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Étienne Pivert de Senancour: War, state-sanctioned suicide

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

French writers on war and peace

Senancour: Lottery of war amid heaps of the dead

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

If I cannot put an end to my life, no more can I expose myself to imminent death. Is that the kind of prudence you expect of your subjects? Then on the battlefield they ought to estimate the probabilities before charging the enemy, and your heroes are all of them criminals. The command you give them does not justify them; you have no right to send them to death if they had no right to agree to be sent. An identical unreason sanctions your martial fury and dictates your maxims, and by glaring inconsistency you justify injustice equally glaring.

If I have not this right of death over myself, who has given it to society? Have I surrendered what was not mine to give? What social principle have you devised which will explain to me how a society can acquire an internal and mutual authority which was not possessed by its members, and how I have conferred a right which may be used to oppress me, when I did not possess it even to escape from oppression?

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How can my wishes be ill-regulated? I see nothing in them but the need, nay, the sense of harmony and the proprieties of life. How can my affections be distasteful to other men? I only like what the best among them have liked, I seek nothing at the expense of any one of them; I seek only what everyone can have, what the needs of all require, what would end their woes, what draws men together, unites, and consoles them; I only want the life of the good, my peace in the peace of all.

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We give reins to fancy, and see a world of peace, order, unity, and justice, in which all men feel, desire, and enjoy with the restraint that makes pleasure and with the simplicity that enhances it. When one has had a glimpse of delights that cannot be tarnished or destroyed, when one has imagined unstinted ecstasy, how vain and pitiful seem many of the cares, the longings, and the pleasures of the visible world. Everything feels cold and hollow; we languish in a place of exile, and from the core of our loathings we set our outweary heart on its imagined homeland.

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Without money one cannot even get what money cannot buy, or avoid what money procures.

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In the very act of recording one’s thought for future reference there is somethings that savours of bondage and the cares of a life of dependence.

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If a man had to choose a friend by mere chance he would do better to take one from the canine than the human race. The lowest of his fellows would be a less fruitful source of peace and comfort than the lowest of dogs.

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The history of ever so many religious and political sects proves that expeditious methods only produce ephemeral results.

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You who call yourselves Christians are still men, and yet in spite of the laws you cannot repudiate, and in spite of those you adore, you foster and perpetuate the most glaring disparities in the culture and interests of your fellow-men. The inequality exists in Nature, but you have exaggerated it beyond measure, though you ought rather to have striven to reduce it. The prodigies created by your efforts may well be a drug in the market, for you have neither time nor skill to do so many things that need doing. The mass of mankind is brutal, stupid, and left to its own devices; all our miseries spring from that. Either do not bring them into being, or give them a chance of living like men. What then do all these long arguments of mine lead up to? That as 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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