A New Book on Peguy

I first read some of Charles Péguy’s work in college, in a course taught by the great Rimbaud translator and Proust scholar, Wallace Fowlie. The course considered the thought of several important Catholic intellectuals of the late 19th and early 20th century pre- and inter-War period, focusing on French writers including Belloc, Bernanos, Maurras, and Mauriac (with a little Chesterton thrown in too for some national variety). What we read of Péguy’s writing at the time struck me as having a lot to say about law and politics–particularly on the difference between “mystique” and “politique” and the need for the unifying political leader (like a President, for example) to set himself apart from the ordinary machinations of party politics–and so it’s good to see this new volume to devoted to him. The book is Carnal Spirit: The Revolutions of Charles Péguy (University of Pennsylvania Press), by Matthew W. Maguire.

“It is rare for a thinker of Charles Péguy’s considerable stature and influence to be so neglected in Anglophone scholarship. The neglect may be in part because so much about Péguy is contestable and paradoxical. He strongly opposed the modern historicist drive to reduce writers to their times, yet he was very much a product of philosophical currents swirling through French intellectual life at the turn of the twentieth century. He was a passionate Dreyfusard who converted to Catholicism but was a consistent anticlerical. He was a socialist and an anti-Marxist, and at once a poet, journalist, and philosopher.

Péguy (1873-1914) rose from a modest childhood in provincial France to a position of remarkable prominence in European intellectual life. Before his death in battle in World War I, he founded his own journal in order to publish what he thought most honestly, and urgently, needed to be said about politics, history, philosophy, literature, art, and religion. His writing and life were animated by such questions as: Is it possible to affirm universal human rights and individual freedom and find meaning in a national identity? How should different philosophies and religions relate to one another? What does it mean to be modern?

A voice like Péguy’s, according to Matthew Maguire, reveals the power of the individual to work creatively with the diverse possibilities of a given historical moment. Carnal Spiritexpertly delineates the historical origins of Péguy’s thinking, its unique trajectory, and its unusual position in his own time, and shows the ways in which Péguy anticipated the divisions that continue to trouble us.”

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