A Fascinating blend of philosophy, morality and historical fiction.
Like probably nothing else, the breakdown of social order forces us to reach into ourselves, to draw for guidance on our innermost beliefs and moral values; for absent direction by the established rules of society, we only have ourselves to turn to for advice. – Such is the situation in which find themselves this book’s three protagonists: Manlius Hippomanes, Olivier de Noyen and Julien Barneuve; and each resolves the resulting conflict in a different fashion, based as much on his personal nature as his deeply-held convictions and values.
Manlius is a 5th century Roman aristocrat, living during the final years of the Roman Empire. Originally a man of letters more than political or religious leader, he is a member of a dying class: educated in Neoplatonism and the classical Roman tradition, cultured, and placing the survival of civilization – as embodied in traditional Roman virtues – above everything else. Yet, as his city, Vaison, and the rest of Provence comes under the dual onslaught of the Visigoths under Euric and the Burgundians under Gundobad, he abandons (if only publicly) his pagan beliefs and seeks appointment as Bishop, realizing that with the secular power of the Roman Republic weakened beyond recovery, only the Catholic church’s growing influence provides a sufficient basis for his ultimate goal: to maintain the essence of Roman civilization and culture while formally accepting the weight of the new political forces; by forming an alliance with Roman-educated Gundobad to save at least part of Provence from destruction by the Visigoths, and to ensure the continuance of Roman law and values under Burgundian administration. (As the author implicitly admits, this book’s Manlius is loosely based on St. Avitus of Vienne, who lived approximately 50 years later, actually was an advisor to Gundobad, later converted Gundobad’s son and successor Sigismund to Christianity, and whose most prominent piece of writing is a five-book-long poem on Original Sin, Expulsion from Paradise, the Deluge and the Crossing of the Red Sea which, 1100 years later, in part probably inspired Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”)
Strongly influenced by his muse’s, Neoplatonian philosopher Sophia’s teachings, Manlius lays down his own philosophy in sermons and letters – and in a treatise he entitles “The Dream of Scipio,” for the like-named excerpt from Cicero’s “Republica” describing – in the voice of Scipio Africanus – the great Roman’s vision of the universe and the rewards of immortality awaiting the good statesman. But unlike Cicero’s “Somnium Scipionis,” Manlius’s manuscript doesn’t take the form of a dream by Scipio Junior about a conversation with Scipio Africanus but that of a dream about Scipio; or rather, a conversation between Sophia and Manlius about Scipio’s comments on the fall of Carthage. And while in Manlius’s penmanship the treatise thus contains primarily a discourse on the fall of Rome (and a response to Saint Augustine’s “City of God”), this book’s two other protagonists, Olivier and Julien, in turn come to appreciate its significance as a treatise on the fall of civilization in general: For Manlius holds that civilization is a purpose in and of itself, to be perpetuated either by action premised on this singular aim, or by teaching.
Olivier and Julien, however, draw different conclusions from Manlius’s treatise than did its author for his own time. Olivier, a 14th century poet in the Avignon household of powerful Cardinal Ceccani (but like Manlius originally from Vaison) sees his world fall apart as the plague descends upon the South of France, while Ceccani and his rival Cardinal de Deaux vie for influence in the court of Pope Clement VI. Caught between the lines of political intrigue and the menace of the Black Death are Olivier’s Jewish teacher Gersonides and his servant Rebecca. And unlike his master Ceccani, who (similar to Manlius) will sacrifice individuals for a perceived greater aim, Olivier takes the opposite approach, sacrificing himself for an act of humanity and placing the well-being of two individuals – Rebecca and Gersonides – over his master’s far-reaching goals. Julien finally, a scholar who has retired to his hometown Vaison to outwait the horrors of the Third Reich and the Vichy Regime, is the most reluctant of all to take action, preferring instead to make his small contribution to the preservation of civilization through teaching. But eventually he is goaded into collaboration with the regime on the grounds that whatever he doesn’t consent to do will be done by someone with true national-socialist fervor – only to realize too late, after his lover, Jewish painter Julia Bronsen has been sent to a “labor” camp, that evil actions taken for honorable reasons often constitute the greatest of all evils.
But it is not only “The Dream of Scipio” – written by Manlius, unearthed by Olivier and Julien – and the moral choices they face that unite this novel’s three protagonists. Of similarly symbolic importance is the fate of the Jewish population, society’s eternal all-purpose scapegoat (persecuted by Manlius, protected by Clement VI after Olivier’s act of self-sacrifice and left to perish by Julien’s failure to act); and each man is strongly influence by a dark-haired muse, an outsider of society in her own way. And then, there is a little chapel just outside Vaison: consecrated to Sophia (whom, like Manlius, Christian oral tradition has made into a saint for her manifold acts of goodwill), rediscovered by Olivier, decorated by his painter-friend Luca Pisano, and temporary sanctuary to Julien and Julia.
Iain Pears masterfully weaves together the fates of the three men, three pivotal historical moments – observed in the single nucleus of one Southern French town – and philosophical questions as old as civilization itself into this spellbinding successor to his equally stunning “Instance of the Fingerpost.” Yet, his writing isn’t ponderous or heavy-handed; and while some prior understanding of the philosophical concepts discussed may enhance the book’s enjoyment, no great expertise in Neoplatonism or Catholic theology is required on the reader’s side. This is historic fiction at its best: engaging, thoughtful and well-researched to boot.
“Considering he was neither priest nor scholar, the young man gave sensible, thoughtful replies – the more so, perhaps, for being untrained, for he had not learned what he should believe or should not believe. Present a statement to him in flagrant contradiction to all Christian doctrine and he could be persuaded to agree on its good sense, unless he remembered it was the sort of thing of which pyres are made for the incautious.”
“Do you know, the only people I can have a conversation with are the Jews? At least when they quote scripture at you they are not merely repeating something some priest has babbled in their ear. They have the great merit of disagreeing with nearly everything I say. In fact, they disagree with almost everything they say themselves. And most importantly, they don’t think that shouting strengthens their argument.”
“[H]e initially conceived of Olivier as a man of the greatest promise destroyed by a fatal flaw, the unreasoning passion for a woman dissolving into violence, desperately weakening everything he tried to do. For how could learning and poetry be defended when it produced such dreadful results and was advanced by such imperfect creatures? At least Julien did not see the desperate fate of the ruined lover as a nineteenth-century novelist or a poet might have done, recasting the tale to create some appealing romantic hero, dashed to pieces against the unyielding society that produced him. Rather, his initial opinion – held almost to the last – was of Olivier as a failure, ruined by a terible weakness.”
“Was not Hypatia the greatest philosopher of Alexandria, and a true martyr to the old values of learning? She was torn to pieces by a mob of incensed Christians not because she was a woman, but because her learning was so profound, her skills at dialectic so extensive that she reduced all who queried her to embarrassed silence. They could not argue with her, so they murdered her.”
“She had lost herself in this old work, her personality dissolving into it, so that she had been set free. The immortality of the soul lies in its dissolution; this was the cryptic comment that so frustrated Olivier and which Julien had only ever grasped as evidence for the history of a particular school of thought. He had known all about its history, but Julia knew what it meant. He found the realization strangely reassuring.”
“His idleness was his refuge, and in this he was like many others in [occupied] France in that period; laziness became political.”
“She was looking for something I could never give her.” Again his dark eyes bored into Julia’s mind. “You have something of the same about you, young woman. Take my advice: Don’t think you will find it in another person. You won’t. It’s not there. You must find it in yourself.”
“For the first time, she did want more. She did not know what she wanted, knew that it was dangerous and that she should rest content with what she had, but she knew an emptiness deep inside her, which began to ache.”
“Felix had gone to live in a lotus land of his imagination. Where what is desired is dreamed of as already happened, where obstacles dissolve under the weight of desire, and where reality has vanished entirely.”
“And here was the moment. The end of it all, for civilization was merely another name for friendship, and friendship was coming to an end.”
“Caius was one of those who gloried in his ignorance, called his lack of letters purity, scorned any subtlety of thought or expression. A man for his time, indeed.”
“Manlius … took care in his invitations, actively sought to exclude from his circle crude and vulgar men like Caius Valerius. But they were all around; it was Manlius who lived in a dream world, and his bubble of civility was becoming smaller and smaller. Caius Valerius, powerful member of a powerful family, had never even heard of Plato. A hundred, even fifty years before, such an absurdity would have been inconceivable. Now it was surprising if such a man did know anything of philosophy, and even if it was explained, he would not wish to understand.”
“[T]he concern of man is not his future but his present, not the world but his soul. We must be just, we must strive, we must engage ourselves with the business of the world for our own sake, because through that, and through contemplation in equal measure, our soul is purified and brought closer to the divine. … Thought and deed conjoined are crucial. … The attempt must be made; the outcome is irrelevant. Right action is a pale material reflection of the divine, but reflection it is, nonetheless. Define your goal and exert reason to accomplish it by virtuous action; successs or failure is secondary.”
“Philosophy cannot be extinguished, though men will try … The spirit seeks the light, that is its nature. It wishes to return to its origin, and must forever try to reach enlightenment.”
“[Men] prefer the foolish belief and the passions of the earth [to the enlightenment of their souls]. They believe the absurd and shrink from the truth.”
“No, they do not. They are afraid, that is all. And they must remain on earth until they come to the way of leaving it.”
“And how do they leave? How is the ascent made? Must one learn virtue?”
Here she laughs. “You have read too much, and learned too little. Virtue is a road, not a destination. Man cannot be virtuous. Understanding is the goal. When that is achieved, the soul can take wing.”
“Olivier took a deep breath, then turned and bowed in farewell. Gersonides nodded in return, then thought of something.
“The manuscript you brought me, by that bishop. It argues that understanding is more important than movement. That action is virtuous only if it reflects pure comprehension, and that virtue comes from the comprehension, not the action.”
Olivier frowned. “So?”
“Dear boy, I must tell you a secret.”
“I do believe it is wrong.”
“The point of civilization is to be civilized; the purpose of action is to perpetuate society, for only in society can philosophy truly take place.”
“Civilization depends on continually making the effort, of never giving in. It needs to be cared for by men of goodwill, protected from the dark.”
“Action is the activity of the rational soul, which abhors irrationality and must combat it or be corrupted by it. When it sees the irrationality of others, it must seek to correct it, and can do this either by teaching or engaging in public affairs itself, correcting through its practice. And the purpose of action is to enable philosophy to continue, for if men are reduced to the material alone, they become no more than beasts.”
“The evil done by men of goodwill is the worst of all … We have done terrible things, for the best of reasons, and that makes it worse.”
“I have brought peace to this land, and security,” he began.
“And what of your soul, when you use the cleverness of argument to cloak such acts? Do you think that the peace of a thousand cancels out the unjust death of one single person? It may be desirable, it may win you praise from those who have happily survived you and prospered from your deeds, but you have committed ignoble acts, and have been too proud to own them. I have waited patiently here, hoping that you would come to me, for if you understood, then some of your acts would be mitigated. But instead you send me this manuscript, proud, magisterial, and demonstrating only that you have understood nothing at all.”
“I returned to public life on your advice, madam,” he said stiffly.
“Yes; I advised it. I said if learning must die it should do so with a friend by its bedside. Not an assassin.”
“When all this is over, people will try to blame the Germans alone, and the Germans will try to blame the Nazis alone, and the Nazis will try to blame Hitler alone. They will make him bear the sins of the world. But it’s not true. You suspected what was happening, and so did I. It was already too late over a year ago. I caused a reporter to lose his job because you told me to. He was deported. The day I did that I made my little contribution to civilization, the only one that matters.”
“Odd, don’t you think? I have seen war, and invasions and riots. I have heard of massacres and brutalities beyond imagining, and I have kept my faith in the power of civilization to bring men back from the brink. And yet one women writes a letter, and my whole world falls to pieces.
You see, she is an ordinary woman. A good one, even. That’s the point … Nothing [a recognizably bad person does] can surprise or shock me, or worry me. But she denounced Julia and sent her to her death because she resented her, and because Julia is a Jew.
I thought in this simple contrast between the civilized and the barbaric, but I was wrong. It is the civilized who are the truly barbaric, and the [Nazi] Germans are merely the supreme expression of it.”
“He had volunteered early, rather than waiting to be conscripted, for he felt a duty and an obligation to serve, and believed that … being willing to fight for his country and the liberty it represented, would make some small difference. … His idealism was one of the casualties of the carnage [of Verdun].”
“[Pope] Clement waved his hands in irritation as if to dismiss the very idea. “The world is crumbling into ruin. Armies are marching. Men and women are dying everywhere, in huge numbers. Fields are abandoned and towns deserted. The wrath of the Lord is upon us and He may be intending to destroy the whole of creation. People are without leaders and direction. They want to be given a reason for this, so they can be reassured, so they will return to their prayers and their obiediences. All this is going on, and you are concerned about the safety of two Jews?”
“Every cataclysm is welcomed by somebody; there is always someone to rejoice at disaster and see in it the prospect of a new beginning and a better world.”
“Politics bores you?” Bronsen said.
Julien smiled. “It does. Apologies, sir, and it is not that I haven’t tried to be fascinated. But careful and meticulous research has suggested the hypothesis that all politicians are liars, fools, and tricksters, and I have as yet come across no evidence to the contrary. They can do great damage, and rarely any good. It is the job of the sensible man to try and protect civilization from their depradations.”
“Diplomacy and virtue do not make easy companions.”
“Virtue comes through contemplation of the divine, and the exercise of philosophy. But it also comes through public service. The one is incomplete without the other. Power without wisdom is tyranny; wisdom without power is pointless.”
“Father is a school manqué … He always wanted to write books. But he became rich instead, so is not allowed.”
“Do you wish to speak in Provençal, French, or Latin? They are all I can manage, I’m afraid.”
“Any will do,” the rabbi replied in Provençal.
“Splendid. Latin it is,” said Pope Clement.”
“A hundred francs! Oh, dear me! It is worth millions of francs, my child. But my – dealer – here tells me that in fact a picture is worth only what someone will give for it. How much money do you have?”
Julia took out her purse and counted. “Four francs and twenty sous,” she said, looking up at him sadly.
“Is that all the money you have in the world?”
“Then four francs and twenty sous it is.”
“This is a perfectly good picture. And if I didn’t know you, I would be impressed and charmed. But I do know you.”
He thought some more, wondering whether he dared say precisely what he felt, for he knew he could never explain exactly why the idea came to him. “It’s the painting of a dutiful daughter,” he said eventually, looking at her cautiously to see her reaction. “You want to please. You are always aware of what the person looking at this picture will think of it. Because of that you’ve missed something important. Does that make sense?”
She thought, then nodded. “All right,” she said grudgingly and with just a touch of despair in her voice. “You win.”
Julien grunted. “Have another go, then. I shall come back and come back until you figure it out.”
“And you’ll know?”
“You’ll know. I will merely get the benefit of it.”