Victor Hugo on Atheism

I am in the midst of reading Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Misérables—and I will be for some time as it is a massive work. In the midst of the novel, Hugo digresses, as he is wont to do, into a fascinating discussion of atheism. Hugo lived in a time of great upheaval intellectually and morally, a time of revolution. Of course, one of the battle cries of the revolutionaries of his day was, “God is dead.” It is to this he responds. Now, Hugo himself was by no means a traditionalist. He considered himself a free-thinker—one who had progressed beyond the archaisms of traditional religion. Nevertheless, he recognized that atheism was not an answer to anything. Here is what he said.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here is, as we know, a philosophy which denies the infinite. There is also a philosophy, pathologically classified, which denies the sun; this philosophy is also called blindness.

To erect a sense which we lack into a source of truth is a fine blind man’s self-sufficiency.

The curious thing is the haughty, superior, and compassionate airs which this groping philosophy assumes towards the philosophy which belongs to God. One fancies he hears a mole crying, “I pity them with their sun!”

There are, as we know, powerful and illustrious atheists. At bottom, led back to the truth by their very force, they are not absolutely sure that they are atheists; it is with them only a question of definition, and in any case, if they do not believe in God, being great minds, they prove God.

We salute them as philosophers, while inexorably denouncing their philosophy.

The remarkable thing about it is, also, their facility in paying themselves off  with words. A metaphysical school of the North, impregnated to some extent with fog, has fancied that it has worked a revolution in human understanding by replacing the word Force with Will.

To say, “The plant wills,” instead of, “the plant grows,” this would be fertile in results indeed if we were to add, “the universe wills.” Why? Because it would come to this: the plant wills, there for it has an I; the universe will, therefore it has a God.

As for us, who, however, in contradistinction to this school, reject nothing a priori, a will in the plant, accepted by this school, appears to us more difficult to admit than a will in the universe denied by it.

To deny the will of the infinite, that is to say, God, is impossible on any other conditions than a denial of the infinite. We have demonstrated this.

The negation of the infinite leads straight to nihilism. Everything becomes “a mental conception.”

With nihilism, no discussion is possible. For the nihilist logic doubts the existence of its interlocutor , and it is not sure that it exists itself.

From its point of view, it is possible that it may be for itself, only a “mental conception.”

Only, it does not perceive that all which it has denied it admits simply by the utterance of the word “Mind.”

In short, no way is open to the thought by a philosophy which makes all end in the monosyllable, No.

To No, there is only one reply: Yes.

Nihilism has no point.

There is no such thing as nothingness. Zero does not exist. Everything is something. Nothing is nothing. Man lives by affirmation even more than by bread….

For our part…we will confine ourselves to saying that we niether understand man as a point of departure nor progress as an end, without those two forces which are their two motors: faith and love.

Progress is the goal, the ideal is the type.

What is the ideal? It is God.

Ideal, absolute, perfection, infinity: identical words.

— Volume II, Book VII, Chapter VI: “The Absolute Goodness of Prayer”

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