Each one of us is perforce linked by all the material, organic, and psychic strands of his being to all that surrounds him. Not only is he caught up in a network, he is carried along, too, by a stream.
The individual shrinks to an imperceptible centre; we might say that he is no more than an observation post, a sentient focus-point of repulsions and attractions; he makes his choice from among the countless energies that radiate through him; he seeks, casting to and fro; he turns back upon himself and directs himself so that he may breathe in more or less fully according to the direction he takes, the energizing atmosphere that surrounds him, in which he is one single, conscious point. This is the external condition imposed on us: we are, we may say, more outside ourselves in time and space than we are inside ourselves, every second of our lives. The person, the human monad, is, like every monad, essentially cosmic.
If man is to come up to his full measure, he must become conscious of his infinite capacity for carrying himself sill further; he must realize the duties it involves, and he must feel its intoxicating wonder. He must abandon all the illusions of narrow individualism and extend himself, intellectually and emotionally, to the dimensions of the universe: and this even though, his mind reeling at the prospect of his new greatness, he should think that he is already in possession of the divine, is God himself, or is himself the artisan of Godhead.
The fundamental vision is that of plurality and the multitude, the multitude that surrounds us and the multitude that constitutes us, that is in restless motion around us, and that shelters within us.
It would certainly appear that, even if our perceptions are still irrevocably enclosed within certain limits of greatness and smallness, we can at least flatter ourselves that we have discovered and established experimentally the law of recurrence that governs the structure of the cosmos. The analysis of matter is making us see it as a limitless aggregation of centres taking over and mastering one another in such a way as to build up, by their combinations, more and more complex centres of a higher order.
The monads of our universe are not simply and solely the centres that emerged within a vast, immobile, homogeneous mass. As happens with the eddies in a river, their birth is accompanied by a more far-reaching movement which not only carries them along beyond themselves but is also, in some way, the actual cause of their emergence.
In its external shape, in its internal processes, in its powers of fermentation, and in its readiness to enter into aggregations of a higher order, the monocellular being behaves in many ways like a molecule. Life appears in phenomenal continuity with the network of material determinisms and constructions. When the individualization of organic and conscious monads produces folds in the basic fabric of the cosmos, it does not tear it, any more than does the separation of the atomic centres. Already, through the matter that is common to them, all living beings are but one being.
Life, we have just said, is in some way an extension of matter. With the elements, it retains some of the habits of matter. It can even, we shall see, copy it and mimic it by making itself mechanical.
If we look at it far enough back in the depths of time, the disordered anthill of living beings suddenly, for an informed observer, arranges itself in long files that make their way by various paths towards greater consciousness. Seen from a sufficient distance and in a particular light, individuals (principles, in appearance, of egocentrism and permanence) are recognized as no more than staging-posts in a movement.
It is not, you see, enough to hear what science has to tell us, and to observe from outside the cosmic currents taking shape, in their individual eddyings or their over-all drifts; it is those currents that make us what we are, it is through us that they run, and we must be able to feel them.
I allowed my consciousness to sweep back to the farthest limit of my body, to ascertain whether I might not extend outside myself. I stepped down into the most hidden depths of my being, lamp in hand and ears alert, to discover whether in the deepest recesses of the blackness within me, I might not see the glint of the waters of the current that flows on, whether I might not hear the murmur of their mysterious waters that rise from the uttermost depths and will burst forth no man knows where. With terror and intoxicating emotion, I realized that my own poor trifling existence was one with the immensity of all that is and all that is still in process of becoming.
I can feel, again—and this time much more distinctly—a multitude of the independent and spontaneous—atoms, molecules, cells—in turmoil beneath the unity of my own organic structure.
Although this force is indeed my own in the sense that it is I who concentrate it and experience it, I am quite unable to pin it down, whether I try to decipher any part either of its past or of its future. Behind the unity it assumes in my consciousness there lies hidden the dense multitude of all the succession of beings whose infinitely patient and lengthy labour has carried to its present stage of perfection the phylum of which I am for a moment the extreme bud. My life is not my own: I know this from the inexorable determinism contained in the development of overpowering emotions, in pain and in death. And I feel this, not only in my bodily members but in the very core of what is most spiritual in my being.
What does my freedom represent other than an imperceptible point buried in an indeterminate mass of laws and relationships that I cannot, by and large, control? All I can do is shrewdly to make what use I may of them, follow their slant, sail with their wind, appear to master them and bend them to my will—when all I am doing, in fact, is to set them off one against the other. Each one of us can distinguish in the depth of his being a whole system of deep-seated tendencies—a law of his own individual evolution—that nothing can suppress and that persists through every stage of greater perfection. This personal driving force is prior to and higher than free will; it is written into our character, into the rhythm of our thoughts, and into the crude surge of our passions; and it is life’s heritage to us, it is the conscious evidence in us of the vast vital current, one trickle of which forms us, it is our subjection to the great task of development of which we, for one brief hour, are no more than the artisans.
No brutal shock, no, nor no gentle caress can compare with the vehemence and possessive force of the contact between ourselves as individuals and the universe, when suddenly, beneath the ordinariness of our most familiar experiences, we realize, with religious horror, that what is emerging in us is the great cosmos.
When every certainty is shaken and every utterance falters, when every principle appears doubtful, then there is only one ultimate belief on which we can base our rudderless interior life: the belief that there is an absolute direction of growth, to which both our duty and our happiness demand that we should conform; and that life advances in that direction, taking the most direct road.
Life is never mistaken, either about its road or its destination. No doubt, it does not define intellectually for us any God or any dogma; but it shows us by what road we may expect all that are neither delusions nor idols; it tells us towards what part of the horizon we must steer if we are to see the light dawn and grow more intense.
It is we, without any doubt, that constitute the active part of the universe; we are the bud in which life is concentrated and is at work, and in which the flower of every hope is enclosed.
From the social point of view, the human monad presents itself to an observer, whether he examines it from the outside or from within, as a sort of molecule or cell essentially destined to be integrated in a higher structure or organism. Not only is the nourishment of numerous material perceptions and assimilations indispensable to its make-up; if it is to attain its full development it must also be complemented by other monads similar to itself. It can be completely itself only by ceasing to be isolated. Like molecules whose coming together stimulates dormant properties, so human beings fertilize and complete one another by making contact; and the association necessary to the multiplication of the human race is no more than a lower and extremely feeble prototype of the rich developments produced by the intercourse of the souls.
As particular positions and functions are assigned in the body to the cells, so, in society, the skills of individuals are defined and distributed, and provide one another with mutual support. Childish though it is to exaggerate the analogies with the organic presented by social groups, it is equally superficial to see in them only the arbitrary and contingent. Although they never produce a network sufficiently close-knit and unified for us to be able to speak of a true collective soul, yet the interrelations of men represent an essential, cosmic, work ‘of nature’; they are an indispensable link in the series by which the universe moves towards its perfection. To co-operate in their establishment is much more than a superficial occupation, a pleasant or supererogatory pastime: it is truly to contribute one’s effort to the fundamental work that has determined the movement of the universe ever since the beginning; it is to forward life’s further developments.
After having been completely occupied for a long time in the work of constructing organisms, life is only now beginning to see to its internal dispositions; it is concentrating its attention and care on advances and refinements of a finally perfected consciousness. At present, evolution is continuing much more through improvements of the psychological order than through organic transformations.
Ever since he saw the swarming of the multitudes and recognized the flow of the cosmic current, the petty well-being of his own person has ceased to appear to him the central concern of the universe, and is no longer of paramount importance to him. He no longer believes now that he is the only person in the world, there to enjoy himself and grow greater. Countless others, all around him, also have the right to be happy and successful. He sees them struggling on all sides; and he can discern, infinitely more important than any private undertakings, the development of a vast work that calls for all his good will and fills him with enthusiasm. He has, quite literally, shifted the axis of his life outside himself; he has, one might say, de-centred himself; in some way it is no longer himself that he cherishes in himself, but the great thing of which he is a constituent particle and an active element; it is the immanent Goddess of the World that rests her foot on him for a moment, to rise, with his support, a little higher still.
No time must be lost, and no opportunity missed. However trifling it be, part of life’s ultimate success depends upon the diligence with which I examine the world and make it more perfect in my own self. Awareness of this task spurs me on, and at the same time consoles me for my insignificance and obscurity.
Why, before I act, should I be concerned to know whether my effort will be noticed or appreciated? Why should I feed my appetite for action with the empty hope of prestige or popularity? The only reward for my labour I now covet is to be able to think that it is being used for the essential and lasting progress of the universe.
My life may be unknown, monotonous, commonplace, boring, hidden from all men’s eyes … but I shall carry out its duties in the consciousness that I am effectively collaborating in the absolute evolution of Being. Lowly atom though I am, I shall fulfil an imperceptible function as such with a heart as all-embracing as the universe.
If, again, the whole of my labour were harvested, if the whole of my suffering were meaningful and fruitful, if all the betterment achieved by my work were made permanent and handed on, then I might perhaps be able to take comfort. All that was best of me would survive in the lasting evidence of my passage, for in it would be preserved and made eternal all the effective value of my life.
I have tasted too deeply the joy of expanding my being to the dimensions of all that lives to be able henceforth to confine myself to the limits of my own self; I have been too conscious of the thrill of universality in my soul, to accept a bliss that leaves me in isolation.
Of the two or three natural dogmas that mankind, after long centuries of debate and after ceaseless critical examination, is now definitely establishing, the most categorical and the dearest to us is certainly that of the infinite value of the universe and its inexhaustible store of richness. ‘Our world contains within itself a mysterious promise of the future, implicit in its natural evolution.’ When the newborn mind surveys the grandeurs of the cosmos, those are the first words it falters; and that is the final assertion of the scientist as he closes his eyes, heavy and weary from having seen so much that he could not express.
What fire can you expect to animate my good will? If I am to devote myself ardently and sincerely to the work of the cosmos, if I am to be able to compete on equal terms with the children of the earth, I must be convinced not only of the merit of what I do but of its value. I must believe in what I am doing.
I looked around and I saw, as though in an ecstasy, that through all nature I was immersed in God. The whole inextricably tangled and compressive network of material interconnexions, the whole plexus of fundamental currents once again confronted me, just as it did when first my eyes were opened; but now they were animated and transfigured, for their dominance, their charm and their appeal, all beyond number or measure, appeared to me in a glow of illumination and I saw them hallowed and divinized in both their operation and their future.
Mother Earth. Like children who have grown up, we must learn to walk by ourselves and give active help to the mother who bore us. If, then, we make up our minds to accept wholeheartedly the manifestations of the divine will registered in the laws of nature, our obedience must make us throw ourselves into positive effort, our cult of passivities must ultimately be transformed into a passion for work.
The man who has determined to admit love of the world and its cares into his interior life finds that he has to accept a supreme renunciation. He has sworn to seek for himself outside himself, in other words to love the world better than himself. He will now have to realize what this noble ambition will cost him.
You truly contain within your gentleness, within your humanity, all the unyielding immensity and grandeur of the world. And it is because of this, it is because there exists in you this ineffable synthesis of what our human thought and experience would never have dared join together in order to adore them—element and totality, the one and the many, mind and matter, the infinite and the personal; it is because of the indefinable contours which this complexity gives to your appearance and to your activity, that my heart, enamoured of cosmic reality, gives itself passionately to you.