Péguy, Charles

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PÉGUY, CHARLES (1873–1914), French writer and poet.

Charles-Pierre Péguy was born in Orléans on 7 January 1873. After losing his father at a very young age, he was raised in poverty by his mother, who instilled in him what he considered to be the true pride of the people—the love of a job well done, which he opposed to the "bourgeois" reign of "money." A hardworking student, he entered the École Normale Supérieure in 1894. After rejecting Catholicism in the name of the pursuit of an ideal of universal justice, he followed Jean Jaurès into the battle for socialism with his ever-present and highly characteristic ardor and intransigence. His first works, Jeanne d'Arc (1897; Joan of Arc) and Marcel; La cité harmonieuse (1898; Marcel; The harmonious city), both evoke this demand for a purity he held to be essential in the fight for justice, which explains why he was militantly pro-Dreyfus and easily exasperated by political compromises. Péguy sought to live "as a socialist" without conceding anything. He married Charlotte Baudouin in a civil ceremony, quit the École Normale Supérieure, and funneled the money he received from his in-laws into the launching of a socialist bookshop.

As the socialists became increasingly organized into a unified political party, the compromises attended by the process and the discipline necessary to unify it led Péguy increasingly to distance himself from Jaurès, who had become an ambitious political actor. To emphasize their split, Péguy founded the Cahiers de la quinzaine in January 1900, an independent publication where his compatriots could express themselves freely. From 1900 to 1914, the Cahiers were an important intellectual home for the likes of Romain Rolland (1866–1944), Julien Benda (1867–1956), Georges Eugène Sorel (1847–1922), Jacques Maritain (1882–1973), Alain-Fournier (1886–1914), and others. The journal broached a number of burning questions, including the crisis in education, the defense of colonized peoples, and the Russian Revolution of 1905. Péguy himself published many polemical texts written in his characteristic style—replete with repetitions and digressions.

Under the increasingly predominant influence of the philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson (1859–1941), with whom he had become friends, Péguy began to decry with increasing harshness what he called from 1905 onward the "intellectual party," an alliance of the socialists with the anticlerical bourgeoisie and university scientists. His version of revolution was to become heavily steeped in tradition instead, an evolving perspective that began in 1905 with his signal work Notre patrie (Our fatherland).

In 1908 Péguy confided in a friend that he had returned to Catholicism, something he openly proclaimed in 1910 with his breathtaking book Le mystère de la charité de Jeanne d'Arc, in which he revisited the work he had accomplished in his younger days (Jeanne d'Arc), and reformulated in more Christian terms its spirit of rebellion. However the irregularity of his marital situation required Péguy to stand always at the threshold of the church, whose history and dogmas he nonetheless embraced with open arms. Firmly a Catholic, Péguy placed his still-intact rebelliousness under the patronage of the great figures of the Church of France—Joan of Arc (c. 1412–1431), Saint Geneviève (c. 422–c. 500), and Saint Louis (King Louis IX; 1214–1270)—all figures of purity and nonsubmissiveness.

Despite the strain of financial and family worries that threatened at times to overwhelm him, the works of poetry he published during this period, including Porche du mystère de la deuxième vertu (1911; The porch of the mystery of the second virtue), Mystère des saints innocents (1912), and Eve (1913), developed lengthy meditations on the theme of hope in its opposition to the modern idea of "progress," and incarnation as that which allows faith to become intertwined with earthly struggles:

Car le spirituel est lui même charnel
Et l'arbre de la grâce est raciné profond
Et plonge dans le sol et cherche jusqu'au fond
Et l'arbre de la race est lui-même éternel. (Eve)

[For the Spiritual is itself Charnel
And the Tree of Grace's roots grow deep
And plunge deep into the soil and reach the bottom
And the Tree of Race is itself Eternal.]

Péguy's friendships, and the struggles he waged (including his pro-Dreyfus stance), preclude us from attributing to him any kind of racism. For him a "race" is synonymous with a "people," and both signify the inscription of a struggle against political powers in an incarnated history.

In 1914 the general war mobilization forced him to interrupt the writing of his defense of Bergson against the attacks of Thomist Catholics. On 5 September 1914 Péguy was killed in Villeroy, while leading his regiment onto the field, thus leaving behind the work of a poet and a polemicist.

The various readings of Péguy primarily part company over the following question: Should his rejection of socialism and return to Catholicism be seen as a point of rupture? His heroic death, combined with a general lack of awareness of his early works, cemented his image as a nationalist. Nevertheless he exercised a considerable influence on the personalist movement founded in 1934, and more recent readings, made possible at last by the publication of his complete works by Gallimard in 1987, depict the unity of a life that pursued the same demand for justice from socialism to Catholicism.

See alsoBergson, Henri; Catholicism; Jaurès, Jean; Socialism.


Bastaire, J. Péguy, l'inchrétien. Paris, 1991.

Burac, Robert. Péguy: La révolution et la grâce. Paris, 1994.

Dumont, J.-N. Péguy, l'axe de détresse. Paris, 2005.

Finkelkraut, Alain. Le mécontemporain: Péguy, lecteur du monde moderne. Paris, 1991.

Robinet, André. Péguy entre Jaurès, Bergson, et l'É glise. Paris, 1968.

Jean-NoËl Dumont