Fluctuations on Freedom
This essay first appeared in Regards sur le monde actuel in 1931. It was then translated in English in the book that was originally published in 1962 by Bollingen Foundation as Part II of History and Politics, which is Volume Ten of The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, constituting Number XLV in Bollingen Series. Translated by Denise Folliot and Jackson Mathews.
I propose another piece of research, a study of the fluctuations of individual freedom during the last x number of years.
It would mean examining the succession of laws, some of which enlarge while others restrict the range of a man’s possibilities. After a certain date, it was no longer possible to be a dentist without an examination and a diploma. At a certain time, everyone became subject to military service. At another, divorce was made permissible. Thirty years later, we were obliged to confess to the tax authorities everything we earned. Around 1820, a different order of confession was required.
It is clear that the boundaries of our field of freedom are quite variable. I am greatly afraid that is area has done nothing but shrink during the last fifty years – like Balzac’s wild ass’s skin.
But it would be entirely unjust and superficial to consider no other restraints than legal ones. Modern man is the slave of modernity, at every step of progress he sinks deeper into slavery. Confort shackles us. Freedom of the press and its all-too-powerful resources torment us with printed clamor, stab us with sensational news. Advertising, one of the worst evils of our time, insults our eyes, degrades every adjective, defaces the countryside, corrupts all quality and all criticism, abuses every tree, rock, or monument, and the pages of it vomited up by machines make no distinction between the murderer, the victim, the hero, the centenarian of the day, and the brutalized child.
There is also the tyranny of schedules.
All this is aimed at our brain. We shall soon have to build heavily insulated cloisters where neither radio waves nor newspapers can come, in which ignorance of all politics will be guarded and cultivated. Speed, numbers, effects of surprise, contrast, repetition, size novelty, and credulity will be despised there. And thither, on certain days, visitors will come, to look through the irons bars at a few specimens of free men.