The virtues that you will cultivate above all are courage, public-spiritedness, pride, integrity, contempt, disinterestedness, politeness, gratitude, and, in general, all that is understood by the word generosity.
Moral courage, which has such good press, is an easy virtue chiefly for him who does not pay any consideration to opinion. If one does not have it, to acquire it is a matter of will, which is to say an easy matter. On the contrary, if one does not have physical courage, to acquire it is a matter of hygiene, which is outside the framework that I have laid out for myself here.
Public-spiritedness and patriotism are one and the same, if the patriotism is worthy of the name. You are from a country where there is patriotism in fits and starts, and public-spiritedness, never; or public-spiritedness is considered ridiculous. I say to you: “If you are a patriot, be so seriously”, as I would say to you: “If you are a Catholic, be so seriously.” I do not have great esteem for a man who in wartime valiantly defends the country that he has in peacetime enfeebled by a thousand pin-pricks. Do not require that your country be invaded for you to treat it well. Conduct yourself as decently in peace as in war, if you love the peace.
Vanity, which rules the world, is a ridiculous sentiment. Arrogance, well-founded, adds nothing to merit; when I hear talk of a “beautiful arrogance,” I become pensive. Unfounded, it is ridiculous even to itself. The only superiority of arrogance to vanity is that vanity waits for everything, and arrogance waits for nothing; arrogance does not need to be nourished, it is passionately fond of sobriety. Halfway between vanity and arrogance, you will choose pride.
Integrity is this and that, and besides it is a good thing. It obtains all that cunning obtains, at less cost, at less risk, and with less time lost.
Disinterestedness has only the merit of extracting you from the vulgar, but it does so for certain. Every time that you, being able to take, do not take, you will give to yourself one hundred and one thousand times more than you would have given by taking. Out of all the opportunities from which you will not wish to benefit, you will construct for yourself a cathedral of diamond in the invisible world. Contemporary France has created a certain number of truly obscene words, among which is gate-crashing. Do not gate-crash, be it in the most humble domain, for that goes from the humble to the great.
Contempt is part of esteem. One is capable of contempt to the degree that one is capable of esteem. The excellent reasons that we have to despise. He who does not despise the bad, or the low, compromises with it. And of what worth is esteem that does not know how to despise? I have always thought that it is possible to found something on contempt; now I know what: morality. It is not arrogance that despises; it is virtue. Much will also be forgiven to him who will have despised much. And again I add this: that it is not necessary to not be despicable in order to despise.
There is no serious hatred that does not contain contempt. For example, I do not hate the Germans, because I do not despise them.
One of the signs of French decline is that she would no longer be capable of contempt.
Politeness, because its absence spoils everything. In the world of today, where politeness will very soon be even rarer than virtue, we will come to the point where some will end by judging that bad education equals bad action. You will always give politeness first, before knowing whether it will be given to you, and you will see to it chiefly with regard to the humble. If it is not given to you, you will break with those people, whatever the interests or the passions involved between you and them may be, and whatever their quality or their merit may be. And you will notice that extreme politeness is as necessary among friends as among strangers: the absence of politeness, with a friend, impairs and then destroys a friendship just as surely as a more dazzling mistake. Politeness will surround your eyes, for it requires a great nervous expenditure. But one cannot do without it.
As a general rule, you will remember to always caution the humble when they do not expect it and to remain reserved with the great. Kindness with the humble, indulgence with the middling, vigilance with the great. Without forgetting that as much charity is necessary with respect to the great as with respect to the humble.
Gratitude is a feeling so contrary to nature that, if you do not take great care, this feeling very much risks escaping you. A person with something of vitality does not care at all whether or not others show him gratitude. But do not count on such vitality.
If you have these virtues, the rest is not as important. It matters little, for example, that you believe in God, or not. You can think however will seem good to you on this matter.
It matters little that you love or do not love your fellow-man. But do not seek after his love. First, because he who gives you his love takes away your liberty. Second, because to seek to please is the most slippery slope for heading straight to the lowest level. We must take from women, lest we limit ourselves in being too masculine, much of the instinct proper to their sex. But, by God! not that one.
It matters little that you yield or do not to sensual pleasure. You will hear it said that pleasure is incompatible with spirituality, charity, good health, etc. This is an illusion. A sufficiently full and balanced nature manages all that and is satisfied. These are passions that it is equal to guiding, that’s all. “God knows that you cannot stop yourself from thinking about women.”(Koran.) But it is in this domain above all that you must have deportment. Take care to tolerate nothing from women that would make you rear coming from a man. The happiness that a being gives you does not create for it rights over you. To maintain this idea is not always easy, and all the less because we must reconcile it with the great gratitude that whoever has given us pleasure merits.
Many of the actions that common morality takes for innocent condemn a man without recourse. But lying, murder, theft, the pillage of war do not necessarily condemn a man. He can commit them and retain the qualities of superiority. The life of many men is worth no more than the life of a gudgeon. Theft often has excuses. Lying often does less bad than the truth; contrary to common opinion, one can very well lie to those whom one loves the most: you have lied to me, I have lied to you, and I will lie to you yet. Obviously, on all that, you will not make me say what I do not say.
Here are many indifferent things. What is essential is loftiness. It will take the place of everything for you. In it I include detachment, for how can one maintain loftiness without detaching oneself? It will be fatherland enough for you, if you have no other. It will take the place of the fatherland for you, the day that the other fails you. One must be enamored with loftiness, for, in being so, one falls much and more. What will happen, then, if one is not so!
I return to the virtue of contempt, since, as I have told you, it is unknown to our compatriots. “Heliogabalus did not wish to have children, out of fear that that he would only receive ones of honest morals.”(Lampride.) I am annoyed to feel myself in disagreement with a head of State, but, if anything had stopped me from having a son, it would have been, on the contrary, the fear that he would not have had honest morals. By “honest morals” I understand above all that quality of a being, by grace of which the bad disgusts him like a vulgarity. We see often enough boys of excellent environments, students of great schools or others, cornered in stories of narcotics, of prostitutes, of shady people and things. They lacked that quality, which would have made it so that they had only to see these people, and without the moral sense intervening, they would have known that with respect to them it would be possible to have only one rule of conduct: that of having nothing in common with them. They lacked repugnance; they lacked contempt. It was a baffling thing for me, and gravely sad, to see what sorts of people young French officers, in the colonies, allowed themselves to be surrounded by. I take officers as an example, because to shock under uniform is to shock doubly. These people were filthy; the first glance at them sufficed for me to lose my temper. For, not only did they not have that effect on young men that we take for that which is better in French society, but these young men took pleasure in their contact. We learn next the classic intrigue of the lieutenant and the spy, or the lieutenant who kills himself for a prostitute. None of such would have occurred if these boys, before these women, had had that sort of quivering that one calls contempt. When one of them gets himself into a filthy story, before even having thought of him: “He is a fool”― which is always the case ― I think: “This is a boy who had no quality.” If, on a jury, I heard a father answer the question: “Why did you kill your son?”― “Because he had become a loafer”, it seems to me that I would vote for acquittal. But this disposition is not exactly that in which justice is dispensed today.
I was just brought carnations and roses that someone whom I do not like sent me. I remove their frames with care, as if I were removing a pin from the body of a butterfly. That rose, enamored of its long stem, how good it feels! Surely the angel Gabriel took it between his fingers. I breathe it, while holding its corolla in both palms, as the heaviest of goblets, or as a bird that one would retain without squeezing. If there is a worm at the bottom, and which I have allowed to enter my nostrils, frankly, God help me! This evening she will have no more perfume; I will have completely inhaled all her perfume. I will sleep on it while holding it against my chest, with its long stem, like a king, in his tomb, his scepter. But it is chiefly in electric lighting that one must see it. Nothing equals the fire, the vigor, the brilliance, the all-powerful youth of the colors of carnations and roses when electricity abruptly illuminates them in the middle of the night. I will send you a third of this basket of flowers, while keeping the rest for myself.
I never understood that a man is to show his hearth, not his friends, not his manner of working, not his manner of praying ― in a word, his life. Har’m, say the Muslims, and this expression collects also all that they love. However I would tell you less: “Be secretive”, rather than: “Have the ability to be so.” In moral life, that which is hidden is more intense, as, in clothing of poor quality, the fabric, under the reverse, conserves a more vivid color. A man who does not know how to guard a secret is judged. And remember that the difficulty is not to conceal from nine others, but to conceal it also from the tenth.
You will have a reasonable gentleness with respect to animals, for all the reasons that are usually given, but chiefly because you will often find among them more nobility and more justice than among men. Each time that you will have resisted needlessly killing an animal, or needlessly annoying it, you will have done well.
The same with regard to objects. Each time that you will have resisted plucking a flower, pissing in clear water, needlessly breaking a branch, etc., you will have done well. When there is no certain merit in it (and that is not certain), you will at least have avoided a vulgar gesture.
I caution you against fear of opinion. Woe to him who wishes not to be slandered! A man who knows what he is worth, when he sees himself disregarded, slandered, in good faith or not, has only one feeling: surprise. There are plenty of other things that give him disgust and hate. Contrive some periods of disrepute; alternate them with periods in which you are esteemed. When you will have perceived that they have exactly the same flavor, you will have taken a good step toward a sane view of things. And then, when people do not think well of you, it is then that there is merit in being virtuous. There is absolutely no merit in being so when we are showered with praise; they gradually take the virtues that they attribute to you.
On this matter you say to me: “How to reconcile the point of honor, which seems to imply the importance given to opinion, with this last disdain for opinion?” Oh, my dear, that is part of your gymnastic. You would not wish that I give you everything cut and dry.
I caution you against ambition. It is good that I do this ahead of time, for it is a passion that is part of the stupidity of the young. It was not before twenty-eight that I discovered that ambition was a bourgeois passion. Obviously, you can amuse yourself with this feeling, like with any other, in the manner of a pastime.
I caution you against excess callousness. I caution you against excess will. Take care! An immense part of the energy that men expend is expended for nothing. Give yourself only in earnest. And that will be easier for you, if you recall that a person like yourself is not too attached to what he does. He who says eagerness says plebeian (of the soul, obviously).
There is no suffering the sting of which you cannot blunt by imagining how it could be worse. Consciousness of vexations is rapidly eliminated in a man who has good circulation. I caution you nevertheless, as a reminder, against useless suffering (everything that I am going to say to you about this is said concerning moral suffering). Happiness is a considerably more noble and refined state than suffering: when humanity had a sane mind, the gods that she created she made happy. It is not in depths of pain that I have seen anything at all: there one is encircled by a wall of stupidity. It is from the summits of bliss that I have seen that which I had to see. That from that time men rarely win happiness: they are not worthy enough of it. Lacking it, they slander it. If nature wished anything, it would not be suffering that it would wish; it is only to see how people who suffer become mean, ugly, go to pieces, sometimes lose their judgement, etc. Every time that you will hear talk of the primacy of suffering, you will be able to wager that you are faced with a vulgar spirit: suffering is the small luxury of people of mediocre quality. It is for him who would wish to have others believe that he is the most unhappy and the most uneasy, like these young girls whom I heard conversing one day: “You know, I cry loudly.”― “Me, I cry more loudly than you. If I cry, everyone can hear me from the street.” Almost all people are so: they want to be heard from the street. The majority of moral sufferings are sufferings that they entirely create for themselves, without reason; not only are they unfounded, they are also useless. Ah! physical suffering is otherwise more respectable. Take then just as much moral suffering as is necessary for the richness and diversity of your interior life, but be happy, in remaining proper; one must feel oneself at ease in nature. And, when you will be happy, know that you are so, and be not ashamed to acknowledge a state so worthy of esteem.
When you will have become this rare exemplary human, which alone will justify my having made you, then without doubt will the time have come for you to have yourself killed for the quarrels of a civilization to which you do not feel yourself bound.
If not for you, of the past and the future, it would still be the future which interested me the least. But in being born you created for me the future; you made me its prisoner. It is in the nature of things that one day of this future you will turn against me. In the age in which I will conclude my life, it will be obvious to you that I was overpraised, and that in reality I was an imbecile. It will be strangers who flower my grave, not you. Do not disquiet yourself too much on account of this sham “wretched feeling”. I will not be too disquieted about it myself. It is deeply indifferent to me that you love me or not, and I would be ashamed to have the desire for it; your sympathy will be all that is necessary. I am much attached to you: I am content with this feeling. I love lemonade. I do not need lemonade to love me.
One day, then, you may say to me that the advice that I have given you is not suitable for a modern man. Certainly: the virtues that I ask of you are the most injurious to him who wishes “to succeed” (always these obscene words) in the modern world. But I did not make you so that you could be a modern man, but just a man.
To which you may say to me that it is not that which will give you bread, the day when you will have the misfortune of having to win your bread. (“the misfortune”: for, as you know, I hate work. The religion of the Christians saw well, which made of it the great Punishment; which wished, in the Middle Ages, that the perfectly spiritual man live on alms rather than work.) To which I will reply that you will always find ways of winning your bread; it is not advice on that matter that you will lack, nor the examples: people have only that in their heads. But I, I will have given you the means of eating and drinking to the idea that you will have improved yourself. And that can take the place of part of your bread for you.
I am distracted from what I was going to write you by a charming greyhound that is passing in front of the garden. The fur of its rear tendons is entirely pink, and translucent. To think that it carries everywhere with him these two imperishable gemstones!
One can hear streams, dogs, and bees. All that penetrates what I write to you. I express myself poorly: that cannot penetrate it, since they are one and the same.
One day, you may say to me that men are worthy of neither that kindness, nor these sacrifices, nor that generosity, nor even justice. That is possible. But it is not for them that you will have had these virtues, it is for you. You will say to me that there is no cause that could be worth dying for. That is quite likely. “What then! Is one to die, is one to suffer for a cause in which one believes only halfway?” But it is not for that cause that one suffers and one dies. It is for the idea that that suffering and that death give you of yourself. It is necessary to be irrational, my friend, but it is not necessary to be a dupe. No pity for dupes.
With all that, you will have your approbation and mine. It will suffice you. For, just as you do not expect your virtues to be useful for anything, in the same way, and even more powerfully, will you not expect that it take you into consideration. On the contrary, I will say to you what the Stoics said to the sage: you will be sacrificed to it totally. For each of your “good” deeds you will be automatically punished. He who is brave is killed, he who seeks justice is treated with indifference, he who marries as a point of honor ruins his life. Liberality impoverishes, mercy emboldens the mean, sincerity gives them arms, firmness of soul prevents others from taking your troubles seriously, self-mastery is taken for bloodlessness, reason for cowardice, modesty for incapacity, forgiveness for consent to their wrongs. And it is very difficult to wish to be bad to men on that account, when one sees that the unfailing return for being happy and esteemed is to systematically smother all the movements of one’s conscience and heart. Of the diverse means that you have today of making yourself hated by your compatriots, the most sure is to have elevated sentiments. All that will put you in their favor they will return against you. They will not hate you, so much as they will attribute to your actions the only motives that make them act themselves, that is paltry motives; they will hate you as soon as they suspect other motives. They would prefer that you be their tormenter than their benefactor, provided that, as their tormenter, they would feel you to be at their level; you will find in the society that surrounds you a universal complacency, except with respect to that which is different. They will scoff at you and disparage you, and at this sign you will understand that you are on the right path. To the degree that you are advised to systematically slide from here to there, some thing that attracts jeering, in order to be really sure that they are scoffing at you, to such a degree is that sign certain. Moreover there is always the pleasure of supplying arms to one’s enemies; to this you will quickly take a liking that you will soon no longer be able to do without. This is not to say that it is necessary to be hated. But, the world being as it is, how would an honest man not be proud to inspire that feeling in it?
Will you know how to maintain that state of inferiority in which I seek to place you in the social game? My poor child, you lack covetousness, you lack fury, you lack impudence: how will you make up for that? I seem to see the maliciousness of the world, as the birds do on their boughs, perching on you to make you yield. Your mildness gives me fear. For the sixteen years that you have been on this earth, you have been my wonder: I have never had anything to reproach you for that would have marked enough to leave a trace on me, ― and the respect that I show you is worthy of that which you have shown me there. Such as you show yourself to me, I see you stripped of all harshness, all evasion, all affectation. One would say that a kind of isolating polish renders you insensitive, without effort on your part, to all that is vile. And the days go by, bringing reasons to corrupt you in handfuls, yet without corrupting you; and I view you as one views a well-born being, that is to say that which is rarest in the world, but also which suffices to justify it, and fearing unceasingly that the idea that I have of you will not crack gradually, because you will have taken a misstep. For all that, it happens that some strangers complain about you. Would you then help me? I have never sought to penetrate your feelings with respect to me; I told you that they matter little to me. But I would like to be sure that far from me you preserve enough rigor to resist, not only that which is bad, but also that which is not made for you. That honesty and that modesty that you carry with you, like the greyhound his two marvelous gemstones, will be more threatened than ever before. By the world, and by you yourself: for you are going to enter that “awkward age” of life, that runs from about the eighteenth to the twenty-eighth year, in which one must almost necessarily be a fool (and it is through foolishness, quite often, that one finds attraction to the vulgarities of the bad). You are in a canoe, that is your newness, on an ocean of excrement, that is the world; it will be a miracle if you do not capsize. And it would then be necessary for me to despise that to which I gave life! To become the equal of those unhappy unconscious ones who are the majority of fathers and mothers! My young boy! But I stop myself, for I sense that I trouble myself when I think too much of what you are for me. And I have better things to do with you, than to love you.