The Revolt of the Angels

by Jacques-Anatole-Françoi Thibault

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Anatole France, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1921, lived among books all his life. His father was an antiquarian bookseller, and he worked for some years as an assistant in the library of the Senate. He is understandably careful to contrast the attitude of Sariette, who is driven to madness and murder by the loss of a valuable edition of Lucretius’ exposition of the Epicurean philosophy, and that of Arcade, who discovers the infinitely more precious enlightenment contained therein.

In the end, France acknowledges the need for Arcade’s revolutionary zeal to be reined in, lest it lead to the kind of pointless terror that succeeded the well-intentioned French Revolution of 1789. He has, however, far more sympathy for that youthful zeal than he has for René d’Esparvieu’s cool indifference to the world of learning or Maurice’s absorption in the business of seduction and the niceties of social etiquette. It is significant that France entrusts the duty of restraint to a Satan who has learned to repent his own prideful ambitions and has acquired a true maturity of outlook.

In making this move, France brought to a kind of consummation the tradition of “literary Satanism” that had extended from William Blake’s remark that John Milton “was of the Devil’s party without knowing it” when he wrote Paradise Lost (1667). This tradition carried on through Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820) and Charles Baudelaire’s “The Litanies of Satan” (1857) to France’s own account of “The Human Tragedy” (1895), in which an honest clergyman makes the uncomfortable discovery that Satan is a better friend to the causes of liberty, equality, fraternity, and justice than God ever was. Throughout this tradition, Satan’s rebellion is acknowledged as a heroic attempt to overthrow a moral tyranny that had proved itself cruel as well as corrupt, but France was the writer who took the greatest care in looking beyond the prospect of a new rebellion.

The Revolt of the Angels gives careful thought to the question of what human beings really need to achieve and thus provides a remarkably sensitive design for the kind of victory they need to win over their own innate nature. The fact that it was completed on the eve of World War I serves to lend further authority to its plea for a peaceful solution to the problems that afflict the human spirit. Anatole France was in full sympathy with the Epicurean dicta “know thyself” and “nothing to excess.” The Revolt of the Angels certainly is the finest of all Epicurean fantasies and is one of the finest of all fantasies.

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