Rebuilding the social body (2)

This is the nineteenth in a series of twenty articles drawn from Mgr Delassus’s two-volume work, The Problem of the Present Time: Antagonism of two civilisations (1905). The section of his work translated for this series considers the role of the family as the origin and model of society, the disastrous effects of human tampering and the means of restoring Christian society. This series began in April 2022 with “How states are formed”.

In January 1897, Leo XIII, whom our democrats have the audacity to present as the inspiration for their elaborate doctrines, said to the Roman patriarchate:

“Our charity neither gives us the right to make exception of persons — though it could not be blameworthy if it were to be particularly pleased with you precisely in view of the social rank which has been assigned to you, apparently by a happy chance but in truth by a merciful disposition of Heaven. In particular, how can one refuse to regard the glory of an illustrious name, since even the divine Redeemer showed His esteem for it? Certainly, in His earthly pilgrimage, He adopted poverty and did not want wealth for a companion; but nonetheless, he wanted to be born of a royal race.

“Let us remind you, dear sons, that this is not to flatter a mad pride, but rather to strengthen you in the works worthy of your rank. Every individual, every class of individuals has its proper functions and value, and it is from the well ordered total of all of them that the harmony of human society springs. It is, however, undeniable that, in private and public institutions, aristocracy of blood is a special force, like fortune, like talent. If there were always a dissonance here with the dispositions of nature, it would not have been, as in all times, one of the laws moderating human events. This is why, judging from the past, it is not illogical to infer that whatever the vicissitudes of times may be, an illustrious name will never fail to have some efficacy, for one who knows how to carry it worthily.”

Leo XIII ended his address with these words:

“Have your eyes open on the events which unfold and never lose sight, in the midst of the crowing ferment of popular covetousness, that the frank and constant virtue of the most elevated classes is one of the most necessary means of defence.”

Again, in January 1903, Leo XIII said:

“Jesus Christ, if he wanted to pass his private life in the obscurity of a humble habitation and pass for the son of an artisan, if in his public life he loved to live among the people, doing good to them in all ways, he nonetheless wanted to be born of a royal race, choosing Mary for mother and Joseph for putative father: both offshoots chosen from the line of David. Yesterday, on the feast of their espousals (23 January), we could repeat with the Church these beautiful words: “Mary appears to us bright, issue of a royal race”.

“The Church, in preaching to men, who are the sons of the same heavenly Father, also recognises the distinction of classes as a providential condition of human society; this is why she teaches that only reciprocal respect of rights and duties and mutual regard will give the secret of a just balance, of honest wellbeing, of true peace and the prosperity of peoples.

In 1872, Pius IX said the same: “Jesus Christ Himself loved aristocracy. He also wanted to belong to the nobility by His birth and to be descended from the line of David.”

Then recalling that, when he was still young, a Roman prince had exposed to him “the role of nobility in society”, Pius IX said, “Now, elucidated by long experience, and in the light of the sovereign pontificate, I declare that these are truly Catholic principles.”1

How, under these conditions, could France have done away with its nobility? It must be said that the nobility did away with itself. Starting from the fourteenth century, the beginning of the Renaissance, a moral abasement began to take place in an almost continuous way. By the eighteenth century, as we have said, the nobility no longer fulfilled the duties of a true aristocracy; and that is why the Revolution was able to overthrow it. “For all its misfortunes,” said Joseph de Maistre, “the French nobility has only itself to blame.”2

It would have been necessary to return to souls the old spirit, the ancient devotion. France would then have seen an evolution in place of a Revolution. Adapting herself to the present conditions of society, the ancient spirit would have made the society advance on the paths of veritable progress, where instead we have seen retrogress. Handed over to the impulsion of the crowd, it gives way to sheer numbers, like a lighter body to a heavier one; it re-descends the degrees of civilisation and enters once again into barbarity.

When it comes to reorganising our society, if it pleases God to snatch us off this slope, perhaps we will feel the need to rebuild the nobility from what remains of the aristocracy in France, that is to say, from families who will know how to separate themselves from the contagion of all the vice which devour us. Sovereignty, which has its source in God but its deposit in the sovereign himself, cannot be exercised by the sovereign entirely alone; every chief need lieutenants. Must the latter be functionaries without roots or men surrounded with respect, with a fortune guaranteeing their independence, their conduct and their capacities? This is the whole question. If families who have been gentrified remain isolated from one another, if they do not form a body which has received an investiture, they will only act towards the people in an individual manner and, from then on, all social action must come from power, which presents a great danger of despotism. The constituted nobility is a protective body for the people in regard to the sovereign, as it is also for the sovereign in regard to the multitude. And this is why every nation which wants to conserve its liberties must have a nobility, as all power must have a nobility as its buttress.

From another point of view, Hippolyte Taine said:

“One could never remove the aristocracy irrevocably. In every society that has ever lived, there has always been a core of families of ancient fortune and consideration. Removed by the law, the aristocracy is rebuilt and the law can only choose between two systems: one which leaves society fallow and the other which brings it an abundant harvest; one which strays from public service or the other which rallies to it.”

And he gives excellent reasons to demonstrate that the latter is far preferable. The best government is one which gives right of way to the development of human nature, in holding open the entry to the nobility for the bourgeoisie by legitimate ennoblements, and the entry to the bourgeoisie for the people by institutions which favour the formation of capital and consecrate its rights. De Bonald said:

“If there were, in the provinces and in each village, a family of considerable fortune relative to that of its neighbours, which was assured of a living independent from salaries and speculations and the sort of consideration that the ancientness and extent of territorial properties always enjoyed among the provincials; if there were a family which had both exterior dignity and a great deal of modesty and simplicity in private live, which submitted to the severe laws of honour and gave the example of all virtues and decencies, which joined to the necessary expenses of its state and indispensable consumption (which is already an advantage for the people) this daily beneficence, which in the provinces is a necessity if not a virtue; if there were a family which was only occupied with the duties of public life, or exclusively available for the service of the state; does one think that this institution would not result in great advantages for the morale and the wellbeing of peoples, which has long existed in Europe under one form or another, maintained by customs, and only lacked being ruled by laws?”3

Le Play said:

“These social authorities surely resolve the great problem which consists of making public peace reign without recourse to violence. To attain this goal, they all employ the exact same means: they set a good example wherever they go, inspiring the respect and affection of their servants, their workers and their neighbours. When they act with all liberty, they create stable and prosperous societies; but when they are paralysed by governments and written constitutions, they can command neither revolutions nor decadence.”

This series will conclude next month with “Rebuilding the social body (3)”.


  1. Dicours de N S P le Pape Pie IX, t. I, p. 122 et t. II, p. 141.
  2. Considérations sur la France, p 151.
  3. Pensées de Bonald.