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Romain Rolland: To the undying Antigone; waging war against war

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

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Romain Rolland: Selections on war

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Romain Rolland
To the Undying Antigone (1915)
Translated by Eden and Cedar Paul

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The most potent action within the competence of us all, men and women alike, is individual action, the action of man on man, of soul on soul, action by word, by example, by the whole personality. Women of Europe, you fail to use this power as you should. You are now attempting to extirpate the plague which afflicts the world, to wage war against the war. You do well, but your action comes too late. You could have fought, you ought to have fought, against this war before it broke out; to have fought it in the hearts of men. You do not realise your power over us. Mothers, sisters, helpmates, friends, sweethearts, you are able, and you will, to mould man’s soul. The soul of the child is in your hands; and in relation to a woman whom he respects and loves, a man is ever a child. Why do you not guide his footsteps?

If I may give a personal example, let me say that to certain among you I owe what is best or what is least bad in my own nature. If, during this whirlwind, I have been able to maintain unshaken my faith in human brotherhood, my love of love, and my scorn of hate, I owe this to a few women. To name but two among them: I owe it to my mother, a true Christian, who in early childhood inspired me with a passion for the eternal; and I owe it to the great European, Malvida von Meysenbug, the sublime idealist, who in her serene old age was the friend of my youth.

If a woman can save one man’s soul, why do not you women save all men’s souls? The reason, doubtless, is that too few among you have as yet saved your own souls. Begin at the beginning! Here is a matter more urgent than the conquest of political rights (whose practical importance I am far from under-rating). The most urgent matter is the conquest of yourselves. Cease to be man’s shadow; cease to be the shadow of man’s passions, of his pride and of his impulse towards destruction. Gain a clear vision of the brotherly duty of sympathy, of mutual aid, of the community of all beings; these make up the supreme law prescribed to Christians by the voice of Christ, and to free spirits by the free reason. Yet how many of you in Europe to-day are carried away by the gusts of passion which have overpowered the minds of men; how many of you, instead of enlightening men, add their own fever to the universal delirium!

Begin by making peace within yourselves. Rid yourselves of the spirit of blind combativeness. Do not allow yourselves to be embroiled in the struggle. You will not make an end of the war by making war on the war; your first step should be to save your own hearts from the war, by saving from the general conflagration the FUTURE WHICH IS WITHIN YOU. To each word of hatred uttered by the combatants, make answer by an act of kindness and love toward all the victims. Let your simple presence show a calm disavowal of errant passions; make of yourselves onlookers whose luminous and compassionate gaze compels us to blush at our own unreason. Amid war, be the living embodiment of peace. Be the undying Antigone, who renounces hatred, and who makes no distinction between her suffering and warring brethren.

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