Les Misérables [1.1-IV] Works corresponding to Words


Today, we discuss chapter IV of book 1, volume 1 of Les Misérables: Works corresponding to Words.

This is one of the most important chapters in book 1. It is a magnificent chapter full of short and catchy aphorisms, worthy of being shared widely. Here, we can see the greatness of Victor Hugo's progressive soul. There is a lot of information to cover and it is very difficult to comment on it in a way that gives this chapter justice.

[Fr.] (Original) [En.] (Hapgood translation) [En.] (modified translation)
Être un saint, c’est l’exception ; être un juste, c’est la règle. Errez, défaillez, péchez, mais soyez des justes. To be a saint is the exception; to be an upright man is the rule. Err, fall, sin if you will, but be upright. To be a saint is the exception; to be just is the rule. Err, fall, sin if you will, but be just!

Chapter I briefly told us about the past of M. Myriel. It gave us an opportunity to review the historical context.

As Myriel set his budget in chapter II, we talked about economic matters and the unequal wealth distribution.

In chapter III we talked about the spiritual nature of the novel.

In chapter IV, we have a collection of seemingly unrelated stories. However, a second, more attentive reading reveals the common denominator in the whole chapter: Justice. Hugo approaches justice from different, complementary perspectives: divine justice, human justice, fiscal justice, justice within the judicial system, etc.

This one of the core chapters in book 1. We haven't gone as far as setting the stage for the events in book 2, yet. However this chapter represents some of the core philosophy of Myriel. The theme of this chapter, justice, echoes the title of book 1: "A just man". (This parallel is lost in Hapgood's translation, hence our modified translation. See section below about another translation problem.)

The chapter explores our human foibles although in somewhat forgiving manner. Our physical bodies bind us to imperfection. Everything is flawed about us, including both our judicial system and our approach towards divine justice. But this shouldn't prevent us from being just. Myriel, even before becoming a saint, was a just man. Sainthood may very well be unachievable for most/all of us, being just, however, is a basic requirement we should set for ourselves.

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A humble, child-like bishop... and a few translation problems

At the beginning of the chapter, we see a humble bishop who does not take himself too seriously. He laughs like a school boy.

He also has a nice self-deprecating sense of humour which is unfortunately badly translated, at least in the Isabel F. Hapgood translation (which we use in these commentaries).

[Fr.] (Original) [En.] (Hapgood translation) [En.] (modified translation)
Madame Magloire l’appelait volontiers Votre Grandeur. Un jour il se leva de son fauteuil et alla à sa bibliothèque chercher un livre. Ce livre était sur un des rayons d’en haut. Comme l’évêque était d’assez petite taille, il ne put y atteindre. Madame Magloire, dit-il, apportez-moi une chaise. Ma Grandeur ne va pas jusqu’à cette planche. Madame Magloire liked to call him Your Grace [Votre Grandeur]. One day he rose from his arm-chair, and went to his library in search of a book. This book was on one of the upper shelves. As the bishop was rather short of stature, he could not reach it. "Madame Magloire," said he, "fetch me a chair. My greatness [grandeur] does not reach as far as that shelf." Madame Magloire liked to call him Your Highness. One day he rose from his arm-chair, and went to his library in search of a book. This book was on one of the upper shelves. As the bishop was rather short of stature, he could not reach it. "Madame Magloire," said he, "fetch me a chair. My Highness does not reach as far as that shelf."

The original French has a nice pun on the word "grandeur" which does not render at all in the present translation. The English word "highness" would have been much better.

(I have not seen the other translations but I am suspecting (hoping) that this is the way it has been translated in the better ones, unless of course there is an even better translation. Please post a comment with the name of the translator and how precisely the above paragraph was translated. Thanks.)

In any case, we see here a bishop who has the humility and the playfulness of a child. He is the opposite of self-aggrandizing, pompous prelates, full of their own importance.

Besides the translation problem in the quote that opens this commentary, already mentioned above, there may be another one here:

[Fr.] (Original) [En.] (Hapgood translation) [En.] (modified translation)
De sa vie M. Géborand n’avait fait l’aumône à un malheureux. À partir de ce sermon, on remarqua qu’il donnait tous les dimanches un sou aux vieilles mendiantes du portail de la cathédrale. Elles étaient six à se partager cela. Un jour, l’évêque le vit faisant sa charité et dit à sa sœur avec un sourire : — Voilà monsieur Géborand qui achète pour un sou de paradis. Never in his whole life had M. Geborand bestowed alms on any poor wretch. After the delivery of that sermon, it was observed that he gave a sou every Sunday to the poor old beggar-women at the door of the cathedral. There were six of them to share it. One day the Bishop caught sight of him in the act of bestowing this charity, and said to his sister, with a smile, "There is M. Geborand purchasing paradise for a sou." Never in his whole life had M. Geborand bestowed alms on any poor wretch. After the delivery of that sermon, it was observed that he gave a sou every Sunday to the poor old beggar-women at the door of the cathedral. There were six of them to share it. One day the Bishop caught sight of him in the act of bestowing this charity, and said to his sister, with a smile, "There is M. Geborand purchasing for a sou's worth [a dime's worth] of paradise."

My English abilities may be at their limit, here. Hapgood appears to mean that Geborand purchased the entry right to the whole of the paradise for only a sou (i.e. a cent or a dime), while the original implies that Geborand is "investing", as if he were purchasing a cent's worth of "real estate" in paradise... which might not be enough to grant him entry at all! Ultimately, Hapgood's translation means the same but I still prefer the somewhat clearer capitalistic imagery of the original text.

Every time I read this paragraph, I have the image in my mind of a news report about a gala evening only attended by American millionaires and billionaires. It was just after the recent Haiti earthquake. Someone on the stage invited the guests to call a certain number on their cell phones, that will automatically charge them a small fee to be used for Haiti relief.... The richest people are known to prefer charity solutions to world poverty rather than government mandated solutions. They act a bit like Monsieur Geborand who eased his conscience without jeopardizing in any way his comfortable financial status.

Regular readers of these commentaries may have already noticed that we like to apply the hermetic aphorism: "As above, so below." Above us, there are the top 1%, the millionaires who use their cell phones to give puny sums as charity while they keep amassing even more wealth at the expense of everybody else. Below us, are the world's bottom 90% whose fate can only be improved if we are willing to substantially change our own lifestyles.

Divine Justice

This chapter does not discuss so much the nature of Divine Justice as what men believe Divine Justice to be.

Pendant un carême, un jeune vicaire vint à Digne et prêcha dans la cathédrale. Il fut assez éloquent. Le sujet de son sermon était la charité. Il invita les riches à donner aux indigents, afin d’éviter l’enfer, qu’il peignit le plus effroyable qu’il put, et de gagner le paradis, qu’il fit désirable et charmant. In the course of one Lent, a youthful vicar came to Digne, and preached in the cathedral. He was tolerably eloquent. The subject of his sermon was charity. He urged the rich to give to the poor, in order to avoid hell, which he depicted in the most frightful manner of which he was capable, and to win paradise, which he represented as charming and desirable.

Above, a very predictable priest describes the traditional Christian view of Heaven and Hell. We can contrast what he was trying to say with what Geborand, the rich bourgeois, actually understood from the sermon: he believes just enough into Divine retribution that he is willing to part with a dime in order to gain entry into Paradise.

Contrary to them, there are those who are not so concerned about the afterlife but care more about immediate gratification on Earth. Madame la Comtesse de Lo hopes are in the inheritance of rich relatives. Others care about titles and their social status on Earth to the point that upon their death, that's all they have got: enough titles and qualifications to please their erstwhile vanity.

Unlike for the death penalty (discussed below), this is a topic on which Hugo does not share his personal opinion. He does not offer any definite answer as to the reality and the nature of Divine Justice. Strangely, neither does Bienvenu Myriel. Unlike the young vicar above, he does not offer certitudes but simply hope:

Ô admirable consolateur ! il ne cherchait pas à effacer la douleur par l’oubli, mais à l’agrandir et à la dignifier par l’espérance. Oh, admirable consoler! He sought not to efface sorrow by forgetfulness, but to magnify and dignify it by hope.

Myriel does not try to convince as much as to console. He does not want to convert people but to soothe their pain and comfort them. He has nothing to sell but he has gentle, caring love to offer.

With his very compassionate, forgiving attitude, Myriel himself may, at the end, be the best example of Divine Justice at work, especially given his very compassionate approach to our foibles.

Compassionate view

In a chapter dedicated to justice, it is reassuring to see such a large place given to compassion and forgiveness, even though there is a definite hierarchy between people. On one side we have the powerful, the strong, the wealthy, the nobles, the ruling classes, the adults, the parents, the men. On the other side we have the weak, the poor, the lower classes, the women, the children. Once again, Myriel is inverting things. He inverted his tithe (giving 90% and keeping 10%), he inverted his home (exchanging the palace for the hospital) and he is inverting the way justice is distributed between the two aforementioned groups of people. In the 19th century (and still in the 21st century, as recent news shows), justice is dispensed much more harshly to the weak, the poor and the ruled.

Quand il s’agissait de charité, il ne se rebutait pas même devant un refus, et il trouvait alors des mots qui faisaient réfléchir. Une fois, il quêtait pour les pauvres dans un salon de la ville ; il y avait là le marquis de Champtercier, vieux, riche, avare, lequel trouvait moyen d’être tout ensemble ultra-royaliste et ultra-voltairien. Cette variété a existé. L’évêque, arrivé à lui, lui toucha le bras : — Monsieur le marquis, il faut que vous me donniez quelque chose. Le marquis se retourna, et répondit sèchement : — Monseigneur, j’ai mes pauvres.Donnez-les-moi, dit l’évêque. When it was a question of charity, he was not to be rebuffed even by a refusal, and on such occasions he gave utterance to remarks which induced reflection. Once he was begging for the poor in a drawing-room of the town; there was present the Marquis de Champtercier, a wealthy and avaricious old man, who contrived to be, at one and the same time, an ultra-royalist and an ultra-Voltairian. This variety of man has actually existed. When the Bishop came to him, he touched his arm, "You must give me something, M. le Marquis." The Marquis turned round and answered dryly, "I have poor people of my own, Monseigneur." "Give them to me," replied the Bishop.

Here is a very good repartee by M. Myriel. Presumably being short of cash, the bishop came for some charitable contribution so that he can continue taking care of his poor. At face value, accepting even more destitute people instead of hard cash does not solve his problems. However, his answer is very clever in several ways. Obviously, the marquis' answer is only an excuse. By claiming his poor people, the bishop is depriving him of the excuse. Secondly, there is no doubt that, however stretched out his limited means might be, Myriel would take much better care of the poor people than the marquis ever will.

On a broader level, whatever our respective levels of interest and dedication to being a just person might be, there is always a little something more that we can do and that wouldn't cost us too much, if anything. By giving his poor to M. Myriel, the marquis would be empowering him to do even more charitable work. Who are the people around us, neighbours, public people or organizations, who are doing some good work for our society? We may be busy with our daily lives, short of time and short of cash, etc., we can always find ways to increase our awareness of all the good work that is being done by people around us. We can support them, if not with our time or with our money, then at least with our moral support, helping them to do their outreach work by talking about them to people around us...

In any case, the Good News in this chapter (its "Gospel-like" nature), is the forgiving and compassionate nature of Myriel's justice. He is not so much concerned with Champtercier than with "Champtercier's poor people". He is aware that human justice is already harsh enough on the lower classes but wonder whether the "advocate of the crown" (the District Attorney)) will be judged for fabricating evidence against the poor couple who resorted to coining counterfeit money in order to feed their family.

More importantly, Myriel looks beyond the outward manifestation of the crime and searches upstream to the causes that have created the conditions for the crime to be committed in the first place. This is important both for the novel (it creates a reference with which to judge Jean Valjean's crime, later in the novel), and for our society: we cannot hope to fix its current ills if we do not properly understand their primordial causes.

Il ne condamnait rien hâtivement, et sans tenir compte des circonstances. Il disait : Voyons le chemin par où la faute a passé. He condemned nothing in haste and without taking circumstances into account. He said, "Examine the road over which the fault has passed."

That is compassionate justice at work!

Capital Punishment

What have the USA, the People's Republic of China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Yemen, North Korea and Somalia have in common...? The title of this section makes it clear. Among the shrinking minority of countries which still maintain the capital punishment, these are the countries which apply it the most. The USA is in good company!

In the following extract, it is not Myriel who is thinking. The voice we hear is rather that of the author who is directly talking to us. Victor Hugo is well known for having a fervent opponent of the Death Penalty. He actively campaigned for its abolition.

L’échafaud, en effet, quand il est là, dressé et debout, a quelque chose qui hallucine. On peut avoir une certaine indifférence sur la peine de mort, ne point se prononcer, dire oui et non, tant qu’on n’a pas vu de ses yeux une guillotine ; mais, si l’on en rencontre une, la secousse est violente, il faut se décider et prendre parti pour ou contre. Les uns admirent, comme de Maistre ; les autres exècrent, comme Beccaria. La guillotine est la concrétion de la loi ; elle se nomme vindicte ; elle n’est pas neutre, et ne vous permet pas de rester neutre. Qui l’aperçoit frissonne du plus mystérieux des frissons. Toutes les questions sociales dressent autour de ce couperet leur point d’interrogation. L’échafaud est vision. L’échafaud n’est pas une charpente, l’échafaud n’est pas une machine, l’échafaud n’est pas une mécanique inerte faite de bois, de fer et de cordes. Il semble que ce soit une sorte d’être qui a je ne sais quelle sombre initiative ; on dirait que cette charpente voit, que cette machine entend, que cette mécanique comprend, que ce bois, ce fer et ces cordes veulent. Dans la rêverie affreuse où sa présence jette l’âme, l’échafaud apparaît terrible et se mêlant de ce qu’il fait. L’échafaud est le complice du bourreau ; il dévore ; il mange de la chair, il boit du sang. L’échafaud est une sorte de monstre fabriqué par le juge et par le charpentier, un spectre qui semble vivre d’une espèce de vie épouvantable faite de toute la mort qu’il a donnée. In fact, when the scaffold is there, all erected and prepared, it has something about it which produces hallucination. One may feel a certain indifference to the death penalty, one may refrain from pronouncing upon it, from saying yes or no, so long as one has not seen a guillotine with one's own eyes: but if one encounters one of them, the shock is violent; one is forced to decide, and to take part for or against. Some admire it, like de Maistre; others execrate it, like Beccaria. The guillotine is the concretion of the law; it is called vindicte; it is not neutral, and it does not permit you to remain neutral. He who sees it shivers with the most mysterious of shivers. All social problems erect their interrogation point around this chopping-knife. The scaffold is a vision. The scaffold is not a piece of carpentry; the scaffold is not a machine; the scaffold is not an inert bit of mechanism constructed of wood, iron and cords. It seems as though it were a being, possessed of I know not what sombre initiative; one would say that this piece of carpenter's work saw, that this machine heard, that this mechanism understood, that this wood, this iron, and these cords were possessed of will. In the frightful meditation into which its presence casts the soul the scaffold appears in terrible guise, and as though taking part in what is going on. The scaffold is the accomplice of the executioner; it devours, it eats flesh, it drinks blood; the scaffold is a sort of monster fabricated by the judge and the carpenter, a spectre which seems to live with a horrible vitality composed of all the death which it has inflicted.

Cesare Beccaria was an 18th century Italian philosopher and politician, known for his condemnation of torture and the death penalty ("On Crimes and Punishments", published 1754).

Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) was a French monarchist and a key figure of the Counter-Enlightenment movement. In his Evenings in Saint-Petersburg ("Les soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg", published posthumously in 1821), he pleads for Divine Justice which, in his eyes, justifies the death penalty.

What is really terrifying in the above quote is how tame it appears to a modern reader. Hugo pleads us not to remain indifferent on the issue of the capital punishment, yet it's precisely how a casual reading of the above might leave us. The fact is that the feelings and the emotions of the modern man have been numbed down by being constantly exposed to violence in our modern media (news, movies, video games, etc.). Yet, being indifferent may be the worst crime of all: when we are, we become a de-facto, passive supporter of the status quo.

Instead of re-hashing all the regular, well founded arguments against the Capital Punishment, let's consider the ultimate purpose of the Death Penalty. Is it to get the society rid of a dangerous individual or is it to inflict punishment? In others words, how much pain is it appropriate to inflict while giving death?

For all the horrors of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, the guillotine was an improvement over the torture chambers dating back to the darkest dungeons of the Middle Ages. It was specifically invented and designed in order to deliver Republican Justice in a quick and democratic way. During the Old Regime, death was delivered in many different ways across the French kingdom, often according to local customs, with the most gruesome ways being reserved for the lower echelons within the condemned. The French Revolution almost abolished the Death Penalty but finally kept it. It did however abolish the use of torture. With the guillotine, every condemned person was equal in the face of death, might he be a vulgar criminal or a former king (Louis XVI). That was a pretty novel idea for that time. What's more, the "widow maker" - as it was known - was praised for its ability to kill someone in a quick, painless manner (although, of course, nobody has ever come back to testify on how painless it actually was).

Although the invention of the electric chair in the US was a definite step back from the guillotine, the lethal injection was later invented in order to make the capital punishment more palatable to its detractors. However, the family of the victims often came back from witnessing an execution still thirsting to see a hint of suffering on the face of the executed.

In a recent BBC documentary, How to Kill a Human Being, former conservative MP Michael Portillo went on the mission to discover a scientifically proven, as painless as possible way to put someone to death. Portillo even west as far as to try some of these methods on himself (although, obviously, not to their ultimate conclusion!).

The documentary goes at length to disprove the perceived notion that lethal injections are painless. It's not because the body appears inert and expressionless throughout the process that the individual does not feel anything. There is medical and indeed empirical evidence that dying via lethal injections might actually be an agonizing process. What is interesting is that the guillotine is not considered at all throughout the documentary. Probably it is considered too gory because of its mutilation of the body. At the end, Portillo does find the Holy Grail, the most "humane" method of killing: apoxia. The victims (or the condemned) are given to breathe some inert gas instead of our ordinary oxygen-laden air. They first feel some euphoria before, within 15 seconds, becoming unconscious and dying, within a minute. Euphoric himself, Portillo went to see some capital punishment advocates with his find. They reaction was: "It's terrible! How can a murderer be sent to his death in a moment of euphoria?" For them, inflicting pain is part of the deal! Protecting the society from dangerous criminals is not enough. They want the society to take their revenge and painfully punish the alleged criminals (who, incidentally, may or may not be guilty, miscarriages of justice being common!) Their reaction reflects the same narrow-minded "us-vs-them" mentality that we discussed in the previous chapter.

Fortunately, the capital punishment has been abolished almost throughout Europe. It was abolished in France in 1981, by the newly elected Socialist president François Mitterrand. It was one of his campaign promises and he kept it even though, at the time, a majority of French people were in favour of maintaining the capital punishment. In 2007, a constitutional amendment to the French constitution was almost anonymously adopted by the French congress that definitely abolishes the capital punishment. During the last few decades, the whole of Europe has made major progresses in that area, with the abolition of the death penalty being one of the conditions for accession to the European Union. Today, in the whole of Europe, including Russia, there is only one country which still has the capital punishment: Belarus. Its president declared in 2012 that he would abolish it as soon as the United States does...

(Related reading: D'var Torah: Judaism and the Death Penalty.)

Fiscal justice

Justice is not something that is only related to the judiciary branch of our governments. Justice must permeate every government ministry and every law. One area where any form of justice in critically lacking is in our government's fiscal policies. It was true in 19th century France. It is still true today, both in Europe and, more so, in the US.

« Mes très chers frères, mes bons amis, il y a en France treize cent vingt mille maisons de paysans qui n’ont que trois ouvertures, dix-huit cent dix-sept mille qui ont deux ouvertures, la porte et une fenêtre, et enfin trois cent quarante mille cabanes qui n’ont qu’une ouverture, la porte. Et cela, à cause d’une chose qu’on appelle l’impôt des portes et fenêtres. Mettez-moi de pauvres familles, des vieilles femmes, des petits enfants, dans ces logis-là, et voyez les fièvres et les maladies ! Hélas ! Dieu donne l’air aux hommes, la loi le leur vend. Je n’accuse pas la loi, mais je bénis Dieu. » "My very dear brethren, my good friends, there are thirteen hundred and twenty thousand peasants' dwellings in France which have but three openings; eighteen hundred and seventeen thousand hovels which have but two openings, the door and one window; and three hundred and forty-six thousand cabins besides which have but one opening, the door. And this arises from a thing which is called the tax on doors and windows. Just put poor families, old women and little children, in those buildings, and behold the fevers and maladies which result! Alas! God gives air to men; the law sells it to them. I do not blame the law, but I bless God."

There is so much to say in connection to this excerpt alone that we cannot cover it all. We can only provide a few comparison points.

Here is a first one, based on a summer 2012 news item in Oregon, USA.

[Gary Harrington,] an Oregon man was sentenced to 30 days in jail for collecting rain water on his own property because according to a decades-old law, the water belongs to the government.


According to the state, a law established in 1925 gives the water commission the rights to the water but according to Harrington, “This is big government getting greedy.”

Dominic Notter, legal adviser, who appeared with Harrington asked, “What’s next? We go out in winter time on Gary’s property and you open your mouth and catch a snowflake and the state’s going to say you’re the containment and that’s their water?”

Harrington further asked, “Are they going to start regulating our air that we breathe?"

It is amusing to see that two very different men, Myriel and this American man, separated by exactly 200 years, one continent and one ocean, ponder in a similarly ironic fashion on the wisdom of taxing the air that Nature (or God) give us for free.

Beyond the anecdote, this is a very important policy debate for our times.

Every natural resources (everything "created by God") should be considered public resources, belonging to everyone, to the community. Air is a plentiful, renewable resource and as such, the idea to tax it is obviously silly.

For non-renewable or limited resources, however, it is or would be appropriate to use fiscal tools to regulate their use down to a point that is sustainable. Fresh water is an unevenly distributed resource. It is plentiful in some places but scarce in others. Where there are risks for water shortages, it makes sense for the government to intervene and regulate and tax its use, ensuring that every household down to the most modest ones have access to enough water for drinking, cooking, washing and sanitary needs. Within that context, we do not dispute Oregon's laws which dictate that rain water belongs to the State government (modest water collection schemes - e.g. from one's roof - are permitted and free). However, in this particular case, we must side with the individual. His rainwater collection was done on a much larger scale, filling large man-made ponds. However, it was done in such a way that enriched both himself and the whole community. He personally benefited by having a nice fish-filled pond on his property. It's not like he was diverting water from a stream, depriving residents downstream. He did not deprive anyone of the water which would otherwise have directly been discharged into the ocean. On the contrary, the community now had a permanent source of water from which to draw during a forest fire. Trying to enforce the letter of Oregonian water-collection laws, the justice system actually broke their spirit.

We previously already mentioned Jacques Lemaire. His book is again very relevant here. While the first part help us understand the (very simple) mathematical and accounting mechanism by which the very rich maintain their wealth. It explains why raising the minimum wage is not a real, long-term solution. The second part of the book is more directly relevant to the discussion above. It focusses on taxes. We can very broadly categorize taxes into two big groups: Labour taxes and green, progressive taxes. Labour taxes include all payroll taxes, Value Added Taxes, Business Taxes, Income Taxes (including capital income taxes!). All of these taxes are ultimately detrimental to the society and especially to the poor people, since by their definition, only the working classes pay these taxes (This is also true for capital income taxes, although in a more indirect manner. The book has to be taken as a whole in order to understand the mechanisms at play). Today, in most countries, Labour Taxes count for about 60~90% of the government's income. At a time of very high unemployment and very high environmental degradation, it is absolutely insane to have a tax system that penalises the working classes but gives a free rein to the reckless use of natural resources and to the degradation of our environment. Labour taxes must be progressively but drastically reduced, in favour of a comprehensive panoply of green taxes, whereby all the following behaviours would be taxed: using non-renewable resources; using renewable resources at an unsustainable rate; using land (including for habitation, the surface of the Earth being a gift from nature. The home you build yourself may very well be your private property, but the land upon which it has been build must be considered as rented from the community); polluting natural resources (polluting air, water and soil); creating discomfort and harm to the community (e.g. noise, or excessive road-side advertising, i.e. noise pollution and visual pollution).

If we were to follow Jacques Lemaire's recommendations, the tax burden would shift away from the poorer people (like in Myriel's example) and into the richest people in such a way that the rich wouldn't be able to pass on the tax burden back to the poor, as they are doing right now. Lemaire's book offers a whole package of systemic reforms that would go a long way in solving many of the ills in today's world, striking at their root causes.

We already know about a very dangerously lopsided wealth distribution both within the US and throughout the world.

This chapter of Les Misérables invites us to look at the unfair distribution of "justice" and the uneven distribution of the tax burden.

Quotable content

This is a new recurring feature of this series: a list of the most quote-worthy passages of this chapter. The length of the following list is a testimony of the richness of chapter 1.1.IV. However, the list is also somewhat subjective. Feel free to create your own with your top favourite quotes, to use liberally in your own blog entries and in discussions or use your favourite as your signature.

[Fr.] Citations [En.] Quotes
Mettez votre espérance dans celui auquel on ne succède point. Place your hopes in the man from whom you do not inherit.
~~~ ~~~
Voilà monsieur Géborand qui achète pour un sou de paradis. There is M. Geborand purchasing a dime's worth of paradise.
~~~ ~~~
— Monseigneur, j’ai mes pauvres.
— Donnez-les-moi, dit l’évêque.
"I have poor people of my own, Monseigneur."
"Give them to me," replied the Bishop.
~~~ ~~~
Hélas ! Dieu donne l’air aux hommes, la loi le leur vend. Alas! God gives air to men; the law sells it to them.
~~~ ~~~
Mes frères, ayez pitié ! voyez comme on souffre autour de vous. My brethren, have pity! behold the suffering on all sides of you!
~~~ ~~~
Il ne condamnait rien hâtivement, et sans tenir compte des circonstances. Il disait : Voyons le chemin par où la faute a passé. He condemned nothing in haste and without taking circumstances into account. He said, "Examine the road over which the fault has passed."
~~~ ~~~
C’est une chute, mais une chute sur les genoux, qui peut s’achever en prière. It is a fall, but a fall on the knees which may terminate in prayer.
~~~ ~~~
Être un saint, c’est l’exception ; être un juste, c’est la règle. Errez, défaillez, péchez, mais soyez des justes. To be a saint is the exception; to be an upright man is the rule. Err, fall, sin if you will, but be upright.
~~~ ~~~
Le moins de péché possible, c’est la loi de l’homme. Pas de péché du tout est le rêve de l’ange. The least possible sin is the law of man. No sin at all is the dream of the angel.
~~~ ~~~
Les fautes des femmes, des enfants, des serviteurs, des faibles, des indigents et des ignorants sont la faute des maris, des pères, des maîtres, des forts, des riches et des savants. The faults of women, of children, of the feeble, the indigent, and the ignorant, are the fault of the husbands, the fathers, the masters, the strong, the rich, and the wise.
~~~ ~~~
À ceux qui ignorent, enseignez-leur le plus de choses que vous pourrez ; la société est coupable de ne pas donner l’instruction gratis : elle répond de la nuit qu’elle produit. Teach those who are ignorant as many things as possible; society is culpable, in that it does not afford instruction gratis; it is responsible for the night which it produces.
~~~ ~~~
Cette âme est pleine d’ombre, le péché s’y commet. Le coupable n’est pas celui qui fait le péché, mais celui qui fait l’ombre. This soul is full of shadow; sin is therein committed. The guilty one is not the person who has committed the sin, but the person who has created the shadow.
~~~ ~~~
Il lui dit les meilleures vérités, qui sont les plus simples. Il fut père, frère, ami, évêque pour bénir seulement. He was father, brother, friend; he was bishop only to bless.
~~~ ~~~
Il n’était pas assez ignorant pour être absolument indifférent. He was not sufficiently ignorant to be absolutely indifferent.
~~~ ~~~
Celui que l’homme tue, Dieu le ressuscite ; celui que les frères chassent retrouve le Père. God raises from the dead him whom man slays; he whom his brothers have rejected finds his Father once more.
~~~ ~~~
Les choses les plus sublimes sont souvent aussi les moins comprises. The most sublime things are often those which are the least understood.
~~~ ~~~
C’est un tort de s’absorber dans la loi divine au point de ne plus s’apercevoir de la loi humaine. It is wrong to become absorbed in the divine law to such a degree as not to perceive human law.
~~~ ~~~
La mort n’appartient qu’à Dieu. De quel droit les hommes touchent-ils à cette chose inconnue ? Death belongs to God alone. By what right do men touch that unknown thing?
~~~ ~~~
Ô admirable consolateur ! il ne cherchait pas à effacer la douleur par l’oubli, mais à l’agrandir et à la dignifier par l’espérance. Oh, admirable consoler! He sought not to efface sorrow by forgetfulness, but to magnify and dignify it by hope.
~~~ ~~~

Open Questions

There is one aspect of this series that we would like to make clear to all readers: These commentaries can in no way be considered to be definitive. They are only a first public draft.. Their author is certainly not knowledgeable enough to give the key to all obscure references found in Hugo's novel. Also, as far as the wider 19th century context, and its 21st century relevance, the ideas presented therein can only be considered a starting point. Thanks to the wiki associated to this project, the lifespan of the commentaries is not limited to some obscure blog and to the brief time the diary may be visible at Daily Kos. Over the medium and long term, we hope that a growing community of contributors will pick up the challenge to build a comprehensive reference of 21st century challenges and their corresponding solutions.

This section is therefore the first of a new recurring section where we list a few avenues for further research to be done, for documentation and for action.

St. Augustine quote

Je songe, dit l’évêque, à quelque chose de singulier qui est, je crois, dans saint Augustin : « Mettez votre espérance dans celui auquel on ne succède point. » "I am thinking," replied the Bishop, "of a singular remark, which is to be found, I believe, in St. Augustine,--`Place your hopes in the man from whom you do not inherit.'"

A preliminary research didn't reveal what was the exact quote that Myriel (or Hugo) had in mind or if indeed St. Augustine said something like this. The closest we have come is the following quote translated from the original Latin into French, together with our own English translation, taken from Augustine's Discourse on the Psalms, Psalm 110:

[Fr.] Discours sur the psaume CX [En.] Discourse on Psalm CX
L’Evangile a passé aux nations, et l’on a enjoint aux riches de ce siècle de n’être point orgueilleux, de ne mettre point leur espérance dans les richesses incertaines, mais dans le Dieu vivant, à qui devient facile ce qui est difficile aux hommes. [source] The Gospels [...] enjoins the rich of these times not to be proud and not to put their hopes in uncertain wealth but in the living God [...].

It may not be what Myriel had in mind. If you know better than we do, please let us know.

Whatever the source, the point is clear: a person may or may not inherit the estates and the wealth of their parents. Divine justice, however, is much more certain!

Fair distribution of justice

Above, we compared the the problem of unequal distribution of wealth to the probably as important problem of unequal distribution of justice. It would be useful to develop a wiki page with detailed, current examples, linking to existing web sites and pages which already cover this topic quite well.

Fiscal justice

Fiscal justice is probably one of the most overlooked or underrated issues among the gravest issues that our society faces. We cannot imagine a long-lasting, sustainable solution to most of our world's biggest challenges without a comprehensive fiscal reform to restore some humanity and some sanity in that area. Above, we could only briefly touch on this important subject. Minguo.info is the home of both to the Les Misérables project and to Knowledge Democrats project. Soon, we are going to launch a fair income, fair taxes project, to a large extent based on Jacques Lemaire's writings. Anyone interested in promoting fiscal justice should get in touch with us in order to coordinate efforts.

Be just before you're generous.

Cross posted from: Les Misérables [1.1-IV] Works corresponding to Words.