From: Ishill, Joseph. (1927). Élisée and Élie Reclus: In Memoriam. Compiled, ed. and printed by Joseph Ishill. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Oriole Press.

Elisée Reclus' Optimism


"We must believe in humanity as long as even a single honest and truthful man exists. For to doubt would mean a blasphemy of the ideal in this unique dispository of its light"


hey met in the same optimist faith; the great old man who devoted his long life to science and humanity, and the youth killed by the war at the age of twenty-two, when life barely opened before him and who wrote the words placed here as an epigraph. This meeting testifies to the sempiternal hope of men in the triumph of life.

Elisée Reclus optimism pervades all his work, based on the irrefutable foundations of the observation of nature and of scientific reasoning which he scrupulously adopted in all he did, but its most magnificent expose is found in "L'Homme et la Terre".

His generally recognized character of geographer produced the effect of his being not quite ignored by the French scientists, but these men reject with horror from their official tribe the anarchist, the libertarian thinker, the sociologist who concluded no pact with any celestial or terrestrial power, and during the whole of his life sought only for truth. We, on our part, who are more interested in this truth than in all social conventions and academical convenience, we have long since seen in Elisée Reclus above the geographer, the sociologist who extended the study of geography to that of the whole of humanity saying: "Geography is History in Space whilst History is Geography in Time."

The true image of Elisée Reclus, of his personality, his thought and his work is more to be seen in "L'Homme et la Terre" than in his "Universal Geography". The latter work examines the Earth, the former, Man upon earth and their mutual relations which are not accidental, but intimate and inevitable, leading to such a degree of interpenetration that Elisée Reclus was able to say: "Man is nature having become self-conscious." An admirable formula of the solidarity which unites all parts of nature and insures their existence and continuity in spite of the wars of elements and species. This formula also expresses the redoutable duties incumbent upon man who not by the decrees of an exterior and superior will, forsooth, but by the initiation of his intelligence and the perseverance of his labour is elevated to this role of the conscience of nature.

This Encyclopaedia of the evolution of the terrestrial world "L'Homme et la Terre" offers the most eloquent demonstration of Elisée Reclus' optimism, an optimism the more remarkable because it is not based upon any philosophical system, nor derived from any metaphysical combination but results only from the "sociological conclusions" arrived at by the author's study of "man in the succession of ages, following upon the study of man in the diverse parts of the globe."

For Elisée Reclus completely rejected that anthropomorphism which made man, the image of God, the sovereign of a world created only for the satisfaction of his needs and his whims which led to the excitation of that execrable vanity inspiring his injustices and his crimes. With him we outstripped not only the epoch when it was stupidly affirmed that only man had a soul and that even woman was deprived of a soul, but we arrived at the epoch when it was quite as stupid to deny a soul to animals, to plants and to all that is still termed, "insensible matter", as if such matter could be found anywhere in the universe.

This is the basis of the optimism of Elisée Reclus, -- this infinite pantheism which perceives an immense solidarity between all that lives, this altruism which in spite of the natural laws of the struggle of species and individuals for subsistence, affirms the existence of a greater mass of good than of evil and which endeavours to oppose to wild competition, to injustice and to violence, mutual aid, justice, and kindness. "The violation of justice always cries for revenge", Elisée Reclus says when he notes the fact that the equilibrium between individuals and between classes is broken.

It is indispensable that individuals and species should practice solidarity between themselves, this is a matter of life and death for them. Hence it is a mistake to assert that man is possessed of an innate power which makes him completely independent of his surroundings. On the contrary, he was only able to live because he adapted himself to his surroundings. They are so closely linked together that man adopts the type and the characteristics of his surroundings even physically. Hence the differences of races, of manners and customs, of languages, of activities. The man on horseback acquires a horsey physiognomy, just as the Esquimaux acquires that of the seal, whilst old married couples grow to resemble each other as to features like brothers and sisters. What is called Progress was realized by the practice of mutual aid and not by violent struggle. In the system of organical evolution exposed by Darwin too much stress was laid on the "struggle for life"; we must also look there for the "agreement to live", for we are obliged to notice the prosperity arising from the agreement of the greatest number in communities which are really united. The ferocious theories of the "struggle for life" are only fallacious justifications of egoism and of brutality. Darwin's ideas have been odiously travestied to support these theories, just as those of Nietzsche, which served pretended "supermen" to legitimatize a megalomania thirsting for domination.

Mutual aid, opposed to war, to carnage, is more powerful, presents more conspicuous examples, since life has the uppermost, and life would be impossible without mutual aid. If men, like the animals, succeeded in developing more or less large societies, the reason lies in the victory of the elements of concord over those of discord. The proof is furnished by the fact that the most happily situated species are not those which have at their disposal the best tools for rapine and murder, but on the contrary those who possess weapons of small perfection and who help each other with the greatest zeal: not the most ferocious, but the most loving species. "Primitive or savage peoples developed by a peaceful life, whilst holding the land and working in common. War-like populations, living exclusively by depredations, are rather scarce, though often quoted as examples."

The law of mutual aid operates alike for men and for animals and obliges them to help each other not only between men and between animals, but also between men and animals. Both were closely relied upon in the early days of humanity, their relations were more familiar and were not those of "master" and "servant". Without the example of the animals and their voluntary help as simple and devoted comrades and not as terror-stricken slaves, man would perhaps have become extinct like so many other species unfit or unable to adapt themselves. In that case the earth would have none the less continued to revolve and the cows to produce milk, though certain people still think that the cows produce their milk only to enable the upper classes to use cream with their coffee.

More than one animal species has a social life which is superior to that which man leads, to wit, the ants which Dr. Forel studied so thoroughly. Devotion and kindness are greater in animals than in man. Very different species of animals live in perfect harmony with each other and have no other enemy than man. Thus has man invented the "savage animals" in order to arrogate to himself the right to ex terminate them and here we may remember these words of Captain Finch in his lecture on Mount Everest: 'In Thibet there are no savage animals. because animals are not hunted there."

The animals called "savage there are also men termed "savage" in order to permit the "civilized" to kill them without compunction!-- often get on very well with men, when the latter do not commence relations by firing a salvo of shots at them. Man applied himself to domesticate the animals because he understood it to be in his own interest to live on good terms with the animals, and there are no animals which might not be domesticated. Domestication is only a superior degree of the primitive familiarity between animals and men. In some places birds of prey act as scavengers. It would be more in the interest of man to come to terms with the animals whom he calls "savage" than to exterminate them, for the intelligence of animals which enter into relationship with men, is on the increase, and those who speak of the intellectual inferiority of animals are wrong: "there is a similarity of evolution between man and his lower brethren."

Neither is the animal the inferior of man in morals: both acquired the sentiments of justice and morality by their social relations. These sentiments belong to nature and are in no way the product of some special human wisdom. Only certain particular systems of morality where hypocrisy mostly replaces true morality and which are based only on the personal convenience of individuals and of collectivities -- only these are of human invention.

The only true morality, conduct based upon altruism, is derived from the natural relations between living beings and it is more ancient than humanity itself. The ideas attributed to the Buddhas, the Confucius, the Christs: Do unto others as you would that they should do unto you, or: Do not do unto others what you do not wish to be done unto you, these ideas were put into practice all along by the animals, and men only progressed in proportion to their practical realization of these ideas long before they were ever expressed in teachings or in formulas. What examples of the most perfect solidarity, kindness and love between animals of the same or even of diverse species are not before the minds of all those who, like Elisee Reclus, approached the animal world not as haughty enemies but as friends and comrades!

In this way Reclus observed scientifically that progress is based upon mutual aid, justice and kindness which appertain to all natural beings and are in no way an invention of men who often, in respect to their practice, sink far below the level of animals. According to Reclus there is no law of human progress, but progress is represented by the fact that the feats of humanity and the action of the telluric forces are intimately linked together and that the combined action of nature and of man react upon the earth which formed man. He called progress "the harmonious vibration of men with the earth which bears and feeds them."

But besides mutual aid, progress requires individual effort which has individual freedom as a basis. For these Elisée Reclus fervently pleads showing that the value and perfection of a social group are in direct proportion with the freedom and the initial development of individuals and that the instability of societies is the product of the obstacles put in the way of individual freedom. There also justice and kindness to individuals are more efficient than arbitrariness and violence. A free man is more useful to society than a slave.

The study of nature and of man, of collectivities and of the individual, formed the enduring basis of Reclus' optimism; he retraced the earliest past examined the present and opened before us the view of a new society in the future. His work is a rejuvenating bath of serene hope and valid strength, inspiring us with confidence, opposing to the oppressive forces of the centralizing States the freedom of the human individual which was formerly held in small esteem and was unconscious of itself, but which has incessantly grown and is now conscious of the work before in Primitive tribes exercised this freedom spontaneously, until philosophers pro claimed it, and innumerable rebels revindicated it. The optimism of Elisee Reclus meets that of Renan who said: "The road of humanity is a road ascending a mountain; climbing up big windings, at times it seems to retrace its own steps, but none the less it ascends continuously..."


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