Émile Chartier

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It is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.

Émile Auguste Chartier (March 3, 1868June 2, 1951), who wrote under the pseudonym Alain, was a notable French essayist, philosopher, journalist, pacifist and teacher, noted for his profound influence on his pupils, who included Raymond Aron, Simone Weil, Simone de Beauvoir, Georges Canguilhem, and André Maurois.


We prove anything we want to prove, and the real difficulty is to know what we want to prove.
Nothing is more dangerous than an idea, when it's the only one we have.
  • Every boat is copied from another boat... Let’s reason as follows in the manner of Darwin. It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up at the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied... One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.
    • Propos d’un Normand (1908); as quoted in "Natural selection and cultural rates of change" by D. S. Rogers and P. R. Ehrlich (2008) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105:3416–3420.
  • On prouve tout ce qu'on veut, et la vraie difficulté est de savoir ce qu'on veut prouver.
    • We prove what we want to prove, and the real difficulty is to know what we want to prove.
      • Système des Beaux-Arts (1920), as quoted in The Most Brilliant Thoughts of All Time (In Two Lines or Less) by John M. Shanahan, p. 34.
    • Variant translation: We prove anything we want to prove, and the real difficulty is to know what we want to prove.
  • Thought is saying no, and it is to itself that thought says no.
    • Propos sur la religion [Remarks on religion] (1924)
    • Variant: To think is to say no.
      • Le Citoyen contre les Pouvoirs [The Citizen against the Powers] (1926).
  • When people ask me if the division between parties of the right and parties of the left, men of the right and men of the left, still makes sense, the first thing that comes to mind is that the person asking the question is certainly not a man of the left.
    • 1931, as quoted by Marcel Gauchet. Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, Vol. 1 - Conflicts and Divisions. Nora, Pierre and Kritzman, Lawrence (1996). New York: Columbia University Press, p. 266. ISBN 9780231084048
  • Nothing is more dangerous than an idea, when it's the only one we have.
    • Libres-propos

The Gods (1934)[edit]

  • It is the human condition to question one god after another, one appearance after another, or better, one apparition after another, always pursuing the truth of the imagination, which is not the same as the truth of appearance.
    • Introduction.
  • When we speak, in gestures or signs, we fashion a real object in the world; the gesture is seen, the words and the song are heard. The arts are simply a kind of writing, which, in one way or another, fixes words or gestures, and gives body to the invisible.
    • Introduction.
  • Man himself is an enigma in motion; his questions never stay asked; whereas the mold, the footprint, and by natural extension, the statue itself, like the vaults, the arches, the temples with which man records his own passing, remain immobile and fix a moment of man’s life, upon which one might endlessly meditate.
    • Introduction.
  • As opposed to the incoherent spectacle of the world, the real is what is expected, what is obtained and what is discovered by our own movement. It is what is sensed as being within our own power and always responsive to our action.
    • Book I, ch. 3.

Alain On Happiness (1973)[edit]

  • Many men have refuted fear, and with sound arguments. But a man who is afraid does not listen to arguments; he listens to the beating of his heart and the pulsating of his blood.
    • Becephalus.
  • It is clear that in mulling over harsh judgments, sinister predictions, and bad memories, we fashion our own sadness; in a certain sense, we savor it.
    • Sad Mary.
  • In short, the important thing is to get started. No matter how; then there will be time to ask yourself where you are going.
    • Fate.
  • We must clear away, simplify, eradicate.
    • The Prophetic Soul
  • Our errors perish before we do. Let's not mummify them and keep them around.
    • Our Future.
  • Everybody continually tries to get away with as much as he can; and society is a marvelous machine which allows decent people to be cruel without realizing it.
    • Attitudes Toward Neighbors.
  • Politeness is for people toward whom we feel indifferent, and moods, both good and bad, are for those we love.
    • Domestic Tranquility.
  • Humanity will have to extricate itself from the bags created by false moralists, according to whom we taste happiness and then pass judgment on it, as if it were a piece of fruit. But I maintain that even for a piece of fruit we can do something to help it taste good. This is even truer of marriage and every other human relationship; these things are not meant to be tasted or passively accepted; they must be made. A relationship is not like a bit of shade where one is comfortable or uncomfortable depending on the weather and the way the wind is blowing. On the contrary, it is a place of miracles, where the magician makes the rain and the good weather.
    • On Private Life.
  • Any kind of barbarism, once established, will last.
    • Men of Action.
  • Idleness is the mother of all vices, but also of all virtues.
    • Men of Action.
  • In short, the anomaly of war is that the best men get themselves killed while crafty men find their chance to govern in a manner contrary to justice.
    • Egoists.
  • May the Gods, if they did not die of boredom, never give you one of those flat kingdoms to govern; may lead you through mountain paths; may they give you for a companion a good Andalusian mule with eyes like wells, a brow like an anvil, and who stops dead in his tracks because he sees the shadow his ears make on the road in front of him.
    • The King is Bored.
  • Work is the best and worst of all things; the best of it is voluntary, the worst of it is servile.
    • Happy Farmers.
  • Every menial condition is bearable as long as one can exercise authority over one's work and be assured that the job is permanent.
    • Happy Farmers.
  • We are advised and led along by second-rate moralists who only know how to work themselves into a delirium and pass their illness onto others.
    • The Eloquence of Our Passions.
  • One must preach life, not death; spread hope, not fear and cultivate joy, man's most valuable treasure. That is the secret of the greatest of the wise, and it wil be the light of tomorrow. Passions are sad. Hatred is sad. Joy destroys passions and hatred. Let us begin by telling ourselves that sadness is never noble, beautiful or useful.
    • On Pity.
  • An author of antiquity said that every event has two handles, and that, in order to carry it, there is no sense in choosing the one that hurts the hand.
    • In The Rain.
  • Certainly thinking is pleasant, but the pleasure of thinking must be subordinated to the art of making decisions.
    • Ceremonies.
  • Obligation spoils everything.
    • Happy New Year.
  • Never be insolent unless it is a deliberate decision, and only toward a man more powerful than yourself.
    • Giving Pleasure.
  • Happiness is a reward that comes to those that have not looked for it.
    • Victories.
  • Each one gave the other the only assistance one man can expect from another: that his friend support him and ask only that he remain himself. It is no great accomplishment to take people as they are, and we must always do so eventually, but to wish them to be as they are, that is a genuine love.
    • Poets.
  • Untie, liberate, and do not be afraid. He who is free is disarmed.
    • Poets.
  • It is very true that we ought to think of the happiness of others; but it is not often enough said that the best thing we can do for those who love us is to be happy ourselves.
    • Happiness if Generous.
  • When the pack is out hunting, the dogs do not fight among themselves.
    • One Must Vow.

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