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Guyau on Life and Ethics

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Esquisse d’une Morale sans Obligation, ni SanctionJean-Marie Guyau (1885)

In his A Sketch of Morality without Obligation or Sanction (S), Guyau was setting aside morality from religious faith, from Kantian duty, and from utilitarianism. He was investigating how far morality could be determined from a purely scientific view of the nature of life. Guyau had some training in and love for science; he prized modern, capitalistic life; and although his was a thoroughly individualistic vision, it was not an egoistic vision. Guyau’s life-philosophy exerted some influence on Nietzsche’s (unacknowledged) and a considerable influence on Bergson’s (acknowledged).

Guyau rejected the pessimism that Schopenhauer and his followers had decorated and that, really, had been cultivated as far back as Buddha. Guyau argued against the pessimistic view of life that condemns pleasure and desire. Guyau looks “not only to psychology, but to biology [to] find out whether the actual laws of life do not imply a surplus value of welfare over pain” and to show that the morality he would uphold on scientific grounds “would be right in wanting to conform human actions to the laws of life, instead of aiming at final annihilation of life, and of the desire to live” (S 33). [1]

“If, in living beings, the feelings of discomfort really prevailed over those of comfort, life would be impossible. . . . The subjective discomfort of suffering is only a symptom of a wrong objective state of disorder . . . . The feeling of well-being is like the subjective aspect of a right objective state. In the rhythm of existence, well-being thus corresponds to evolution of life, pain to dissolution” (S 33–34).

“If the human race and the other animal species survive, it is precisely because life is not too bad for them. . . . A moral philosophy of annihilation, to whatever living being it is proposed, is like a contradiction. In reality, it is the same reason which makes existence possible and which makes it desirable” (S 37).

Guyau concludes “that suffering is not the evil most dreaded by man—that inaction is often still worse; that there is, moreover, a particular kind of pleasure which springs from conquered sorrow, and, in general, from every expended energy” (S 30).

“There are two kinds of pleasure. At one time pleasure corresponds with a particular and superficial form of activity (the pleasure of eating, drinking, etc.); at another time it is connected with the very root of that activity (the pleasure of living, of willing, of thinking, etc.). In the one case, it is purely a pleasure of the senses; in the other, it is more deeply vital, more independent of exterior objects—it is one with the very consciousness of life” (S 77).

With those few samples from Guyau, a little of his intellectual likeness to both Rand and Nietzsche is apparent. Guyau, however, was not a proponent of any sort of egoism, and his praise of concern for one’s fellows was repellant to Nietzsche. Guyau motivated such concern in a conception of life that included expansiveness and growth in its fundamental nature and that included a stress on the love of risk in human nature. Nietzsche increased his attention to those factors in his subsequent representations of life, after reading Guyau’s Esquisse in the same year it issued, although Nietzsche sailed on with his recently distilled fundamental characterization of life as will to power, quite at odds with Guyau’s concept of life and Rand’s concept of life. Guyau’s life-philosophy exerted some influence on Nietzsche’s (unacknowledged) and a considerable influence on Bergson’s (acknowledged).

Initially, I had assumed that, despite important similarities with Rand’s outlook, it was very unlikely she would have ever encountered Guyau’s ideas (in French or in English). However, I have learned that a summary of Guyau was widely available in Petr Kropotkin’s Ethics: Origin and Development (1924 in English). So perhaps Rand had known something of Guyau’s view, not only the views of some of the moralists (and the anti-moralist Nietzsche) better known than Guyau today, as she crafted her own view. Shoshana Milgram has mentioned to me that a course including Guyau was being taught at Rand’s university in Petrograd during her years there, but Rand did not take that course.

Concerning morality based on faith, Guyau writes that “the believer wants to believe without knowing.” Faith is a “renunciation of all personal initiative . . . . This kind of intellectual suicide is inexcusable, and that which is still more strange is the pretension to justify it, as is constantly done, by invoking moral reasons. Morality should command the mind to search without resting—that is to say, precisely to guard itself against faith. . . . In the domain of thought there is nothing more moral than truth; and when truth cannot be secured through positive knowledge, nothing is more moral than doubt. . . . We must therefore drive out of ourselves the blind respect for certain principles, for certain beliefs. We must be able to question, scrutinize, penetrate everything.” (S 62–63)

Concerning Kant’s precept “‘Act in such a way that your maxim may become a universal law,’ no sentiment of obligation whatever will attach itself, so long as there is no question of social life and the deep inclinations awakened by it. . . . / . . . . Will it be said that the universal law itself contains at bottom will—pure will? The reduction of duty to the will of law, which itself would still be a purely formal will, far from building up morality, seems to us to produce a dissolvent effect on the will itself. The will to do a certain deed cannot be based on any law which is not founded on the practical and logical value of the deed itself.” (S 50)

There must be a specific valued object for pursuit to be morally praiseworthy. Without a specific object valued for its actual or potential uses, “we should no longer have courage to will and to merit; we do not use our will for the mere sake of willing” (S 32).

Guyau proceeds to lay out his positive moral theory with a preamble: “Scientific morality, in order not to include from its very beginning an inverifiable postulate, must be first individualistic. It should preoccupy itself with the destiny of society only in so far as it more or less includes that of the individual” (S 71–72).

To aim at a target is not to hit it, but the distribution of hits about it can show the center. “Where is the centre of the universal effort of beings towards which the strokes of the great hazard of things have been directed?” (S 73). Hedonists would say the aim is to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. That is certainly a typical direction of our desire, but it can be applied only “to the conscious and more or less voluntary acts . . . . Even those acts achieved in full consciousness have generally their beginning and first origin in dumb instincts and reflex movements. . . . The natural spring of action, before appearing in consciousness, must have already acted from underneath in the obscure region of the instincts. The constant end of action must primarily have been a constant cause of more or less unconscious movements. In reality, the ends are but habitual motive causes become conscious of themselves. . . . Every conscious desire, therefore, has first been an instinct [in the broad sense]. The sphere of finality coincides, at least in its centre, with the sphere of causality . . . . The problem: What is the end, the constant target, of action? becomes therefore, from another point of view, this problem: What is the constant cause of action? In the circle of life, the point aimed at blends with the very point from which the action springs.” (S 74)

“An exclusively scientific morality must, to be complete, admit that the pursuit of pleasure is only itself the consequence of the instinctive effort to maintain and enlarge life. The aim which, in fact, determines every conscious action is also the cause which produces every unconscious action. It is, then, life itself—life most intense and, at the same time, its most varied forms. From the first bound of the embryo in the womb of its mother, to the last convulsion of old age, every movement of the creature has, as cause, life in its evolution. The universal cause of our acts is, from another point of view, its constant effect and end.” (S 75)

So far as the discipline of ethics can be a science, its task will be to articulate “the means of preserving and enlarging material and intellectual life,” and its laws “will be identical with the deepest laws of life itself” (S 75–76; further, 80–81). There is in us a cause which “operates as an aim, even before any attraction of pleasure; this cause is life, tending by its nature to grow and to diffuse itself, thus finding pleasure as consequence, but not necessarily taking it as an end in itself” (210–11). Life in its “aspiration towards incessant development . . . makes its own obligation to act by its very power of action” (211). Life makes also “its sanction by its very action; for, in acting, it takes joy in its own capacity” (213).

For Nietzsche we know that there is a deepest law of life, and that is will to power. Growth he sees as expansion of power (BGE 230, 259; GS V 349).

For Guyau the deepest laws of life are that it is nutritive and self-preservative and that it is fecundity (S 70, 75, 79, 209–10). Beyond nutrition and appropriation necessary for self-maintenance, there may accumulate superabundance capable of the expansion of life that is reproduction. This is a good for humans, as it is for all other life forms. Generation is an elevated intensity of life. Without sexual reproduction, the good that is man, with family and society, would not exist (82–83). “Individual life is expansive for others because it is fruitful, and it is fruitful by the very reason that it is life” (209–10).

Guyau does not think that scientific morality can disparage the tendency of modern higher classes to have fewer children (S 114), and he realizes that having children is in tension with creating intellectual works (83), but he thinks there is a “need of each individual to beget another individual; so much so that this other becomes a necessary condition of our being. Life, like fire, only maintains itself by communicating itself” (210). We find the same force of expansion with intelligence: “It exists in order to radiate” (210). Likewise with sensibility: We need to share our joys and sorrows. “It is our whole nature which is sociable. . . . [Life] cannot be entirely selfish, even if it wished to be. . . . Life is not only nutrition; it is production and fecundity” (210). “The purely selfish happiness of certain epicureans is an idle fancy, an abstraction, an impossibility. . . . Pure selfishness, . . . instead of being a real affirmation of self, is a mutilation of self” (212).

In Rand’s characterization of life, every aspect of being alive, including growth, “involves a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action” (ITOE 81, 24–25).

“For every living species, growth is a necessity of survival. Life is motion, a process of self-sustaining action that an organism must carry on in order to remain in existence. . . .

“An animal’s capacity for development ends at physical maturity and thereafter its growth consists of the action necessary to maintain itself at a fixed level; after reaching maturity, it does not, to any significant extent, continue to grow in efficacy . . . . But man’s capacity for development does not end at physical maturity . . . . His ability to think, to learn, to discover new and better ways of dealing with reality, to expand the range of his efficacy, to grow intellectually, is an open door to a road that has no end.

“When man discovered how to make fire to keep himself warm, his need for thought and effort was not ended; . . . when he moved his life expectancy . . . his need of thought and effort was not ended . . . .

“Every achievement of man is a value in itself, but it is also a stepping-stone to greater achievements and values. Life is growth . . . . Every step upward opens to man a wider range of action and achievement—and creates the need for that achievement. . . . Survival demands constant growth and creativeness.

“Constant growth is, further, a psychological need of man.” (Branden, 1963, “The Divine Right of Stagnation”)


[1] The English translation was made by Gertrude Kapteyn in 1898, and all my quotations of Guyau are her translation. Kapteyn’s translation is of an expanded second edition of Sketch appearing in 1890, two years after Guyau’s death (age 34), one year after Nietzsche’s complete mental collapse. That edition has additions from a relative of Guyau, who was also a philosopher, and I am wary of those additions’ fidelity to Guyau. Outside the Sorbonne several years ago, I purchased the second edition in the original language for a memento of the trip. I found the first edition in Regenstein at Chicago. I marked up my second edition to indicate the alterations and additions made from first to second. All my quotations from Guyau are from the first edition, and it is only on what was in that edition that I rely in representing his views.


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His Own Truth

“While a wise man, as well as a just man and the rest, needs the necessaries of life, when they are sufficiently equipped with things of that sort the just man needs people towards whom and with whom he shall act justly, and the temperate man, the brave man, and each of the others is in the same case, but the wise man, even by himself, can contemplate truth, and the better the wiser he is; he can perhaps do so better if he has fellow-workers, but still he is the most self-sufficient.” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1177a28–35, Ross/Urmson translation)

By “the brave man” Aristotle had in mind a concept of bravery confined to the realm of social interactions, excluding the portion of our notion of bravery in humans engaged in risks with nature, such as in shooting the rapids. With bravery in his more narrow sense in this text, Aristotle is saying that in our thinking after truth we are more self-sufficient than in our occasions of being just, brave, and so forth. Self-sufficiency is a height. In this passage Aristotle is taking contemplation of truth as truth he conceives as nonpractical. Not that he has anything against practical thought, but here he is puffing up contemplation of truth not manifestly concerned with practical pursuits, contemplation of truth in metaphysics or geometry, for example. We can transfer Aristotle’s point, however, to a wider setting that includes thinking on practical things such as how to trim the shrubs oneself. It remains for this wider realm of thought that acts of thinking after truth are inherently less immediately social than one’s episodes of acting justly, acting independently, or telling the truth.

In all of Rand’s novels, a natural human wholeness is prescribed, a way of human life that had been broken up by overblown conceptions of human social nature. Rand was not denying there is an important social goodness naturally in the life of an individual. That affirmation is an understatement, in my own view, which will be set out in my book in progress. Nonetheless Rand was right to contest the overly social conceptions of human being wrecking lives around the world. In this note, I’ll pull together some bits from my writings, which pertain to Rand’s binding of truth to individual agent and binding of beneficiary egoism to agency egoism.*

Comrade Sonia says to Andrei Taganov: “I know—we know—what you think. But what I’d like you to answer is why you happen to think that you are entitled to your own thoughts? Against those of the majority of your Collective? Or is the majority’s will sufficient for you, Comrade Taganov? Or is Comrade Taganov turning individualistic?” (1936, 378).

Early in the story, when he is courting Kira, the future love of his life, we are given the following picture of Andrei’s seamless character. Kira leads:

“I thought that Communists never did anything except what they had to do . . . .”

“That’s strange,” he smiled, “I must be a very poor Communist. I’ve always done only what I wanted to do.”

“Your revolutionary duty?”

“There is no such thing as duty. If you know a thing is right, you want to do it. If you don’t want to do it—it isn’t right. If it’s right and you don’t want to do it—you don’t know what right is—and you’re not a man.”

“Haven’t you ever wanted a thing for no reason of right or wrong, for no reason at all, save one: that you wanted it?”

“Certainly. That’s always been my only reason. I’ve never wanted things unless they could help my cause. For, you see, it is my cause.”

“And your cause is to deny yourself for the sake of millions?”

“No. To bring the millions up to where I want them—for my sake.” (92)

Late in the novel, Andrei envisions (what is in the author’s view) an even greater seamlessness of character by setting his newly reached beneficiary egoism squarely in his life-long agency egoism. Addressing his Comrades:

“You see, there are things in men, in the best of us, which are above all states and all collectives, things too precious, too sacred, things which no outside hand should dare touch. Look into yourself, honestly and fearlessly. Look and don’t tell me, don’t tell anyone, just tell yourself: what are you living for? Aren’t you living for yourself and only for yourself? For a higher truth which is your own? Call it your aim, your love, your cause—isn’t it still your cause? Give your life, die for your ideal—isn’t it still your ideal? Every honest man lives for himself. Every man worth calling a man lives for himself. The one who doesn’t—doesn’t live at all. You cannot change it. You cannot change it because that’s the way man is born, alone, complete, an end in himself.” (501) [1]

Rand’s Prometheus declares, “I shall live my own truth” (1938, 140). Rand gives him also these lines: “All things come to my judgment, and I weigh all things, and I seal upon them my ‘Yes’ or my ‘No’. Thus is truth born. Such is the root of all Truth and the leaf, such is the fount of all Truth and the ocean, such is the base of all Truth and the summit. I am the beginning of all Truth. I am its end” (128).

There is echo here of the alpha and omega said of God in Revelations. However, Rand’s beginning and end of all truth in Anthem is no maker of all truth and value, as in the extreme voluntarist traditions of theology wherein God freely thinks and what he thinks becomes fact, there being no eternal truths, or any truths, independent of God’s choice. For Rand’s Prometheus, there is all the existence of the earth independent of his verdicts, and his is to find the earth and how to cultivate it. There is fact independent of mind, though there is no truth independent of mind.

Rand is also affirming in that Anthem passage that all judgment of truth is individual and that all truth we render from the world is for our own final value. Those lines are preceded by these: “It is my eyes which see, and the sight of my eyes grants beauty to the earth. It is my ears which hear, and the hearing of my ears gives its song to the world” (A 128). Something is seen, and with the subject, it is rendered beautiful. Something is heard, and with the subject, it is rendered song of existence. Something is given, and with its recognition, it is rendered truth.

Howard Roark says that a building’s integrity—its esthetic integrity, integral with its site, function, and physical integrity—“is to follow its own truth” (F PK I, 18). The architect Cameron, is said to have, through a succession of works, at last given shape “to the truth he had sought” (PK III, 41). In Fountainhead Rand works with an analogy between character of a building and character of a soul. A right building design has an individual truth and integrity; a right person has an individual truth and integrity. Furthermore, truth of the creator enters into truth of the creation, and responders to the latter truth hold it in ways unique to the unique constitution of their own souls.

The concept Rand is forging with her building/soul analogy is integrity. One broad thesis of Fountainhead is that there is a type of egoistic individualism that is good and just; altruistic collectivism is evil and unjust. The argument focuses not so much on what is just as on what is good, purely of humans, purely of earth. Such are independence, reliance on reason (one’s own), honesty, creative achievement, love of one’s work, and courage. A concept of justice will make human life and happiness impossible if the concept ignores the uniqueness of individuals and the unity and self-sufficiency required by the preceding virtues. Integrity is the overarching virtue pronouncing this unity and self-sufficiency.

Rand joins one’s integrity to one’s truth. “A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose” (F PK I, 18). One’s truth in Fountainhead is the constitution of one’s self in the living and making of one’s self. In a creation, the creator had a truth for which he struggled. “His truth was his only motive. His own truth, and his own work to achieve it in his own way” (HR XVIII, 737). His creation was from and, in a fundamental sense, for his self. He lived for himself, for his own truth, for his own work.

In Atlas Rand again connects integrity to truth, and both to agency egoism. Integrity entails unity “between body and mind, between acting and thought, between his life and his convictions” (1957, 1019). Integrity entails courage “of being true to existence, of being true to truth,” whatever public opinion and pressure might be. Integrity entails confidence “of being true to one’s consciousness.” Talk of one’s own truth is dropped. Devotion to existence and rationality and end-in-itself life, available alike to all, is the salvation of individual and society.


[1] Rand’s contention that commitment to agency egoism—thinking for oneself—commits one, by some sort of consistency, to ethical beneficiary egoism continues through all her writings. This early attempt, in 1936, in which agency egoism together with psychological beneficiary egoism and the accepted virtues of honesty and courage yields ethical beneficiary egoism, is replaced by 1957 with denial of psychological beneficiary egoism, but with a constitution of human life set within an alleged basic character of any life, and from this situation Rand tries to pull a norm of ethical beneficiary egoism seamless with the life-goodness of agency egoism.

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