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.

A Greater Feeling for Art

‘The moral characteristics of the Papuan appear to me to separate him as distinctly from the Malay as do his form and features… Of the intellect of this race it is very difficult to judge, but I am inclined to rate it somewhat higher than that of the Malays, notwithstanding the fact that the Papuans have never yet made any advance towards civilization. It must be remembered, however, that for centuries the Malays have been influenced by Hindoo, Chinese, and Arabic immigration, whereas the Papuan race has only been subjected to the very partial and local influence of Malay traders. The Papuan has much more vital energy, which would certainly greatly assist his intellectual development…The Papuan has a greater feeling for art than the Malay. He decorates his canoe, his house, and almost every domestic utensil with elaborate carving, a habit which is rarely found among tribes of the Malay race.’

Alfred Russell Wallace, The Malay Archipelago, Volume II.

‘Decoration is of a sensorial and elementary order, as is colour, and is suited to simple races, peasants, and savages. Harmony and proportion incite the intellectual faculties and arrest the man of culture. The peasant loves ornament and decorates his walls. The civilized man wears a well-cut suit and is the owner of easel pictures and books.

Decoration: baubles, charming entertainment for a savage.’

Le Corbusier, Towards an Architecture.


‘So long as we believe there must be a reason why what is, is the way it is, we will continue to fuel superstition, which is to say, that there is an ineffable reason underlying all things. Since we will never be able to discover or understand such a reason, all we can do is believe in it, or aspire to believe in it. So long as we construe our access to facticity in terms of thought’s discovery of its own intrinsic limits and its inability to uncover the ultimate reason for things, our abolition of metaphysics will only have served to resuscitate religiosity in all its forms, including the most menacing ones. So long as we construe facticity as a limit of thought, we will abandon whatever lies beyond this limit to the rule of piety. Thus, in order to stop this see-sawing between metaphysics and fideism, we must transform our perspective on unreason, stop construing it as the form of our deficient grasp of the world and turn it into the veridical content of this world as such – we must project unreason into things themselves, and discover in our grasp of facticity the veritable intellectual intuition of the absolute. ‘Intuition’, because it is actually in what is that we discover a contingency with no limit other than itself, ‘intellectual’ because this contingency is neither visible nor perceptible in things and only thought is capable of accessing it, just as it accesses the chaos that underlies the apparent continuity of phenomena…The speculative releases us from the phenomenal stability of empirical constraints by elevating us to the purely intelligible chaos that underlies every aspect of it’.

Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency.

‘Reason, the controller, has perfect understanding of the conditions, the purpose, and the materials of its work.

Either the world is a mere hotch-potch of random cohesions or dispersions, or else it is a unity of order and providence. If the former, why wish to survive in such  a purposeless and chaotic confusion; why care about anything, save the manner of the ultimate return to dust; why trouble my head at all; since, do what I will, dispersion must overtake me sooner or later? But if the contrary be true, then I do reverence, I stand firmly, and I put my trust in the directing Power.’

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, translated by Maxwell Staniforth.

When We Read

When we read, we are not looking for new ideas, but to see our own thoughts given the seal of confirmation on the printed page. The words that strike us are those that awake an echo in a zone we have already made our own—the place where we live—and the vibration enables us to find fresh starting points within ourselves.

Cesare Pavese, This Business of Living, translated by A. E. Murch.

The only advantage to studying is to take delight in all the things that other people haven’t said.

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, translated by Richard Zenith.

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.’


A Contrast of Attitude

‘Suppose a curious and fair woman. Some have seen the beauties of Heaven in such a person. It is a vain thing to say they loved too much. I dare say there are ten thousand beauties in that creature which they have not seen: They loved it not too much, but upon false causes. Nor so much upon false ones, as only upon some little ones. They love a creature for sparkling eyes and curled hair, lily breasts and ruddy cheeks which they should love moreover for being God’s Image, Queen of the Universe, beloved by Angels, redeemed by Jesus Christ, an heiress of Heaven, and temple of the Holy Ghost: a mine and fountain of all virtues, a treasury of graces, and a child of God. But these excellencies are unknown. They love her perhaps, but do not love God more: nor men as much: nor Heaven and Earth at all. And so, being defective to other things, perish by a seeming excess to that. We should be all Life and Mettle and Vigour and Love to everything; and that would poise us. I dare confidently say that every person in the whole world ought to be beloved as much as this.’

Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations. 

‘The beauty of the body stops at the skin. If men could see what is beneath the skin, as with the lynx of Boeotia, they would shudder at the sight of a woman. All that grace consists of mucus and blood, humors and gall. Think of what is hidden in the nostrils, in the throat, and in the belly: only filth. And if it revolts you to touch mucus or dung with your fingertips, how could we desire to embrace the sack of that filth?’

Odo of Cluny.


‘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.