Excerpted from the introduction to Vol. VIII of his Études sur la Littérature Contemporaine (1885):
Age teaches doubt, and experience to distrust. Distrust of the word in particular, since words are like the tongue, the best of all things and the worst of all things. A word is the sign of an idea, and it has all the privileges of a thinking being; but how dearly have we to pay for this privilege! It is the tool of science, but it is also the occasion of errors, the source from which prejudices spring; and, to employ a Baconian phrase, it is the artisan of idols. Words make history; words lead the world; there are words that have shaken States to their very foundations, and that have consummated revolutions. There are words for which, even to this day, men divide themselves into parties or to which they sacrifice themselves. There are privileged words, orthodox words, sacred words, before which prudent men bow themselves. Let the fancy seize you some day to ask what is progress? or to insinuate that humanity after all might be only an abstraction, and you will soon perceive that you are thought to be an idiot or a knave.
Let us be graceless, and let us dare to say that progress is one of the sophisms to which over-hasty generalisation leads, and that it is only the disguise of an abstract term. The idea of indefinite improvement is borrowed from the exact sciences and from the industrial arts, where each conquest becomes the starting-point for a new acquisition, so that it is impossible to foresee that the human species will ever be arrested in this line of successive enrichments. Furthermore, the general prosperity being dependent upon the state of trade, the improvement of the one will have for its consequence the improvement of the other. Here is therefore, without contradiction, social progress—from a materialistic point of view. From day to day suffering, pain is alleviated, and more numerous enjoyments are put within the reach of our fellow-beings; and this is (it costs me nothing to recognise it) something very considerable. I even confess that this is all that is essential. The error is born when it is thought that what is true in the material and positive order of things, is also true in the moral order; when it is supposed that society increases in rectitude, in equity, in moderation, in purity, in delicacy of sentiment by a necessary evolution and an automatic development. This error springs from another error. Well-being is confounded with happiness, when in reality it is only one of its conditions. Happiness is contentment, which, if it does certainly imply the satisfaction of needs, is nevertheless not the consequence of that satisfaction. Happiness is above all a state of soul, an affair of disposition, the philosophy of life; so much so, that it is possible to be very happy with very few enjoyments, and miserable with the possibility of satisfying any desire. Brought back to its true significance, social progress cannot assure the happiness of a single person, much less of humankind. It is even possible that progress will militate against happiness, contentment being a product of wisdom, and wisdom being the product of an intellectual culture more refined than will be perhaps obtained under democratic levelling. We must therefore make up our minds to this: that men lose on the one hand what they gain on the other, and that history is condemned to remain to the end of the chapter a mass of confusion.
Humanity is another of those general terms that is exchanged like current coin, without any one having ever dreamt of verifying the amount of alloy it contains. It is one of those abstractions that defray our incurable mystical necessities. We have a family, a surrounding, a city, a fatherland, and with these, with our relatives, our friends, our fellow-citizens, we have affinities of race and community of interests. But this is not enough for us. We extend in thought the limits of this relationship—already so wanting in reality—and we take in our thoughts the whole genus homo! then we idealize these data of natural history, we personify it, we establish it as a supernatural power, we pronounce its name with deep feeling, we chant hymns in its praise, we shed ink upon its altars, ink and sometimes blood; the most fervent sacrifice their lives to it on barricades or on the scaffold. In the great shipwreck of creeds, we have transferred to this conception all our needs of faith, hope and love. What do I say? It is Comte himself, it is Positivism, which has charged itself with the task of establishing humanity into an object of worship. The world has got rid of theology and of metaphysics, but it has remained the dupe of a word.
Humanity a great family! Men all brothers! Is not this going very far? Do you feel very distinctly the tie of brotherhood when you meet in a book of travels the picture of a Papuan or even of a Chinaman? Between us, and whispered softly: Does not the godless humanity often resemble a female monkey? [...] Humanity tells me nothing. Where is this humanity seen, where is it found? Amongst the men and women I meet with here how many are there with whom I do not desire to have any closer acquaintance? I cannot sufficiently admire the power of abstraction of those persons who in the exuberance of their sympathies overlook the ugly, the sottish, the vulgar, and pay no heed to what is vicious, vile and atrocious. You would not shake that man’s hand: true—but he is a brother. You send him to the galleys, to the gallows: but he is always a brother! Humanity amuses me, it interests me, but, as a whole, it inspires me neither with respect nor with affection. I decline all solidarity.