Home > Uncategorized > Victor Hugo: The Face Of Cain, Hunters Of Men, Sublime Cutthroats

Victor Hugo: The Face Of Cain, Hunters Of Men, Sublime Cutthroats


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

French writers on war and peace

Victor Hugo: Selections on war


Victor Hugo
From William Shakespeare (1864)
Translated by Melville B. Anderson

Behold the rising of the new constellation! It is now certain that what has hitherto been the light of the human race begins to pale its ineffectual fire, and that the ancient beacons are flickering out.

From the beginning of human tradition men of force alone have glittered in the empyrean of history; theirs was the sole supremacy. Under the various names of king, emperor, chief, captain, prince, – epitomized in the word “hero,” – this apocalyptic group shone resplendent. Terror raised acclamations to salute them, dripping with the blood of victories. They were followed by a train of tumultuous flames; their dishevelled light gleamed portentous upon the children of men. If they lit the sky, it was with flames. They seemed to wish to extend their sway over the Infinite.

Amid their glory was heard the crash of ruin.

That red glare – was it the purple? was it blood? was it shame? Their light suggested the face of Cain. They hated one another. They exchanged flashing bolts. At times these vast stars crashed together amid volleys of lightning. Their look was furious. Their radiance stretched into sword-blades. All this hung terrible above us.


Already certain kinds of despots are no longer possible. The Pharaoh is a mummy, the Sultan is a phantom, the Caesar is a counterfeit. This stylite of the Trajan columns is anchylosed upon its pedestal; its head is covered with the excrement of the free eagles; it is nonentity rather than glory; this laurel garland is bound on with grave-clothes.

The period of the men of violence is past. They have been glorious, certainly, but with a glory that melts away. That species of great men is soluble in progress. Civilization rapidly oxidizes these bronzes…A Louis XIV invading the Palatinate would, in our day, be regarded as a robber. Already in the last century these truths began to dawn. Frederick II in the presence of Voltaire felt and owned himself something of a brigand. To be, materially, a great man, to be pompously violent, to reign by virtue of the sword-knot and the cockade, to forge a legal system upon the anvil of force, to hammer out justice and truth by dint of accomplished facts, to possess a genius for brutality, – this is to be great, if you will, but it is a coarse way of being great.

Glory advertised by drumbeats is met with a shrug of the shoulder. These sonorous heroes have, up to the present day, deafened human reason, which begins to be fatigued by this majestic uproar. Reason stops eyes and ears before those authorized butcheries called battles. The sublime cutthroats have had their day. Henceforth they can remain illustrious and august only in a certain relative oblivion. Humanity, grown older, asks to be relieved of them. The cannon’s prey has begun to think, and, thinking twice, loses its admiration for being made a target.


The greatest warrior of modern times is not Napoleon, it is Pitt. Napoleon waged war; Pitt created war. It is Pitt who willed all the wars of the Revolution and of the Empire. He is their fountainhead. Replace Pitt by Fox, and that outrageous battle of twenty-three years would be deprived of its motive-power; there would be no coalition. Pitt was the soul of the coalition; and, he dead, his soul still animated the universal war.

Here is what Pitt cost England and the world; we add this bas-relief to his pedestal:

First, the expenditure of men. From 1791 to 1814, France, constrained and forced, wrestling alone against Europe confederated by England, expended in slaughter for military glory…five millions of men; that is, six hundred men per day. Europe, including France, expended sixteen millions six hundred thousand men; that is, two thousand men destroyed daily for a period of twenty-three years.

Secondly, the expenditure of money. Unfortunately, we have no authentic account, except the account of England. From 1791 to 1814, England, in order to get France crushed by Europe, incurred a debt of twenty milliards three hundred and sixteen millions four hundred and sixty thousand and fifty-three francs. Divide this sum by the number of men killed, at the rate of two thousand per day for twenty-three years, and you arrive at the result that each corpse stretched on the field of battle cost England alone fifty pounds sterling.

Add the figures for all Europe, – numbers unknown, but enormous.

With these seventeen millions of men the European population of Australia might have been formed. With the eight hundred millions of English pounds sterling shot from the cannon’s mouth, the face of the earth might have been changed, civilization planted everywhere, and ignorance and poverty suppressed throughout the world.

England pays eight hundred millions sterling for the two statues of Pitt and of Wellington. It is fine to have heroes, but it is a costly luxury. Poets are less expensive.

The discharge of the warrior is signed. His splendor is fading in the distance. Nimrod the Great, Cyrus the Great, Sennacherib the Great, Sesostris the Great, Alexander the Great, Pyrrhus the Great, Hannibal the Great, Frederick the Great, Caesar the Great, Timour the Great, Louis the Great,  still other Greats, – all this greatness is passing away.


The hunters of men, the trailers of armies, Nimrod, Sennacherib, Cyrus, Rameses, Xerxes, Cambyses, Attila, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Alexander, Caesar, Bonaparte, – all these vast, ferocious men are vanishing.

Slowly they flicker out; now they touch the horizon; mysteriously the darkness attracts them; they have kinship with the shades, – hence their fatal descent; their resemblance to the other phenomena of night draws them on to this dreadful union with blind immensity – submersion of all light. Oblivion, that shadow of darkness, awaits them.

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