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Anatole France: War debases man beneath the level of ferocious beasts

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

Anatole France: Selections on war

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Anatole France
From The Bloom of Life (1922)
Translated by J. Lewis May

Anatole-France-mai1923

Man is incomparably more intelligent than his brother animals; but his intelligence does not differ from theirs in kind. He is superior to them all, but without having within him aught that they also do not possess. And what brings him down to the level of all of them is that if he would live, he must eat of that which has had life. The law of murder weighs upon him as it weighs upon all the rest, and has made him a ferocious being. He is a devourer of flesh, and in order that he may not be ashamed to slay his brothers, he repudiates them. He boasts that he comes of a loftier origin; yet everything shows his kinship with the animals. He is born, like them; like them he nourishes himself; he reproduces his kind like them, and, finally, like them he dies. Even as they, he is subjected to the law of murder imposed upon all who inhabit the earth. Of his incomparable intelligence he makes use in order to subjugate the beasts necessary for his welfare, and although his stalls and byres are well stocked, yet the chase is his favourite occupation. It was ever the chief pastime of kings, and so it is to-day. He abandons himself to the work of killing with a mad joy which the other animals do not share with him. Like the wild beasts, which do not eat each other, he abstains from devouring the flesh of men; but he does what the other animals scarcely ever do, he kills his fellows, if not to eat them, at all events to wrest from them some coveted possession, to prevent them from enjoying their own, or merely for the pleasure of slaying. This is what is known as war, and men wage it with delight. Doubtless they would never dream of committing so extravagant a crime had they not been prepared for it by the necessity of killing animals in order to live…

“And take the organizing and policing of the nations. A mighty effort was once attempted in this direction. It was when Augustus shut the gates of the Temple of Janus, and reared in Rome an altar to Peace, and when the far-flung majesty of the Pax Romana enfolded the world. But Rome perished. And ever since Rome fell the world has been delivered over to the barbarians who, even in our day, are so far removed from resuming the task of Caesar and Augustus that they condemn the very idea lest it should prove an obstacle to balk them in the satisfaction of their lust for murder and pillage. And there is not a man among all these warring nations not one, who has a thought for devising a means for ensuring the peace of the world, for the setting up of powerful amphictyonies which, exercising dominion over the various states, would compel them to keep to the paths of Right and Justice. If one citizen were to invoke the advent of this new order, which would be the salvation of humanity, he would be spurned by the worthies of his own and every other country for endeavouring to deprive the patriot of his dearest privilege, the privilege of enriching himself by murder. This unanimity among the nations of the earth in envy and hatred shows clearly enough the nature of the goal towards which they are sweeping…”

My godfather had a taste for battles, which he had only beheld in pictures. M. Dubois had crossed the Beresina and brought back with him a horror of war. Having resigned his commission in 1814, he did not resume service under the Restoration, for which he had no more love than for the Empire. He longed for a Marcus Aurelius.

After this monstrous war, whose disintegrating effect no single institution has escaped, we must reconstruct our educational system after a new plan, on lines of majestic simplicity. There must be the same teaching for rich and poor. All alike must go to the elementary school. Those who exhibit the greatest aptitude for study will pass on to the secondary school which, being free to all, will gather together on the same benches the flower of middle class and proletarian youth. And this elite will, in its turn, send on its own elite to the great schools of science and art.

In 1855 the war in Italy brought about a conflict between France and Austria. The series of battles which made Lombardy run with blood filled my mother with grave alarm. Even when I was quite a child she grew terrified at the thought of war, war that might one day rob her of her son.

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