and Yeatsian Irish twilights. However, from the time the war ended, I gradually sensed that an era was approaching in which to treat the sun as an enemy would be tantamount to following the herd.

The literary works written or put before the public around that time were dominated by night thoughts—though their night was far less aesthetic than mine. To be really respected at that time, moreover, one’s darkness had to be rich and cloying, not thin. Even the rich honeyed night in which I myself had wallowed in my boyhood seemed to them, apparently, very thin stuff indeed.

Little by little, I began to feel uncertain about the night in which I had placed such trust during the war, and to suspect that I might have belonged with the sun worshippers all along. It may well have been so. And if it was indeed so—I began to wonder—might not my persistent hostility towards the sun, and the continued importance I attached to my own small private night, be no more than than a desire to follow the herd?

The men who indulged in nocturnal thought, it seemed to me, had without exception dry, lustreless skins and sagging stomachs. They sought to wrap up a whole epoch in a capacious night of ideas, and rejected in all its forms the sun that I had seen. They rejected both life and death as I had seen them, for in both of these the sun had had a hand.’

Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel.