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Chapter 48

THE MORAL SIDE OF THE QUESTION


First, M. Bonaparte, it is expedient that you should acquire a notion what the human conscience is.

There are two things in this world--learn this novelty--which men call good and evil. You must be informed that lying is not good, treachery is evil, assassination is worse. It makes no difference that it is useful, it is prohibited. "By whom?" you will add. We will explain that point to you, a little farther on; but let us proceed. Man--you must also be informed--is a thinking being, free in this world, responsible in the next. Singularly enough--and you will be surprised to hear it--he is not created merely to enjoy himself, to indulge all his fancies, to follow the hazard of his appetites, to crush whatever he finds before him in his path, blade of grass or plighted oath, to devour whatever presents itself when he is hungry. Life is not his prey. For example, to pass from nothing a year to twelve hundred thousand francs, it is not permitted to take an oath which one has no intention to keep; and, to pass from twelve hundred thousand francs to twelve millions, it is not permitted to crush the constitution and laws of one's country, to rush from an ambuscade upon a sovereign assembly, to bombard Paris, to transport ten thousand persons, and to proscribe forty thousand. I continue your initiation into this singular mystery. Certes, it is agreeable to give one's lackeys white silk stockings; but, to arrive at this grand result, it is not permitted to suppress the glory and the thought of a people, to overthrow the central tribune of the civilized world, to shackle the progress of mankind, and to shed torrents of blood. That is forbidden. "By whom?" you repeat, who see before you no one who forbids you anything. Patience: you shall know presently.

What!--here you begin to be disgusted, and I can understand it--when one has, on the one hand, one's interest, one's ambition, one's fortune, one's pleasures, a fine palace to maintain in Faubourg Saint-Honoré; and, on the other side, the jeremiads and whining of women from whom one takes their sons, of families from whom one tears their fathers, of children from whom one takes their bread, of the people whose liberty one confiscates, of society from whom one takes its support, the laws; what! when these clamours are on one side and one's own interest on the other, is it not permitted to contemn the uproar, to let all these people "vociferate" unheeded, to trample on all obstacles, and to go naturally where one sees one's fortune, one's pleasures, and the fine palace in Faubourg Saint-Honoré? A pretty idea, truly! What! one is to trouble one's self to remember that, some three or four years ago, one cannot now say when or where, one day in December, when it was very cold, and rained, and one felt it desirable to leave a chamber in an inn for a better lodging, one pronounced, one no longer knows in relation to what, in an indifferently lighted room, before eight or nine hundred imbeciles who chose to believe what one said, these eight letters, "I swear it!" What! when one is meditating "a great act," one must needs waste one's time asking one's self what will be the result of the course that he is taking! must worry because one man may be eaten up by vermin in the casemates, or another rot in the hulks, or another die at Cayenne; or because another was killed with bayonets, or another crushed by paving-stones, or another idiot enough to get himself shot; because these are ruined, and those exiled; and because all these men whom one ruins, or shoots, or exiles, or massacres, who rot in the hulks, or die in the hold, or in Africa, are, forsooth, honest men who have done their duty! Is one to be stopped by such stuff as that? What! one has necessities, one has no money, one is a prince, chance places power in one's hands, one makes use of it, one authorizes lotteries, one exhibits ingots of gold in the Passage Jouffroy; everybody opens his pocket, one takes all one can out of it, one shares what one gets with one's friends, with the devoted comrades to whom one owes gratitude; and because there comes a moment when public indiscretion meddles in the matter, when that infamous liberty of the press seeks to fathom the mystery, and justice fancies that it is its business, one must needs leave the Éysée, lay down the power, and take one's seat, like an ass, between two gendarmes on the prisoners' bench in the sixth chamber! Nonsense! Isn't it much more simple to take one's seat on the throne of the emperor? Isn't it much more simple to destroy the liberty of the press? Isn't it much more simple to crush justice? Isn't it a much shorter way to trample the judges under foot? Indeed, they ask nothing better! they are quite ready! And this is not permitted! This is forbidden!

Yes, Monseigneur, this is forbidden!

Who opposes it? Who does not permit it? Who forbids it?

Monsieur Bonaparte, you are master, you have eight millions of votes for your crimes, and twelve millions of francs for your pleasures; you have a Senate, with M. Sibour in it; you have armies, cannon, fortresses, Troplongs flat on their bellies, and Baroches on all fours; you are a despot; you are all-potent; some one lost in the obscurity, unknown, a mere passer-by, rises before you, and says to you: "Thou shalt not do this."

This some one, this voice that speaks in the darkness, not seen but heard, this passer-by, this unknown, this insolent intruder, is the human conscience.

That is what the human conscience is.

It is some one, I repeat, whom one sees not, and who is stronger than an army, more numerous than seven million five hundred thousand votes, more lofty than a senate, more religious than an archbishop, more learned in law than M. Troplong, more prompt to anticipate any sort of justice than M. Baroche, and who thee-and-thous your majesty.


Victor Hugo