« Letter to an hostage »

Whole cycle

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This quality of joyce, is it not the most precious fruit of our civilisation? A totalitarian tyranny could supply our material needs. But we are not cattle to be fattened. Prosperity and comfort would not be sufficient to satisfy us. For us, who have been brought up to venerable the respect of man, mere encounters carry much weight and sometimes change into wonderful festivals.

Respect for man! Respect for man!… This is the touchstone! When the Nazi respects only those who resemble him, he respects nothing but himself. He denies the creative contradictions, ruins any hope of ascension, and establishes for a thousand years instead of a man, the mechanism of an ant-hill. Order for order’s sake deprives man of his essential power which is to transform the world and himself. Life creates order, but order does not create life.

It seems to us, on the contrary, that our ascension is not achieved, that the truth of tomorrow feeds on yesterday’s mistake, and that the contradictions to be overcome, form the very compost of our growth. We acknowledge, as ours precisely, those who differ from us. But what a strange relationship! It is founded on the future, not on the past. On the aim, not on the origin. We are, for one another, pilgrims toiling up different paths to the same goal.

But today, respect for man, condition of our ascension, is in danger. The fragmentation of the modern world has dragged us into the darkness. Problems are incoherent, solutions contradictory. Yesterday’s truth is dead, tomorrow’s is not yet built. No valid synthesis is foreseen, and each one of us grasps but a tiny particle of truth. For a lack of proof to impose them, political religions appeal to violence. If we disagree on the methods, we are liable to forget that we are hurrying to the same goal.

If the traveller, ascending his mountain, in the direction of a star, is completely absorbed by his climbing, he is liable to forget which star is guiding him. If he acts only for the sake of acting, he will get nowhere. The cathedral usher, in thinking too much of hiring his chairs, is likely to forget that he is serving God. Thus if I withdraw myself into a partisan passion, I am liable to forget that a policy has no meaning unless it serves a spiritual truth. We have known, during miraculous hours, a certain quality of human relationship: there is our truth.

However urgent the action, we must not forget the leading vocation, otherwise the action will remain sterile. We want to found respect for man. Why should we hate one another within the same camp? Not one of us monopolises purity of intention. I can reject, for the sake of my own, that chosen by another. I can criticise the proceedings of his reason. The proceeding of reason are uncertain. But I must respect that man on the spiritual level, if he toils towards the same star.

Respect for man! Respect for man!… If respect for man is founded within the hearts of men, men will eventually found in return the social, political and economic system which will consecrate this respect. A civilisation is first founded in its substance. It is first, for man, a blind desire for a certain warmth. Therefore man, from one mistake to another, finds his way to the fire.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
« Letter to an hostage », translated edition
Extract from chapter V

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