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Senancour: Lottery of war amid heaps of the dead

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

Étienne Pivert de Senancour: War, state-sanctioned suicide

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Étienne Pivert de Senancour
From Obermann (1804)
Translated by J. Anthony Barnes

War is nothing but a lottery for nearly all but the conmander-in-chief, and even he is far from being exempt from it. In modern warfare an officer on the high road to honours and promotion sees by his side a fighter quite as brave, and even more capable and robust, who is lost to fame for ever amid the heaps of the dead.

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Resistance invigorates the soul and gives it a nobler air; we feel our feet in the struggle with great griefs; we find pleasure in the effort of it, there is at least something to be done. But the obstructions, the boredoms, the limitations, the insipidity of life, it is these that wear me out and sicken me.

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What use to me are the specious arguments of a comfortable and flattering philosophy, the hollow mask of a cowardly instinct, the empty wisdom of sufferers who prolong the evils they endure so meekly, and who find sanction for our bondage in an imaginary necessity?

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Man’s morality and enthusiasm, his restless wishes and perpetual craving for expansion, seem to suggest that his goal is not in things that pass away, that his activity is not confined to visible phenomena, that his thought is concerned with necessary and eternal conceptions, that his business is to work for the betterment or the reformation of the world, that his vocation is in some sense to develop, to refine, to organize, to give more energy to matter, more power to living beings, more perfection to instruments, more fecundity to germs, better adjustment to correspondences, wider sway to order.

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Verily, I have no wish to drag myself from grade to grade, to take a position in society, to have superiors whom I acknowledge for the sake of having inferiors to disdain. Nothing is so absurd as that hierarchy of contempt which descends in accurately proportioned shades, and includes the whole state, from the prince who claims to be subject to God alone, down to the poorest street shoeblack, subject to the woman who lets him sleep on fusty straw.

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It is dreadful to end one’s days by saying: “No heart has been made happy through me; I have wrought nothing for the welfare of man; I have lived unmoved and ineffective, like some glacier in a mountain hollow which has withstood the noonday sun but has not descended to the valley to refresh with its water the herbage withered by the scorching rays.”

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[A]s man is insignificant in Nature, and everything to himself, he ought to concern himself somewhat less with the laws of the world and somewhat more with his own; dispensing perhaps with abstract sciences that have never dried a single tear in hamlet or attic; dispensing too with certain fine but useless arts, and with heroic but destructive passions, he ought to aim, if he can, at having institutions that will keep man human instead of brutalizing him, at having less science but also less ignorance, and to admit that if man is not a blind force which must be left at the mercy of fatalism, if his activities have any spontaneity, then morality is the only science for man whose fate is in the hands of his fellows.

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