Anatole France and the Yogi who tried to cheat death

Pride is a theme that has interested writers, and readers, for many centuries.

Anatole France, criticizing some misogynistic novel by Alexandre Dumas, wrote (On Life And Letters, page 20) ‘intelligence is proud and takes pleasure in disputes. Religions speak to our feelings, that is why they bring the believers together: we all feel almost alike’.

A classical Indian tale tells us about a very powerful yogi, who mastered all the esoteric arts, and who decided to use his secret knowledge to cheat death. When the yogi’s time had come, an emissary from death visited him and the yogi fooled the lackey by multiplying himself into hundreds of simulacra. As more and more powerful minions came to fetch the yogi into the kingdom of death, he kept multiplying the number of simulacra, until eventually death herself came looking for him. At that point, the yogi used the utmost of his powers, he multiplied himself into billions of copies. Death expressed admiration: ‘that’s a great trick, indeed, sadly, it has one small flaw’. ‘What flaw?’, the yogi asked angrily. And that’s when Death grabbed him and snatched him away.

Returning to good ole Anatole, in that same essay he compares righteousness with mercy. ‘The heroic victim of Sextus, the chaste Lucretia, practiced virtue as if were a magistracy. She killed herself for an example: Ne ulla deinde impudica Lucretice exemplo vivet (To prevent lustful women in the future from going on living in their shame using Lucretia as an excuse).’ Monsieur France contrasts this with ‘clemency, the most intelligent of virtues’, as expressed in the 13th strophe of the Dies irae: ‘You the sinful woman saved; You the dying thief forgave; and to even me, hope promised’.

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