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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Women and Christianity
By Anatole France (1844–1924)
 
From ‘The Garden of Epicurus’: Translation of Alfred Richard Allinson

CHRISTIANITY has done much for love by making a sin of it. The Church excludes woman from the priesthood; it fears her, and thereby shows how dangerous she is. It repeats with the Ecclesiast: “The arms of a woman are like the nets of the hunters,—laqueus venatorum.” It warns us not to put our hope in her: “Lean not upon a reed shaken in the wind, and put not your trust therein, for all flesh is grass, and the glory thereof passeth away like the flower of the fields.” It dreads the wiles of this pest of the human race: “All cunning is small beside the cunning of a woman’s heart. Brevis omnis malitia super malitiam mulieris.” But by the very terror it betrays of her, it makes her strong and formidable.  1
  To grasp the full significance of these maxims you must have lived with the mystics. You must have passed your childhood in a religious atmosphere. You must have gone into “retreat”; followed the observances of the Church. You must have read, at twelve years old, those little books of edification that reveal the supernatural world to simple souls. You must have known the story of St. Francis de Borgia gazing into the open coffin of Queen Isabella, or the apparition of the Abbess of Vermont to her daughters in Christ. The Abbess had died in the odor of sanctity, and the nuns, who had shared in her works of angelic piety, believing her in Heaven, were wont to invoke her in their prayers. But one day she appeared to them, with wan face and flames licking the border of her robe. “Pray for me,” she bade them; “in the days when I was alive, joining my hands in prayer, I thought what pretty hands they were. To-day I am expiating that sinful thought in the torments of Purgatory. Know, my daughters, the adorable goodness of God, and pray for me.” These little books of childish theology contain a thousand tales of the kind—tales that give purity too exalted a price not to add an infinite zest to carnal pleasures.  2
  In consideration of their beauty, the Church made Aspasia, Laïs, and Cleopatra into demons, ladies of Hell. What glory for them! Why, a saint would have appreciated the compliment! The most modest and austere of womankind, who has no faintest wish to destroy any man’s peace of mind, would fain have the power to destroy all men’s. Her pride is flattered by the precautions the Church takes against her. When poor St. Antony shouts at her: “Begone, foul beast!” his very alarm tickles her vanity deliciously. She is ravished to find herself more dangerous than she had ever suspected.  3
  But never think too highly of yourselves, my sisters; you were not, at your first appearance in the world, perfect and fully armed. Your grandmothers of the days of the mammoth and the giant bear did not wield the same domination over the prehistoric hunters and cave men which you possess over us. You were useful then, and necessary, but you were not invincible. To tell the truth, in those far-off ages, and for long afterwards, you lacked charm. In those days you were like men, and men were like brutes. To make of you the fearful and wonderful thing you are to-day, to become the indifferent and sovereign cause of countless sacrifices and crimes, you still needed two things: Civilization, which gave you veils, and Religion, which gave you scruples. Since then your powers are perfected; you are now a mystery, and you are a sin. Men dream of you and lose their souls for you. You inspire longing and alarm; love’s delirium has come into the world. Yes, it is an infallible instinct inclines you to piety. You are well advised to love Christianity. It has multiplied your puissance tenfold. Do you know St. Jerome? At Rome and in Asia you inspired him with such panic terror that he fled to escape you into a frightful desert. There he fed on roots, and the skin clung to his fleshless bones and was burnt black by the sun, yet he found you there also. His solitude was peopled with your phantoms, yet more alluring even than yourselves.  4
  For it is a truth, only too well proven by the ascetics, that the dreams you excite are more seductive, if that is possible, than the realities you have in your power to offer. Jerome rejected with equal horror your presence and the remembrance of your presence. But in vain he gave himself up to fasts and prayers; you filled his life, from which he had expelled you, with hallucinations. Such was the power of woman over a Saint. I doubt if it is as great over an habitué of the Moulin-Rouge. Take heed your empire be not diminished along with men’s belief in God; beware you do not lose a portion of your influence through ceasing to be a sin.  5
  Candidly I do not think rationalism is good for you. In your place, I should not be overfond of the physiologists who are so indiscreet, who are so over ready to explain things to you, who say you are sick when we think you are inspired, and who attribute to the predominance of reflex actions your sublime potentialities for love and suffering. That is not the way they speak of you in the ‘Golden Legend’; “white dove,” “lily of purity,” “rose of love,” are the names they give you there. Surely this is more agreeable than to be dubbed hysterical, cataleptic, subject to hallucinations.—as you are every day since science has ruled the roast.  6
  Moreover, if I were one of you, I should cordially detest all those emancipators of the sex who are for making you into men’s equals. They are urging you to take a false step. Fine promotion, to be sure, for you, to be as good as an attorney or a druggist! Take care, I say; already you have stripped off some particles of your mystery and fascination. All is not lost. Men still fight, and ruin and kill themselves for you; but the young fellows in tramcars leave you to stand on the platform while they sit snug inside. Your cult is declining along with other things once held sacrosanct.  7
 
 
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