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:




Between Angel and Beast

‘Indecision is such an an obvious and easily deplored weakness, such a sure butt for contempt by saint and satanist alike. So the poor mugwump simultaneously admires and is horrified by those who seem to have the strength of will to go one way or the other – those who decide to stand at all costs by the domineering and rational spirit, and those who wish to abandon themselves with glee to the intense pleasures of sensuality.

Especially deplorable is the kind of person who might be called the extreme mugwump – the one who has his extremities on both sides of the fence. There is, for example,  the common scandal of the saint-sinner, the individual who appears in public as the champion of the spirit, but who is in private some kind of rake. Very oten his case is not as simple as that of the mere hypocrite. He is genuinely attracted to both extremes.

It is high time to ask whether it is really any scandal, any deplorable inconsistency , for a human being to be both angel and animal with equal devotion. Is it not possible, in other words, to be the extreme mugwump without inner conflict, to be mystic and sensualist without actual. contradiction? It is hard to see how a human being can be anything but a mediocrity on the one hand or a fanatic on the other unless he can give rein to both sides of their nature, avoiding, however, the deceit and degradation which attach themselves to the animal side of our life when it is associated with shame.’

Alan Watts, This is It, and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience.

‘The absurdity which, in common with many French writers of his generation, he [Montherlant] sees at the root of the human condition is for him a natural state of affairs, a fact of life, neither to be luxuriated in nor to be deplored. Humankind is at once capable of great evil and self destruction… and of great courage and sacrifice… Wisdom for Montherlant lies in accepting these extremes; a healthy balance must be struck between Angel and Beast, the empire of the sense and the world of the mind. Only mediocrity is to be eschewed at all costs.’

John Fletcher, ‘Montherlant, Encyclopedia of the Essay, edited by Tracy Chevalier.

‘Man is neither angel nor beast, and it unfortunately the case that anyone trying to act the angel acts the beast.’

Blaise Pascal, Pensées, translated by A. J. Krailsheimer.

A New Form of Voluntary Servitude

‘Coubertin’s athlete though was born of a romantic, idealistic inclination, and represented the consummation of a life based on a commitment to the highest virtues of nobility, unselfishness and community. For Montherlant on the other hand, the athlete became the personification of an atheistic nihilism, the expression of a life of “service inutile,” a self-centered ideal that posited that the only choice individuals have to create any sense of a meaningful existence is to commit to a purpose, a cause, knowing at the same time that any purpose or cause is merely a chimera. For Coubertin, the athlete represented a knighthood of purpose; for Montherlant a “knighthood of nothingness.”’

Jeffrey O. Segrave, ‘Chevalerie du néant’ (“the knighthood of nothingness”): Henry de Montherlant and the Olympic Games Movement. 

‘You stop a horse that is bolting. You do not stop a jogger who is jogging. Foaming at the mouth, his mind riveted on the inner countdown to the moment when he will achieve a higher plane of consciousness, he is not to be stopped… What the third-century Stylite sought in self-privation and proud stillness he is seeking through the muscular exhaustion of his body. He is the brother in mortification of those who conscientiously exhaust themselves in the body-building studios in complicated machines with chrome pulleys and on terrifying medical contraptions… Like dieting, body-building, and so many other things, jogging is a new form of voluntary servitude… Nothing evokes the end of the world more than a man running straight ahead on a beach, swathed in the sounds of his walkman, cocooned in the solitary sacrifice of his energy, indifferent even to catastrophes since he expects destruction to come only as the fruit of his own efforts, from exhausting the energy of a body that in his own eyes has become useless. Primitives, when in despair, would commit suicide by swimming out to sea until they could swim no longer. The jogger commits suicide by running up and down the beach.’

Jean Baudrillard, America, translated by Chris Turner.

Ex Opere Operato II – Useless Service

‘The only attitude worthy of a superior man is to persist in an activity he recognizes is useless, to observe a discipline he knows is sterile, and to apply certain norms of philosophical and metaphysical thought that he considers utterly inconsequential.’

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

‘If one acts, it is only to give oneself subjective satisfactions: an impression of novelty, or motion, or courage. Anyone who imagines himself aiming at a goal outside himself would be a dupe. This is what Montherlant asserts in Service inutile: “You will tell me that there is no cause worth dying for. That is quite probable. However, it is not for this cause that one suffers or dies. It is for the idea that this suffering and death gives us of ourselves…One must be absurd my friend, but one must not be a dupe. No pity for the dupes.’

Simone de Beauvoir, ‘Right-Wing Thought Today’, in Political Writings, edited by Margaret A Simons and Marybeth Timmerman.

‘You cannot really perform a significant work without being a nihilist. All those activists who appear to be optimists are fakes.’

Yukio Mishima, as quoted in The Thorn and the Chrysanthemum: Suicide and Economic Success in Modern Japan, Mamoru Iga.