I was introduced to Anatole France (1844-1924) when I saw him listed on the “must read” list of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I’m not a big Fitzgerald fan, but as an amateur literary historian, I was curious about how this particular list was recovered. Apparently, he had dictated it to one of his nurses, several years before his death. However, the list only turned up last year, having lain unnoticed in the nurse’s effects.
The France title that Fitzgerald deemed essential was The Revolt of the Angels. Its importance to him is highlighted by the fact that this relatively short list only included twenty-two titles. And one of that mere score of selections was The Revolt of the Angels.
The angelic dimension of the work is what intrigued me. Angels, of course, are real beings. They’re distinct from people (contrary to the pervasive contemporary notion that when people die they “become” angels).
There actually was an angelic revolt, and there are several references to it in the Scriptures. “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn!” (Isaiah 14:12).
I was curious whether France was writing about this ancient event. I was also intrigued by Fitzgerald’s interest in the volume, given its subject.
I was disappointed.
It turns out that, like Mark Twain, France was sympathetic to the Devil. I’m sure he thought himself quite the wit when he wrote, in reference to the Bible, “We have never heard the devil’s side of the story, God wrote the whole book.”
I don’t have time to read texts like this—when there is more than enough good literature to keep me occupied for several lifetimes. However, it appears to be based on Gnostic concepts with God (the Creator of this world) viewed as an imperfect demiurge. His incompetence, it seems, justifies the heavenly revolt.
Suffice it to say, the book is commended for reading by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. That sort of endorsement speaks volumes.
Here, however, is a random paragraph. It may be illustrative of the tone of the work, even though pulled from its context. The speaker is, I believe, one of the positive characters in the book. While France himself was an atheist, his sympathetic character summarizes a pagan cosmology quite elegantly.
Young Maurice’s guardian angel [said] “I argue, like you, in the language of human beings. And what is human language but the cry of the beasts of the forests or the mountains, complicated and corrupted by arrogant anthropoids. How then . . . can one be expected to argue well with a collection of angry or plaintive sounds like that?
Angels do not reason at all; men, being superior to the angels, reason imperfectly. I will not mention the professors who think to define the absolute with the aid of cries that they have inherited from the pithecanthropoid monkeys, marsupials, and reptiles, their ancestors! It is a colossal joke! How it would amuse the demiurge, if he had any brains!”
That is actually a rather provocative quote, and I’m sure it may lead some to explore the text even further. I certainly don’t object to that, and would be curious to hear back from anyone familiar with the book. I would especially like to see the reaction of Christians to The Revolt of the Angels.
If you are interested in a more creative fictional treatment of fallen angels, be sure to read C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. While the presentation is truly groundbreaking, Lewis’ take on the motives and nature of these defeated beings is actually based on reality. Cast from the heavens they are consumed with rage and hatred of God.
A positive note about Anatole France
Whatever I think about the writer’s theology, I did read several wise quotations attributed to him. I’d like to close with these, as they may be more edifying than our discussion of Gnostic cosmology.
“Nine tenths of education is encouragement.”
“Some succeed because they are destined to; most succeed because they are determined to.”
“If 50 million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.”
“When a thing has been said and well said, have no scruple; take it and copy it.”
And my favorite:
“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”
The illustration above is the work of Frank C. Papé (1874-1972) an English book illustrator. It comes from another of France’s “religious” works.