A Commemoration, Part 3"/>
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Alexis Carrel:
A Commemoration, Part 3

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Part 3 of 3

Reflections on Life

Three of Carrel’s books were published posthumously, Reflections on Life[1] being particularly instructive in further explicating Carrel’s views on civilization. Here Carrel states that the great problem of the day is for man to increase not only his intelligence, but also a robustness of character and morality, and to maintain a spiritual outlook, these qualities having atrophied and failed to keep pace with technical evolution.[2] Based on his experiments and observations Carrel states that the organism is greatly malleable and changed by circumstances of environment. This two-way interaction between environment and genes seems often to be overlooked in a dichotomy existing between genetic determinists and environmental determinists. Therefore, what Carrel presents is a synthesis, writing:

The formation of body and mind depends on the chemical, physical and psychological conditions of the environment and on physiological habits. The effects of these conditions and these habits on the whole make-up of the individual ought to be exactly studied with reference to all activities of body and mind.[3]

Throughout his life he also emphasized the importance of the spiritual and the religious, and he remained a Christian.

Carrel proceeds with the first chapter to trace the dissolution of traditional communal bonds with the ancestral traditions being undermined from the time of the Renaissance, through to the Reformation, and the revolutions of France and America, enthroning of rationalism and heralding the rise of liberalism and Marxism:

The democratic nations fail to recognize the value of scientific concepts in the organization of communal life. They put their trust in ideologies, those twin daughters of the rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment. Yet neither Liberalism nor Marxism bases itself on an exhaustive observation of reality. The fathers of Liberalism, Voltaire and Adam Smith, had just as arbitrary and incomplete a view of the human world as Ptolemy had of the stellar system. The same applies to those who signed the Declaration of Independence, to the authors of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen as also to Karl Marx and Engels.[4]

At the root of these ideologies of capitalism and socialism alike is economic reductionism, which has given rise to the artificiality of a civilization that Carrel condemned for fostering a weakened state of humanity, physiologically, morally, spiritually, and mentally:

The principles of the Communist Manifesto are, in fact, like those of the French Revolution, philosophical views and not scientific concepts. The Liberal bourgeois and the Communist worker share the same belief in the primacy of economics. This belief is inherited from the philosophers of the eighteenth century. It takes no account of the scientific knowledge of the mental and physiological activities of man we possess today nor of the environment which these activities need for their ideal development. Such knowledge shows that primacy belongs not to economics, but to man’s own humanity. Instead of trying to find how to organize the State as a function of the human, we are content to declaim the principles of the Declaration of Independence and of the French Revolution. According to these principles, the State is, above all, the guardian of property; the head servant of banking, industry and commerce.[5]

This liberty has brought nothing real to the multitude of proletarianized masses.

The liberty enjoyed by the majority of men does not belong to the economic, intellectual or moral order. The dispossessed have merely the liberty to go from one slum or one public house to another. They are free to read the lies of one paper rather than another, to listen to opposing forms of radio propaganda and, finally, to vote. Politically they are free; economically they are slaves. Democratic liberty exists only for those who possess something. It allows them to increase their wealth and to enjoy all the various goods of this world. It is only fair to admit that, thanks to it, Capitalism has achieved a vast expansion of wealth and a general improvement in health and in the material conditions of life. But it has, at the same time, created the proletariat. Thus it has deprived men of the land, encouraged their herding together in factories and appalling dwellings, endangered their physical and mental health and divided nations into mutually hostile social classes. The Encylopedists had a profound respect for the owners of property and despised the poor. The French Revolution was directed against both the aristocracy and the proletariat It was content to substitute the rat for the Hon; the bourgeois for the noble. Now Marxism aims at replacing the bourgeois by the worker. The successor of Capitalism is Bureaucracy. Like Liberalism, Marxism arbitrarily gives first place to economics. It allows a theoretical liberty only to the proletariat and suppresses all other classes. The real world is far more complex than the abstraction envisaged by Marx and Engels.[6]

Here, as in many other places of Carrel’s writing, we see this his concern is for humanity, for the poor and oppressed that have been reduced to a mass and meaningless existence in the name of “economic liberty,” and it soon becomes apparent that the Marxists and liberals who smeared Carrel as some type of fiendish Nazi doctor with a depraved outlook on humanity, are either lying or ignorant. If Carrel spoke “against” the proletariat it was in defense of the “worker” as artisan, craftsmen, tiller, and in opposition to a process that continues to deprive man of his humanity:

Human labor is not something which can be bought like any other commodity. It is an error to depersonalize the thinking and feeling being who operates the machine and to reduce him, in industrial enterprise, to mere “manpower.” Homo oeconomicus is a fantasy of our imagination and has no existence in the concrete world.[7]

Carrel’s adherence to the Christian faith as the basis of civilized values is a refreshing surprise from the usual atheism and materialism of scientific social commentators. Carrel maintains that Christianity provides the foundations for social bonds above all other beliefs, whether rationalistic or metaphysical.

In an unknown village of Palestine, on the shores of Lake Tiberias, a young carpenter announced some astonishing news to a few ignorant fishermen. We are loved by an immaterial and all-powerful Being. This Being is accessible to our prayers. We must love Him above all creatures. And we ourselves must also love one another.

A new era had begun. The only cement strong enough to bind men together had been found. Nevertheless, humanity chose to ignore the importance of this new principle in the organization of its collective life. It is far from having understood that only mutual love could save it from division, ruin and chaos. Nor has it realized that no scientific discovery was so fraught with significance as the revelation of the law of love by Jesus the Crucified. For this law is, in fact, that of the survival of human societies.[8]

It was this Christian faith that molded the heroic ethos and chivalry of the West, Christianity providing the feeling of “the beauty of charity and renunciation” above the “savage and lustful appetites.” Man, or better said the Westerner,

was drawn to the heroism which, in the hell of modern warfare, consists in giving one’s life for one’s friends; and in having pity on the vanquished, the sick, the weak and the abandoned. This need for sacrifice and brotherhood became more defined in the course of centuries. Then appeared St. Louis of France, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Vincent de Paul and a numberless legion of apostles of charity.[9]

It is this ethos of individual sacrifice and renunciation which Carrel states has been increasingly obliterated by the ideologies of the modern era, and which is required again to overcome the problems of the present, particularly in developing a ruling caste that he wished to see emerge and live for the service of humanity.

Even in our own base and egotistical age, thousands of men and women still follow, on the battlefield, in the monastery or in that abomination of desolation the modern city, the path of heroism, abnegation and holiness.[10]

“Our civilization,” by which Carrel must mean Western Civilization, “has, in truth, forgotten that it is born of the blood of Christ; it has also forgotten God,” but there remains a basic discernment of the beauty of the Gospels and the Sermon on the Mount.[11] As a scientist Carrel sees Christian morality not as some contrivance to maintain a ruling class, but as reflecting fundamental laws of life that are in accord with nature, and in keeping with the survival imperative. On the other hand just as mistaken are those moralists who see Christianity as negating the need for humanity to act in accordance with the discoveries of nature being revealed by science. [12] Here again, Carrel is proposing a synthesis, rather than a dichotomy. Therefore the Christian commandment against killing is applicable in a broad sense, there being many ways of killing, and the destroyers or killers of humanity include,

The profiteer who sends up the price of necessities, the financier who cheats poor people of their savings, the industrialist who does not protect his workmen against poisonous substances, the woman who has an abortion and the doctor who performs it are all murderers. Murderers, too, are the makers of harmful liquor and the wine growers who conspire with politicians to increase the consumption of drink; the sellers of dangerous drugs; the man who encourages his friend to drink; the employer who forces his workers to work and live in conditions disastrous to their bodies and minds.[13]

Carrel was not preaching any doctrine of pandering to the weak, any more than a misanthropic crushing, but rather one of the strengthening of humanity by disposing of the artificiality that has become the basis of civilization, and has halted human ascent. In this respect there is a certain coincidental resemblance to the Nietzschean over-man, when not misinterpreted or misconstrued as something monstrous. Hence man must again become re-acclimatized to harsh environmental conditions, as a matter of will and self-discipline.

The rules to follow are many, but simple. They consist in leading our daily life as the structure of our body and mind demands. We must learn to endure heat, cold and fatigue; to walk, run and climb in all extremes of weather. We must also avoid as much as possible the artificial atmosphere of offices, flats and motorcars. In the choice of the quantity of food we eat we ought to follow modern principles of nutrition. We should sleep neither too much nor too little and in a quiet atmosphere. . . . We should also accomplish daily, outside of our professional work, some definite task of an intellectual, aesthetic, moral or religious nature. Those who have the courage to order their existence thus will be magnificently rewarded. . . .[14]

As in Man the Unknown, Carrel was concerned with the affects of declining birth rates, as a symptom of decline, which he states has social and economic causes and which can consequently be reversed by the State proving generously for the rearing of healthy children. Education is also required to make eugenically sound and conscious decisions when mating, an issue which is perhaps more than any others raised by Carrel,[15] anathema to liberal sensibilities.

Healthy children and family life proceeds for Carrel on the basis of a reconnection with the soil.

The family must be rooted once more in the soil. Everyone should be able to have a house, however small, and make himself a garden. Everyone who already has a farm should beautify it. He should adorn it with flowers, pave the road which leads to it, destroy the briars which choke the hedges, break up the boulders which hinder the passage of the plow, and plant trees whose branches will shade his great-grandchildren. Finally, the works of art, the old houses, the splendid buildings and cathedrals in which the soul of our forefathers expressed itself must be piously preserved. We should also set ourselves against the profanation of the rivers, the tranquil hills and the forests which were the cradle of our ancestors. But our most sacred duty is to bring about a revolution in teaching which will make the school, instead of a dreary factory for certificates and diplomas, a center of moral, intellectual, aesthetic, and religious education.[16]

The return to the soil was a major aim of the Vichy regime. Uncultivated land could be granted with the aid of state allowances, and freedom from rent for the first three years, and thereafter a rental half that of similar land in the area.[17] State subsidies of up to 50% were available for new farm buildings.[18] Farm laborers, who had been increasingly leaving the land for the cities for better pay, were encouraged to take up farming themselves. State gratuities were given to all farmers who provided rural apprenticeship training, and agricultural education was reorganized, and centers established.[19]

As one should expect for a physiologist attempting to apply his observations of the natural world to the formation of a more natural human social order, the type of society Carrel advocated was what has been called the “organic state,” where each individual is in general part of at least one social organ, from the family outward, each individual and each social organ contributing by their innate character to the well-being of the entire social organism. The organic state is thus analogous to the living human organism where, where the brain – the government – co-ordinates the individual organs for the healthy functioning of the whole organism. This is contrary to the modern era where everyone is divided in to atomized individuals, or competing classes, and a myriad of other self-serving interests, to the detriment of the whole. Carrel repudiated that notion of society being held together by a “social contract” between individuals, as per the idea that has come down to us from liberalism, as the very act of being born makes an individual an automatic part of society. The coming together for common interests into social organs is a natural process.

Every individual is a member of several organismic and organic groups. He belongs to tie family, the village, and the parish and also, perhaps, to a school, a trade union, a professional society or a sports club. Thus a relatively small number of completely developed individuals can have a great influence on many community groups.[20]

Hence, an industrial enterprise, should according to such organic laws function as a social organism rather than as a disharmonic or diseased organism of contending interests, which one might compare to a cancer-afflicted body. What Carrel alludes to in his analogy of the industrial enterprise where solidarity replaces class warfare, is that the worker of an enterprise share in the profits of that enterprise; “when he cooperates in an enterprise which belongs to him and to which he belongs.”[21]

In his concluding chapter Carrel states: “Communities and industrial enterprises should be conceived as organisms whose function is to build up centers of human brotherhood where all are equal in the sense in which the Church understands men’s equality; that is to say, in the sense that all are children of God.”[22]

The suppression of the Proletariat and the liberation of the oppressed should not come about through class warfare but through the abolition of social classes.

What is needed is to suppress the Proletariat by replacing it with industrial enterprise of an organismic character. If the community has an organismic character, it matters little whether the state or private individuals own the means of production, but individual ownership of house and land is indispensable.[23]

One can discern in this organic conception of society the influence of the social doctrine of the Church combined with the observations of the biologist. It is no wonder that Carrel agreed to work with the Vichy Government in attempting to solve social problems, as the Vichy was one of numerous regimes, often inspired by Catholic social doctrine, which attempted to implement the organic or “corporate state.”[24]

What ideology then did Carrel adhere to? Apparently, none that had been operative.

Despite the smear that Carrel was a “Nazi,” he regarded National Socialism, Marxism, and liberalism as all having failed, as had the civilizations of the Classical and Medieval eras.[25] Neither is an entire answer to be found in a religious, scientific or a political system alone. There must be a holistic approach.

The break-up of Western civilization is due to the failure of ideologies, to the insufficiency both of religion and science. If life is to triumph, we need a revolution. We must reexamine every question and make an act of faith in the power of the human spirit. Our destiny demands this great effort; we ought to devote all our time to the effort of living since this is the whole purpose of our being on earth.

All men who are determined to make a success of living in the widest sense should join together as they have done in all times. Pythagoras made the first attempt, but it is the Catholic Church which has hitherto offered the most complete of such associations. We must give up the illusion that we can live according to instinct, like the bees. True, the success of life demands, above all, an effort of intelligence and will. Since intelligence has not replaced instinct we must try to render it capable of directing life.[26]

Carrel reconciles religious faith and metaphysics with science and natural law. Hence the Christian foundations of Carrel’s organic society are reiterated. He states that the reasons the “white races” have failed despite “their Christianity” is because the Christian ethos has not been sufficiently applied in practical terms to the questions presented by science. Carrel ends optimistically however in stating that unlike prior civilizations, this Civilization has the means of diagnosing its ills and therefore has the opportunity of halting the cycle of decay.

For the first time in the history of the world, a civilization which has arrived at the verge of its decline is able to diagnose its ills. Perhaps it will be able to use this knowledge and, thanks to the marvelous forces of science, to avoid the common fate of all the great peoples of the past. We ought to launch ourselves on this new path from this very moment. . . .

Before those who perfectly perform their task as men, the road of truth lies always open. On this royal road, the poor as well as the rich, the weak as well as the strong, believer and unbeliever alike are invited to advance. If they accept this invitation, they are sure of accomplishing their destiny, of participating in the sublime work of evolution, of hastening the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth. And, over and above, they will attain all the happiness compatible with our human condition.[27]

Post-Mortem Vilification

Carrel was spared the indignities of the democratic post-war era, and although he was cleared of being a “collaborationist” his doctrine of human ascent with its intrinsic opposition to liberalism, Marxism, capitalism, and rationalism, has made him the subject of smears in more recent years. The renewed “interest” was prompted in 1997 when Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen suggested that Carrel was the founder of ecology, which resulted in a mean-spirited campaign to get streets named after Carrel changed.[28] In 1998 a Left-wing petition was circulated to get the name of rue Alexis-Carrel in Paris changed, with the media quipping about Carrel’s supposed advocacy of brutal “Nazi-style” eugenics measures, and his so-called “dubious role” in wartime France. Hence Ben MacIntyre, journalist, for some reason felt himself qualified to remark that Carrel’s best-seller, Man the Unknown, was “pseudo-science,” one of Carrel’s most callous recommendations apparently having been to advocate the humane execution of the criminally insane.[29]

While it is something of a cliché when writing a tribute to a perhaps long forgotten individual of seemingly prophetic vision, to state that the subject had a message more relevant now than in his own time, this surely is in a myriad of ways a claim that can legitimately be made for Alexis Carrel. The many symptoms of decay he noted in his own time, from the artificiality of industrial life to the chemical adulteration of food, the standardization of life, and the rising rates of abortion are now with Western Civilization in a phase that is acute. [30]

Notes

1. Alexis Carrel, Reflections on Life. The book in its entirety has been published online: http://chestofbooks.com/society/metaphysics/Reflections-On-Life/

2. Reflections on Life, “Preface.”

3. Reflections on Life.

4. Reflections on Life, ch. 1.

5. Reflections on Life, ch. 1.

6. Reflections on Life, ch. 1.

7. Reflections on Life, ch. 1.

8. Reflections on Life, ch. 3:6.

9. Reflections on Life, ch. 3:6.

10. Reflections on Life, ch. 3:6.

11. Reflections on Life, ch. 3:6.

12. Reflections on Life, ch. 4:3.

13. Reflections on Life, ch. 5: 2.

14. Reflections on Life, ch. 5: 3.

15. Reflections on Life, ch. 5: 8.

16. Reflections on Life, ch. 5: 4.

17. Law of August 27, 1940.

18. Law of April 17, 1941.

19. Laws of July 8, 1941, and August 25, 1941.

20. Reflections on Life, ch. 6: 10.

21. Reflections on Life, ch. 6: 10.

22. Reflections on Life, ch. 9: 3.

23. Reflections on Life, ch. 9: 3.

24. Other corporate states directly inspired by Catholic social doctrine included Salazar’s Portugal, Franquist Spain and the Austria of Dollfuss.

25. Reflections on Life, ch. 9: 2.

26. Reflections on Life, ch. 9: 2.

27. Reflections on Life, ch. 9: 3.

28. David Zen Mairowitz, “Fascism a la Monde,” Harper’s, October 1997.

29. Ben MacIntyre, “Paris Left wants eugenics advocate taken off street,” The Times, January 6, 1998.

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One Comment

  1. White Republican
    Posted November 19, 2010 at 3:47 am | Permalink

    I remember seeing a documentary which briefly mentioned the controversy concerning the streets named after Alexis Carrel. The street sign in the one remaining street named after him appeared to have been defaced.

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