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Alexis Carrel:
A Commemoration, Part 2

[1]3,249 words

Part 2 of 3

In addressing the artificiality of food as a modern degenerative cause, Carrel states:

Our life is influenced in a large measure by commercial advertising. Such publicity is undertaken only in the interest of the advertisers and not of the consumers. For example, the public has been made to believe that white bread is better than brown. Then, flour has been bolted more and more thoroughly and thus deprived of its most useful components. Such treatment permits its preservation for longer periods and facilitates the making of bread. The millers and the bakers earn more money. The consumers eat an inferior product, believing it to be a superior one. And in the countries where bread is the principal food, the population degenerates. Enormous amounts of money are spent for publicity. As a result, large quantities of alimentary and pharmaceutical products, at the least useless, and often harmful, have become a necessity for civilized men. In this manner the greediness of individuals, sufficiently shrewd to create a popular demand for the goods that they have for sale, plays a leading part in the modern world.[1]

These problems of modern civilization were addressed during the Medieval era, under religious sanction, and under organization sanction via the Guilds, and yet our era is regarded as “progressive” and full of unlimited possibilities and that of the past as superstition-ridden and ignorant.

Man is for Carrel first a spiritual being, who has entered a degenerative state through artificial behavior patterns induced by industrialization.

The definition of good and evil is based both on reason and on the immemorial experience of humanity. It is related to basic necessities of individual and social life. However, it is somewhat arbitrary. But at each epoch and in each country it should be very clearly defined and identical for all classes of individuals. The good is equivalent to justice, charity, beauty. The evil, to selfishness, meanness, ugliness. In modern civilization, the theoretical rules of conduct are based upon the remains of Christian morals. No one obeys them. Modern man has rejected all discipline of his appetites. However, biological and industrial morals have no practical value, because they are artificial and take into consideration only one aspect of the human being. They ignore some of our most essential activities. They do not give to man an armor strong enough to protect him against his own inherent vices.

In order to keep his mental and organic balance, man must impose upon himself an inner rule. The state can thrust legality upon people by force. But not morality. Everyone should realize the necessity of selecting the right and avoiding the wrong, of submitting himself to such necessity by an effort of his own will. The Roman Catholic Church, in its deep understanding of human psychology, has given to moral activities a far higher place than to intellectual ones. The men, honored by her above all others, are neither the leaders of nations, the men of science, nor the philosophers. They are the saints–that is, those who are virtuous in a heroic manner. When we watch the inhabitants of the new city, we fully understand the practical necessity of moral sense. Intelligence, will power, and morality are very closely related. But moral sense is more important than intelligence. When it disappears from a nation the whole social structure slowly commences to crumble away. In biological research, we have not given so far to moral activities the importance that they deserve. Moral sense must be studied in as positive a manner as intelligence. Such a study is certainly difficult. But the many aspects of this sense in individuals and groups of individuals can easily be discerned. It is also possible to analyze the physiological, psychological, and social effects of morals. Of course, such researches cannot be undertaken in a laboratory. Field work is indispensable. There are still today many human communities which show the various characteristics of moral sense, and the results of its absence or of its presence in different degrees. Without any doubt, moral activities are located within the domain of scientific observation.[2]

While Carrel has been deemed since 1944 to be a “fascist,” a “collaborator,” and a “Nazi,” his championing of the individual rather than the mass does not sit well with stereotypical images. Like others skeptical of democracy and equality, he opposed the leveling tendencies of the modern era, be they in the form of capitalism or Marxism, both of which had accepted the same formulation of man and society, Carrel in Reflections on Life calling the Liberal bourgeois the elder brother of the Bolshevist.

Modern society ignores the individual. It only takes account of human beings. It believes in the reality of the Universals and treats men as abstractions. The confusion of the concepts of individual and of human being has led industrial civilization to a fundamental error, the standardization of men. If we were all identical, we could be reared and made to live and work in great herds, like cattle. But each one has his own personality. He cannot be treated like a symbol.[3]

One symptom of mass society is that of mass education, and Carrel here focuses on the role of the family and especially the mother as the prime educator of the child before any institution. This championing of the family rather than the State is contrary to all collectivist schemes, which seek to eliminate the family as an obstacle to State totality.

Children should not be placed, at a very early age, in schools where they are educated wholesale. As is well known, most great men have been brought up in comparative solitude, or have refused to enter the mold of the school. Of course, schools are indispensable for technical studies. They also fill, in a certain measure, the child’s need of contact with other children. But education should be the object of unfailing guidance. Such guidance belongs to the parents. They alone, and more especially the mother, have observed, since their origin, the physiological and mental peculiarities whose orientation is the aim of education. Modern society has committed a serious mistake by entirely substituting the school for the familial training. The mothers abandon their children to the kindergarten in order to attend to their careers, their social ambitions, their sexual pleasures, their literary or artistic fancies, or simply to play bridge, go to the cinema, and waste their time in busy idleness. They are, thus, responsible for the disappearance of the familial group where the child was kept in contact with adults and learned a great deal from them.[4]

It is relevant to note here that the family was indeed the basis of the Vichy regime that sought a “National Revolution” based on the dictum “Work, Family, Homeland.” Among the family-orientated measures of the Vichy regime was the “Mother-at-home” allowance,[5] the type of legislation that is still being sought in the Western democracies. The “family allowance” increased with the birth of each child.[6] Maternity welfare provided for women to be taken by a hospital one month before and one month after the birth of a child,[7] a measure that would today in our liberal “welfare states” now seem utopian.

Likewise, Carrel lamented the phenomena of mass production and man as factory fodder, where there was once craft centered on a religious ethos rather than a strictly economic one.

The neglect of individuality by our social institutions is, likewise, responsible for the atrophy of the adults. Man does not stand, without damage, the mode of existence, and the uniform and stupid work imposed on factory and office workers, on all those who take part in mass production. In the immensity of modern cities he is isolated and as if lost. He is an economic abstraction, a unit of the herd. He gives up his individuality. He has neither responsibility nor dignity. Above the multitude stand out the rich men, the powerful politicians, the bandits. The others are only nameless grains of dust. On the contrary, the individual remains a man when he belongs to a small group, when he inhabits a village or a small town where his relative importance is greater, when he can hope to become, in his turn, an influential citizen. The contempt for individuality has brought about its factual disappearance.[8]

Again, Carrel seems to be alluding in his ideal for a return to the medieval ethos. And again, one finds here also that Carrel’s social critique is far from misanthropic, as has been more recently claimed by his post-mortem “anti-fascist” avengers. He is a physician trying to diagnose and treat the cancerous growth of the mass tyranny of the modern era.

Carrel’s conclusion is that man, who has transformed the material world through science, is also capable of transforming himself. But he will not transform himself without necessity, because he has become complacent amidst the artificial lifestyle of industrial civilization.

While surrounded by the comfort, the beauty, and the mechanical marvels engendered by technology, he does not understand how urgent is this operation. He fails to realize that he is degenerating. Why should he strive to modify his ways of being, living, and thinking?[9]

Carrel regarded the Great Depression as a fortuitous opportunity, because of the undermining of public confidence in the economic system, which might impel people to seek a redirection.

Has not modern life decreased the intelligence and the morality of the whole nation? Why must we pay several billions of dollars each year to fight criminals? Why do the gangsters continue victoriously to attack banks, kill policemen, kidnap, ransom, or assassinate children, in spite of the immense amount of money spent in opposing them? Why are there so many feeble-minded and insane among civilized people? Does not the world crisis depend on individual and social factors that are more important than the economic ones? It is to be hoped that the spectacle of civilization at this beginning of its decline will compel us to ascertain whether the causes of the catastrophe do not lie within ourselves, as well as in our institutions. And that we will fully realize the imperativeness of our renovation.

…The spontaneous crash of technological civilization may help to release the impulses required for the destruction of our present habits and the creation of new modes of life.[10]

What Carrel called for was the creation of a new ruling state of renaissance men who would be educated in all the arts and sciences, having renounced ordinary life to form a ruling class better capable of creating a new civilization in keeping with man’s true nature, than can politicians and plutocrats.

Indeed, the few gifted individuals who dedicate themselves to this work will have to renounce the common modes of existence. They will not be able to play golf and bridge, to go to cinemas, to listen to radios, to make speeches at banquets, to serve on committees, to attend meetings of scientific societies, political conventions, and academies, or to cross the ocean and take part in international congresses. They must live like the monks of the great contemplative orders, and not like university professors, and still less like business men. In the course of the history of all great nations, many have sacrificed themselves for the salvation of the community. Sacrifice seems to be a necessary condition of progress.[11]

Eugenics was also a significant aspect of Carrel’s beliefs, and the matter for which he is most smeared, although eugenic ideas among physiologists at that time were the norm, and what Carrel advocated was on par with the sterilization measures already undertaken by many states of the USA,[12] and was at that time even advocated by socialists, as was particularly the case in Sweden. Hence, Carrel stated:

Eugenics may exercise a great influence upon the destiny of the civilized races. Of course, the reproduction of human beings cannot be regulated as in animals. The propagation of the insane and the feeble-minded, nevertheless, must be prevented. A medical examination should perhaps be imposed on people about to marry, as for admission into the army or the navy, or for employees in hotels, hospitals, and department stores. However, the security given by medical examination is not at all positive. The contradictory statements made by experts before the courts of justice demonstrate that these examinations often lack any value. It seems that eugenics, to be useful, should be voluntary. By an appropriate education, each one could be made to realize what wretchedness is in store for those who marry into families contaminated by syphilis, cancer, tuberculosis, insanity, or feeble-mindedness. Such families should be considered by young people at least as undesirable as those which are poor. In truth, they are more dangerous than gangsters and murderers. No criminal causes so much misery in a human group as the tendency to insanity. Voluntary eugenics is not impossible. […]None should marry a human being suffering from hidden hereditary defects. Most of man’s misfortunes are due to his organic and mental constitution and, in a large measure, to his heredity. Obviously, those who are afflicted with a heavy ancestral burden of insanity, feeblemindedness, or cancer should not marry. No human being has the right to bring misery to another human being. Still less, that of procreating children destined to misery.[13]

It is clear that for all the slander against Carrel as a eugenicist, his position on the matter was moderate for the time, and was to be voluntary, based on a combination of education and financial rewards. However, also of great importance in Carrel’s system was education and culture.

Children must be reared in contact with things which are the expression of the mind of their parents. It is imperative to stop the transformation of the farmer, the artisan, the artist, the professor, and the man of science into manual or intellectual proletarians, possessing nothing but their hands or their brains. The development of this proletariat will be the everlasting shame of industrial civilization. It has contributed to the disappearance of the family as a social unit, and to the weakening of intelligence and moral sense. It is destroying the remains of culture. All forms of the proletariat must be suppressed. Each individual should have the security and the stability required for the foundation of a family.[14]

Elsewhere Carrel writes again of the undesirability of mass proletarianization and the need for a new economic system:

The artisan, on the contrary, has the legitimate hope that some day he may become the head of his shop. Likewise, the peasant owning his land, the fisherman owning his boat, although obliged to work hard, are, nevertheless, masters of themselves and of their time. Most industrial workers could enjoy similar independence and dignity. The white-collar people lose their personality just as factory hands do. In fact, they become proletarians. It seems that modern business organization and mass production are incompatible with the full development of the human self. If such is the case, then industrial civilization, and not civilized man, must go.[15]

In the same paragraph Carrel emphasis the basic social unit as being the family, predicated on sound and lasting marriage for the raising of healthy children, and the education of women geared to raising children.

Marriage must cease being only a temporary union. The union of man and woman, like that of the higher anthropoids, ought to last at least until the young have no further need of protection. The laws relating to education, and especially to that of girls, to marriage, and divorce should, above all, take into account the interest of children. Women should receive a higher education, not in order to become doctors, lawyers, or professors, but to rear their offspring to be valuable human beings.[16]

Feminism has resulted in what we might call the proletarianization of women, whether in menial or intellectual arenas, as increasing numbers especially over the past several decades have opted for jobs rather than children, even for the sake of their social life, or have been leaving child bearing to increasingly later ages until procreation becomes a problem. If Carrel were alive today, he would undoubtedly have much to say about the decline fertility rates among males also, perhaps looking at environmental and nutritional factors for explanations. At any rate the question of food quality is broached by Carrel several times in Man the Unknown, for example:

We now have to reestablish, in the fullness of his personality, the human being weakened and standardized by modem life. Sexes have again to be clearly defined. Each individual should be either male or female, and never manifest the sexual tendencies, mental characteristics, and ambitions of the opposite sex. Instead of resembling a machine produced in series, man should, on the contrary, emphasize his uniqueness. In order to reconstruct personality, we must break the frame of the school, factory, and office, and reject the very principles of technological civilization.

The effect of the chemical compounds contained in food upon physiological and mental activities is far from being thoroughly known. Medical opinion on this point is of little value, for no experiments of sufficient duration have been made upon human beings to ascertain the influence of a given diet. There is no doubt that consciousness is affected by the quantity and the quality of the food.[17]

Carrel, as a social-physician in the closing paragraphs of his seminal work again shows that what he was advocating was of a humane character; that he was not a social-Darwinist with a disregard for the weaker elements of society:

The brutal materialism of our civilization not only opposes the soaring of intelligence, but also crushes the affective, the gentle, the weak, the lonely, those who love beauty, who look for other things than money, whose sensibility does not stand the struggle of modern life. In past centuries, the many who were too refined, or too incomplete, to fight with the rest were allowed the free development of their personality. Some lived within themselves. Others took refuge in monasteries, in charitable or contemplative orders, where they found poverty and hard work, but also dignity, beauty, and peace. Individuals of this type should be given, instead of the inimical conditions of modern society, an environment more appropriate to the growth and utilization of their specific qualities.[18]


1. Man the Unknown.

2. Man the Unknown, ch. 4: 3.

3. Man the Unknown, ch. 7: 10.

4. Man the Unknown, ch. 7: 10.

5. Decree of October 11, 1940.

6. Laws of November 18, 1940; February 15, 1941.

7. Law no. 3763, September 2, 1941.

8. Alexis Carrel, Man the Unknown, ch. 7: 10.

9. Man the Unknown, ch. 7: 10., ch. 8: 1.

10. Man the Unknown, ch. 7: 10.

11. Man the Unknown,  ch. 8:3.

12. Indiana became the first US state to enact a sterilization law in 1907, directed towards the “feebleminded.” In 1927 the US Supreme Court ruled 8 to  that sterilization laws for the mentally handicapped were not unconstitutional, Justice Holmes writing of the decision: “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” As late as 1970 the Nixon Administration increased Medicaid funding for the voluntary sterilization of low-income Americans. The last forcible sterilization occurred in the USA in 1981, in Oregon, under the direction of the Oregon Board of Eugenics. Social democratic Sweden was particularly active with a eugenic sterilization program from 1934, the laws not being repealed until 1976. Around 31,000 had been sterilized, by far the majority forcibly.

13. Man the Unknown, ch. 8:7.

14. Man the Unknown, ch. 8:7.

15. Man the Unknown, ch. 8:12.

16. Reflections on Life, ch. 8: 12.

17. Reflections on Life, ch. 8: 12.

18. Reflections on Life, ch. 8: 12.