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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Towards a Republican Ethics of Fraternité: Charles Péguy’s Mystical Refashioning of Civic Virtue

  • Author(s): Gervase, Matthew
  • Advisor(s): Miller, Tyrus
  • et al.

Socialist and Catholic, poet and soldier, mystic and political thinker, Charles Péguy remains a figure of both critical and popular fascination in France well over a century after his death. Despite his importance in Continental thought, both he and his work remain largely unknown in American academe. This dissertation addresses the reasons for this ignorance, providing both a practical and theoretical intervention in the long and complicated history of Péguy’s reception. The practical component takes the form of a translation of Péguy’s final essay Note conjointe sur M. Descartes et la philosophie cartésienne, previously unavailable in English, which offers the most complete summation of Péguy’s mystico-political vision for an imperiled French identity in the lead-up to the First World War. Péguy’s highly spiritual vision of French identity, stained by the appropriation of his work by Vichy ideologues, has been rediscovered in recent decades in France. This dissertation joins and complements this vibrant conversation by arguing for Péguy’s continued relevance as a thinker of political and spiritual community in the contemporary world.

Born in rural France, educated at the École Normale Supérieure, Péguy sought a way to incorporate the plebeian good sense and communal spirit of the people with a more cosmopolitan practice of literary and historical understanding made possible by education. Out of this dynamic fusion, he looked to engender a new model of civic engagement in response to the changing conditions of modern life. This model encouraged proximity, fraternity, and more creative forms of political praxis drawing upon the full range of members of a given community. Against the modern tendency towards hierarchy, specialization, and technological expertise, Péguy gave voice to a more egalitarian, agonistic, and communally rooted form of political self-understanding. This heterodox form of mystico-political thought has largely resisted literary and cultural forms of translation into the Anglo-American world. Yet, Péguy’s work offers us a compelling vision of political community within France’s Third Republic, one geared toward the formation of a new sense of individual and political identity capable of responding to the complexities of a global world without renouncing the commitment to a shared common good.

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