Charles Péguy

by James Horrox

The Literary Encyclopedia. Vol.
First published 24 March 2011

From humble origins in rural France, Charles Péguy went on to become one of the leading intellectuals of early twentieth-century French socialism. A prominent player in the Dreyfusard campaign, a prolific essayist, playwright, poet and polemicist, and in later life a devout but fervidly anticlerical Roman Catholic, Péguy is known for his fierce critiques of capitalist modernity and his heretical blend of socialism, nationalism and Christian mysticism. Since his death in the Battle of the Marne his influence has been felt on both left and right, but despite a legacy besmirched by his posthumous co-optation by writers associated with French literary fascism he remains highly regarded in his homeland and abroad, both for his literary brilliance and his inimitable social criticism.

Charles Pierre Péguy was born into an impoverished working-class family in Orléans on 7 January 1873. His father, Désiré, died from wounds sustained in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war when Charles was not yet a year old, leaving the young Péguy in the care of his mother Cécile, who scraped a meagre living as a chair-upholsterer. He spent his childhood in the modest surroundings of a peasant-artisan household, learning carpentry – his late father’s trade – and working in the local fields. His intellectual aptitude was evident from a young age, however, and a municipal scholarship allowed him to attend Orléans high school where he excelled academically, becoming a bright, conscientious pupil and an enthusiastic student of the Classics in particular. After passing his baccalauréat in 1891 he enrolled in the Lycée Lakanal in Sceaux, and in August 1894, on completion of his military service with the 131st Foot, he was admitted to the prestigious École normale supérieure in Paris.

At Lakanal Péguy had already begun to develop strong socialistic leanings, fuelled by the writings of Leroux, Proudhon and the utopian socialists, and in May 1895 he formally joined the Socialist Party. On leave from the École he returned to Orléans that year to train in typography and work on his first play, Jeanne d’Arc [Joan of Arc] (1897), dedicated to “those who will ever have died their human death for the establishment of the universal socialist republic”. In Orléans he founded a radical study circle, the Groupe d’études sociales d’Orléans [Orléans Social Studies Group], and from 1896 he began contributing political essays to the Revue Socialiste [The Socialist Review] (notably “De la cité socialiste” [The Socialist City] [1897]).

In 1897 he married fellow activist Charlotte-Françoise Baudouin, sister of his recently deceased friend Marcel with whom he had penned his second noteworthy political work, Marcel, Premier Dialogue de la cité harmonieuse [Marcel, First Dialogue on the Harmonious City] (1898). The following spring, having failed his final agrégation at the École and abandoned plans for a teaching career, he invested Charlotte-Françoise’s dowry in the Librairie Georges Bellais [The Georges Bellais Bookstore], a socialist library and bookshop in Paris. Spared insolvency by the Dreyfusard faction around École normale supérieure librarian Lucien Herr, within a year the venture had become a cooperative under the name of La Société Nouvelle de librairie et d’édition [The New Bookselling and Publishing Company]

Péguy himself enthusiastically embraced the Dreyfusard cause, and in 1900, having split from the Société he founded a bimonthly review, Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine [Fortnightly Notebooks], thereafter the main outlet for his political and literary writings. The Cahiers’ editorial office on Rue de la Sorbonne became a forum where Péguy’s friends, ranging from syndicalist anarchist revolutionaries to avant-garde bohemians and aspirant littérateurs, energetically debated the finer points of socialist politics. Despite permanent financial precariousness the Cahiers managed to run to a total of 238 issues, at various times over the course of its fourteen-year lifespan counting among its contributors Jean Jaurès, Anatole France, Romain Rolland, André Suares, Daniel Halévy, Julien Benda, Georges Sorel and numerous other prominent writers and political figures.

Although initially supportive of Jaurès’ Socialists, the magazine soon became a vehicle for Péguy’s fulminations against the dogmas and demagogues of “official” socialism. From 1903 he distanced himself from the Dreyfusards, arguing that their campaign had metastasized into a conspiracy against the Church, sanctioned by Jaurès, whom he denounced in increasingly vicious language as the decade wore on as a traitor both to the French nation and the socialist cause. In power, Péguy claimed, the Socialists proved to be little more than “the bourgeoisie in disguise, more intent on molding a democracy out of middle-class vices than generating any ‘new way of living’”. This disenchantment is encapsulated in his now famous jeremiadic appraisal of the Dreyfus Affair: “Everything begins as a mystique, and ends as a politique”.

Combining elements of Dreyfusism, socialism and anarchism, Péguy’s own politics eschewed the class-struggle mantras of orthodox Marxism, looking instead to the values of la vieille France as a corrective to the spiritual nullity of the modern era. Medieval European society appeared to him “a perfect community […] a perfect Communism” (1988, 153), in contrast to “the inexpiable reign of money” (1909-12/1959, 178) that he saw as the defining feature of bourgeois capitalist modernity. Although a staunch champion of the intellectual merits of Classicism over Romanticism he nonetheless identified strongly with the literary and philosophical legacy of Victor Hugo and Jules Michelet, and other French Romantics such as Pierre de Ronsard, Pierre Corneille, Blaise Pascal, Jean Racine, Alphonse de Lamartine, Alfred-Victor de Vigny and Alfred de Musset.

Politically, this “anti-Romantic Romanticism” translated into a voluntaristic, non-dogmatic conception of socialism, evocative of Kropotkinite anarchist communism but based on a view of “revolution” framed more in the ethical-idealist language of spiritual renewal than in the materialist idiom of the workers’ movement. The ethical foundations of Péguy’s socialism (“The revolution will be moral or it will not be”) suggest a strong affinity with the French socialist tradition of Proudhon and Sorel, and also with the politics of Jewish Dreyfusard anarchist Bernard Lazare, of whom Péguy spoke with great fondness. In Lazare, he wrote in 1910, “one of Israel’s greatest prophets”, “there resonated, with incredible power and gentleness, the eternal Word; with an eternal power; with an eternal gentleness, whose like I have never found anywhere else” (1910/1959, 549).

Péguy’s upbringing in Orléans had taken place against the backdrop of a rapidly modernizing France in which the lay gods of work and nation were displacing those of the Church. Although he assiduously attended his catechism lessons at elementary school, and later in the parish of Saint-Aignan, he showed no particular enthusiasm for religion. The interpretation of Christianity he drew from his early education was more an ethic of work and sacrifice than any commitment to the Church, and later on in his education he came to see religious instruction merely as an interruption to his academic work; when he stopped attending Mass in his first year at the École normale supérieure, he felt no particular loss. However, from midway through the first decade of the twentieth century the socialistic denunciations of modernity that had become a staple of his political writings began to fuse ever more strongly with religious ones. In 1907-8, after a period of political disillusionment, marital tension and ill health, during which he would confess even to flirting with the notion of suicide, he turned to Catholicism.

Out of sensitivity to his atheist wife and her family he did not regularize his marriage or have his children baptized, and as a result he was forced into a position at the periphery of the Church that would be the source of constant anguish for him over the coming years. The vast gulf between his anticlerical approach to Christianity and the doxas of official Catholicism is made plain in Véronique: Dialogue de l’histoire et de l’âme charnelle [Véronique: Dialogue of History and the Carnal Soul] (begun in 1909 but not published until 1955), his first work to deal with his religious conversion. Laying the blame for the “de-Christianisation” of modern Europe squarely on the shoulders of the clergy, his writings thereafter tended toward bitter polemic against the moralistic demagoguery of organized religion.

From 1905, with the publication of his pamphlet Notre Patrie [Our Fatherland], written in response to Kaiser Wilhelm II’s visit to Tangier in February that year, the mystical and socialist themes in his work assumed an increasingly nationalistic tenor. When, after the publication of his Situations [Situations] (1907-8), he turned his hand to poetry, his writings flowed with patriotic imagery and leitmotifs of French national mythology – most prolifically the peasant-soldier-saint, Joan of Arc – resonant of a belief in the primordial interconnectedness of faith, nation and land.

This syncretism earned him a polyvalent appeal among his contemporaries, and with it a degree of controversy prefigurative of his posthumous reputation. His first explicitly religious poem “Le Mystère de la charité de Jeanne d’Arc” [The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc] (1910), a reworking of his 1897 Jeanne d’Arc, attracted the censure of Catholic reactionaries and socialist colleagues alike, the latter in many cases seizing on the poem as evidence of his desertion of revolutionary politics and reversion to the religious and nationalist myths instilled in him in his childhood.

In truth, Péguy’s political writing had always to some extent equated socialism and Christian mysticism, presenting the former (“the religion of temporal salvation” [1910/1958, 62-63]) as a lay version of the latter in opposition to modern aspirituality, while stressing the “invincible incompatibility” of religious dogma and socialism (1900/1959, 192-193). In response to criticism of “Le Mystère de la charité”, in Notre Jeunesse [Our Youth] (1910) he made clear that in his own view his religious conversion implied no discontinuity. A retrospective account of the Dreyfusard campaign, Notre Jeunesse depicts a socialism that “sought nothing less than the temporal salvation of humanity through the improvement of the worker’s world” (1910/1959, 549).

The rejection of the dogma of eternal damnation – metaphysical and earthly (“there is no better-made place of perdition, or better-ordered, or better-equipped, no instrument of perdition better-construed than the modern factory” [1910/1958, 51]) – that runs throughout Notre Jeunesse becomes a constant refrain in Péguy’s later works, echoing through “Le Mystère de la charité” and his second major religious poem, “Le Porche du mystère de la deuxième vertu” [The Portico of the Mystery of the Second Virtue], published in 1911.

In “Un nouveau théologien, M. Fernand Laudet” [A New Theologian, M. Fernand Laudet], published that same year, he again defends his socialism – a “mystical socialism and a deep socialism, profoundly related to Christianity” (1911/1957, 976) – from “political degradation and the contamination of modernity”, embodied this time in the figure of the eponymous Laudet (Löwy & Sayre 2001, 167). In 1912 came his poems “Le Mystère des saints Innocents” [The Mystery of the Holy Innocents] and “La Tapisserie de sainte Geneviève et de Jeanne d’Arc” [The Tapestry of St. Geneviève and Joan of Arc] , followed in 1913 by “L’Argent” [Money], “L’Argent suite” [Money Continued], “La Tapisserie de Notre-Dame” [The Tapestry of Notre Dame] and what was to be his last poetic offering, the sprawling, patriotic epic, “Ève” [Eve].

“Ève” was followed in April 1914 by “Note sur M. Bergson et la philosophie bergsonienne” [Note on M. Bergson and Bergson’s Philosophy], an enthusiastic critique of philosopher Henri Bergson, whose lectures he had attended in 1898 at the École normale supérieure and to whose ideas his later works – particularly “L’Argent”, “L’Argent suite” and his last major text “Note conjointe sur M. Descartes et la philosophie cartésienne” [Joint note on Descartes and Cartesian Philosophy] (1914), a “radical and acerbic critique of modern capitalist quantification” (Löwy & Sayre, 168) – were much indebted. To Péguy’s regret, Bergson declined his invitation to write the introduction to his Œuvres choisies 1900-1910 [Selected Works 1900-1910] (1911).

On 1 August 1914 Péguy left for the front as a Lieutenant in the 19th Company of the 276th Infantry regiment. Five weeks later, on 5 September, he was killed by a German bullet at Villeroy, near Neufmontiers-lès-Meaux, in the first battle of the Marne. Like many contemporaneous European writers unfortunate enough to have essayed a synthesis of mystical-socialist and nationalist ideas, he has, since his death, educed substantial scholarly disagreement as to his political legacy. Influential as he has been within the Left (inter alia Emanuel Mounier, the French Resistance, Edmond Michelet, the Cahiers du Témoignage Chrétien [The Journal of the Christian Witness]), he has equally been a key inspiration for the European Right. His reinterpretation as paterfamilias of French literary fascism by some later scholars (see Carroll, 1998) has been aided by the posthumous praise heaped upon him by anti-Semitic and Fascist writers Robert Brasillach, Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, Lucien Rebatet, Louis Ferdinand Céline and Benito Mussolini, who in La Dottrina del Fascismo [The Doctrine of Fascism] (1932) named him alongside Hubert Lagardelle and Georges Sorel as a source for Fascism.

His Dreyfusard beliefs and unremitting solidarity with the Jewish people, to whom, he believed “we owe a good deal in the extension of socialism, anarchism, and just rebellions” (1899/1957, 53), have nonetheless ensured his immunity from total co-optation by the Right. Indeed, the impulse to reconstruct Péguy’s brand of spiritual nationalism in light of subsequent European history ultimately fails to do justice to the complexity of his thought, and moreover obfuscates the full significance of the breadth of the influence he has exercised. As poet and playwright he remains highly regarded in France (“Le Porche du mystère de la deuxième vertu” has gone through more than 60 French editions), and his political thought and social criticism have been influential as far afield as the Latin American Christian left.

In the Anglophone world he is of somewhat less renown, if only due to the relative paucity of English translations, and where he is known it tends to be more for his aphoristic elegance than for his substantive literary output. English collections of some of his works were published in the 1940s (Basic Verities: Prose and Poetry [1943], God Speaks: Religious Poetry [1945], Men and Saints: Prose and Poetry, [1947]), and in 1983 English poet Geoffrey Hill dedicated to him the poem The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy. He also appears in cameo in the closing pages of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (1938) as the unnamed Frenchman Rose is told about at confession after Pinkie’s death, who never took the sacraments, never married in church, but who is regarded by some as a saint. Beatified by some, vilified by others, Péguy is if nothing else an absorbing, polysemic and paradoxical writer, in whose very paradox, perhaps, lies his true genius.


Carroll, David. French Literary Fascism: Nationalism, Anti-Semitism, and the Ideology of Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1998

Löwy, Michael and Sayre, Robert. Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity, Porter, Catherine (trans.), Durham: Duke University Press. 2001

Péguy, Charles. “Notes Politiques et Sociales”. 1899. Cahiers de l’Amitié Charles Péguy, Paris: l’Amitié Péguy. 1957, pp. 53-86.

——— “Toujours de la Grippe”. 1900. Œuvres en prose (1898-1908), vol. 1. Paris: Gallimard, La Pléiade. 1959. pp. 172-204.

———“Avertissement au Cahier Mangasarian”. 1904. Œuvres en prose (1898-1908). vol. 1. 1959. pp. 1354-88.

——— “Orléans vue de Montargis”. 1904. Œuvres en prose (1898-1908), vol. 1 Paris: Gallimard, La Pléiade. 1959. pp. 665-75

——— “Par ce demi-clair matin”. 1905. in Œuvres en prose complètes. Robert Burac (ed.), vol. 2. Paris: Gallimard, La Pléiade. 1988.

———“De la situation faite à l’histoire et à la sociologie dans les temps modernes”. Œuvres en prose (1898-1908), vol. 1.. Paris: Gallimard, La Pléiade. pp. 991-1030

———“Clio: Dialogue de l’histoire et de l’âme païenne”. 1909-1912. Œuvres en prose, 1909– 1914. 1957. pp. 91-306.

———“Memories of Youth”. 1910. Temporal and Eternal, Dru, Alexander (trans.) New York: Harper and Brothers. 1958. pp. 19-87. [Excerpt from Notre Jeunesse)

———“Notre Jeunesse”. 1910. Œuvres en prose (1898-1908), Vol. 1. Paris: Gallimard, La Pléiade. 1959.

———“Un nouveau théologien, M. Fernand Laudet.” 1911. Œuvres en prose, 1909-1914, Paris: Gallimard, La Pléiade. 1957. pp. 841-1041.