Epicureanism Against Stoicism in French Literature
French novelist Anatole France was not only a great writer, he was also a great Epicurean thinker. France’s philosophical ideas appear in his beautiful novel Thais.
Winner of the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1921, Anatole France started writing at the age of 46, producing important works such as The Garden of Epicurus, The Opinions of Jerome Coignard, At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, and The Red Lily.
His texts are considered by many, sarcastic, skeptical and ironic as his characters ridiculed the belief in the occult and some aspects of religion. As an Epicurean, his philosophy can be read in between the lines of all his texts and in the 1920s Anatole France’s works were put in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum of the Catholic Church.
His most beautiful novel, titled Thais, represents the conflict between Stoicism and Epicureanism – two schools of thought of the Hellenistic period. Thais was transformed into an opera by Jules Massenet, first performed in Paris in 1894, four years after the novel was written.
Thais by Anatole France – Epicureanism Against Stoicism
The main female character, Thais, was a dancer, actress and prostitute that lived on the bank of the Nile in the fourth century. She was so beautiful that her dance enchanted whoever watched her act. Philosophers, slaves, the rich and the poor, no one could resist to her beauty. Not even Paphnutius, a hermit monk that lived in the desert under rigorous asceticism which included days without food, chastity and penitence.
Once Paphnutius had been in love with Thais, but now that he was a monk, he believed that what Thais did was sinful, horrible, promiscuous. He decided then to cross the desert and meet her in order to convert her into a respectful Christian lady.
Fighting against the sexual desires that he felt for Thais, he managed to convince the actress to abandon the promiscuous life, making her burn all her goods and regret of her sins. He left her in a convent and made his way back to the desert with a sensation of mission accomplished. However, he could not stop thinking about her voluptuous dance and beautiful body.
Feeling guilty about his sinful thoughts, Paphnutius condemned himself to all kinds of mortification and penitence, but the more he tried to forget her, the more the lust assaulted him. After years of profound meditation in the desert, he heard that Thais was dying.
Completely desperate about the idea of losing Thais forever, he ran back to the convent in order to have his beloved dancer back but it was too late. The prostitute had turned into a saint, helping the poor and healing the sick, having performed three miracles. She was agonizing and fell dead in his arms just after he said how much he loved her and wanted her back. In Jules Massenet’s opera Thais, this final act is specially moving.
The Philosophy Behind the Novel Thais by Anatole France
The novel Thais embodies two world views that emerged during the Hellenistic period – Stoicism and Epicureanism. The monk Paphnutius represents the Stoics and their asceticism, as Stoics believed that the abstinence of worldly pleasures would lead to spiritual growth and that by renouncing to certain pleasures, one would be aligned with the universe’s will, becoming immune to suffering.
The true Stoic, however, would not suffer over the abstinence as the objective of renouncing to such pleasures is not to depend on them, not to be a slave of the emotions, sensations and feelings. Paphnutius was clearly a slave of his passion for Thais as no matter how much he attempted to forget her, she would still appear in his dreams.
This was Anatole France’s way to explain that the asceticism would not bring enlightenment as Epicureans believed the sensations of the body are the only possible way through which one can perceive the world. Blocking this channel of sensations was considered by Epicureans, a mistake.
The Epicurean principle of happiness was based on seeking pleasure and avoiding pain and one would never be happy by abstaining from pleasure.
Stoics, on the other hand, argued that pain is not always bad and should not always be avoided as pleasure was not always good. Stoics said that happiness is not a matter of pleasure against pain, but living in such a way that the outside events or things that do not depend on them are not responsible for their happiness. Paphnutius, however, did not reach this goal and realized, maybe too late, that abstaining from his love for Thais was only making him less close to wisdom.
At least in fiction, Epicureanism won the battle against Stoicism revealing the triumph of the pleasures over the asceticism.